The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Turkey and the Iraqi Conflict

Apr 4, 2003

The following is the translation of an article written by our comrades in the French Trotskyist group Lutte Ouvrière (LO). This article originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of LO’s magazine Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), number 72.

More than a year ago, when the Bush administration started elaborating military plans for its war on Iraq, there was at least one thing that apparently posed no problem—namely Turkey’s support. Thus, when the Turkish Parliament voted on March 1 to deny permission for U.S. troops to pass through Turkish territory, allowing the U.S. army only the right to use its air space, this came as a bad surprise to American strategists.

They were consequently forced to change their plans at the last minute, re-embarking the 62,000American troops whose original mission had been to go through Turkey to open a second front from the north of Iraq.

Beyond the military problems and delays this entailed, Turkey’s attitude could be a forerunner of much more important problems: launching its attack on Iraq, the United States may have rekindled a whole series of conflicts in the area, both inside and outside Iraq.

Today’s main disagreement between Turkey and the United States concerns the situation in Iraq’s Kurdistan, which borders on Turkey and Iran. The present state of things is a direct consequence of the first Gulf War: when American troops ousted the Iraqi army from Kuwait in March 1991, the Kurdish people in the north of Iraq and the Shiite population in the south responded to the American leaders’ call to rise up in revolt. Within a few days after March 5, 1991, the entire territory of Iraq’s Kurdistan rose in open resistance against Saddam Hussein’s troops, who left the area almost without a fight.

However, American authorities much preferred to deal with Saddam Hussein than with a new Iraqi leadership supported by rebellious masses. Hence, they cynically decided to abort their offensive against Baghdad and to allow Saddam Hussein’s army to use its combat helicopters and heavy artillery to smash its own people. And so it did. The Shiite and Kurdish revolts ended in a bloodbath. In the north, hundreds of thousands of people left the big Kurdish cities now controlled by Saddam Hussein’s army, heading for the border in hope of finding refuge in Turkey.

But Turkey refused to allow them into its territory, and they found themselves trapped in the mountains of Kurdistan between the Iraqi and Turkish armies. It was then and only then that U.S. authorities decided to set up the northern "no-fly-zone," which prevented Baghdad’s army from further intervening in Kurdistan and permitted the Kurdish militias to set up their own, weak power,under American protection.

Reluctantly, and only after allowing the Iraqi military to smash the revolt, did U.S. leaders agree to the establishment of a Kurdish power on a narrow strip of land running along Iraq’s borders with Turkey and Iran. This territory excluded the big cities of Mosul and Kirkuk whose Kurdish population had largely been driven out by the Iraqi army. Inside the Kurdish enclave, power was shared between the two main Kurdish parties: Masud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Both were based on militias that emanated, to a large extent, from the various clans of Kurdish society and largely escaped the people’s control. Barzani and Talabani entered into a fight for power and for support from Iran, Turkey and Syria—or even of the Iraqi leadership.

In 1992, a Kurdish organization from Turkey, the Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK, Kurdistan Workers’ Party), tried to get a foothold in northern Iraq, as a base for its guerrilla warfare against Turkey’s armed forces. The Turkish army reacted by increasing its incursions into Iraq to hunt down the guerrillas, and the Turkish government warned Barzani and Talabani that if they failed to check the PKK the Turkish army would occupy the Kurdish enclave and do the job itself. Talabani and Barzani did what they were told; the Iraqi Kurdish militias were soon attacking the Turkish Kurdish militias of the PKK... before fighting it out between themselves in 1994, to consolidate power over their respective zones.

It was only after these fights that a certain equilibrium was finally established in the Kurdish enclave, between the KDP’s militias in the northwest, along the Turkish border, and the PUK’s militias in the northeast, along the border with Iran. Thanks to the open collaboration between Barzani, Talabani, the Turkish government and the CIA, the Turkish PKK lost its bases in Iraq as well as in Syria and was practically wiped out in Turkey itself.

The fragile Kurdish power thus rested on a U.S.-sponsored equilibrium between the Turkish, Iraqi, Iranian and Syrian governments, along with the complicity of the Kurdish leaders who played off their "protectors" against each other. The situation also guaranteed the Kurdish leaders a relatively important source of income, thanks to the duties imposed on Iraq’s imports and exports—especially oil—through the Turkish and Iranian borders. This was a period of relative autonomy for Iraq’s Kurdistan, and it brought about a certain improvement of the economic situation and political climate—at least compared to the very harsh conditions of the previous years.

