While the US is set to leave Iraq by the end of the year, the question is who will dictate terms in relatively stable northern Iraq where the Kurds have had a pretty much autonomous state since the fall of the Saddam regime in 2003.
The US has a vested interest in keeping Iran out of the northern frontier, and the Kurds themselves have no desire to see Tehran bullying and meddling in their affairs. Turkey, the strategic NATO ally of the US, comes to mind as the only real alternative Washington can count on in the future to stem the pervasive Iranian influence. Israel is also worried that Iran may have a solid footing in Iraqi Kurdistan, putting pressure on the Kurdistan regional government to sever its growing ties with the Jewish state.
The principal question concerns how far the US is willing to go to address Turkish worries stemming from the campaign of terror waged by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Ankara has long complained that the US is not doing everything it can to prevent the PKK from gaining a strong position in the mountainous region in the north. It is true that real time intelligence has been provided on border areas by the US since a landmark 2007 agreement. Yet the intermittent transmission and less than 24-hour coverage by US surveillance activity have created lots of holes in the defense perimeter, hampering the fight against the PKK terror.
What is more troubling, though, is the unwillingness on the part of the US to get their hands dirty by taking any action against PKK activities under its watch during the occupation. The US forces have apparently developed rules of engagement to turn a blind eye to the comings and goings of PKK fighters and do nothing to make their lives difficult in northern Iraq provided the PKK does not attack American interests. The “bystander” attitude of the US did not even allow captured PKK terrorists to be handed over to Turkey, fueling suspicions among Turks that the US has in fact been providing material support to this vicious terror network.
Now it all has to change. The US needs to show some backbone in supporting Turkey’s fight against the PKK while pulling its troops from Iraq if it is serious about stemming the influence of Iran. The unintended result of the Iraqi invasion was the expansion of Shiite influence in much of Iraq, making Iran the number one beneficiary at the expense of all others in the region, including the US. Take, for example, the recent announcement by the Iraqi government concerning the Syrian crackdown on civilians. Baghdad pretty much aligned itself with Tehran by failing to denounce the shelling and bombing by Syrian forces. This should set off alarm bells for everyone.
The security sweep being carried out by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards since July 16 in the Kurdish region against the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), a PKK offshoot, should also send a strong message to the US and Turkey. Iran is trying to fill the vacuum being created by the departure of US forces from Iraq. If Iran takes a strong position in Kurdish border regions, this will complement its influence along Shiite-controlled borders. The Iranian move raises the stakes tremendously in the game of influence, while the PKK seems to have already caved in to Iranian pressure.
The PKK’s number two man, Murat Karayilan, whose capture by Iranian forces was later denied but whose fate remains unknown, had earlier announced that the PKK and PJAK have no interest in fighting Iran. This means the leverage yielded by Iran over Kurds may have a far-reaching impact in the region. Many believe the Karayılan affair is directly related to what has been happening in Syria, and his possible capture may serve as a bargaining chip in a deal.
When push comes to shove, Turkey may be forced to choose between its traditional ally, the US, which has done nothing substantial on the ground to finish off the PKK terror, and its long-time trade partner and neighbor Iran, which can deliver what Turkey wanted all along. This does not need to be mutually exclusive, of course, and Turkey can do a balancing act; nevertheless, the possibility remains that it may eventually have to decide between them.
That is why, I think, Turkey has decided to launch a major offensive of its own in September before the harsh winter strikes the mountainous region. We all know that the PKK mostly attacks Turkish targets in spring and summer before it goes into “hibernation” ahead of the winter, and a unilateral cease-fire is only declared because the PKK’s capability is severely diminished during the fall and winter seasons.
Ankara is not naïve and knows very well that whoever controls conditions on the ground is the one who dictates the terms at the table. Unlike Iran, however, Turkey has to conduct its security operations very carefully to ensure it does not alienate its own Kurds or cause any harm to the democratic initiatives it launched two years ago to address the grievances of Kurds. The drastic overhaul in the fight against terror with the rapid expansion of special operations forces has one major goal: To conduct targeted mop-up operations directed solely against Kurdish terrorists, especially the top commanders of the PKK. If and when this happens, the cross-border operation will try to capture the powerful trio at the helm of the PKK: Murat Karayılan; Fehman Hüseyin, a terrorist of Syrian origin; and Cemil Bayık.
Though the head of the northern Iraq autonomous government, Massoud Barzani, is known to be against any cross-border operation by Turkey, he may have to go along with Ankara this time, with a little nudge from the Americans. He realizes that Iraqi Arabs (both Shiite and Sunnis) are looking to settle the score with the Kurds once the US leaves the country. The distribution of oil wealth, especially in Kirkuk, has been the subject of a dispute between the Kurdistan regional government and the central Baghdad government. Barzani may have to count on his only ally, Turkey, in this unfriendly neighborhood.
Iranian actions also showed the vulnerability of the US with regard to its imminent withdrawal from Iraq. By stirring up tension in relatively quiet Kurdistan (not to mention Shiite-controlled areas in Iraq), Iran is saying that it may very well force the US’s hand in, for example, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria – Tehran’s main Arab ally. The fact that Turkey and Israel have not patched up the bad feelings over the flotilla affair does not help the situation, either. Israel should realize the clear and imminent danger Iran poses in northern Iraq and hasten the apology to the Turkish side. Because in this chess game we can watch being played out in front of our eyes, Iran appears to be winning, while the US, Turkey and Israel seem to be losing.