Q&A: Tensions Rise Along the Turkey-Iraq Border

Map of Iraqi Kurdistan i i
Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Map of Iraqi Kurdistan
Lindsay Mangum, NPR

In the past two decades, Turkish troops have staged dozens of incursions into Iraq in pursuit of guerrilla fighters. Recently, the tensions building along the Turkish-Iraqi border have been rising again.

The present conflict began in 1984, but it has roots dating back at least as far as the creation of the modern state of Turkey. Here's some background on the history and the issues behind the story:

Who are the Kurds?

The Kurds are an ethnic group. They occupy a mountainous area of the Middle East that's roughly the size of France. Much of it is in eastern Turkey, but it also overlaps substantial parts of Iraq and Iran, and smaller areas in Syria and Armenia. There are thought to be as many as 37 million Kurds. They've been described as the world's largest ethnic population that doesn't have a homeland of its own.

Why is there a 'Kurdish problem?'

After World War I, when the great powers divided up the Ottoman Turkish Empire, there was a treaty that would have created a Kurdish nation. But this fell by the wayside when Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk claimed much of the area for modern Turkey. Ataturk believed it was important to forge disparate groups into a "Turkish nationality," so the Kurds were referred to as "mountain Turks." They were forbidden to speak their language, use ethnic names, or to teach their children Kurdish culture. Kurds responded with uprisings in 1920s and 30s, all of which were put down by Turkish troops.

What is the PKK?

It's the Kurdish Workers' Party. It was originally a Marxist group created in the 1970s and dedicated to an independent Kurdish state. From 1984 to 1999, the PKK fought the Turkish military in an insurgency that depopulated much of the countryside of southeastern Turkey.

Are PKK members terrorists?

Few people would argue that the PKK does not use terrorist tactics. Linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky says the PKK does commit terrorist acts, but he charges that the United States helped make it possible for Turkey to carry on a "horrendous counter-insurgency campaign" that victimized innocent civilians. "To our shame, Turkey could do that thanks to the huge flow of military aid from the U.S., which escalated as atrocities peaked, and the failure of the press to report it," Chomsky says.

Chomsky, who has been involved in Kurdish human-rights issues, says the Turkish army killed tens of thousands of Kurds and destroyed more than 3,000 Kurdish villages. The PKK is accused of atrocities as well, notably against Kurdish clans that resisted its control. The United States and other nations have branded the PKK a terrorist organization.

What's the PKK doing in Iraq?

During the1990s, the Turkish military forced the guerrillas to move some of their operations out of the country. PKK fighters established hide-outs and training bases in the mountains of Iraq. After Turkey arrested the long-time leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, Ocalan called on PKK members in Turkey to withdraw to their Iraqi bases and work for peace. The group maintained a four-year ceasefire and some members said they were prepared to join the Turkish political process if Turkey would agree not to prosecute them.

Kevin McKiernan, author of The Kurds: a people in search of their homeland, says the guerrillas were split at the time, and "Turkey might have broken the movement then if it had offered an amnesty." The PKK ended its truce in 2004.

Some PKK fighters have since returned to Turkey, but as many as 3,000 are believed to be in Iraq. The rugged terrain on the Iraqi side makes it particularly hard to dislodge them. And while the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq has condemned PKK attacks on innocent people in Turkey, the group still finds support among some Iraqi Kurds.

Why does the Turkish government seem so unwilling to deal with the rebels?

McKiernan says the Turks are extraordinarily sensitive to threats of separatism, because they have never forgotten how Ottoman territory was taken away and carved up after World War I.

Najmaldin Karim, the president of the Washington Kurdish Institute, says another factor is that Turkey's military has little interest in seeing the problem solved politically. He says the army, which has been a potent force in the country since the days of Ataturk, is losing influence and that it sees the ongoing guerilla war as a way of maintaining its relevance.

What if Turkey does attack?

Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, has said his region will "defend itself" against any incursions from Turkey. Karim says a Turkish invasion would create havoc in what is now the only peaceful part of Iraq.

McKiernan says that Turkish public sentiment in favor of an incursion is being stirred up by images of the flag-draped coffins of slain Turkish soldiers in the news media, but notes that the military has a very short time in which to act before winter makes the rebel camps inaccessible. "This is one of the most rugged places in the Middle East," McKiernan says. "It's probably too late to get in there by the first week in November."

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