Turkey Denies Northern Iraq Airspace Shut & Tactical and Strategic Problems of a Turkish Winter Campaign in Northern Iraq

November 1st, 2007 - by admin

Kavkaz Center.com & Dr. Andrew McGregor / Aberfoyle International Security – 2007-11-01 23:02:19


Turkey Denies Northern Iraq Airspace Shut
Kavkaz Center.com

ISTANBUL (November 1, 2007) — Turkey’s prime minister has denied television reports the country has closed its airspace to aircraft bound for northern Iraq. Tayyip Recep Erdogan on Thursday rejected reports by NTV that a flight ban had been imposed as part of sanctions against groups supporting Kurdish separatist fighters in Iraq. “There is no such decision,” the Anatolia news agency quoted Erdogan as saying.

Turkey says the autonomous Kurdish administration in northern Iraq has not acted against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist group that has fought a 23-year battle against Ankara.

Ankara is threatening military raids against PKK bases in northern Iraq unless Baghdad and Washington act to end the group’s safe haven in the area.

Troops Massed
Turkish officials say at least 3,500 PKK pro-communist militants are based in the mountains of northern Iraq. Ankara has sent 100,000 troops to its southern border with Iraq in readiness for what many believe will lead to a raid against PKK bases.

A Turkish incursion would also put the United States in an awkward position with key allies: Nato-member Turkey, the Baghdad government and the self-governing Iraqi Kurds in the north.

Washington has been pressing Turkey for restraint, while pushing for more action by Iraqi Kurds to crack down on militant bases.

Ali Babacan, Turkey’s foreign minister, earlier said that Ankara had started imposing some sanctions against northern Iraq, but gave no details. “We have from time-to-time restricted flights on technical grounds, this might happen again,” Babacan told a press conference.

‘Flight Ban’
A travel agent in Ankara told the AFP news agency that a flight ban had been imposed on at least two airlines operating flights from Istanbul to Irbil and Sulaimaniyah, northern Iraq.

On Wednesday, Turkey’s cabinet approved economic sanctions against groups deemed to support the outlawed PKK. “I cannot discuss the measures we are thinking of. The measures are directed against the PKK and those that directly support them,” Cemil Cicek, Turkey’s deputy prime minister said.

One of the possible measures is a flight ban along with restrictions on traffic through the Habur border gate with Iraq, Turkish newspapers have reported.

Curbs on exports to northern Iraq and a freeze on the operations of firms in Turkey belonging to Masoud Barzani, leader of the autonomous Kurdish administration in Iraq, are also understood to be under consideration by Turkey.

On Tuesday, aviation officials told Reuters that Turkey’s civil aviation authority had imposed limits on an Istanbul-based charter airline. Tarhan Tower has been refused permission to fly two of its three weekly flights to Irbil in Iraq this week.

The United States uses Turkey’s Incirlik airbase to provide logistical support to its forces in Iraq, though it has very few troops in the north of Iraq. Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, will discuss the PKK issue with Turkish leaders in Ankara on Friday.

More than 37,000 people have died due to violence between Turkey and the PKK since the terrorist group started its campaign in 1984.

Source: Agencies

Tactical and Strategic Problems of a Turkish Winter Campaign in Northern Iraq
Dr. Andrew McGregor / Aberfoyle International Security

TORONTO (1 November 2007) — As Turkish troops mass along the border with Kurdish northern Iraq, chief of the Turkish General Staff General Yasar Buyukanit has promised to make the militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) “grieve with an intensity they cannot imagine” (AP, October 27).

While an attack on northern Iraq seems imminent, important questions are being raised in Ankara about the effectiveness of a cross-border operation. What meaningful objectives are obtainable? Can the PKK be crushed through unilateral military action? Should the campaign wait until spring? There is political pressure on the Turkish government to do something now, a sentiment reflected in the urgency of Turkish demands for Iraq and the United States to take action against the PKK.

Large-scale PKK attacks, such as the October 21 ambush in Hakkari province (about four kilometers from the border) that killed 12 Turkish soldiers and involved over 200 Kurdish militants, clearly seem designed to provoke a Turkish border crossing. The aim may be to cause a rift between Turkey and its allies while involving the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) in a difficult and dangerous winter campaign in Iraq’s northern mountains.

The PKK has also threatened to cut the oil pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan and even strike oil tankers heading for Turkey (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 21). Following the deadly attack on the 21st, 11 Turkish battalions were moved up to the border to prevent the movement of PKK militants across it (Today’s Zaman, October 26).

The electoral success last summer of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in former PKK strongholds in southeast Turkey has put pressure on the PKK to try and draw Turkey into a major struggle in northern Iraq with international implications for Ankara.

Iraq’s Kurdish Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, claims that the PKK has been infiltrated by Turkish intelligence, and suggests that Ankara is seeking a provocation that will allow it to intervene in northern Iraq to “disrupt the Kurdish regional administration, (and) to cripple the infrastructure” (Newsweek, October 23).

Public demands for immediate military action against the PKK have dominated raucous protests in several Turkish cities. Many of the demonstrations now condemn the United States as well as the PKK. Senior Turkish politicians have also been abused at massive public funerals for “martyred” troops. In response to the attacks, TSK troops and Cobra helicopter gunships have already begun making “hot pursuits” of PKK militants across the border. Turkish tanks and artillery shell targets in northern Iraq almost daily.

