Thousands of Turkish troops crossed into Iraq to hunt fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is staging its deadliest strikes since the 1990s.
Twenty-two battalions in five areas on both sides of the border are engaged in the fight against the Kurdish group, backed by aerial bombing and artillery attacks, the army said on its website today. Turkey is in the first stages of the operation and is seeking assistance from Iraq, in whose northern mountains the PKK has its main base, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Ankara today.
The conflict, the latest in a region rocked by uprisings all year, escalated after the PKK killed 30 Turkish soldiers in a series of attacks in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast. They coincided with the start of talks in the Ankara parliament over a new constitution that may help address the grievances of Turkey’s Kurds, about 20 percent of the population.
Turkey has quarreled with Iraq in the past about the PKK’s presence there, and faces other disputes with neighbors. Iran objects to Turkey’s stationing of radar as part of an international missile shield. Turkey is increasingly vocal in its opposition to the violent crackdown against protesters by Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
“We’re talking about the prospect of greater instability in the Middle East, this time because of the cross-border implications of PKK actions,” said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. “Turkey will be obliged to act in northern Iraq, and all the while keeping an eye on Syria and Iran, which both have interests in northern Iraq.”
PKK attacks have been rising since June, when Erdogan won a third term with 50 percent of the vote. He said a new constitution would be his top priority.
The 12-member commission charged with drafting a framework for the new charter began talks yesterday. The four parties in parliament, including the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, which has ties with the PKK, are equally represented on the commission.
“There must be a strong suspicion that the PKK, or Kurdish nationalist forces more generally, could be divided over the wisdom of engaging in the consensus committee and the constitutional process,” said Bill Park, a senior lecturer who specializes in Turkish foreign and security policy at King’s College in London. The latest violence “looks like an attempt to derail the talks, or to send a message to the Kurdish negotiators that they should not too readily concede,” he said.
‘No Turning Back’
Speaker of Parliament Cemil Cicek told the constitutional consensus commission’s inaugural meeting yesterday that its members must to work together “with great effort” to deliver a new charter. “There’s no turning back from this path, regardless of how difficult our work gets due to these developments,” he said.
Turkey’s benchmark ISE-100 stock index extended losses today after reports of the cross-border raid. It fell 3 percent at 5:15 p.m. in Istanbul, adding to a 1.6 percent drop yesterday. Yields on two-year government bonds rose 39 basis points to 9.14 percent.
“From an investors’ point of view, it’s not a political-risk event,” said Wolfango Piccoli, a London-based analyst at the Eurasia Group, which monitors political risk. He said the PKK will be limited in its ability to strike due to worsening weather conditions and logistical shortcomings and “will have to wait until spring.”
NATO Defense System
Turkey is facing strained ties with neighbors as it battles PKK violence that has claimed more than 190 lives this year and more than 40,000 since the insurgency started in 1984.
Iran said Turkey’s decision to host early-warning radar installations as part of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense system creates tensions and will lead to complications.
Turkish leaders said they lost faith in Assad after the Syrian president failed to follow a road map they drafted jointly to expand freedoms and rights for Syrians. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met this week with representatives of the Syrian National Council, the opposition group founded in Istanbul Oct. 2 that seeks international recognition.
Turkey’s army and air force have been bombing PKK bases in northern Iraq since August, according to the military, despite repeated opposition to the move by its neighbor. “We stand against the shelling and the direct interference,” said Labeed Abbawi, Iraq’s deputy foreign minister.
Nechirvan Barzani, deputy chairman of Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani’s party, said cooperation with Turkey will expand in all areas and that the PKK attacks are harmful to Kurds. “We vehemently condemn these actions” by the group, he said today after meeting Davutoglu in Ankara.
Turkey’s parliament is holding a closed-door emergency session in Ankara to discuss the PKK attacks. The opposition Republican People’s Party and Nationalist Action Party accused Erdogan’s government of failing to combat terrorism in yesterday’s session.
The fighting between Turkey and the PKK comes after efforts by Erdogan to increase rights for the nation’s Kurds. Political tensions have escalated since the June 12 elections, when the courts barred several pro-Kurdish lawmakers from entering parliament. That culminated in a declaration of Kurdish autonomy in Diyarbakir on July 14, which coincided with a PKK ambush in which 13 soldiers died in the outskirts of the province.
The PKK killed 24 soldiers in a four-hour assault early yesterday in eight locations in the Hakkari province, Erdogan said. The previous day nine people, including five policemen, died in a roadside bombing in Bitlis. One soldier was killed by a mine explosion today.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Erdogan discussed steps they can take together with Iraq to combat the PKK in a phone conversation late yesterday, the Turkish prime minister said.
The U.S. “strongly condemns” yesterday’s attacks, Obama said in an e-mailed statement. Erdogan had asked the Obama to use unmanned U.S. Predator aircraft and share intelligence to track the PKK during a Sept. 20 meeting in New York. Obama pledged to continue “strong cooperation with the Turkish government as it works to defeat the terrorist threat.”