The motivation behind Turkey's troop buildup along its border with Iraq extends beyond the PKK issue: Ankara is keen on reigniting an intra-Kurdish rivalry in order to keep Iraqi Kurdistan in check. After saying that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) would not even hand over a Kurdish cat to Ankara if Turkey did not back off, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani hinted Oct. 22 that Iraqi Kurdish forces already have moved against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) when he announced an end to PKK activities against Turkish troops scheduled to start the same evening. Talabani's statement comes against the backdrop of 100,000 Turkish troops stationed along the Turkish-Iraqi border in preparation for a large-scale offensive against PKK elements in northern Iraq. This situation became even tenser after a provocative attack Oct. 21 by Kurdish rebels that killed at least 17 Turkish soldiers.The KRG might be able to rein in the PKK and stave off a Turkish incursion in the short term. But its ability to prevent an incursion in the long run is doubtful, especially in light of the underlying reasons for a Turkish move into Iraq.
The KRG is well aware that the conflict with Ankara extends far beyond the PKK issue. Turkey has every interest in putting a stranglehold on Iraqi Kurdish aspirations for greater autonomy. In an effort to do so, Turkey has approved a yearlong military operation that will involve building up its forces on the border, moving into Iraq and creating a buffer zone for rooting out the PKK and keeping the Iraqi Kurds in check. An integral part of Ankara's long-term plan for containing Iraqi Kurdistan involves reigniting the conflict between Iraq's two main Kurdish parties: Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which controls the southeastern Iraqi Kurdish region, and Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which controls the Northwest. The Kurds occupy the mountainous territory where Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq come together. But the mountains that have provided them a refuge also have given birth to deep-seated tribal rivalries that are regularly exploited by neighboring powers. The worst infighting in recent years occurred in 1994, when the PUK and KDP were engaged in a full-blown civil war. The fighting became so intense that Barzani called on Saddam Hussein for help battling the PUK. Moreover, the KDP worked alongside Turkey during the 1997 Turkish invasion of Iraq aimed at fighting the PKK, with the PKK and the PUK working together against the KDP. The PUK also received some help from Iran in reclaiming territory from KDP forces during the Kurdish civil war. These events demonstrate that more often than not, intra-Kurdish rivalries will take precedence -- even in the face of a common enemy (be it Turkey or Hussein).
The current unity between Iraqi Kurdish leaders is highly anomalous. Barzani and Talabani set aside their differences in 2003, just prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in order to maximize Kurdish benefits in post-Hussein Iraq. This united Kurdish front allowed the Kurdish region to develop into the country's oasis, with energy investors worldwide hungrily eyeing its vast oil fields -- much to Turkey's displeasure. But Turkey also is well aware that the Barzani-Talabani truce is extremely fragile. Everything from telecom companies to peshmerga units still are clearly divided between the PUK and KDP in Iraqi Kurdish territory. The fate of Kirkuk also has caused friction between the two parties as they compete to claim the legacy of having gotten the city officially designated Kurdish territory.Turkey has every reason to exacerbate intra-Kurdish tensions through military action in an effort to break the KRG apart. Should Turkish troops move deep into Kurdish territory -- to Dohuk and beyond -- clashes between peshmerga and Turkish forces are highly likely. This could further strain the PUK-KDP alliance. Turkey also could drive a wedge between the parties by attempting to align with Talabani, whom Ankara views as a more pragmatic leader, over Barzani, whom the Turks see as a belligerent tribal warlord. And 74-year-old Talabani's worsening health itself could very well ignite another intra-Kurdish power struggle. Should Talabani feel threatened by Barzani's political ambitions, Ankara could find another opening to intervene and keep the Kurdish parties split.
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