The Real World: The US-Turkey Kurdish Dilema

Date: 02-28-2008 | Category: Articles, Middle East

The Real World: The US-Turkey Kurdish Dilema


By Ariel Cohen

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in Ankara this week asking his Turkish counterparts to limit the scope and length of their operation against the Kurdish rebels in Iraq. U.S. decision makers are worried that continued violence in Iraqi Kurdistan could destabilize the region and spill over into the other Kurdish-populated areas of the Middle East.

Turkey’s leaders, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul and chief of staff of the Turkish military, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, have not committed to a withdrawal date. In the meantime, Operation Gunes, aimed at destroying the Kurdish Workers’ Party – the PKK, who are viewed by Ankara as a terrorist outfit – in northern Iraq, is continuing in difficult mountainous terrain and amid winter storms.

Gen. Buyukanit told the NTV and CNN-Turk television news stations that "short term is a relative notion. Sometimes it is a day, sometimes it is a year." This is not what Washington wants to hear. It is caught between the clashing ambitions of its allies.

Turkey has already killed 230 PKK fighters and lost 23 soldiers. The Turkish military has deployed over 10,000 troops against 3,000-4,000 PKK guerillas. The Turkish army has the advantage of air power, including fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, which can attack guerillas and transport troops, giving the Turkish military the edge in mobility, speed, and intelligence collection. The United States is contributing to the effort by sharing intelligence with Turkey, a NATO ally, on the location of PKK personnel.

Turkey certainly has a casus belli against the PKK. Launched in 1984, the Marxist-Leninist PKK has killed as many as 40,000 Turkish soldiers and civilians in attacks in Turkey and overseas.

Initially, the Soviet Union and Syria provided training and support to the PKK, including training camps in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. In what has shown itself to be the typical merger between terrorism and organized crime, the PKK became a quasi-criminal enterprise, pushing drugs and collecting "taxes" from Kurdish and Turkish workers and businessmen throughout Europe.

With the collapse of the USSR and the successful transnational hunt and capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999, which resulted in him releasing a statement calling for the cessation of violence, the PKK announced a "truce," only to break it in 2004.

The PKK has threatened to bomb pipelines in the region in the past, including the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and the northern Iraq pipeline which takes Iraqi oil to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. Kurdish guerillas were also accused of blowing up a gas pipeline from Iran to Turkey.

The United States is facing a number of vexing issues in the current round of Turkish-PKK hostilities. First, offensive operations against guerillas who know the terrain and have local support, can be difficult and prolonged. This rubs other U.S. allies, the central government of Iraq in Baghdad, and the Iraqi Kurds, the wrong way.

The Turkish operation has triggering protests from the autonomous Kurdish government in northern Iraq, including its two component parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). The PUK is led by Iraq’s current president, Jalal Talabani, while the KDP was founded by the legendary leader of the Kurdish independence movement, Mustafa Barazani in 1946.

The Iraqi government is understandably uneasy that a neighboring country is engaged in military operations on its territory. It tolerated air and cross-border artillery raids, but views the current cross-border ground operations with concern and resentment.

The Iraqi Kurds are the most pro-American sector of the Iraqi political spectrum, and the Kurdish soldiers of the Iraqi army, and Kurdish militia known as peshmerga, are the most reliable security forces in Iraq, with invaluable knowledge of the local terrain and people necessary for American forces to succeed in their fight against al-Qaida in Iraq and other radical organizations and terrorist groups.

The Kurds are involved in tortuous negotiations with the Iraqi Sunnis and the central government over the borders of the future Kurdish autonomous region, while preparing for a referendum on the future of Kirkuk. They are also haggling over control of the oilfields and future energy investment projects with the central government in Baghdad, and need the support of their Iraqi compatriots, as well as of the United States, in these undertakings.

Thus, the Turkish operation is putting the United States on the spot. Washington is leading the world in the war against terrorism, and justifiably views the PKK as an anti-American and anti-Turkish force. The PKK has also engaged in fratricidal violence against pro-American Kurdish organizations. However, Turkey’s motives and goals in northern Iraq are suspect by many in the Kurdish autonomy and beyond. Some Turkish politicians have unofficially expressed a desire to return the oilfields of Mosul and Kirkuk to Turkish domination.

From the Turkish point of view, it is important that Kurdish independence in Iraq not go beyond what already has been achieved. Ankara does not want the Kurds in Turkey to begin demanding their own autonomy – or even statehood.

Neighboring states Syria, Iraq, and Iran are on the same page – none of them want to see the autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan transform itself into the nucleus of a future Kurdish state.

The three countries, Turkey, Iran and Syria, value their territorial integrity and are willing to cooperate against Kurdish aspirations for sovereignty. This desire at times surpasses the imperatives of Turkey’s NATO membership and its close relationship with Washington. Since Turkey’s reluctant cooperation with the United States in the Iraq war in 2003 and the rise of anti-American sentiment in the Turkish population, ties with Washington are now often viewed with suspicion by many in Ankara.

Gates had his work carved out for him in Turkey and Iraq. Turkey could clear the air by announcing a limited scope of goals and objectives with regard to the current hostilities, and stick to them, preventing "mission creep."

It would also help if Turkey publicly renounced any ambitions to acquire parts of Iraqi soil, including the Kirkuk oilfields. Finally, Ankara could encourage already-thriving trans-border relations between the Turkish and Iraqi Kurds, a dynamic which would dampen the desire for outright Kurdish statehood and independence.

While fighting terrorism is the right and duty of any country, treading with caution when walking through a gunpowder warehouse with a burning candle in hand may be a good idea.


Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

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