When the U.S. administration started elaborating plans to attack Iraq, it could thus count on a long-standing support inside the Kurdish enclave—a support it had already used to organize a few, unsuccessful attempts at overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

U.S. envoys in the area were convinced that, on the Kurdish side, they could count on support from Barzani and Talabani—who had no choice anyway. But they also needed Turkey’s support; and they believed that Ankara’s regime, one of their best and most faithful allies in the area, would follow suit.

The United States has many means of putting pressure on Turkey. The country’s external debt is huge, totaling about 150billion dollars, and has already caused a series of financial crises. Each time, Turkey was able to avoid the kind of bankruptcy that hit Argentina, but only because the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released the credits the Turkish state needed to meet its commitments. In other words, the apparent health of Turkish finances depends on U.S. political and financial leaders—who regularly remind Turkey of that fact. Over these past few years, Turkish leaders never failed to support the United States’ positions. They went as far as effecting a rapprochement with Israel, organizing common maneuvers with its army, which was seen as a direct threat by Arab countries like Syria.

During their early contacts with Turkish leaders, American envoys were assured of Turkish support in the event of an attack on Iraq. But they apparently overlooked two details: first, the assurances came from Bülent Ecevit’s government, a worn-out, discredited government which had to step down after the Turkish elections in November 2002 and whose political commitment was worthless; second, meddling with Iraq—and especially Kurdistan—meant intervening in what the Turkish bourgeoisie considered as a very sensitive area, an area where it was not at all sure that Turkey’s interests coincided with those of the United States.

The AKP’s victory in the November 3 Elections

Such was the situation when the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP, Justice and Development Party), a so-called "moderate Islamist" party, won the November general elections. The AKP’s success was not so much the result of an "Islamist" wave as the voters’ disowning of the previous government—a government based on a coalition between Ecevit’s nationalist left-wing party and a far-right party—whose rule had been marked by a series of financial crises, a continued inflation reaching 100per cent a year, a succession of austerity policies and repeated corruption scandals. The parties represented in the previous government were eliminated from the parliament, where only two parties remained: the AKP and the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP, Republican People’s Party), a social democratic party was not in the governmental coalition.

After the elections, the AKP leaders were in no hurry to take a stance toward the coming war. Belonging to a new generation of leaders who had left former prime minister Erbakan’s traditional Islamist party, they appeared as a new, uncorrupted group. They enjoyed a climate of hopeful expectancy and did not wish to appear as determined supporters of a war that was largely unpopular in Turkey.

So they decided to play for time, haggling about the cost of Turkey’s involvement in the war. Turkey’s participation in the first Gulf War against Iraq had left some unhappy memories in Ankara. Turkey had suffered financial losses estimated at tens of billions of dollars stemming from the loss of Iraq as a trading partner. This was only partly compensated by the United States. Trade between Turkey and Iraq was still very limited, due to the American embargo and the "oil-for-food" agreement. Another new war could only mean a new collapse of even this trade.

Using the economic consequences of the first Gulf War as an argument, Turkish leaders asked the United States for tens of billions of dollars in compensation. At the same time, parts of the leading circles argued that it was not in the country’s interests to participate in the war, even if they got financial compensation. An American intervention in Iraq could pave the way for autonomy or even independence of the Kurds in northern Iraq—which in turn could encourage, or even give a helping hand, to the Kurdish autonomy movements in Turkey itself. Turkey even feared the possible creation of a Kurdish state which, with the help of the United States, would control the oil resources of Mosul and Kirkuk—a region where Turkey has long-standing claims. Besides, Turkey certainly would not have wanted to appear as the number one supporter of the United States in the area. This could only increase Arab and Muslim hostility, compromising Turkey’s chances to increase its political and economic weight in the Middle East.

Finally, the international context—in particular the hesitations of some European countries concerning the planned war against Iraq—encouraged a fraction of the Turkish bourgeoisie to distance itself from American policy and to take advantage of the balance of power between Europe and the United States. After using American support to try to overcome Europe’s reluctance to admit Turkey into the European Union, the Turkish leaders were ready to make use of Europe’s hesitations to resist American pressures.

Despite it all, the Turkish government and army leaders continued to assure the United States it could count on their support for an intervention against Iraq—until the surprise vote in the National Assembly, when the motion authorizing the American army’s transit through Turkish territory to attack Iraq from the north was defeated by three votes.

