Keeping up Appearances: Turkey, PKK and N. Iraq

The feverish media atmosphere generated by the potential Turkish invasion of northern Iraq is on its way to reaching almost Cuban Missile Crisis proportions. Even Prime Minister Erdoğan has chastised certain Turkish media outlets for the manner in which they have covered the events of the past week. Having sold a lot of newspapers due to the most recent deaths and abduction of many out-numbered Turkish conscripts, there is little doubt that this type of media coverage will continue to carry the legacy of William Randolph Hearst for at least another few weeks.

It is the ambition of this observer to approach the question of a possible Turkish assault on N. Iraq in a way that touches on a number of factors and possible scenarios, which will undoubtedly influence the decisions made in the very near future. In addition, two recently published pieces about the potential Turkish invasion by Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, the general manager of Al-Arabiya television, and by Gareth Jenkins of the Jamestown Foundation offer a number of very compelling insights for consideration.

Military: Television images of green Turkish military trucks rolling towards the border and comments by the BBC that, "Turkey has deployed up to 100,000 soldiers, backed by tanks, fighter jets and helicopters, along the border" are somewhat meaningless; it is very seldom that the Turkish military is not massing at the border with Iraq. It is likely that this most recent heavy military buildup began at the end of spring 2007 and has been reported in the media to have escalated at different times in response to PKK activity. As the saga of Abdullah Ocalan's pursuit and ultimate capture demonstrates, the Turkish military has had success in the past with bullying its neighbors (in that case Syria) by projecting military strength on their borders.

Unless they are completely gripped by hubris, General Büyükanıt and friends must have learned something from the US military's haunting experience in Iraq and even the Israeli army's most recent foray into southern Lebanon. With these two events in mind, it appears highly unlikely that the Turkish military could deal an enduring tactical blow to a very evasive and malleable guerrilla foe like the PKK. At the very least, the PKK can go underground in order to fight another day.

prime minister Erdoğan must be very careful about the expectations he defines for any type of military venture. As George Bush has demonstrated over the course of his tumultuous tenure as president, the military expectations of the public can have serious political repercussions when deaths and casualties mount.

Northern Iraq, domestic: A significant percentage of Kurds have probably disassociated the PKK from the struggle for an independent Kurdistan. Nevertheless, the PKK still possesses a great historical legacy that includes funding-ties to governments and organizations, who traditionally oppose Turkey. Indeed, the PKK has been of great help to Iran and Syria in destabilizing Turkey and it is widely argued that the likes of Greece and Armenia have supported the PKK in the past. It is therefore little wonder that the relatively new Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has never appeared to have the ability to dislodge a political dinosaur like the PKK.

While the KRG and others are probably more widely associated with the fight for an independent Kurdish state at this time, a Turkish invasion of northern Iraq would probably blur this distinction. The presence of Turkish troops on Iraqi soil would likely increase sympathy among Kurds for the PKK cause. Assuming the Iraqi government in Baghdad proves incapable of providing any support, which would most likely be the case due to their current level of frailty, the Kurds in N. Iraq would gain even more resolve to pursue their own state in order to better protect their interests.

Turkey, domestic: An invasion of Iraq would almost certainly cause a very sharp rise in PKK sympathies among the large numbers of economically marginalized Kurds living both in the east of Turkey as well as the larger numbers living in Turkey's western cities. This is a particularly scary thought if viewed in the context of the rising popularity of neo-fascist and nationalistic groups, which was most recently evidenced by the MHP gaining ground in the July parliamentary election. The AKP was a surprisingly popular choice of the Kurdish vote in July, and neither Erdoğan nor Gül would want to compromise this vote or give the country's right-wing any more reason to disrupt the social peace.

Conclusion: In the view of this observer, the numerous big-picture issues strongly rival the more widely-reported short-term political reasoning for a full-scale military assault in northern Iraq. An invasion would most likely further destabilize Iraq. It would furthermore cause social and political unrest within Turkey, which would not bode well for the political fortunes of the AKP. It is for this reason that such a large-scale invasion is quite unlikely. Like Gareth Jenkins, I believe it is much more realistic that there will be narrowly-focused commando raids and aerial strikes, if anything at all. This approach ultimately represents the safer political course for Turkey's political leadership.


