Turkey’s Iraq Problem

By Lenore G. Martin, a professor of political science at Emmanuel College in Boston and an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard. She is co-editor of «The Future of Turkish Foreign Policy.» (THE WASHINGTON POST, 16/09/06):

Although the world is paying more attention to Hezbollah and the Iraq insurgency, there’s another guerrilla group that poses a severe threat to the stability of the Middle East.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), operating from havens in northern Iraq, has been attacking Turkish security forces in southeastern Anatolia and occasionally civilians elsewhere. Turkey is determined to prevent a repetition of the 1984-99 guerrilla war with the separatist PKK, in which it suffered more than 30,000 deaths. It has mobilized a large force on its Iraqi border and is threatening to invade northern Iraq.

A Turkish invasion would create chaos in that part of Iraq and potentially destabilize the region. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s response — moving to reinvigorate a tripartite commission made up of the governments of Turkey, Iraq and the United States — is insufficient. The United States needs to take much firmer action to stop the PKK guerrilla war from undermining its Middle East policy.

In the previous guerrilla war, the PKK operated from Iran, northern Iraq and Syria. Syria also gave sanctuary to Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader. Saddam Hussein and then the British and the Americans, under their no-fly zone, permitted Turkey to attack the PKK in northern Iraq. After Turkish troops massed on the Syrian border, the late Syrian leader, Hafez al-Assad, expelled Ocalan, who was eventually captured and imprisoned in Turkey.

The PKK then declared a cease-fire but renounced it in 2004. During the current Iraq war, the United States has prevented Turkish forces from crossing into Iraq, contributing to Turkey’s frustration and the current crisis.

If the United States does not oppose a Turkish invasion it will face a more chaotic situation in Iraq and the loss of a long-term relationship with the Iraqi Kurds, who are Washington’s best hope for obtaining rights for U.S. bases in the future. If Washington opposes the invasion, it risks further estrangement from Turkey, a state positioned to play a critical strategic role in a region where Iran increasingly challenges the United States for dominance.

Turkey fears Kurdish irredentism coming from an independent Kurdistan. The Iraqi Kurds perceive a Turkish invasion as aimed at controlling oil-rich Kirkuk, thereby denying the Iraqi Kurds an economic base for their independence. Furthermore, Turkish intervention in Iraq would create a terrible precedent for Syrian and Iranian intervention in the Iraqi civil war.

What should the United States, Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds do to avert this crisis?

Difficult as it may be for the Iraqi Kurdish leaders, they must be willing to deny the PKK havens in northern Iraq and prevent PKK leadership from traveling freely throughout the country.

The Turks, for their part, must more assertively address the cultural, political and economic demands of the Kurds in southeast Anatolia, an area suffering from high unemployment and in need of economic development. To its credit, Turkey has already begun the process of increasing Kurdish cultural rights. Encouraged by its European Union accession negotiations, Turkey has passed laws giving Kurds the right to speak and publish in Kurdish and, to a more limited extent, to broadcast and teach Kurdish.

Recognizing minority rights has been a difficult accommodation for a state that is proud of the integration of its Kurds and their full participation in every aspect of society, including parliament and the cabinet. The Turkish state generally views all of its citizens simply as Turks and believes that recognition of ethnic differences would threaten the cohesion of its political life. On the other hand, by increasing Kurdish cultural rights, Turkey will give greater voice in government to its Kurds and dilute the appeal of the separatism advocated by the PKK.

For its part, the United States needs to avert a Turkish invasion of Iraq. It must throw its full weight behind efforts to eject the PKK from northern Iraq. Furthermore the United States needs to pressure Europe more energetically to block the transfer of funds to the PKK, which it has classified as a terrorist organization. It cannot rely on a tripartite commission to stop the next guerrilla war in the Middle East.