This created an unexpected situation, with American ships forced to cruise off the coast of Turkey while they waited for authorization to disembark troops. The Turkish Chiefs of Staff allowed the U.S. army to transport some of its material to military bases it rented on Turkish territory while Parliament discussed the possibility of a second vote.

Meanwhile, talks continued between Turkish and American emissaries over the conditions for Turkish support of the war. Though their details remained a secret, these talks obviously faced difficulties. The United States refused to give clear figures for financial aid to Turkey; it also refused to commit itself on the future of Iraq’s Kurdistan; and finally, despite Turkey’s desire to send troops inside Iraq and create a "buffer zone" as a guarantee, the United States said "no" to any entry by the Turkish army into Iraqi territory.

This lack of "understanding" by the United States of course could stem from the Bush administration’s arrogant attitude. But the American leaders did face a problem—how to make promises to the Iraqi Kurds while at the same time telling the Turks that they would not support the Kurds’ demands! Moreover, the United States and Turkey could be playing a kind of game. Today, the United States needed the Kurds’ support for its war against Iraq, but its probably ready to let them down tomorrow if and when the Kurds face Turkish troops or the new dictatorship the U.S. army will set up in Baghdad. It has happened before, and the Kurds could once again be the victims of an agreement reached at their expense by people who were supposed to be their allies.

In any case, at that moment, tension increased between the United States and Turkey. In the end, the latter merely allowed the former to use its air space. American leaders finally lost patience, sent the naval armada anchored off the coast of Turkey through the Suez Canal, toward southern Iraq, and ordered the troops already on Turkish territory to follow suit.

The American attitude was of course a form of blackmail: either the Turkish regime collaborates with the U.S. army or tens of billions of dollars in American aid could fail to reach Ankara. The financial markets perfectly understood this and the Turkish lira rapidly fell when the Turkish parliament refused aid to the U.S. offensive in Iraq. The regime is under the threat of a financial crisis that in the future could force it to accept U.S. conditions without any discussion.

However, the situation created by the war on Iraq opens up other possibilities for Turkey. The Turkish generals have made all the necessary arrangements and are ready for any eventuality. Having concentrated troops near the border, they have the means of occupying as much Iraqi territory as Ankara would deem necessary for Turkey’s security. Depending on the aftermath of the war, they could ask these troops to move into Iraq’s Kurdistan and confront the Kurdish militias—if the militias act too boldly. Finally, the Turkish generals might also be tempted to occupy the oil-producing areas around Mosul and Kirkuk, which they believe should have gone to Turkey when the Middle East was carved up after WorldWarI. This could be done in the name of the Turkmenian minority living in the area; Ankara claims to be its protector.

Of course, ignoring the United States’ warnings against any intervention by the Turkish army inside Iraqi territory implies a risk. But it is a risk the Turkish generals might be willing to take if they were convinced that U.S. troops will be too busy dealing with the rest of Iraq to intervene against them or if they thought it worthwhile, after having invaded northern Iraq, to exchange their retreat for a huge share of the oil riches of the area, for example.

Such an intervention would create a situation in the north of Iraq not too different from what happened in Cyprus in 1974. At the time, the Turkish army intervened under the pretext of defending the Turkish minority—allegedly threatened by a coup organized by forces who wanted the island to join Greece. Twenty-nine years later, the Turkish troops are still present on the island where they protect the mafia-like government which rules over the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus—recognized only by Ankara. The Turkish generals’ military adventurism is not without precedent and they might be tempted to indulge in it again, given the example set by the world’s biggest power. They might also be pushed in that direction by Turkey’s financial and economic crisis. The AKP government has been in power for less than six months, but it has already lost a good deal of its political credit, notably because of the austerity measures it has taken to try to control the financial crisis just like its predecessors did.

Will the Turkish generals opt for a military adventure in Iraq? Their decision will of course depend on how the U.S. and British intervention develops; but it will also depend on Turkey’s political and financial crisis. In any case, by his intervention, GeorgeW.Bush has given the signal for a genuine scramble for the spoils of Iraq and has made such a "war inside the war" possible. Because of his own open greediness and brutality, the U.S. sorcerer’s apprentice has stirred the embers that could set the area ablaze and perhaps involve, in very unpredictable ways, Iraq’s Kurdistan, Turkey, the various Arab countries and/or Iran.