The last thing that war-torn Iraq needs right now is another war, but that may be what it’s about to get. Thousands of Turkish soldiers are massed at the border with Kurdish-controlled Northern Iraq, possibly preparing to make good on Ankara’s threat to cross the border and deal with the radical Kurdish militants of the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long separatist insurgency inside Turkey.
The PKK, which the U.S. and Turkey brand a terrorist organization and which they blame for a long series of bombings in Turkish cities, maintains training camps in the mountains of northern Iraq along the Turkish and Iranian borders. The Iraqi Kurdish parties who control the largely autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq have tolerated the PKK presence because they are wary of an armed confrontation with fellow Kurds, especially while their territory faces threats from an Arab insurgency in the rest of country. But staging a large-scale military campaign against the PKK could pose problems for Turkey. The PKK are adept mountain fighters, and the conventional Turkish army will be hard-pressed to root them out of their chosen terrain. Fueled by anger over their status in Turkey, and hardened by years of bitter struggle against its security forces, the PKK is unlikely to give in to force now.
To complicate matters further, the Turkish campaign might tempt Iran to stage military operations inside northern Iraq too. Iran accuses an offshoot of the PKK of staging attacks inside Iranian territory, and has previously shelled camps inside Iraq. The United States has called on everyone to keep their hands off northern Iraq, but that could change. The fate of Kurdish groups fighting Iran would potentially be a useful card for the U.S. to play in its dealings with Tehran.
Even limited Turkish action on Iraqi territory bodes ill for Iraq — although Iraq’s Kurdish parties are unlikely to be drawn into the conflict, a Turkish military operation in northern Iraq would set a violent precedent in an already tense relationship. Turkey is wary of the growing autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan, which it fears will fuel the aspirations of its own restive Kurds.
Indeed, even the PKK claims to have undergone a transformation since the capture of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999, currently in prison in Turkey. They say they have renounced armed struggle for all purposes but self-defense, and have also renounced their calls for an independent Kurdish state to be carved out of Kurdish areas of Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Instead, they say they want to be part of a movement for democracy and civil rights for Kurds in their existing countries. They also espouse an eco-feminist ideology — a large number of PKK fighters are women — and they run an indoctrination course called “Killing the Man” that teaches male soldiers how to rid themselves of the patriarchal thinking that they’ve internalized by living in racist and sexist societies.
The truth about the PKK may lie somewhere in between a hard core hellbent on bombings, and a more moderate wing hoping for a peaceful solution. But that’s not a distinction the Turkish military is likely to make. The army has two main roles in Turkish society — as a safeguard against Islamism, and to fight Kurdish separatists. And with Islamist influence growing in the political mainstream, taking the fight to the PKK may help the military, bastion of Turkish secularism, to rally national support.