Turkey’s Skillful Diplomacy

The irony did not go unnoticed last week when President Bush said of the Turkish incursion into northern Iraq, “The Turks need to move, move quickly, achieve their objectives and get out.” Do as I say, in other words, not as I do. Well, the Turks did just that, and I thought their handling of the PKK crisis over the course of the past year and culminating in last week’s incursion deserved a brief wrap-up. (So did the Jamestown Foundation.)

Last spring, when the PKK mounted an attack on Turkish forces that resulted in a skirmish and a dozen or so casualties on both sides, the news barely cracked the American press, and that only after a few weeks of repeated escalations. Over the next six months, through a combination of sabre-rattling and diplomatic maneuvering, the Turks managed to get Baghdad, Irbil and most importantly Washington on board for finally dealing with a problem that was enflaming Turkish public opinion, but which everyone else was happy to pretend didn’t exist.

Then, using American intelligence to engage in a campaign of airstrikes and border raids since early December, the Turks gradually escalated their operations and carefully prepared world opinion for a bolder campaign. The actual incursion, when it came, was certainly risky, given all the possibilities for escalation on all sides. But it was accompanied by immediate diplomatic gestures to Kurdish leadership in Baghdad, and kept within manageable proportions that remained politically acceptable to all parties concerned. Ankara then demonstrated a commitment to regional stability by promptly withdrawing when it became clear that the political situation risked deteriorating.

By striking in the winter when, according to conventional wisdom, conditions were too unfavorable, the Turks not only took the PKK off-guard, they also showed that they were far from intimidated by the inhospitable terrain that the PKK counts as one if its most valuable strategic assets. By striking at all, they re-affirmed their sovereign right to self-defense. And by respecting the political burden their incursion put on vital regional partners, they showed a willingness for co-operation.

I, for one, questioned the escalation that occurred in early December, which seemed inordinately risky. But given how they ultimately handled last week’s incursion, I think the Turkish leadership deserves some credit for a job well done.