Books on Turkey
Update No: 130 - (28/03/08)
The Kurdish scare
The Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq has apparently turned out to
be on a considerably lesser scale than initial reports had suggested and of
shorter duration. Iraqi Kurdish officials and US-led coalition sources said only
a few hundred Turkish troops at most took part in the cross-border operation,
which lasted barely a week in late February. It was an eight-day operation in
fact that ended on February 29, the leap day of the leap year.
The Iraqi Kurds - always on the look-out for any Turkish move that might be
construed as an attempt against their own autonomous regions - said the
incursion took place in a remote, rugged and unpopulated sector of the border,
where heavy snows hamper movement at this time of the year.
Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who control the part of northern Iraq south of
the Turkish border, had no contact with the Turkish troops and were only aware
of the operation from monitoring military radio traffic. No vehicles or tanks
were involved in the move across the border, although helicopter gunships were
in action as well as jets and artillery.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari - himself a Kurd - described the operation
as "very, very limited". But he added that the Turks had destroyed
five bridges over the Blue River tributary - part of the Greater Zaab river
complex - and said he had called in the Turkish charge d'affaires in Baghdad to
deliver a protest note.
Protective US umbrella
The underlying situation in Iraqi Kurdistan and on the Turkish border is so
sensitive and tense that any news of Turkish military action is often blown out
of proportion. Turkish military statements are usually scant and elliptical,
leaving the field open to speculation and interpretation and some TV footage has
been known to be from archive material.
But Ankara is well aware of Iraqi Kurdish sensibilities, and also that the
United States is committed to maintaining the integrity both of Iraq as a whole,
and of the federal autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has enjoyed a
protective US umbrella since the early 1990s.
Tensions were particularly high in October and November, when the Kurdistan
Workers' Party (PKK) carried out raids in which about 30 Turkish soldiers were
killed. Turkey massed tens of thousands of troops on the border, a build-up
which is still in place. The Iraqi Kurds feared that a major invasion was
imminent, and that their own autonomy would be the real target.
But the invasion did not materialise, with Washington playing a key role in
persuading the Turks to hold off in exchange for co-operation in efforts to deal
with the PKK with pin-point operations. Washington confirmed that it had been
notified in advance of the latest Turkish move, and received assurances that it
would be directed solely at positions or fighters of the PKK. They have hideouts
in the rugged border mountains, from which they have conducted attacks across
the border into Turkey.
The Turkish President, Abdullah Gul, also called his Iraqi counterpart, Jalal
Talabani, to assure him that border operations would not be directed against the
Iraqi Kurds. Mr Gul invited Mr Talabani, who is a Kurd, to pay an official visit
to Ankara, an invitation which the Iraqi president accepted.
But the launching of the Turkish operation was preceded by some friction on the
ground between Turkish troops and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
There are two fixed Turkish bases inside northern Iraq, at Bamarni and Bakoufa,
where a limited number of troops and tanks have been stationed since 1997 with a
static monitoring and intelligence function. According to senior Iraqi Kurds,
Turkish troops tried to move out of the bases to set up checkpoints on nearby
They were confronted by Peshmerga fighters who took up combat positions. There
was a tense stand-off before the Turkish forces returned to their bases without
any shots being fired. The subsequent cross-border raid, so far at least, has
fallen far short of the major incursion that had been feared before the winter
weather ended the fighting season in late November.
For thousands of troops to pour across the border, as initial reports suggested,
they would have to use the only major crossing, at Habur, near Zakho in the far
north-west of Iraq.
The Iraqi Kurds say that did not happen. They control the southern end of the
crossing, and would be the first to observe - and probably confront - a major
Operations elsewhere along the rugged, snow-bound border would necessarily be of
a much more limited nature, until the spring thaws make the remote terrain
somewhat more accessible.
The headscarf issue
There are matters closer to home that are demanding urgent attention. Turkey's
main opposition party said on February 27 it had asked the Constitutional Court
to quash a government-backed reform aimed at easing a ban on women students
wearing the Muslim headscarf at university. The wearing of Muslim face veils and
headscarves in schools, universities and at work is a sensitive topic across
Mainly Muslim, but secular, Turkey has with different degrees of success, long
banned Islamic head-dress in universities and public offices. But parliament on
February 9 resoundingly approved constitutional changes aimed at lifting a ban
on female students wearing the Muslim headscarf in universities. President
Abdullah Gul approved the reform on February 22.
Face coverings such as the Afghan-style burqa or Middle Eastern-style niqab are
relatively rare in secular Turkey, which traditionally follows a moderate brand
of Sunni Islam and where segregation of the sexes is very much the exception,
not the rule
The ruling AK Party urged state prosecutors on February 27 to investigate
university rectors who have refused to implement new laws allowing female
students to wear the Muslim headscarf on campus. Many rectors have refused to
recognise the Islamist-rooted government's decision to ease a ban on students
covering their heads on campus. They say further legislation is required.
The rectors, along with the rest of a secular elite that also includes judges
and army generals, say the reform is part of a government effort to erode the
separation of state and religion in Turkey. The government denies any Islamist
The AK Party says the issue is one of religious freedom in Turkey, a European
Union candidate country. It is unclear when the court will rule on the matter.
"As far as I can see, the rectors are committing a crime. This is a matter
for the state prosecutors," the state Anatolian news agency quoted AK Party
Deputy Chairman Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat as saying. "Depriving our daughters
of the right to education because of their dress, is a violation of the
constitution," he said.
The AK Party says the issue is one of religious freedom in Turkey, a European
Union candidate country. Two thirds of Turkish women wear the headscarf and
opinion polls show a majority of Turks back the relaxation of the ban at
Oil and gas exploration in the Aegean and Black Sea
Not all news is bad news. It is a welcome development that relations between
Athens and Ankara have greatly improved in recent years. Earlier this year
current Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis made the first visit to Turkey by
a Greek premier in nearly half a century.
Turkey launched oil and gas exploration in February in the Gulf of Saros in the
Aegean Sea, which it shares with Greece, Energy Minister Hilmi Guler has said.
"We started drilling work in the Gulf of Saros in the Aegean and this is
important for the works we have been carrying out recently. A good spot was
detected," Guler told a news conference.
Turkey's state oil firm TPAO also announced it would start oil exploration with
Brazil's Petrobras in the Black Sea in 2009, rather than 2011 as had been
Turkey and Greece have a territorial dispute over parts of the Aegean and more
than 20 years ago they almost went to war over oil exploration.
However, Athens has indicated that this time the Turkish work would not provoke
a dispute. "The exploration is taking place completely in Turkish waters.
As such there is no need for Greece to comment on the situation," said a
Greek foreign ministry official who declined to be named.
Greece has a territorial limit of six miles around its 2,000 or so Aegean
islands, but maintains it has the right to extend this to 12 miles. Turkey has
said such an extension would be cause for war.
In March 1987, then Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou ordered warships to
sink a Turkish exploration vessel if it went ahead with plans to enter Greek
waters to conduct an oil survey.