Politics & Policy

Turks on the Border

Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is to visit Washington for a meeting with President Bush on November 5. Until he returns to Ankara, the Turks will refrain from a cross-border incursion into northern Iraq to attack the bases there of the PKK, a Marxist Kurdish-nationalist group that is waging a terrorist war against them. But this is likely to offer only a short respite. There are approximately 100,000 Turkish troops stationed on the Turkey–Iraq border. An Iraqi delegation (still in Ankara) has offered proposals to curb the PKK, but the Turks describe these ideas as inadequate and too “long term.” Talks are still continuing. But Turkish public opinion and senior military officers, both angered by the deaths of Turkish soldiers, are demanding intervention. So unless the U.S. president is able to broker some compromise, the Turks will invade in less than two weeks.

In doing so, they may overturn the stability and prosperity of the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq — and risk intensifying the instability of the rest of Iraq and the problems facing U.S. forces there. It is a can of scorpions.

How did matters reach this stage? And what can be done to avert a descent into further Middle Eastern chaos? A little recent history may explain things. Until 1998, Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, was given sanctuary by the Syrian government. After conventional diplomatic pressure failed to change this, the Turkish government moved large numbers of troops to the border and threatened to invade. Syria promptly expelled Ocalan. But not to Turkey. A succession of European states to which Ocalan fled refused to extradite him because Turkey then retained the death penalty. He was eventually captured in Kenya, tried in Turkey, and sentenced first to death, then to life imprisonment. (Turkey abolished capital punishment in 2002.) Ocalan in captivity has urged a democratic reconciliation between Turks and Kurds and proposed various fanciful political structures to achieve this.

Ocalan’s capture and apparent conversion hit the PKK hard. It was already losing the war to Turkey’s harsh but effective counterinsurgency campaign. It began issuing regular calls for a ceasefire. At the same time Turkey began relaxing its domestic restraints on Kurdish nationalism. Several Kurdish nationalists entered parliament in the recent elections. Ankara had reason to hope that its “Kurdish problem” was on the way to a political solution.

That hope has been ruined by the revival of the PKK in the autonomous Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. It maintains camps there; it has rearmed itself with modern, often U.S. weapons; it launches raids across the border into Turkey. Recent raids killed twelve Turkish soldiers and captured another eight as hostages. The PKK revival is possible only because some among the Kurdish governing authorities turn a blind eye to its activities or, at worst, assist them. That is what the Turks believe and, unfortunately, some senior Iraqi Kurds lend credence to that suspicion. Recently the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, told the press: “The idea of PKK leaders being turned over to Turkey is a dream which will never come true. We will turn over not a single Kurd to Turkey, in fact, not even a Kurdish cat.”

Talabani went on to explain that Iraq simply lacked the power to drive out the PKK. But Turks are bound to interpret such remarks as evidence of sympathy for PKK terrorism — and to suspect that the PKK’s modern arms have been corruptly acquired through or from official Iraqi Kurdish channels. In other words the Turks see the current situation as similar to Syria’s sanctuary for Ocalan. (Americans might also see its similarity to Iran’s support for the terrorist “insurgency” in Iraq.) The Turks began discussing possible action as early as their recent elections — with the Turkish generals advocating military intervention and the moderate Islamist government counseling diplomacy and restraint. Unfortunately for Ankara, diplomacy achieved very little until recent days, when intervention began to look imminent.

The Turks continue debating a range of solutions, including cross-border attacks on the PKK camps and closing down the U.S. airbase at Incirlik (vital to America’s campaign in Iraq). Has this debate demonstrated a rising anti-American strain in Turkish opinion? That is undeniable. Alas, it is also understandable from a Turkish standpoint (and even from a relatively dispassionate American one). The mere fact of U.S. intervention in Iraq complicated Turkey’s Kurdish problem by creating a semi-independent Kurdish region from which anti-Turkish attacks are now launched. We have notably failed to get the Iraqi-Kurdish authorities to take action against the PKK or to restrain those attacks. Nor has the U.S. itself taken such military action. Indeed, we give military and diplomatic protection to the Kurdish regions and thus, in Turkish eyes, to the PKK. So some irritation with the U.S. is hardly mysterious.

Those strategists who denounce Turkey for failing to join the U.S. intervention in Iraq might notice that Ankara has nonetheless helped our effort by making Incirlik available. America’s interests in all this are fairly plain. First, we need to keep Turkey as an ally. It is almost the sole stable element in an unstable but strategically vital area. A U.S. airbase in Kurdish Iraq, however useful, would be no compensation for the loss of Turkey. Second, we need to maintain the Kurdish regions as stable, prosperous, and pro-American areas in an otherwise turbulent Iraq. Third, in order to achieve both aims (and larger strategic purposes), we need to keep the Incirlik base open for the U.S. Its closure would be a far larger blow to the U.S.

What these interests suggest is that the U.S. should support a limited Turkish incursion into the remote mountainous regions of northern Iraq to destroy the PKK bases and, if possible, to capture or kill PKK leaders. This holds some risks for the stability of Iraq — there are always risks in military action — but it is perhaps the least bad option for Washington. It is all but undeniable that Ankara has a good moral and even legal justification for intervention. The PKK bases are situated away from major population areas — so intervention there need not lead inexorably to wider conflict. If handled sensibly, a limited intervention might even advance regional stability. Ideally, the U.S. and Iraqi forces would join the Turkish army in a combined operation for this purpose. At the very least, the U.S. should lean strongly on the Iraqi authorities not to protest seriously any Turkish action and to expel as many new Ocalans (and their cats) as possible.

In return the U.S. should seek strong public assurances — from Turkey’s generals as well as its politicians — that Ankara has no objection to the existence of a semi-autonomous Kurdish entity provided it is part of a united Iraq and provided too that it refuses to allow its territory to be used as a terrorist haven. After a lamentable period of drift in U.S. diplomacy with Turkey, Washington now seems to be moving toward some such approach. But this must be the start of a wholly new Turkey policy — one that accommodates Turkish interests while frankly contesting anti-Americanism in Turkish opinion.


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