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Cook: Border Crisis between Turkey, Iraq Worsens U.S.-Turkey Ties

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
July 16, 2007

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A week away from crucial parliamentary elections in Turkey, relations between the United States and Turkey have been severely strained over Turkey’s concerns over the PKK separatist group given safe haven in the Kurdistan area of northern Iraq. CFR Fellow Steven A. Cook says a recent major poll shows that “in Turkey, a NATO country firmly allied with the United States over the last fifty years, only 9 percent of Turks have a favorable view of the United States.”

When we last talked about Turkey, you said the possibility of a Turkish cross-border intervention into northern Iraq was the most underreported crisis facing the United States. When I asked if it would blow up, you said it’s “already blown up” between Turkey and the United States. So what’s the situation on the border with northern Iraq right now?

It remains extremely dangerous for Turkish soldiers in particular. We don’t hear much about this in the media here but Turkish soldiers are killed every day on that border as a result of Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK] terrorist attacks on them. This has been a very dangerous spring and summer for the Turkish military, and it is rallying considerable political discontent within Turkey which is feeding into the upcoming elections. It’s further sparking massive Turkish discontent with the United States. The recent Pew Global Attitudes survey demonstrated that in Turkey, a NATO country firmly allied with the United States over the last fifty years, only 9 percent of Turks have a favorable view of the United States. I think the only two with lower ratings are the Palestinians and the Pakistanis.

You mentioned the elections. They take place next Sunday, and it’s a parliamentary election. Talk about why it’s being held right now.

The election was actually originally scheduled for November. The reason it was pushed up so quickly is the result of a constitutional crisis that occurred in late April and early May. Turkey’s president is elected and constitutionally mandated through the parliament. The Turkish Grand National Assembly, which is dominated by the ruling Justice and Development Party, which is often described as a party with Islamic roots, nominated Turkey’s current foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, to be the president. This was in direct contravention to the warnings of the army’s powerful general staff which had issued warnings about someone like Gul, someone with an Islamist past, becoming the president of the republic.

Was it concerning Gul himself, or his wife who wore a headscarf?

The fact that Gul’s wife wears hijab is symbolic of the Turkish secularist concern about what the intentions are of Gul and his party. Even though the Turkish president has many ceremonial tasks, one crucial function of the president is that he must sign legislation into law, and he may veto laws. The president is seen by the military and secular factions within Turkey as a firewall between changing the constitution, and from their perspective, ushering in a more Islamist Turkey.

There tends to be this idea that secularism equals democracy and is therefore good while Islamism equals authoritarianism and is therefore bad. Turkey shatters those clichés. The Islamist Justice and Development party has done more to get Turkey into the European Union than any previous Turkish government and that has meant deepening Turkey’s democratic practices. At the same time, there are many secularists who would support military intervention to get rid of the Justice and Development party because they fear the creeping Islamicization of Turkish politics.

So the election of Gul was prevented essentially by the military and the secular opponents?

Yes, exactly. The opposition party in the parliament, the Republican People’s Party, sought relief in the constitutional court, another bastion of secularism. There, they stated that the first two rounds of elections within the parliament were not valid because there weren’t enough deputies in the chamber for the quorum.

That’s because the secular parties boycotted the election?

Yes. So the first two rounds were declared null and void. The Justice and Development Party reconvened the parliament and passed a constitutional amendment calling for the direct election of the president. The current outgoing president has vetoed that legislation. It has been sent back to him and he has a choice: He can either sign it into law, or it can go to a national referendum. He has chosen not to sign it into law, so there will be a national referendum. So the stakes are really huge for this parliamentary election.

When will the referendum be held?

It won’t be held at the same time as Sunday’s parliamentary elections, but will be held sometime within the next month or two.

So before they choose a new president?

Before they choose the new president, they will have to have this referendum on how exactly to elect the president. This was a reason why the parliamentary election was brought up—there is a lot at stake in the parliamentary election itself. The most immediate issues are the question of Iraq, the question of the European Union, and a variety of domestic political reforms. In a broader sense, given this constitutional crisis in April and May, this election is crucial to a variety of issues including the relationship between religion and state in Turkey, Turkey’s future democratic political trajectory, the beginning of a national conversation about Turkey’s future, questions about Kamalism—the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk—instituted at the founding of the Republic eighty plus years ago, and questions about how those reforms relate to Turkey in the twenty-first century.

