Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Turkey: Troop Movements

The Turkish military as a new chief of staff, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, sworn in yesterday. He's a man to watch as the Middle East grows more dangerous and volatile by the day, and Ankara moves to assert its influence around the neighborhood.

Buyukanit said during the handover ceremony that defeating Kurdish separatism is one of his top priorities -- and that kind of talk has Iraq's all-but-independent Kurdish leaders worried. The Turkish Kurds of the PKK allegedly find safe haven among their Iraqi cousins, and the Turkish army has been building up its forces on the frontier, implicitly threatening an open invasion, for several months. The number of Turkish troops poised on or near the border has been estimated at anywhere from 120,000 to 220,000.

What is clear, as The Christian Science Monitor reports, is that the Turks are preparing for an invasion, if and when they feel the time is right. According to an August 18 onscene report on The Guardian, "Turkey and Iran have dispatched tanks, artillery and thousands of troops to their frontiers with Iraq during the past few weeks in what appears to be a coordinated effort to disrupt the activities of Kurdish rebel bases."

Meanwhile, if the generals and the Erdogan government have their way, Turkey will also provide a large contingent of troops to the revivified UNIFIL forces in Lebanon. This is over the explicit objections of President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, whose position gives him a high profile but little direct power. He said recently that it is "not Turkey's responsibility to protect the interests of other countries."

France, Italy and other EU countries, which are providing about half the 15,000 UNIFIL forces called for after Security Council Resolution 1701 brought a cessation of hostilities in the Israel-Hizbullah War, have said repeatedly they want Muslim troops to fill out the rest of the contingent.

From the first week of fighting, senior Lebanese officials were also telling me they wanted the Turks to deploy. Their reasoning: Syria has to be held in check, and Syria is probably more frightened of Turkey than it is of any other power on earth, including Israel. - C.D.

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