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Turkey's Pursuit of Kurdish Rebels Carries European Implications

Turkey's incursion into northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish rebels may have far-reaching consequences. As well as destabilizing Iraq's one peaceful region, the offensive could impact the Middle East and Europe.

Turkish commandos during an operation on the Turkish-Iraqi border

Turkish troops have pushed towards PKK camps near the Iranian border

It is a conflict which has waxed and waned for over 24 years, but experts say the latest round of hostilities between Turkey and armed rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) carries more significance than many of those which have erupted before.

While the new campaign is not the first time Turkish forces have taken the fight into the PKK's adopted haven of northern Iraq, it is the first major incursion since the 2003 US-led invasion toppled former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

The last major Turkish incursion into northern Iraq was in 1997, when about 50,000 troops were sent to the region to crush the PKK, which Ankara accuses of killing nearly 40,000 people since the group began its armed struggle for self-rule in 1984. However, while the latest campaign is significantly smaller than the last, the wider implications this time around are greater.

A member of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, in the Qandil mountains near the Turkish border with northern Iraq

The pursuit of PKK rebels by Turkey has angered Kurds

In a land ravaged by violence, the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan has been viewed as the most stable in Iraq, a recognized political, ethnic and economic area and a glimmer of hope in a devastated and divided country. It is from here that an estimated 3,000 PKK rebels have launched attacks across the border in Turkey.

There are major concerns that the Turkish incursion will destabilize Iraq's only peaceful region and act as an unwanted injection of fuel into an already intensely flammable area of the world.

Iraq fears that a prolonged Turkish incursion into the northern region could trigger clashes between Turkish troops and Iraqi Kurdish security forces. While Iraqi Kurds have little sympathy for the aims of the PKK, there is widespread anger over the incursion and the Iraqi Kurd leadership has already warned that any targeting of civilians would result in "massive resistance" by its forces.

A destabilized Iraqi Kurdistan is a concern not just for the ethnic Kurds living there, the government in Baghdad and the United States forces in Iraq but also for Iran and Europe.

Shaky relations with Iran at risk

An Iranian soldier salutes in front of a placard of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a military parade in Tehran

Iran has strengthened its forces at the Iraqi border

Iran, which reinforced its border security on Sunday, Feb. 24, after fighting between Turkish forces and the PKK spread to the nearby Qandil Mountains, has had its own problems with Kurdish rebels. The Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), an offshoot of the PKK, has mounted raids into Iran from its bases in northeastern Iraq.

While Iran has maintained that its increased security is designed to stop Kurdish rebels hiding in Iran and also to prevent a refugee influx, the build-up of Iranian troops on Iraq's borders is certainly contributing to the tense atmosphere, with the US watching developments on the eastern borders very closely.

"This incursion is extremely ill-timed in the context of the West's relations with Iran," said Giles Merritt, director of the Brussels-based think-tank Security & Defense Agenda. "The EU and United States have just started to hold positive discussions about Iran and are slowly admitting their actions have been more than a little ham-fisted. Any involvement in Kurdistan runs the risk of destabilizing the region and damaging the fragile relationship with Tehran."

The Turkish incursion is also being watched with concern in Europe, especially after the PKK urged Kurdish groups to unleash urban violence across the continent, saying that if Turkey turns Iraqi Kurdistan into "a fire zone" then Kurds must do the same in cities across the EU.

EU faces repercussions of stalling on membership

A Turkish flag and an EU flag fly in front of Nur-i Osmaniye Mosque at Ottoman Era in Istanbul

The EU's attitude to Turkey may have driven Ankara to act

Despite the fact that the European Union, along with the United States, considers the PKK to be a terrorist group, a campaign of Kurdish terrorism across Europe in response to the incursion is very unlikely. However, the EU faces a very different problem arising from Turkey's strong-arm tactics.

"Up until recently the EU was actively engaged in membership discussions with Ankara, and Turkey showed restraint," Merritt said. "What we are seeing with this incursion is evidence of a loss of leverage.

"The EU has snubbed Turkey with its stalling on accession, and what we see now is Ankara showing its displeasure and flexing its muscles," he added. "This isn't a mission driven by the military; this is [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan showing who's in charge."

Turkey on the verge of autonomous future

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Erdogan, not the army, is thought to have pushed for action

Merritt also believes that Turkey's bullish attitude and opposition towards a number of NATO initiatives are other signs that Ankara has grown tired of being batted between the United States and Europe. The Kurdistan operation therefore provides a glimpse of a possible future where Turkey calls its own shots.

"The EU and US have shot themselves in the foot," Merritt said. "Here we have a country, a hugely important strategic nation right in the middle of the world's biggest trouble spot, and they've lost influence by stringing the Turks along. This is a foretaste of a future in which Turkey feels empowered enough to be an autonomous player in international affairs."

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