Turkey removed a major legislative hurdle blocking an invasion into northern Iraq with an October 18 parliamentary vote authorizing raids (Turkish Daily News). Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cautioned that the vote would not necessarily translate to an invasion, but analysts did not seem too reassured, particularly after an ambush (BBC) of Turkish troops by Kurdish separatists incited crisis talks in Ankara on October 21. While U.S. and Iraqi officials alike warn Turkey not to invade, CFR’s Steven A. Cook says in a podcast that a controversial vote by a U.S. congressional panel, deeming the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in World War I a “genocide,” may have given Turkey the political catalyst needed to launch an invasion. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice responded to the ambush by asking Erdogan to hold off for a few days before launching any ground attacks, and the New York Times reports Turkish officials agreed to the request. But the pause did not quell the drumbeat of “what ifs,” and analysts focused their attentions on what the fallout might be if Turkey follows through with cross-border raids.
Most experts say the after-effects of an invasion would depend largely on the scale of the attack and how it is carried out. Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has indicated he prefers limited air attacks (Gulf Daily News) on Kurdish targets to full-on land raids. Iraqi and U.S. leaders say a Turkish ground attack would work to destabilize Iraq’s north, currently one of the less volatile regions in the country. In a recent interview with CFR.org, the Kurdish head of foreign affairs in Iraq expresses hope the issue can be solved politically. The tension is particularly awkward (FT) for the United States, which finds itself stuck between a political ally in Turkey and a tactical ally in Iraq’s Kurds. Given the fragility of the current situation, Iraq’s foreign minister said in a recent statement that the effects of an invasion could ripple (VOA) well beyond northern Iraq, destabilizing the entire region.
Should this happen, one major casualty might be Iraq’s nascent government, which already struggles to keep order in a country fraught with ethnic tension. As a new Backgrounder explains, some U.S. officials are calling for schemes to manage Iraq’s regions separately—though these plans meet a contentious response from many Iraqi leaders. CFR President Emeritus Leslie H. Gelb says in an interview that a federalized Iraqi government remains the best way to “maintain harmony” among Iraq’s sects. Kurds in recent years have been able to mediate between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite factions, and analysts worry that if they become embroiled in violence, their ability to do this will be compromised.
It remains to be seen whether Turkey will actually invade Iraq, or if authorizing raids simply represents a bargaining chip. Turkey has again called on the United States to seize Kurdish separatist fighters, and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said U.S. troops need to do more on this front. Iraqi leaders made more forceful statements (LAT) October 24, saying Iraq will “do anything to stop their terrorist activities.” Either way, intense diplomacy has broken out in an effort to stave off bloodshed. On October 19, Kurdish Iraqis held protests (NYT) in an effort to coax Turkey not to attack. Meanwhile, the Economist argues the best hope for preventing a crisis may lie not in getting Turkey to sympathize with Iraqis or Americans, but in getting Ankara to better understand its own interests. “With luck,” the article says, Turkey “will recognize that a full-blown invasion of northern Iraq would damage its interests and further inflame Kurdish separatists.”