Turkey & The Kurdish Conundrum

by Laura Snedeker

American and Turkish civilian leaders can talk all they want, but ultimately the Turkish military will decide how to deal with Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq.

The separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought for its own state since 1984, bases many of its soldiers in Iraqi Kurdistan, which the U.S. military has granted a great deal of autonomy since the invasion in 2003. Cross-border attacks prompted the Turkish parliament to authorize an incursion into the region to eliminate PKK bases, and only overwhelming global disapproval halted the opening of another front in the Iraq War.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to meet with President George W. Bush in early November to discuss a diplomatic solution that satisfies all parties involved. This attempt by the civilian leadership to regain some authority in the face of mounting pressure was overshadowed by the Turkish military’s announcement that it would not invade Iraq until a solution had been reached. These talks are merely a formality designed to lend legitimacy to whatever military-friendly solution the two parties reach.

The civilian leadership in Turkey has little choice but to appease the armed forces. As the traditional guardians of secularism, the military disapproved of the election of the Islamist president Abdullah Gul and vaguely warned about the possibility of a coup d’etat. The recent attack by the PKK that killed 17 Turkish soldiers further increased the demand for decisive action by the government. Attempts to prevent the military from retaliating leave the government vulnerable to accusations of weakness.

The Iraqi government similarly has little power to enforce any decision. Despite pressure on the Iraqi government to help put down the insurgency in the north, the U.S. knows that the Iraqi military is neither properly trained nor large enough to fight a second war. With Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadr threatening to lift the cease-fire credited with lowering the body count, it Iraqi military may soon be occupied elsewhere, fighting Shi'ite militias.

While Iraqi President Jalal Talibani has tried to use his authority as a Kurd to persuade the PKK to put down its weapons, it is unlikely that he would approve of an attack on Kurdistan that might further alienate Iraqi Kurds and renew calls for full autonomy.

Short of ordering airstrikes on PKK targets, which would endanger the Kurdish population and weaken support by pro-American Kurdish leaders, the U.S. has neither the power to stop the PKK from attacking Turkish targets nor the power to stop Turkey from invading northern Iraq. The civilian leaders in America must consider both Turkey’s role as a strategic ally in the Middle East and their commitment to stabilizing Iraq. The opening up of a second front would also be poorly received by the American public, which has not yet received a firm withdrawal date.

Whatever Bush and Erdogan decide will have little effect on the Turkish military’s decision. Washington may publicly push for a non-military solution while accepting the inevitability of an invasion from the north, but it must recognize that it has little control over the situation.

(The photo shows a PKK rally in London in 2003 by Francis Tyers obtained via Yotophoto using a GNU Free Documentation License.)

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Anonymous said...

They say history repeats itself and if you want to get some good historical foreshadowing, read "The Guns of August" by Barbara Tuchman.

Bush is trumpeting that World War III is coming unless everything goes exactly his way.

Putin is comparing Bush's plans for Eastern Europe to the Cuban missile crisis and at the same time, Putin is flush with money thanks to Bush's miscalculations and worse, Putin personally is keen to regain all the power Russia lost in the last two decades.

The Iranians are misreading every signal they get from both the East and the West.

And now Turkey is getting ready invade Iraq....

A good read of Tuchman makes it clear where we are heading

Rick Rockwell said...

I realize why the U.S. made Turkey a key ally long ago: as a flanking maneuver against the Soviet Union. But we reap what we sow in that regard.

Turkey is not much of an ally. Meanwhile, the U.S. runs diplomatic cover for a country that still has delusions of its old empire.

Ask yourself, why is Turkey so defensive about the condemnation of the Armenian genocide? The U.S. has given up so much in the way of moral responsibility over the years as a way to feed this dysfunctional alliance. The U.S. is overdue to condemn Turkey for its actions of long ago.

Once, I thought the U.S. was in favor of self-determination, but read enough history and you'll see our country backs self-determination only when it is convenient. The Kurds are overdue to have Kurdistan. But that piece doesn't fit conveniently into the over-arching view Washington has of the Middle East and Central Asia.

Also, the U.S. turned a blind eye to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus and the division of that country. Again, the alliance was at fault. When will the U.S. wake up to Turkish aggression?

Finally, although I oppose the Iraq War, just remember what sort of an ally Turkey was to the U.S. in 2003 when U.S. troops were not allowed to move through Turkey or use Turkish airspace. Maybe the Turks were trying to save us from ourselves and our own aggression. Nevertheless, that's not the friend you want in a firefight.

Anonymous said...

I can understand the Turkish viewpoint to the extent that it's hard to fanthom how the US congress can be spending time on trying to issue condemnations of the Armenian genocide. Don't we have more pressing issues to manage in our Congress during a time in which are political leaders got us into the war in Iraq by lying to us?

I would ask Americans who they might feel if the French parliament decided to issue a condemnation of the American Government's genocide of American Indians? Start to get the picture??

Rick Rockwell said...

Oh, I understand how that might feel and look. And I’d say it would be deserved. But of course, imperial powers don’t go around condemning each other especially when they have been allies for so long and both have questionable histories.

And as my parents often said, two wrongs don’t make a right.

In this case, there are three wrongs:

1) U.S. genocide against Native Americans.

2) Turkish genocide against Armenians.

3) The failure of the U.S. to condemn the Turks after World War I.

Again, given the imperial nature of the world, pre-World War II, that wasn’t likely to happen. But the form of the Turkish genocide against the Armenians established some 20th Century outlines for the Nazi genocides and others. The U.S. should have condemned the Turks in the 1970s when this movement had momentum. But of course, that didn’t happen due to the Cold War. The condemnation is overdue as is better work on behalf of the Kurds for self-determination.

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