TURKEY: Buffer zone plan comes under fire.

20 September 1996

TURKEY has managed to stir up a storm of protest from Iraq and other regional states with its plan to create a buffer zone inside northern Iraq in response to the latest events there. The plan to occupy a swathe of Iraqi territory - intended to deny a haven to Kurdish rebels who are active in eastern Turkey - has sparked regional concerns about national sovereignty and won only lukewarm support from the US.

Senior officials in Baghdad have vowed to do all they can to prevent an infringement of their sovereignty.

Turkey's proposal has been denounced by almost everyone. Some of the strongest objections were voiced in Tehran and Damascus which only weeks ago were the target of a charm offensive by the new government led by Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. More restrained but nonetheless vocal opposition came from a gathering of the GCC foreign ministers in Riyadh. France and Russia also opposed the planned security zone; on 8 September EU foreign ministers declared that the territorial integrity of all regional countries had to be protected. Only the UK aligned with the US to say that moves by Turkey to protect its border from a flood of refugees would be understandable.

According to Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Tansu Ciller, speaking on 6 September, the government would take precautions both behind and across the Iraqi border to prevent infiltration by guerrillas of the rebel Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Since the Gulf war, the security forces have repeatedly crossed the border in hot-pursuit operations, together with several much larger sweeps through northern Iraq to clear alleged PKK bases.

Sobered by the hostile response to its latest plans Ankara has backed away from establishing a permanent garrison inside the zone itself. Turkish security forces have built up along the border, in preparation for possible operations in the self-declared zone which is up to 10 kilometres deep in places. According to local press reports, President Suleyman Demirel chaired an internal summit on 6 September which decided that no combat units would be stationed inside the zone, although it would be managed by the military. Equally, there would be no evacuation of the local population in the area and no electronic surveillance equipment would be installed inside the zone.

To give itself a freer hand, Ankara has also begun to campaign within NATO for a review of Operation Provide Comfort (OPC), under which air force units from the US, the UK and France have used Turkish bases to police the UN exclusion zone in northern Iraq since 1991. The Turks were already reluctant hosts and agreed in midJuly to extend the mandate of OPC for only five more months. Local press reports suggest that the US missile strikes in retaliation for the seizure of Arbil by Kurdish forces supported by Saddam have undermined what remained of OPC's credibility.

OPC is deeply unpopular with many political parties, especially Erbakan's Welfare Party (Refah). Opponents argue that the air umbrella has ensured that a power vacuum persists in northern Iraq, allowing the PKK to establish bases there and infiltrate the southeast of the country where it pursuing an insurgency campaign, which has left more than 20,000 dead over the past 12 years.

Participants at the summit also reportedly concluded that only a wholesale lifting of UN sanctions will prevent Iraq's eventual disintegration. Ciller had already announced that Turkey plans to seek international compensation for a claimed $27,000 million worth of economic 'sacrifices' made since the suspension of normal dealings with Iraq in 1990.

Ankara has its own ethnic axe to grind and fears for the fate of around 900,000 Turkmens in the region, who could become embroiled in a battle between Arabs and Kurds. Ankara also sees the Turkmens as guarantors of continued Turkish influence in northern Iraq, where recent instability has prompted heightened Iranian involvement. Erbakan's Islamist rhetoric and his recent visit to Iran, coupled with diplomatic openings to both Baghdad and Damascus, had created the impression of a new regional rapprochement in the making. Saddam's latest venture has put Turkish hopes of advancing those plans on hold for the time being.

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