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Cook: Turkish-U.S. Tensions ‘Great Underreported Story of Iraq War’

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 29, 2007

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Steven A. Cook, a CFR expert on Turkey, says “the great underreported story” of the Iraq war is the serious deterioration in U.S.-Turkish relations. The relations have “already blown up,” says Cook. He says the problem is Turkey’s fear of a resurgent PKK terrorist group in neighboring north Iraq, and the failure of either the United States or the Kurdish autonomous government to do anything to thwart it.

Right now there’s a sort of quasi-independent Kurdistan which has made the Turks very nervous because of the anti-Turkish PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan) forces in parts of Kurdistan. And the United States, which is an ally of Turkey, really doesn’t seem to want to do much even though the PKK is on the U.S terrorist list. Does this have the potential for blowup in Turkish-U.S. relations?

It is the great underreported story of the Iraq war. Not only does it have the “potential” for a blowup in U.S.-Turkey relations, it has already blown up. The relationship has been adversely affected since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq because of the Turkish fear of matters that go beyond the PKK issue. The PKK is certainly of great concern to Turkey because it is a terrorist organization that between 1984 and 1999 waged a campaign against Turkey; then it had a unilateral cease-fire until 2004, and is again engaged in violence against Turkey, Turkish soldiers, and Turkish interests. The broader issue for the Turks is that should the U.S.-backed Kurds in northern Iraq establish independence, the Turks are concerned that this would have an impact on their own large Kurdish population along the southeastern part of the country who would seek their own independence and ultimately dismember Turkey by establishing their own independent state. This has driven a wedge between the United States and Turkey, who have been close allies since the end of World War Two.

Of course, at the beginning of the war in Iraq, a major blow to the United States was the failure of the Turkish parliament to approve this dispatch of U.S. troops from Turkey into northern Iraq. Does that still have reverberations?

Before the vote, what we thought might happen was a fundamental misreading of what was going on in Turkey at that time. First, you had a population that is nationalist by nature, and who are from a very young age reminded of the time after World War I when foreign troops entered the country to dismember it, not that there’s widespread belief that the United States would do that, but there is a certain kind of sensitivity about the presence of foreign troops.

The second thing is that the people who we generally thought we could count on in Turkey, that is the Turkish military, thought that Operation Iraqi Freedom was a bad idea. Not that they were in love with Saddam Hussein, but he was not a major problem for them. Essentially, Saddam kept the country stable, and from the Turkish military perspective, a stable Iraq was much better than what occurred. To the Turkish military, an independent Kurdistan coming into being was far less of a likelihood under Saddam than in a chaotic Iraq that might emerge after a war.

And the third factor was that this was a very new government in Turkey and it was unclear whether it would be able to deliver enough votes, and from what I know talking to Turkish parliamentarians at the time, the United States didn’t have enough answers for the questions that they were asking, which was, “how long are your troops going to stay?” and “what’s your plan for post-hostilities Iraq?” And because this was a new government, many of the parliamentarians weren’t sold only on the assurances on Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and Foreign Minister [Abdullah] Gul. We basically misread the domestic situation.

Since then, what’s the state of U.S.-Turkish relations? We still use their air bases all the time, don’t we?

Right. We do have access to Incirlik Air Base, which is a NATO base that’s relatively close to Iraqand there is a significant amount of flights over Turkey and refueling in Turkey and logistic support through Turkey with Turkish truck drivers essentially trucking in supplies that U.S. forces need. So that’s all been very good, and there has been good cooperation, but on the broader political level, everything that the Turks said that they feared would happen, and that would negatively affect their security, has in fact happened in Iraq. And their concerns are, as we started out talking about, the PKK and Kurdish nationalism. And they want the United States to do certain things, particularly toward the PKK. They want the United States to either directly engage the PKK militarily, or they want the United States to give Turkey useful intelligence so the Turks can go after the PKK themselves. The United States is not willing to do either of those things.

Does the U.S. even know much about the PKK, you think?

Well, I think we know a lot about the PKK. We were the first of Turkey’s major allies to declare the PKK to be a terrorist organization. It’s not a question of not knowing enough about the PKK. It’s not a question of not thinking that the PKK is a terrorist organization. It’s a question of not wanting to upset the apple cart in northern Iraq.

What do our main Kurdish allies say, in particular Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq, and Massoud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdish government, say or do about the PKK?