The difficulty for Ankara is that a quick raid on PKK installations in Iraq is likely to have little long-term effect. Turkey has already launched dozens of major raids on northern Iraq without doing anything to end the PKK presence along the border. PKK guerrillas possess little more than what they can carry on their back, and are thus ready to pull out to safer, pre-planned positions at a moment’s notice.

Only an extended occupation stands any chance of success, and this will be difficult, if not impossible, without cooperation from Baghdad, Washington and northern Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Ankara is receiving mixed messages from the United States. Last week the U.S. military commander in northern Iraq, General Benjamin Mixon, declared that U.S. forces were not involved in tracking PKK movements and intended to do “absolutely nothing” to end Kurdish cross-border attacks on Turkey (AP, October 27).

On the same day, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated that the United States “will do what is necessary” against the PKK while warning Ankara to abandon plans for a major cross-border incursion (Hurriyet, October 27).

There are also signals from the Pentagon that the U.S. military may be ready to use Predator reconnaissance aircraft to supply the TSK with the intelligence necessary to make pinpoint special forces strikes against PKK targets while avoiding a larger invasion (CBS, October 26).

Turkish air capability is limited. There are few attack helicopters available, and Turkish F-4 and F-16 jet-militants flying from the Diyarbak?r air base are largely ineffective against PKK mountain positions without the specialized munitions used by the United States or the fuel-air explosives Russia used against Chechen hideouts in the Caucasus Mountains. For now though, the Turkish warplanes continue to mount strikes on Kurdish villages and PKK positions inside Iraq while providing air support for search-and-destroy missions within southeast Turkey.

Turkey’s nine US-built Cobra attack helicopters have undergone extensive refits to enable them to carry out night missions against the PKK. In September Turkey signed a deal with an Italian aerospace firm to provide 51 new attack helicopters to add to Turkey’s force of 90 U.S.-made Sikorsky Black Hawk assault helicopters (Today’s Zaman, October 22).

On October 21, the chairman of Turkey’s Grand Unity Party, Muhsin Yaz?c?o?lu, called on the TSK to develop new strategies, such as the formation of “mobile units composed of high-level officers having extraordinary powers and responsible in taking initiatives” (Today’s Zaman, October 22).

A brigade of professional commandos is undergoing training at the Isparta commando school in Egirdir, but these are not expected to take the field until 2009. Six existing commando brigades are replacing conscripts with volunteer professionals in a process that is expected to be completed by next spring.

Last week, 3,000 members of the police special forces joined Turkish regulars, mountain commandos, Gendarmerie forces and village guards in the fighting against PKK guerrillas (Hurriyet, October 25). Thousands of imams trained in “national unity issues” are also on their way to southeast Turkey to explain the unacceptability of terrorism in Islam.

Snow is already falling in the higher mountain passes. There is a danger that a Turkish winter offensive could get bogged down in difficult and roadless country without the benefit of the Iraqi Kurdish guides that used to accompany Turkish missions against the PKK. As the earth turns to mud under heavy rains and snow, the TSK’s armor will find the going difficult. Winter storms could also mean troops on the ground might lose the benefit of air cover and medical-evacuation services.

There are several options available. The TSK could cooperate with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps forces in a strike against the PKK and Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) strongholds in the Qandil Mountain region 100 kilometers south of the border, probably the most effective option militarily, but the most dangerous politically, and potentially the most embarrassing for the United States.

Such a strike would have substantial risks for the TSK, which has never penetrated so far into Iraq. The onset of winter usually marks the end of the PKK’s campaigning season until spring, as the militants retire to bases well inside the border while only a small number remains behind in southeast Turkey. The TSK will have to penetrate 20 to 30 kilometers deep into Iraq to get to PKK’s winter camps. The alternative would be to create a buffer zone on the Iraqi side of the border and wait until spring for a major offensive (barring the success of diplomatic efforts in the meantime).

Even if Turkey could obtain Baghdad’s cooperation against the PKK, there is little chance the beleaguered Iraqi national army could carry out a successful campaign in the Kurdish mountains. The Kurdish President of Iraq, Jalal al-Talabani, claims that even the Kurdish peshmerga militias could not expel the PKK (Kurdish Aspect, October 21). The effect of a military offensive on the future status of the disputed oil-centre of Kirkuk must also play into the calculations of Turkish planners.

Economic sanctions and border closures present an alternative to military action until spring. Sanctions could include closing the Habur border gate through which billion in trade now passes annually. A large quantity of American military supplies also pass through the Habur gate, but Ankara is now exploring the possibility of diverting Turkish trade with Iraq through a number of Syrian border crossings, avoiding Kurdish Iraq all together.

Other options include a halt in vital Turkish investment, cutting supplies of electricity to northern Iraq, and the evacuation of Turkish contractors responsible for most of the rebuilding and infrastructure creation in northern Iraq. Over 600 Turkish construction firms are currently at work in northern Iraq (Today’s Zaman, October 26). In the presently charged atmosphere, the Turkish business community has expressed wide support for economic measures if necessary.

In the event of economic sanctions by Turkey, Iraq’s government may save the PKK the trouble of cutting the pipelines to Ceyhan. Iraqi Speaker of Parliament Mahmud al-Mashhadani warned on October 25 that the Iraqi government would cut the flow of oil to Ceyhan should Ankara apply sanctions.

There is little chance of a large cross-border military operation starting before Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an visits Washington on November 5. As the TSK awaits orders, every day that passes increases the difficulty of mounting a successful operation in northern Iraq.

Dr. Andrew McGregor is the director of Aberfoyle International Security in Toronto, Canada.
Source: The Jamestown Foundation
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