The political polls I’ve read point again to a majority win for Prime Minister Erdogan’s party, but not as big a majority as he had before.

The polls are all over the place on this. I’ve seen polls that give the Justice and Development Party, which is headed by Prime Minister Erdogan, 28 percent, which is about 6 percent less than what it received in November 2002, and as high as 42 percent. What we should expect is that Justice and Development will be returned as the largest party in the parliament. You will also continue to see the Republican People’s Party in opposition and very real potential for the Nationalist Party—which goes by the acronym MHP—entering as the third party.

If Justice and Development wins 40 percent of the vote, it’s clear they will become the leading party and will form a government. Let’s say it wins 28 percent of the vote though, and MHP, the nationalist party, and the Republican Peoples Party also do very well. It’s quite possible the current president of Turkey, who is opposed to the Justice and Development Party, will ask those two minor parties to form a blocking coalition. There is precedent for that in Turkey. But Justice and Development remains quite popular for an important reason: The Turkish economy has done extremely well since it came to power in 2002. The first quarter’s economic growth number for Turkey is 6.8 percent. For 2005, Turkey grew at 7.5 percent—in 2006, 7 percent.

This is a blistering economy and it comes after a series of economic crises in the late 1990s and early 2000s. People are looking at their pocketbooks and wanting to vote for the Justice and Development Party. In addition, this party has done more to deepen Turkey’s democratic practices than any previous government. Also, even though there are many who support what the military did in late April in pressuring this government—and the government has actually responded by trying to reduce the political tension with the military—there is precedent for a political backlash against what the military has done.

Let’s go back to Turkey’s relationship with the United States. Is the United States putting a lot of pressure on Turkey not to invade Kurdistan or are we putting no pressure on at all?

The United States has certainly brought pressure to bear on the Turks to try to keep them from going across the border. Secretary of State [Condoleezza] Rice has called Prime Minister Gul. Secretary of Defense [Robert M.] Gates has made statements that it would be “unhelpful” for Turkey to engage in hot pursuit or invade northern Iraq. There are actually two theories about what Turkish intentions are. Certainly in late June they did send forces across the border in hot pursuit of PKK terrorists who had killed seven Turkish soldiers, and the Turks are massing large numbers of troops on the border. Some see this as a precursor to a larger scale operation against the PKK. There’s certainly that danger should the United States withdraw completely from Iraq. There are no U.S. forces to speak of in Northern Iraq. But should the United States withdraw, there’s a greater likelihood that Turkey will take on the PKK.

The other theory is that the Turks are taking a page from their own playbook from 1998 when they sought to pressure Syria to cut the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, loose. He was hiding out in Damascus—Damascus is home to a lot of terrorist organizations. They massed large numbers of troops on the border with Syria and they said, “You either expel Abdullah Ocalan, or we’re not going to stop until we get to Damascus.” Ocalan was expelled from Syria and subsequently apprehended while hiding out in the Greek embassy in Kenya. This theory goes that the Turks are doing the same thing there by massing large numbers of forces on the border. They’re applying pressure on Baghdad and they’re applying pressure on Iraqi Kurdish leaders to do something about the PKK that would preclude a Turkish invasion.

Now the President of Iraq is also a leading Kurdish politician, Jalal Talabani. What does he say about all of this?

The Iraqi Kurdish leaders have periodically had good relations with the Turks and have committed themselves to a unified federal Iraq, which is what the Turks want. But at the same time, they’ve also stated they’re not going to do anything to reign in the PKK. That’s not necessarily because they share the same vision that the PKK does; it has more to do with the fact that they don’t want to destabilize northern Iraq. The Kurds have a long history of fighting each other. Should Massoud Barzani [president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region] and Jalal Talabani turn their forces on the PKK, they can expect to have a fight on their hands. The last thing they want to do is destabilize northern Iraq, and as a result they are reluctant to do either what Turkey wants them to do or the PKK. Because the United States recognizes these political constraints, we haven’t applied a lot of pressure on either Barzani or Talabani to do much about the PKK, which further undermines and erodes our relationship with the Turks. The Turks say, “Look, you control Iraq. You’re either with us or against us. The PKK is our al-Qaeda—help us battle this terrorist scourge.”

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