The United States should radically rethink its relationship with Turkey. For the sad fact is that Ankara no longer seems to be an ally worthy of the name — indeed its threatened invasion of Iraq would be the act of an outright enemy. Nor has Turkey behaved like a genuine ally for more than four years.
It’s not merely that Turkey refused at the last minute to let Coalition forces invade from the north in March 2003 — though that did affect the war and its aftermath in unfortunate ways. There have been other equally serious derelictions, ranging from the refusal to allow a damaged U.S. warplane to make an emergency landing in March 2003, to active subversion of the Coalition and the post-Saddam Iraqi authorities. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has consistently played these incidents down or ignored them, thereby encouraging Turkish bullishness and contempt for American neediness.
It was a sign of Turkish malevolence to come, when, in the spring of 2003, U.S. troops in northern Iraq twice captured units of Turkish special forces operating there out of uniform. The Turkish commandos had slipped across the border and were actively working to foment trouble, urging the tiny Turkmen minority to violence and hinting at support of Sunni Arab insurgent groups if they would take on the Kurdish Regional Government.
The first occasion was on April 23 in Kirkuk, the second, on July 4, was in Sulaymaniya. The latter was labeled “The Hood Incident” in Turkey and provoked public outrage because 173rd airborne troops supposedly hooded their Turkish captives — just as they hooded all other terrorist suspects. The Turkish government and public apparently saw nothing wrong in the illegal presence of un-uninformed Turkish troops in Sulaymaniya — even though they were apparently there to assassinate a Kurdish governor — and the incident subsequently inspired the viciously anti-American, anti-Semitic, and pro-insurgency Turkish hit movie Valley of the Wolves.
Then, as now, Turkey justified its violations of Iraqi territory by the presence in Northern of Iraq of separatist PKK guerillas (small numbers of Turkish troops have been based across the border for two decades), but the arrested Turkish troops were nowhere near the remote mountain areas where the PKK are said to have their bases.
Since those 2003 incidents, the Turkish armed forces have continued to foment ethnic strife in Kirkuk and other cities in Northern Iraq that have no connection with the Turkish-PKK struggle (The Turkish military even has funded, trained, and armed a militant group called the “Iraqi Turcomen Front” which was formerly sponsored by Saddam Hussein), and in July of this year yet another Turkish special forces unit was captured, again out of uniform.
These ongoing hostile acts have tended to erode any Iraqi Kurdish willingness to act against the PKK bases in Iraqi territory, as have Ankara’s demands for a suspiciously unlimited right to “hot pursuit” of the PKK terrorists.
Moreover, Turkish covert aggressions and attempts to intimidate the KRG are of such limited military utility in the struggle to suppress the PKK that they seem, both to the Iraqis and outside observers, to have more to do with the Turkish army’s intense paranoia about any measure of autonomy for any Kurds anywhere in the Middle East.
Worse, they reflect a strategic reality to which Washington and the West have turned a blind eye: Elements within the Turkish military covet the Kirkuk oil fields and much of Northern Iraq as a lost “Turkish” element of the Ottoman Empire. (Never mind that it’s conquest would bring even more Kurds and non-Turks under Ankara’s intolerant rule.)
This combination of irredentism and racism inspires Turkey’s brinkmanship on the Iraqi border at least as much as any legitimate security concerns. After all, if Turkey truly wanted to secure the cooperation of the Kurdish Regional Government — whose peshmerga troops have in fact battled the PKK in the past – in clearing PKK safe havens across the border, it would not be accompanying its threats of a massive invasion with a propaganda offensive, claiming that Iraqi Kurdish leaders have made territorial claims over parts of Turkey. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan himself pointed out in June, before caving into military pressure, that:
There are 5,000 terrorists in the mountains in Turkey. Is the struggle against them over? Is this issue resolved so that we can come to dealing with the 500 terrorists in northern Iraq?
(This is not to underplay the nastiness of the formerly Syrian-backed Leninist PKK, nor to excuse its behavior because the Turkish military has so cruelly oppressed and abused the 10 million or more Kurds who live in the South East.)
