Leadership Council for Human Rights

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

U.S. support of Turkey and Kurdistan

The following article appeared in the December 13th edition of The Economist.

American policy toward Turkey and Kurdistan
The Economist
December 13, 2006

It is looking ever more awkward for the Americans to keep two of their
closest allies in the Middle East simultaneously sweet: Turkey and the Iraqi
Kurds, who enjoy extreme autonomy in what is now the only stable part of
Iraq. Kurds there are particularly rattled by several of the recommendations
of the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by a former secretary of state, James
Baker (see article). The Turks, for their part, are increasingly angered by
a renewal of attacks in Turkey by guerrillas of the home-grown Kurdistan
Workers' Party (PKK). Moreover, they have never liked the idea of an
autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, seeing it as a magnet for Kurdish nationalism in the region-especially in Turkey itself.

Indeed, there is a growing chance that the Turkish army will, perhaps as the
snows melt next spring, invade northern Iraq in an effort to clobber the PKK
in its safe haven just inside Iraq. The Iraqi Kurds might then feel obliged
to help their ethnic kinsmen fight back against the Turks. At that point, it
is unclear what the Americans would do, for they deem it vital to stay
friends with both the Turks, who are members of NATO, and the Iraqi Kurds,
who have hitherto been by far the most pro-American group in Iraq.

Iraq's Kurds disliked the Study Group's suggestion that Iraq's central
government should tighten its control over Iraq's provinces. They hated a
recommendation that a promised referendum on Iraq's disputed oil-rich
province, Kirkuk, be postponed. And they were horrified by the report's call
for America to improve relations with Syria and Iran, which have both long
suppressed Kurdish nationalism.

The Iraqi Kurds' biggest worry now is that an American wobble might hasten the feared Turkish invasion of their enclave. The Turks would argue that they merely wish to knock out some 5,000-odd PKK rebels in the mountains close to the border, then withdraw. But Iraq's 4m-5m Kurds fear that the Turks' true aim would be to ruin their successful experiment in self-rule, which has been inspiring Turkey's own restive Kurds, some 14m-strong.

"It's no longer a matter of if they [the Turks] invade but how America
responds when they do," says a seasoned NATO military observer. America
would be loath to let the Iraqi Kurds help their PKK kinsmen fight back,
since Turkey is a cherished NATO ally and a pivotal Muslim state in the
region. Turkey's airbase at Incirlik, in southern Turkey, is a hub for
non-combat materiel flown in for American and allied troops serving in Iraq
and Afghanistan.

The increasingly confident Iraqi Kurds sometimes helped Turkey fight against the PKK in the 1990s, but now they say they will no longer kill fellow
Kurds. Instead, they have been strengthening links with their Turkish
cousins, offering jobs and scholarships in northern Iraq. The Americans have
been telling the Turks to stay out of Iraq, despite the PKK's provocations.

So far Turkey has obeyed, hoping that America would deal with the PKK
itself. Its failure to do so is perhaps the biggest cause of rampant
anti-American feeling in Turkey. In July Turkey's mildly Islamist prime
minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is said to have warned President George
Bush, in several telephone calls, that he might be unable to restrain his
hawkish generals after 15 Turkish soldiers were killed in PKK attacks in a
single week. Some 250,000 Turkish troops then briefly massed on the Iraqi
border, jolting the Americans into naming a former NATO commander, Joseph Ralston, as a "special envoy for countering the PKK" (his own description). But the PKK's attacks went on, despite its proclaimed ceasefire in September.

One big reason for Turkish restraint against the PKK in Iraq has been
repeated warnings from the European Union, which Turkey has been bent on joining. But that restraint may weaken as the EU, or at least some of its leading members, continues to snub Turkey in its efforts to obtain membership.

If Turkish forces do invade Iraq, America's response will depend largely on
the scope and scale. Most probably, they would not penetrate far into the
country. "If they did, they would find themselves in the position that we do
in Iraq, bogged down in a guerrilla insurgency," says Henri Barkey, an
American expert on the Kurds who served in the State Department during the Clinton administration.

Plainly, it is in America's interest to cut a deal between the Turks and the
Kurds, including a plan to disarm the PKK for good, in return for wider
cultural and political rights for Kurds in Turkey. Conceivably, Turkey might
then be persuaded to accept the reality of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan;
optimists point to burgeoning trade links across the border. But pessimists,
especially in Turkey, say the Turks (as well as the Iranians) will never
tolerate Kurdish independence, which is how they see the Iraqi Kurds' present extreme autonomy.

If it comes to a stark choice, it is hard to say which way the Americans
would tilt. A vigorous debate is taking place in Washington. The
self-described realists favour Turkey: the country is a tested ally and far
bigger, richer and more powerful than today's fledgling Iraqi Kurdistan. The neoconservatives may favour holding on, at all costs, to the only solid ally within a federal Iraq, namely the Kurdish regional government. But the mood may recently have shifted in favour of the Turks. "The Iraqi Kurds are not the angels they were made out to be," says an American official.

With Turks and Kurds digging their heels in, the Americans hint that they
may be resigned to a limited Turkish operation that aims at PKK bases close
to the Turkish border; and they would tell the Iraqi Kurds to stay put. But
some in the Bush administration say the Americans should actually help
Turkey swat the PKK in Iraq "At this rate," says another American official,
"we're not only going to lose Iraq but Turkey too." That, for America, is a
prospect too ghastly to contemplate.


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