Mahir Saul is a U. of I. professor of anthropology and an affiliate of the Center for the South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. In addition to specializing in West African historical anthropology, Saul, who was born and educated in Turkey, has published many articles on Turkish culture and literature and includes among his many academic interests the study of social organization; film; rural, urban and transborder trade; and Islam.
Turkey's parliament recently granted a one-year authorization to its military to deploy troops across its southern border into northern Iraq if deemed necessary to thwart border-area attacks by the Iraqi-based Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a rebel separatist group that has long advocated for the establishment of a Kurdish state in Turkey. That move triggered immediate concern among U.S., Iraqi and NATO leaders, who fear a large-scale incursion by the Turkish military could further destabilize the region. What motivated the parliament to opt for such a bold move after many years of continued border skirmishes between the PKK and Turkish troops already positioned there?
The proximate reason for the authorization is the stepped-up attacks at the border area by the PKK, but domestic political alignments are also relevant. Two concurrent oppositions dominate the Turkish public debate. One is between secularizers and Islamists, the other between those who endorse closer ties with Europe and those who, for fear of diminished sovereignty, uphold isolationist foreign policy, including revision of Turkey's ties to the U.S. These stances have been evolving since the Gulf War - the invasion was unpopular in the country - and their constituencies have been shifting.
In last July's elections, the main opposition, Republican People's Party (CHP), ran on a platform against EU membership and it is widely perceived as the parliamentary voice of the armed forces. People further conjecture a collusion of sorts between the secret services, the strengthened fascist party and the high military command, which together with the RPP sport a hyper-nationalist rhetoric. While the funerals for the Turkish troops who die in confrontations are hyped up to electrify patriotic feeling, the PKK becomes a scare (tactic) and "entering Iraq" a symbolic touchstone. Behind this wail others also see the armed forces' larger agenda against the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq. The "moderate Islamist" Justice and Development Party (AKP) ran on a pro-European program and won a crushing mandate in the elections, but is vulnerable in this highly charged climate that envelops its own grassroots as well. Disheartening to some, only nationalism, of different shades, is heard across the spectrum; the left is reduced to a rump under the heavy blows it suffered after 1980.
Since before the elections, the AKP leaders weathered the military demands for a ground offensive across the Iraqi border. Most PKK operatives remain on the Turkish side of the border rather than moving in from launch pads in northern Iraq. But the escalation in PKK fighting, with dozens of dead soldiers and civilians in only two weeks, seems to have left no room for maneuver to the administration. A delicate situation opens up before these governing neoliberal civilians; war turmoil could tip the fragile balance of power against them. Nonetheless, the parliament passed the motion authorizing cross-border operations with bloc votes from all sides, the strongest majority ever achieved on any motion in more than four decades, garnering "no" votes only from the tiny minority of Kurdish plus the sole socialist parliamentarians. The storm of official declarations made since then accords with this seeming consensus.
How likely is it that Turkey would actually order large numbers of troops into northern Iraq?
Right after the authorization passed, statements made by the prime minister and others suggested that a cross-border ground offensive was not imminent. Observers wondered if the motion was not primarily a gesture, warning, or domestic-politics expedient But since then a new deadly clash occurred in the border area, with a ratcheted up riposte by the Turkish army. The air force has struck deep into northern Iraq, the artillery shelled places several miles south of the border, and ground forces likewise operate far into Iraq. None of this is a first, but we are closer to a large-scale incursion than we (previously) thought.
What would be the likely results of such an invasion?
If diplomacy cannot avert that, the results will depend on what type of incursion it turns out to be and how long it lasts. In northern Iraq and in the U.S., the main concern is serious destabilization, which the opponents of Turkey might claim is an undisclosed purpose of a massive incursion. The move would bring military risks for Turkey, and as it receives oil from northern Iraq, and economic fallout as well. On the domestic scene, patriotic rallying around the aims of the armed forces is narrowing political possibilities. Simply the prospect of protracted involvement in northern Iraq is affecting social and economic life in places far from the border. Small and large businesses have slowed inventory building and investment, and a flight of capital and even of people is under way. Things may quickly go back to normal if the fears prove unfounded, but a prolonged immersion in northern Iraq is likely not to be beneficial to the civil society and economy of Turkey.