Talabani and Barzani have, as you said, loose relations. In fact, their two parties fought each other during the 1990s, but for the time being, they have come to some sort of accommodation. And in fact, they have fairly decent relations with the Turks. Although the Turks have been very unhappy with Barzani because they believe that he’s essentially sheltering the PKK. From the Iraqi Kurdish leadership perspective, if they were to take on the PKK or the United States were to take on the PKK, it would destabilize northern Iraq. And this is a problem that they don’t want to have. From the U.S. perspective, we have enough people shooting at us, we don’t need a new group of people shooting at us. And from Barzani’s perspective, in particular, the PKK can disrupt the relatively peaceful, relatively stable northern Iraq and the kind of proto-state that the Kurds are building in northern Iraq. This is not a problem that he wants to invite on himself.

Now the PKK, everyone says, is in the mountains on the border area. Does the Barzani government have a presence there too?

Well, the peshmerga [the Kurdish government militia] is a large and relatively sophisticated fighting force. And they’re not just in the mountains; they're located in camps in northern Iraq. But as I said, it’s not in the interest of Barzani to directly take on the PKK, because it would destabilize the situation there.

You mean they’re afraid the PKK would then start fighting the peshmerga?

Yes. The Kurds have a long history of fighting each other. So if the KDP, the Kurdistan Democrat Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the two major Kurdish parties in northern Iraq, have spent many years fighting each other, what’s to prevent the PKK from taking them on?

Now the big issue coming up, I guess, for the Kurds in northern Iraq is Kirkuk. Talk about that for a minute.

There’s going to be a referendum on the disposition of Kirkuk [eds: near the end of 2007]. Will it be placed within the Kurdistan regional government, or will it be in another area of Iraq, the central provinces of Iraq. And the city’s been described alternatively as either a microcosm of all of Iraq, or the Jerusalem of Iraq. The demographics of the city are Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen, Sunnis, and there’re Shiites. What happened in the late 1980s, Saddam Hussein engaged in what was known notoriously as the Anfal campaign, in which he tried to drive the Kurds from Kirkuk and its environs and replace them with Arabs. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Kurds have been trying to reverse that demographic change by surging Kurds back into the city. What the Turks are worried about is that Kirkuk would come under the control of the Kurdistan regional government and its oil wealth will be used to build an independent Kurdish state. Not to build palaces, but to buy guns and fight for Kurdish independence. I should add that this referendum is enshrined in the Iraqi constitution and the Turks have been lobbying for a delay in that referendum.

Any chance of a delay?

Well there’s been no talk of it. The last real public discussion of it came after the ISG [Iraq Study Group] report last year, which said that in fact that this referendum on the disposition of Kirkuk should, in fact, be delayed.

Why did the ISG want the delay?

Well, because it’s a flashpoint for the Turks and the Kurds and it could result in either violence or further problems in U.S.-Turkish relations.

In other words, the Turks concern is not to protect the very small Turkmen group there, right?

Well, they certainly talk about protecting the Turkmen minority and it is clear that Kirkuk was historically culturally a Turkish city.

It was?

It wasn’t that it was a city that was populated by Turks or Turkmen overwhelmingly, but that there is a cultural connection between Kirkuk and Turkey. That being said, the majority of the population there is Kurdish, and while the Turks had made a big deal about the Turkmen minority there, they have broader strategic interests in preventing Kirkuk from becoming part of the Kurdistan regional government.

Clearly the Bush administration is not eager to make this into a big story. What is the U.S. interest in this?

Well, we have a number of competing interests. The Kurds have been the group in Iraq that has been most helpful to the United States. They welcomed the invasion. Northern Iraq has been generally stable, and so this has been less of a problem, and the Kurds have made themselves as cooperative as they possibly can. Then you have, on the other side, the Turks. Turkey has been a long time strategic ally that even though it was less cooperative in Operation Iraqi Freedom than the United States would have liked, the United States has to balance maintaining a relationship with Turkey, which is a very important country in the Middle East, in Central Asia, in Europe, in Southeast Europe, in the Caucasus, and its immediate allies in northern Iraq, the Kurds. And this has been a very difficult balancing problem for the United States.

We sent a special envoy there?

Last August, the Bush administration appointed retired Air Force General Joseph Ralston, former head of NATO forces in Europe, as “the Special Coordinator for Countering the PKK.” His job was to coordinate with the Turks and the Iraqis on exactly as his title says, countering PKK violence. Initially, there was a question about what Turkish expectations were as opposed to what American expectations were. But actually, this has been somewhat of a bright spot. Ralston has been diligent and has been able to bring Turks and Iraqis together to talk about this issue in a productive kind of way, and he seemed to have been able to build some trust between theUnited Statesand the Turkish government on this issue of the PKK. Now, of course, it’s just the end of March. We still have some weeks left of snows in the mountains in southeastern Turkey. We’ll see what happens when those snows melt and the PKK tends to ramp up its activities again.

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