The Turks know perfectly well that their publicized plan to send troops in as far as the capital Irbil would be resisted by the Kurdish Regional Government, would bring chaos to an area that has only just recovered from Saddam’s genocidal attacks, and essentially would start a whole new war in Iraq. The effect on the Coalition’s and Iraqi government’s efforts to stabilize the rest of the country would be catastrophic, not least because key Kurdish Iraqi Army units — the best and most reliable indigenous troops in the country – would race North from Baghdad and other places where they are needed to fight Sunni insurgents and Shia militias.
One irony of the situation is that the biggest foreign investors in the burgeoning economy of Iraqi Kurdistan are Turkish businesses. Yet the fate of this flourishing commerce seems of little concern to a Turkish military whose racist culture simply cannot bear the existence of a semi-autonomous Kurdish statelet, regardless of how benign it is or how profitable for the Turkish economy.
In any case it is inimical to the interests of the United States to tolerate a foreign military invasion of Iraq by any foreign power. Far too much blood and treasure has been expended in the Coalition effort to bring stability to post-Saddam Iraq to justify any but the toughest response to Turkey’s saber rattling. This is why the Bush administration should stop being so mealy-mouthed and immediately shift U.S. troops North — nominally to assist the KRG in efforts to expel the PKK, but mostly to make it clear to the Turkish military that invasion will come at a heavy cost — namely the destruction of any trace of friendship with Washington.
The United States should then initiate a policy that will have a powerful and salutary effect on the region: It should start to construct a massive military airbase in Iraqi Kurdistan itself.
This would kill several birds with one stone. It would enhance America’s ability to project force against enemies such as Syria and Iran. It would deter any future incursion into Iraq by Turks, Syrians, or Iranians. It would reassure and economically reward our Iraqi Kurdish allies — arguably our best and most useful friends in the region — who have long wanted such a physical sign of American commitment. Best of all the U.S. would no longer be subject to Turkish blackmail over the vital NATO airbase at Incirlik — blackmail that would probably be stepped up if we ever needed to use the Incirlik base for strikes against Iran or Syria. An America that no longer has to cringe and beg Turkey for the use of military facilities will probably enjoy a better, more balanced relationship with Ankara. (As elsewhere the perception of American weakness has provoked aggression and hostility) And the likelihood is that the airfield would remain a key American base, even if the worst case predictions about Iraq were to come to fruition.
Unfortunately, Turkey has powerful defenders on the Right here in the U.S. Some cleave to the dusty fantasy of Turkey as the model of a good, moderate, Westernized Muslim state: These have paid little or no attention to how much Turkey has changed over the last few years. Others are blinded to reality by nostalgia for the good old days when Turkey — or at least the Turkish military — was a genuinely stalwart American ally and a covert friend of Israel against Syria. Even now they choose to believe that the vaguely Islamist ruling party is the main problem rather than the Turkish military.
You might have thought that Turkey’s shifting of two armored divisions into invasion position on the border of a country where 150,000 U.S. troops are fighting to keep the peace, would disillusion these dogged Turcophiles. It hasn’t. Nor has the shelling of villages unconnected with the PKK. And nor has Turkey’s continued determination to attack America’s Kurdish allies, despite the reported dispatch of U.S. special forces against PKK leaders. The Turcophile tendency simply cannot see that the Turkish Army’s anti-Kurd animus matters to it more than the friendship of the United States, or admit that the Turkish military’s Kemalist secularism makes it no less a possible agent of regional instability. They mistakenly believe that the Turkish military liked us – when in fact they merely needed us as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. Worst of all they don’t see that the absence of a Soviet threat has liberated the most dangerous nationalistic — and indeed fascistic — tendencies of the Turkish military.
Of course it would require genuine courage on the part of the Bush administration in general and in particular from Secretary of State Rice, to even raise the idea. But once raised it would make it clear to Ankara that America has options in the region and that, like Turkey itself, America is not a slave to old friendships.
–Jonathan Foreman, a former film critic for the New York Post, was an embedded reporter with U.S. troops in 2003 and 2005.