Russian Whispers and the PKK

Turkey has been the unequivocal star of this week's news agenda. Turkish cable news has featured a mindless stream of images featuring mortars being fired into the anonymous distance, well-equipped commando units waiting at attention, and other staged military exercises involving men with big guns and intimidating face paint. While Erdoğan and Gül are bathing in the warm light of nationalist sentiment generated by the recent deaths of soldiers and policemen, as well as the Armenian genocide legislation, it is the opinion of this observer that the current media and diplomatic buildup will amount to nothing more than the usual sabre-rattling. It would be surprising if future military actions amounted to something more than limited raids and aerial assaults. Full-scale invasions are expensive propositions and Turkey doesn't exactly have the financial resources of the United States or even Russia.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a comment that was rather surprising in light of his country's recent experience with full-scale invasions.
We urge all parties in the conflict to exercise maximum restraint and demonstrate the ability to assess the long-term effects of their actions, including those that might further aggravate the situation.
This comment seemed rather strange in light of the fact that Turkey's ordeal with the PKK is ultimately an issue of a minority ethnic group's will to politically separate. In many regards, Turkey's situation in northern Iraq and south-eastern Anatolia is analogous to Russia's debacle in Chechnya. Depending on one's point of point of view, the underdogs were either "freedom fighters" or "terrorists". Over the years, Russia has had its fingers burnt in a number of such blistering-hot pies ranging from Afghanistan to the northern Caucasus.

While there was some oil to be lost if Chechnya had successfully broken away, the main threat was the dismemberment of the very ethnically and regionally-complex puzzle that is the Russian Federation. This was especially a concern when Boris Yeltsin was proving rather incapable of running the show in Moscow. Vladimir Putin arguably reignited the disastrous campaign in Chechnya in order to rally the country around a single nationalist cause. Russian history is full of similar examples of the country's political leaders using the "foreign threat" to their political advantage. It would seem that Turkish politicians have often capitalized on the "PKK-threat" for this same purpose.

Clearly, Russia's voice concerning the PKK-issue is not as potent as it would be for an event related to Armenia or Central Asia. It is quite possible that Russia has already established certain economic ties with the Kurdish government in northern Iraq, which they do not want compromised. Vladimir Putin is apparently scheduled to visit Iran in the very near future. Hopefully, we will gain some greater clarity concerning this rather surprising statement at that time.


Pipeline Politics: Turkey's South Pars Project

Turkey and its state-owned oil company, TPAO, have made an uncharacteristically bold move in the theater of geopolitics. Despite intense political and financial pressure from the Bush administration, Turkey has taken a brave step forward, choosing to independently finance the $3.5bn necessary to initiate the South Pars natural gas development project in Iran. Turkey was unable to secure the outside financing, which is typical of a project of this scale, due to the recent American-led financial embargo on Iran.

Ankara apparently considers the strategic opportunity presented by the development of the South Pars fields as having sufficient long term value to outweigh the short term diplomatic turmoil, which will most likely ensue from this decision. From the prospective of this observer, the choice to independently pursue this opportunity should be strongly lauded for being very shrewd in both political and economic regards.

By disregarding Washington's warnings concerning any type of engagement with Iran, Ankara has tacitly communicated the obvious: President Bush is a lame duck. This blatant, yet well-calculated, act of defiance is a healthy gesture for Turkey as it tries to forge its own future as opposed to relying on heavy-weights like the US or hypothetically even the EU. If one considers this act along with Turkey's decision not to allow the US military to use Turkey as a northern invasion route for the second invasion of Iraq, it would seem that Turkey is no longer simply an acquiescent member of the Western/NATO camp. The Cold War is over and Turkey is very right to adjust its geopolitical posture accordingly.

In terms of its economic significance, the South Pars decision confirms the general consensus that Turkey's development of these natural gas fields will play a very important role in its future rapport with Europe. In particular, the supply of gas guaranteed by the project will further promote Turkey's goal to position itself as a critical energy transit corridor for Europe. Europe, like Turkey, currently depends on Russia for the majority of its natural gas needs. Once the flow of resources from South Pars join those energy resources already flowing from Central Asia, Turkey's pipeline network will emerge as a preferable alternative to Russia's divisive behavior regarding energy supply. (For further reading about Turkey's emerging role as an energy transport corridor, please read this Bosphorus Watch article from July.)

