Turkey Surges into Iraq?

The US may not be the only country which thinks it can cow native, ethnic insurgencies into submission with temporary displays of force:

Turkish ground forces have crossed the border into northern Iraq to target Kurdish rebels said to be sheltering there, Ankara has said.

It said the raid began late on Thursday after an air and artillery bombardment.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has said the offensive is limited in scale and troops will return as soon as possible.

Although reports on Turkish troop strength vary, Turkish TV says that between 3,000 and 10,000 troops are involved in the operation:

The General Staff did not specify the size of the operation, but released photographs of armed troops in white fatigues walking through snowy, mountainous Iraqi terrain.

A senior military source in southeast Turkey told Reuters: “Thousands of troops have crossed the border and thousands more are waiting at the border to join them if necessary.”

NATO member Turkey says it has the right under international law to hit PKK rebels who shelter in northern Iraq and have mounted attacks inside Turkey that have killed scores of troops. Turkey says some 3,000 PKK rebels are based in Iraq.

The Turks, hoping to hit the PKK rebels in their Winter redoubts before warmer weather allows the insurgents to cross back into Turkey, claim they have advanced 25 km (16 miles) into Iraqi territory.

The US government, self-proclaimed guarantor of Iraqi territorial sovereignty, is staying out of this one.  Instead the Americans are telling the Turks, “Do what you gotta do, just make it quick.”:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States has urged Turkey to bring current military operations in Iraq to a swift conclusion, the Pentagon said on Friday.

“We have strongly urged the Turkish government to bring any ongoing operations to a swift conclusion,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters.

The US military, in an ironic plea for restraint, is simply hoping the Turks don’t make too much of a mess.

The U.S. military said it was aware that Turkish forces had launched an offensive into northern Iraq against members of the PKK, considered a terrorist group by Ankara, the United States and the European Union.

Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said the operation was understood to be of “limited duration” and specifically targeted at PKK fighters in the largely autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

“Turkey has given its assurances that it will do everything possible to avoid collateral damage to innocent citizens or Kurdish infrastructure,” Smith said in a statement.

The EU has a similarly milquetoast response, telling the Turks to refrain from ‘disproportionate military action’:

“The European Union understands Turkey’s need to protect its population from terrorism and it also says that Turkey should refrain from taking any disproportionate military action and respect human rights and the rule of law.

“We encourage Turkey to continue to pursue dialogue with international partners on this matter.”

Yet while the Turks are blustering about a large scale invasion, and the Americans and Europeans are averting their eyes, the Iraqi foreign minister is denying the whole thing is even happening.

“There has not been any major incursion or land invasion. … What is going on is around a few hundred Turkish forces have crossed the border looking for the PKK or their bases,” Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters by telephone.

Interestingly, the US military, despite its pleas for restraint, is also downplaying the scale of the operation:

A senior military officer with U.S.-led coalition forces based in Baghdad made a similar estimate of the number of troops involved. “A few hundred, at most,” the source said.

For its part, the PKK reports clashing with Turkish regulars.

A PKK spokesman in northern Iraq said rebels were battling the Turkish troops.

“There are severe clashes. Two Turkish soldiers have been killed and eight wounded. There are no PKK casualties,” Ahmed Danees, head of foreign relations for the PKK, told Reuters by satellite phone from an undisclosed location.

So what is really going on here?

On one hand, it seems clear that the Turks have in fact launched some sort of military operation into Northern Iraq in an effort to hit the PKK rebels in their home bases.  What is not clear is just how big the operation really is.

Actually, the Turks themselves may not be sure how big they want to go with this. They say that ‘thousands’ have crossed over and “thousands more are waiting at the border to join if necessary“, but that statement suggests the Turks are merely upping the ante with an initial reconnaissance in force, rather than going all in with a full scale invasion right off the bat. That doesn’t mean the Turks won’t eventually commit the full complement of troops, but it does suggest that the Turks are wary about what they are about to get themselves into.

And as well they should be wary. As the Russians learned repeatedly in Chechnya, launching a winter operation in tank-hostile, mountain terrain against a well armed and experienced guerrilla force is just asking for a bloody nose.  Indeed, the Israeli war against Hamas in hilly Southern Lebanon last Summer shows that even a warm weather operation against a dug in rebel stronghold is a dicey proposition at best.

Meanwhile, the Turks surely remember that they have launched even bigger operations in the past that were failures:

In 1995, the Turkish army invaded northern Iraq, sending some 35,000 soldiers across the border to destroy the guerrilla infrastructure of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) a militant group made up of Turkish Kurds that had found refuge in the lawless mountain region. Operation Steel, as it was called, killed over 500 militants, but still the PKK survived to fight another day. In early 1997, the Turks sent in another 30,000 soldiers – this time as part of Operation Hammer – to finish the job. They didn’t. The Turks had to go in again later that year with Operation Dawn.

Already, it appears the Turks may be having second thoughts about their snowy, Winter drive into the mountains.  Initially declining to state how long the offensive would last, the Turks are now saying 15 days – which is most likely not enough time for the relatively small number of stated Turkish forces to inflict any lasting damage on the PKK.

Bottom line: this highly touted Turkish ‘invasion’ of Northern Iraq appears primarily intended as part of a propaganda offensive by the Ankara government to bolster its sagging domestic political fortunes, rather than a serious attack against the PKK.

So, barring any sudden decision by the Turks to escalate their troop commitment to levels realistically necessary to accomplish anything substantial, we should expect the Turks to be leaving Iraq as soon as they can claim any sort of nominal victory – assuming, of course, that a nominal victory is even possible.  


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    • documel on February 22, 2008 at 22:53

    Turkey has a major league air force which has, so far, stayed out of the fray.  If their troops get bogged down, the air force might get active, and then the “fun” begins.  

    • pfiore8 on February 23, 2008 at 01:20

    and wrote a short diary at dKos a while back. but most people poo-poo’d the idea.

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