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Turkey in Iraq: Withdrawal or Buffer Zone?

Friday, Feb. 29, 2008

I mentioned yesterday that Turkish withdrawal from Iraqi Kurdistan might be as blurry as what's actually going on in the Qandil Mountains. Here's what the Turkish general staff thinks it will look like:

The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) will create temporary security bases in northern Iraq after troops wrap up an ongoing ground offensive in the region against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), security sources told Today's Zaman.

The army plans to establish 11 temporary bases south of the border with Iraq to prevent the PKK ever again using this territory to launch attacks on Turkey, after pulling out the bulk of the troops currently taking part in the cross-border offensive. . .

The army will also establish logistics support units near the border and keep troops on the Turkish side of the border ready to intervene in case reinforcements are needed. Turkey has already deployed up to 100,000 troops near the border to prevent infiltration of the Turkish territory by the PKK terrorists. These troops are expected to remain in their positions to keep the borders safe.

The challenge, of course, will be to make that vision of withdrawal square with President Bush's declaration that ". . .[t]he Turks need to move, move quickly, achieve their objective and get out."

Now, there are already conflicting reports that Turkey has returned some of its forces to bases on the Turkish side of the border. But the key, I suspect, will be to watch Turkey's posture on Washington's broader regional strategy. If Ankara comes out in strong and vocal opposition to Iran's nuclear program, or announces a significant increase in its operational participation in Afghanistan, or both, I imagine some way will be found to make those FOB's acceptable to all parties involved.

And while I'm speculating, in light of a well-informed source's observations (which I first mentioned here) about the impact Turkey's strategic choices could have on the region, the fact that Ankara just postponed the tender for its first nuclear power plant seems noteworthy.

Update: The Turkish general staff has just confirmed that the operation has been successfully concluded and that all Turkish troops have returned to their bases on the Turkish side of the border. The statement emphasized that the decision had nothing to do with American pressure to end the operation quickly. Still, I'd love have been a fly on the wall during the meeting between Robert Gates and President Abdullah Gul yesterday.

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