It is of course another matter whether the South Pars fields actually get developed by Turkey in the near future. Although this observer is not particularly convinced that there will be an invasion of Iran, a military conflict nonetheless represents one of a myriad of other factors, which could ultimately stall or even terminate the project. Chief among these factors would be the character of the current Iranian regime, which has shown its penchant for the unpredictable.

Another factor suggested by a a friend of mine, who is a Turkish businessmen, concerns the true intentions of Ankara. By demonstrating its ability to self-finance and independently cooperate with Iran, Ankara has gained a very valuable geopolitical bargaining chip with both the US and possibly even the likes of France. As my friend astutely pointed out, it is possible that Ankara has in fact no intention of actually realizing the Iranian project, but will instead use it to diplomatically extract certain equally valuable concessions from the West. Either way, South Pars is a win-win situation for the Turks.


Considering the Turkish Economy and the Conditions of its Success

The Turkish economy is currently moving at full throttle. Not since the privatization reforms of the venerable Turgut Özal has there been such a sustained stretch of economic progress. While the average Turk will point to the fact that unemployment, which probably unofficially hovers at 14-16%, remains a sizable dampener to overall well-being, a considerable cross-section of Turkish society would nonetheless agree that the country's economy is enjoying unprecedented prosperity.

Taxi drivers in Istanbul and even the heads of conglomerates
will tend to point to the same rationale for this long period of positive growth: the political stability experienced under the AK Party. There is little dispute that Turkey's current period of economic success correlates nicely with the starting date of the AKP's leadership of the Turkish political system. In a country that is accustomed to military coups, hyperinflation and dramatic terrorist attacks, the AKP's tenure has been quite serene by Turkish standards. This point was not lost on the AKP during the July parliamentary election and Abdullah Gül's subsequent successful bid for president. Many Turks voted for the AKP simply due to economic issues and not as a result of the party's much ballyhooed portfolio of social views.

These calm conditions have given foreign investors cause to increasingly reward Turkey with much needed sources of investment. Foreign capital inflows have been quite often directed toward the very large number of government assets, which the AKP has aggressively sought to privatize. The growth of exports have also played a prominent role in the country's economic resurgence. According to the head of the Turkish Congress of Exporters (TIM), Turkey's exports exceeded $100bln during the past 12 months for the first time in the country's history. Exports of automobiles took the lead, followed by clothing and textiles and steel-iron in a distance third.

The numbers would indeed seem to indicate that AK Party is doing something correct. However, "the numbers" only tell a small sliver of the entire story as is often the case. In addition to the AKP's adept management and calming presence, one must also consider certain other factors that have equally contributed to the situation.

There has been a great prevalence of "petrodollars" in the Middle East looking for "shariah-compliant" homes for investment. Under the unprecedented political auspices of the religiously conservative AKP, Turkey emerged as a much more viable option for this capital. In this regard, the Turkish economy of the AKP era has been a direct beneficiary of the oil-crazed world and its oil market. Second, the availability of inexpensive products from China has also had a great influence on the Turkish economy. In addition to increasing the buying power of the Turkish consumer, cheap Chinese products have so far been a benefit to the non-textile sectors of the Turkish economy. This has particularly been the case for the outsourcing of component parts, which are used for goods manufactured in Turkey.

All of this should be reconsidered in the increasingly gloomy shadows cast by the foreign trade deficit, which Turkey currently maintains. In addition to considerable spending in the public sector, Turkey's great affinity for imports is strongly driven by its energy consumption needs. While this situation is more palatable during periods of reliable foreign investment, the continued strength of such inflows is certainly ephemeral.

In the opinion of this observer, it is time for the AKP to stop riding on its somewhat false laurels concerning economic management. The AKP must instead use its strong political mandate to take the types of tough measures, which are necessary to cushion the Turkish economy's inevitable descent into more turbulent economic waters. If the AKP chooses not to take such steps, it will eventually find itself in equally hostile circumstances.