U.S. alienating ally, Turkey, with our Iraq politics

July 22, 2010 

Turkey Kurds

Kurdish demonstrators in March show posters of jailed rebel leader Abdullah Ocalany. Kurdish rebels killed six Turkish soldiers and wounded 15 Tuesday at a military outpost near the Iraq border.

IBRAHIM USTA — AP

On July 4, Vice President Joe Biden made his 17th visit to Iraq since the U.S. invasion in March 2003. His main objective was to cajole the political parties, especially the Arab parties of Nuri al-Maliki and Ayad Allawi, to form a government because there has not been one in Iraq since the March 7 elections. The U.S. is eager to have a government in place as it draws down its troops.

But other challenges await in Iraq. The main one is Turkey's increasing unhappiness with Washington's refusal to take action against Turkey's Kurdish nationalist movement's guerrilla organization, the Kurdistan Workers Party, popularly known as the PKK, which launches terrorist attacks into Turkey from northern Iraq.

Turkey wants the U.S. to attack the PKK, or to have the Baghdad government or the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) take action.

An estimated 40,000 to 45,000 people have died in the civil war between Turks and Kurds in Turkey since 1984. In 2010, the PKK has accelerated its attacks, resulting in the death of 80 Turkish soldiers so far, more than in all of last year.

The funeral of each Turkish soldier is top news on nightly television, giving rise to a nationalist outpouring of curses and invective against the PKK and sometimes Kurds.

On July 5, as Biden was departing Iraq, Ilker Basbug, the commander of Turkey's armed forces, said it is "unacceptable" that the KRG, the Baghdad government and the U.S. occupation forces refuse to attack the PKK camps in Iraq.

Turkey reportedly offered KRG President Masoud Barzani these choices when he visited in June: The KRG takes unilateral armed action to destroy PKK bases in Iraq; or the KRG, Baghdad government and/or U.S. forces take joint action against the camps. Failing either of those, Turkey undertakes "unilateral armed action against the PKK in Iraq," including a substantial land invasion.

Turkey's top commanders say the U.S. — loathe to diminish the political and military power of the KRG or the Kurds in Iraq — would oppose a major Turkish incursion. But if the PKK attacks from Iraq into Turkey continue, Ankara may risk U.S. ire by launching an invasion into northern Iraq because Turkish nationalist outrage against the PKK and Kurds could hurt the ruling Justice and Development Part (JDP), led by Prime Minster Recep Tayyib Erdogan, in next year's national election.

Under the JDP, only the second one-party government since 1960, Turkey has achieved unprecedented economic growth, becoming the world's 16th strongest economy. But the JDP's inability to address the demands of the PKK and Kurdish nationalists in Turkey in general is causing strong opposition. Many analysts say the U.S. favors removing Erdogan because he's close to Iran and critical of Israel.

It is the relationship between U.S. policy in Iraq and the Kurdish nationalist movements in Turkey and Iraq that have so irritated the commanders of Turkey's armed forces as well as the JDP. Many say the major reason for U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq was to foster strong autonomy of Iraq's Kurdish region and, in propitious circumstances, to establish an independent state much like Israel was nurtured by the British from 1917 to 1948.

A prosperous Kurdish state in northern Iraq would in turn encourage the Kurds of Turkey, where 50 percent of Kurds worldwide live, Iran and Syria, to demand political autonomy and/or independence.

Such developments would weaken Turkey, Iran and Syria and allow the U.S. and Israel to continue their dominance of the Middle East and the region's oil and gas pipelines, and secure Israel's dominance of the entire the West Bank.

It is fear of such developments that has compelled Turkey to pursue a strategic foreign policy of zero problems with its Arab neighbors and Iran.

That fear also compelled Turkey to sponsor the Blue Marmara humanitarian aid vessel to compel Israel to raise its blockade of Gaza. Since Turkey cannot openly contest the U.S. because of the two countries' strategic alliances, it seeks to diminish the power of its closest ally in the Middle East.

On his 18th visit to Iraq, Biden would be well advised to make a stopover in Ankara.

Robert Olson of Lexington has authored several books on Middle East politics.

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