The Turkish parliament’s vote not to allow American troops through the country and so into northern Iraq has prevented the formation of a second front on which to attack Saddam Hussein, and so certainly prolonged the war to a significant extent. That has been a huge disappointment, and it might have ended in calamity. For a moment, Turkey was proposing to deny the United States and its allies the use of its air space. Last Saturday, it seemed to be about to go further still, and invade northern Iraq with a large force — 30,000-strong according to some reports. That would have started Turkish-Kurdish fighting.
Five million Kurds live in northern Iraq. They have managed in very difficult circumstances to free themselves from Saddam and set up some sort of practical autonomy for themselves. They are hoping for better days to come. Such Kurdish spokesmen as Barham Salih, prime minister of this autonomous Kurdistan, repeats how much he is looking forward to a federal Iraq in which the Kurds will have their due place, neither more nor less. Kurdish leaders, and Iraqi opposition leaders like Ahmad Chalabi as well, have been in Ankara lately trying to reassure the Turks and to prevent any military adventure on their part. And that’s unnecessarily lost still more time which could have been profitably used contacting potential Iraqi defectors.
Like most troubles in this part of the world, there is unfinished business here from 80 years ago, and the settlement made after the First War. The Kurds in the now-defunct Ottoman province of Mosul thought that they were about to acquire independence and a national state. The rump of the Ottoman empire, renamed Turkey, was allotted by the British the province of Mosul. But the British soon had second thoughts and for half a million pounds bought the province back and gave it to Iraq, then under their control. Hitherto Turks and Kurds had been on good terms. Now they entered into rivalry over territory, and territory with oil reserves at that. In recent years, Kurdish nationalist and revolutionary groups have been attacking across the Turkish border, and killing indiscriminately — causing as many as 30,000 victims. Turkey consequently fears any idea of Kurdish independence, and also harbors an imperial nostalgia for territory that it had once held, not to mention that oil. About 1,000 Turkish troops have been stationed for some time past in Iraqi Kurdistan, on the rather flimsy grounds that they are preventing an exodus of refugees.
Kept out of the area by the Turkish parliament’s vote, United States forces are not yet in a position to intervene in any Turkish-Kurdish clash, and to keep the two sides apart. Far better armed and trained, the Turks would easily overwhelm the Kurds. The thought occurs that the Turks invaded Cyprus some 30 or so years ago, and are still there. In the event that Turkey was able to take advantage of the war to seize some or any part of former Iraq, then the aims of the White House to be liberating the country collapse. Liberation would actually prove to be cannibalization.
On Saturday, as Turkey looked most threatening, a truly grim-faced Secretary of State Colin Powell told his press conference that he would be talking to the Turkish government within the hour. He did so. The administration was said to be “apoplectic.” It was afterwards reported that the American ambassador was closeted with Turkish prime minister Tayyib Erdogan well after midnight. There is a traditional Turkish puppet show in which the characters get their way by hitting others over the head with a big stick. In this case perhaps with a big check. American troops are now coming in as fast as they can from another direction, across the Jordan border. But with the Turks it’s been too close a shave for comfort, and very disappointing.
— David Pryce-Jones is a senior editor of National Review. He is author of The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs.