The Kurdistan Workers Party is dreaming.
The Kurdistan Workers Party, best known by its initials PKK, dreams of an independent Kurdistan.
A "Turkish partition" has always been a Kurdish nationalist goal — carving a Kurdistan out of southeastern Turkey’s ethnic Kurd region. Now, an "Iraqi partition" has become the PKK’s goal.
At the moment, the PKK is trying to goad Turkey into a full-scale invasion of Iraq. A firefight along the Turkey-Iraq border late last week reportedly involved as many as 200 PKK fighters. The typical PKK operation consists of (at most) two dozen infiltrators. When Turkey beefs up its military forces, the PKK usually melts away. Turkey now has up to 100,000 troops in the region. The PKK isn’t melting, however. If the 200 fighters figure is accurate, then the PKK was conducting a major combat operation despite Turkey’s reinforced military presence.
The PKK wants Turkey to attack.
Why? Because the PKK is desperate. Support for the PKK within Turkey has waned since 1998, when Turkey nabbed its cult leader, Abdullah "Apo" Ocalan. Nabbing Ocalan was a sophisticated operation that included threatening his host and protector, Syria, with invasion. Grievances the PKK once exploited are finally — if belatedly — being addressed. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pumped development money into Kurdish areas. Turkey’s new dams are producing power, and once-neglected Kurdish villages have lights. Likewise, Iraq’s Kurds have made extraordinary economic and political progress. The Iraqi government and Iraqi Kurds want good relations with Turkey, and PKK attacks on Turkey damage those relations.
Waning support in Turkey and new, economically rewarding Iraqi-Turk relations put the PKK in a bind. And in this desperation the PKK’s dream scenario begins — a dream with several tricky plot sequences and delusional twists.
Dream Step One: The Turkish invasion destroys Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan emerges as an independent state. Step Two: Kurdish arms or international opprobrium or U.N. sanctions or whatever forces Turkey to accept an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. Once Turkey accepts New Kurdistan, these same powers force Turkey to accept a ceasefire with PKK cadres inside Turkey. Negotiations result in an internationally mandated plebiscite where Turkish Kurds, of course, vote to join New Kurdistan.
Later, hocus pocus or Syrian and Iranian sweetness allow Syrian and Iranian Kurdish regions to secede and form Greater Kurdistan, uniting all Kurds in one happy state with billions of barrels of oil. Then — the dream continues — politically moderate Turkish Kurds (who exist) and Iraqi Kurds (who for the moment run Iraq’s most stable and economically productive region) will agree the PKK’s senior commanders should dominate Greater Kurdistan. Why, if they don’t they’ll either be killed or forced into exile.
Then … it’s time to wakeup. What the PKK’s leaders are risking is really a potential Kurdish nightmare.
— Turkey is not going to accept an independent Kurdistan. Iraq’s would-be partitioners, whether in al-Qaida or American academia, don’t understand the certainty of Turkey’s veto. Forget the United Nations and whatever. Proud Turkish nationalists know they have the military power to enforce the veto.
— If a Turkish attack on PKK bases in Iraq induces Iraqi collapse — which is doubtful, since 30 or so previous incursions haven’t — the resulting chaos will destroy Iraqi Kurdistan’s stability and erase its economic and political gains. Iraqi Kurds know this.
Iraqi Kurds, however, are reluctant to arrest fellow Kurds. That’s very politically unpopular.
This is where Turkey’s scenario begins, one with an assumption or two, but the kind of assumptions that military and economic pressure can move toward certainties. Perhaps a "bluffed invasion" and U.S. diplomatic pressure will force Iraqi Kurds to hand over senior PKK leaders (like the threat worked on Syria). It’s doubtful, but possible. More likely, Turkey will attack, pressing its assault and destroying the PKK bases. PKK leaders will flee, attempting to hide among Iraqi Kurds as they have in the past. This time, however, the leaders are quietly disarmed and detained, by Iraqi Kurds and the Iraqi government.
Bet that Turkey and Iraq have already discussed the terms of detention.
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