A Missed Moment In Iraq

By Henry J. Barkey, chair of the International Relations Department of Lehigh University and a member of the State Department's policy planning staff from 1998 to 2000 (THE WASHINGTON POST, 27/10/07):

The Bush administration has only itself to blame for the quandary it faces with Turkish forces poised to intervene in northern Iraq. The Turks want to retaliate against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), whose insurgents killed 12 Turkish soldiers Sunday. A massive retaliation would be a major misfortune for Turkey, Iraq and the United States.

First, it would undermine the stability of the only part of Iraq where the United States is welcome. Second, it could plunge Turkey into an Iraq quagmire of its own.

Sadly, this crisis was predictable and predicted. U.S. officials have long known that a Turkish incursion was just one terrorist event away. As tensions mounted, the administration had numerous opportunities to engage in preventive diplomacy. A combination of lack of imagination, incompetence and sheer lack of knowledge at the State Department has caused this impasse. To make matters worse, on Tuesday the department tried to shift the blame to the Iraqi Kurds, expressing unhappiness over their inaction.

Granted, tensions between Turks and Iraqi Kurds are not easy to manage. For the Turks the problem extends beyond the PKK. They are petrified that an independent Kurdistan will emerge from the chaos in Iraq and become a beacon for their own Kurdish minority. The PKK, which has waged an insurrection for more than 20 years, has been using northern Iraq as a haven, training ground and headquarters. Its bases along the Turkish border are mostly isolated and rudimentary. Its headquarters is perched high in the Qandil mountains, near the Iranian border and safe from Turkish artillery.

Turks blame the United States and Iraqi Kurds for their lackluster approach to the PKK's terrorist infrastructure in areas they control. Considering that Washington is engaged in a "war on terrorism," their complaint hits a nerve. The Kurdish question is not new to Turkey; Kurds, in search of cultural and political rights, have been in some form of rebellion or political agitation since the inception of the Turkish republic in the 1920s. The PKK and a legal political party are just the latest manifestations of this phenomenon.

Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is the party that has come closest to starting a process of reconciliation between Turks and Kurds. It faces two big hurdles. The first is its own military establishment, which is at odds with the mildly Islamic AKP and considers it anathema to its hard-line secularist principles. The civil-military discord has hampered Turkey's Iraq policy. The AKP government, having recently been rewarded at the polls for its successful governance, finds itself on the defensive on northern Iraq and the PKK, its Achilles' heel. Sensing its reluctance to intervene, the secular establishment has marshaled tremendous pressure on the AKP.

The other hurdle is the PKK itself. With its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in prison, the organization has become nothing more than a cult intent on using the passions of Turkey's Kurds to find a way of getting him released.

The irony is that both Iraqi Kurds and the AKP government directly or indirectly signaled the Bush administration that they were interested in a deal. I know that senior Iraqi Kurds have forwarded ideas to U.S. officials. The AKP, on the other hand, sought to test the waters first by sending its intelligence chief two years ago to talk to the Kurds -- something the government is loath to do officially -- and by organizing a private meeting this year between the Kurdish Regional Government's prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, and then-Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. The chief of the Turkish general staff, Yasar Buyukanit, who in a fiery speech warned the government not to talk to the KRG, scuttled Gul's meeting.

The Bush administration missed an opportunity when it failed to see and support the desire for such dialogue and use its good offices to construct a "grand bargain" between the Iraqi Kurds and Ankara. At minimum, such a bargain would have required the Iraqi Kurds to dislodge the PKK from Iraq and for the Turks to offer guarantees on trade and security to the Iraqi Kurds.

For the United States, this would have meant the consolidation of northern Iraq; paradoxically, a Kurdish north at peace with Turkey is the best antidote to separation from Iraq. In short, this would have been a winning situation for all.

The best the administration can hope for now is to persuade the Turks to engage in a limited cross-border military operation. That might contain public anger and assuage a vitriolic press.

The only other thing to hope for is bad weather. With the onset of winter and dwindling military activities, Washington will perhaps have the diplomatic window of opportunity it almost closed. Three years late, it will be much harder to succeed.