Turkey in Iraq: Pre-emption or Escalation?

A couple items that caught my eye from the Turkish press this morning. First, if you’re wondering why Turkey would send ground troops into the Qandil Mountains despite receiving actionable American intelligence for its aerial campaign, here’s one reason:

The Zap and Avasin camps had been subject to aerial attacks since Dec. 16 but many hideouts there remained unharmed after the aerial strikes because the camps are located in a deep valley.

I’ll offer two more, although they’re admittedly speculation. The PKK traditionally launches its attacks in the spring, when the mountain passes into Turkey have thawed. By pre-emptively scattering the PKK bases now, Turkey hopes to avoid the kind of attacks that enflame Turkish public opinion and back the Turkish general staff into the kind of sabre-rattling corner they found themselves in last summer and fall. In other words, this incursion could be a way to avoid further escalation.

Alternatively, Turkey is progressively immunizing public opinion against a larger, more definitive operation come the spring. I remember thinking it was pretty alarming news when Turkey began a campaign of high-profile air strikes in Iraq last December. But those air strikes make this incursion seem more like a gradual escalation than it would have had it been launched immediately, and the same effect is likely to apply should Turkey commit more ground troops come the spring thaw. Conversely, air strikes have now been re-calibrated as a de-escalation.

The biggest risk remains the politically untenable position the incursion puts the Iraqi leadership (both Kurdish and non-Kurdish) in. Here’s how a Turkish commentator put it:

We are told by senior Kurdish sources in the Iraqi central government that they have had a very hard time restraining the Kurdish administration in view of the air raids against the PKK in northern Iraq. Now with land operations Baghdad says it will have a very hard task to impose its will on Barzani. They say the political situation will be getting very complicated in Baghdad in the months ahead and no one in Baghdad may have the means to ease the Kurdish anger

Finally, Today’s Zaman (Turkey) notes in passing what I still think is the under-reported aspect of this story:

Troops deployed in military bases that have long been inside northern Iraq stepped up measures to prevent PKK terrorists from fleeing the offensive to hide in Kurdish villages in the area, sources also said.

I haven’t seen this picked up in any American coverage. The Turkish Forward Operating Bases in Iraq are there under a Status of Forces agreement that limits them to observer status. The fact that they are taking part in the operation is significant for two reasons. First, it can provoke the kind of confrontation between Turkish and Peshmerga forces that could exponentially escalate the situation. Second, because their role in the operation — to intercept fleeing PKK guerillas before they reach the safe haven of Kurdish villages — confirms what Barzani has a vested interest in denying, namely that the PKK enjoys the active support of the Kurdish population.

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