Bloody fighting between Turkish troops and PKK Kurdish separatist guerrillas on the Turkey/Iraq border has enormously ratcheted-up tensions between the two countries.
With the Turkish parliament approving a cross-border invasion of northern Iraq the scene is set for a possible regional war.
KEVIN PARSLOW reports on the background to the latest clashes.
Turkey’s parliament has decided by 509 votes to 19 to back the country’s army leaders’ demands to invade Kurdish-run northern Iraq. They want to try and flush out units of the banned separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
An invasion could be launched at any time which would have grave consequences for the mainly Kurdish people of the region. It would also undermine the imperialist powers occupying Iraq, hence George Bush’s pleas for restraint. Economically, world markets have already reacted with concern, with the price of oil reaching a record $90 a barrel last week.
Turkey’s Kurdish minority based in the south-east of the country have, like their fellow Kurds in Syria, Iran and until recently in Iraq, had little or no rights since imperialism carved up the former Ottoman Empire following its defeat and collapse in World War One.
The Kurds are the biggest nationality in the world without their own state. Historically, in Turkey they have had no recognition until recently, where they now have limited language and educational rights.
Their political rights have been severely curtailed and Kurdish political parties are often barred from standing in elections or are closed down if they publicly support independence or even autonomy.
The PKK, formed in 1978, has carried out a campaign against the Turkish army and economic targets since 1984, mixing guerrilla fighting with targeted attacks killing 17 Turkish troops in an ambush last week. But the inability of the PKK to dent the Turkish army’s power led to questioning these tactics and led to an effective ceasefire between 2000 and 2004.
But with only limited reforms and no movement towards autonomy (the PKK had dropped the demand for independence), the PKK resumed military activities.
Their leader, Abdullah Öcalan, was arrested in 1999 and now languishes in a Turkish jail, where he has apparently called for a ceasefire.
In recent months, however, the PKK has resumed its attacks on targets inside Turkey, which the Turkish army believes they launch from bases just inside the Kurdish area of Iraq. The military leaders want to follow the PKK units into this area in an attempt to defeat them. Parliament has backed them and, because of the methods of the PKK, there is only muted sympathy and a large amount of hostility towards the Kurds’ national demands amongst the Turkish population.
Turkey has the second biggest army in NATO (after the US) and its army considers itself to be the guardian of Turkey’s secular constitution. It has carried out four coups against elected governments since 1960 at times when political and economic instability threatened its dominant position in society.
But the military received a bloody nose in July 2007 when, having objected to the proposal of the governing AKP (Justice and Development Party which originated as an Islamist party but subsequently its leaders have distanced themselves from an Islamist agenda) to appoint one of its leading members, Abdullah Gul, to the role of President, the AKP called a general election. AKP won easily mainly on the basis of the country’s improved economic growth, and was able to appoint its own candidate.
Part of this desire to attack the PKK undoubtedly comes from the need to restore the army’s prestige in society. But also the Turkish army and government would both fear an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, which has been brought a step closer by the recent signing of oil contracts between the oil majors and the Iraqi Kurdish regional government.
Much of Iraq has already been devastated by the US/UK invasion and its consequences. If Turkey invades it will cause further devastation, in an area of Iraq which has suffered the least bloodshed.
Some of Iraq’s Kurdish leaders want the PKK to withdraw over the Turkish border to prevent a catastrophe, others want the Iraqi government (if it could come to a decision) to physically prevent the Turkish army from invading, while Arab leaders think the Kurdish forces should defend the region.
Kurdish people have come onto the streets of Iraqi cities such as Irbil to protest at the decision of the Turkish parliament. Most ordinary Kurds would not accept an attack on their co-nationals by the Turkish army. In the background lies the belief that the Turkish army would intervene in northern Iraq to further Turkey’s political and economic interests and to back also the ethnic Turcomen in the region.
The Turkish government’s relations with the US were once very friendly but relations have cooled in recent years. Although the US backs Turkey’s campaign to gain EU admittance, the hostility of the Turkish people to US imperialism prevented the government from allowing Bush and Blair to use Turkish territory to invade Northern Iraq in 2003.
The US’s present attempts to prevent a Turkish incursion into Iraq haven’t been helped by a bill currently up before the US Congress declaring the death of up to a million and a half Turkish Armenians between 1915 and 1917 at the hands of the Ottoman Empire as ‘genocide’.
Historically, there is no doubt that this disaster for the Armenians occurred. But in Turkey, it is a criminal offence to raise it. A right-wing Turkish nationalist recently murdered leading Turkish Armenian journalist Arat Dink, whose son and another Armenian journalist have been given one-year suspended prison sentences for challenging the official version of Turkish history.
As a result, the Turkish government and military are able to use the US bill to ignore Bush’s pleadings for restraint, even though he disagrees with the bill. Turkey has also recalled its ambassador in Washington in protest. However, it seems as though sufficient defections by Republican representatives will block the bill’s passage (see box).
Bush is publicly calling for restraint, not least out of fear that the US military’s vital supply route via Turkey into Iraq will be jeopardised. But some ex-government figures have been more forthright.
Peter Rodman, a former Pentagon official said it would be preferable for the US for Turkey to invade.
“If the US is unable to deal with [the PKK] and the Iraqis are unwilling to deal with them, what else do you tell the Turks? There may be ways to go after the PKK and accomplish something, whereas strangling our logistical lifeline doesn’t help them with the PKK and it just creates a monumental problem.” [Financial Times, 17 October 2007.]
Socialists must oppose the planned invasion of the Kurdish region of Iraq by Turkey and call for the withdrawal of all imperialist troops from Iraq. The rights of the Kurdish people must be respected and their right to self-defence when faced with brutal repression.
But they need democratic organisations that are firmly based on the unity of Kurdish workers and that have a strategy of appealing to Turkish workers and all workers in surrounding countries on the basis of working class unity and not of support for the capitalist elites of the region.
Ultimately, the fate of Iraq, Turkey, the Kurds and the Middle East as a whole can only be solved by the working class and poor in that region taking up socialist ideas against all their oppressors and the formation of a socialist confederation of the region to solve the pressing social and national problems facing the peoples.
He who pays the piper
The recent furore in the US Congress over a resolution condemning the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by Turkey during World War One has revealed the powerful lobbying system entrenched in US politics.
Initially it seemed that a ‘non-binding resolution’ condemning the atrocity, passed by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, would find an easy passage through Congress.
However, former Republican Representative Robert Livingston – who since leaving Capitol Hill in 1999 has earned $12 million in fees from Turkey to block such resolutions – successfully got fellow Republicans to remove their names from the resolution’s sponsorship. Livingston argued, along with George Bush, that ‘national security concerns’ were paramount ie Turkey’s threat to invade northern Iraq.
Livingston’s effort has been joined by another lobbyist, former Democrat and House majority leader Richard Gephardt. Gephardt who secured a $1.2 million contract to lobby for Turkey had previously co-sponsored an earlier genocide resolution.