Cook: Friction in U.S.-Turkey Relations over Iraqi Kurdistan

Steven A. Cook says relations between the United States and Turkey are strained due to conflicting interests in Iraqi Kurdistan. Washington does not want to upset the relative stability in northern Iraq, whereas Turkey seeks to remove the threat of Kurdish militants in the region.

August 31, 2006, 4:17 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Steven A. Cook, CFR fellow and expert on political reform in the Arab world, says relations between the United States and Turkey are strained due to conflicting interests in Iraqi Kurdistan. Washington does not want to upset the relative stability in northern Iraq, whereas Turkey seeks to remove the threat of Kurdish militants in the region.

"Many Turks blame the United States for their national security problems and the larger concern about the emergence of an independent Kurdish State," Cook, who co-authored a recent Council Special Report on U.S.-Turkey relations, says.

What are Turkey’s foreign policy interests in Iraq?

Its primary interest is maintaining the unity of Iraq because they are very concerned about the rise of Kurdish nationalism. If Iraq does slide into civil war, the Kurds will seek their independence. There is reason for the Turks to be concerned because although the Kurdish leadership has essentially to this point played it straight and sought a unified Iraq and sought to work within a federal Iraq, many Kurds want to be independent, and public opinion among the Kurds is certainly in the direction of independence. The practicalities of Kurdish independence for the Kurds are different. I mean, they certainly have oil resources in and around the city of Kirkuk, which is up for a referendum in 2007, but how are they going to get the oil out? They will get it out of the ground, but how do they get it out of there? If the country falls apart, it would be dangerous to send it south. And if they declare their independence, they will have to send it through Turkey. And [Turkey] won’t be too happy about an independent Kurdish state, to put it mildly.

I read there are business interests for Turks in northern Iraq?

Yes, there is quite a bit of Turkish investment. Turkish companies are involved in infrastructure development in northern Iraq. This can be seen as a positive sign. An unintended consequence of it is to bind a Kurdish semi-autonomous zone, whatever you want to call it, to the Turks so that there are compelling interests for the Kurds to cooperate with Turkey rather than the Turks taking precipitous military action to forestall the emergence of an independent Kurdistan. I don’t believe the emergence of an independent Kurdistan is in the interests of the United States because it will necessarily damage our relationship with Turkey, and the Turks will—without being totally disingenuous—blame the United States for that outcome. It certainly has negative national security interests for the United States. So the more that can be done that binds the Kurds and the Turks so they see their future together, working together, the better it is for everybody.

Does the Turkish business lobby hold any real influence?

There is a recognition that certain Turkish companies are benefiting from the situation. But the problem is you have an intersection of Kurdish nationalism, the situation in Iraq, and the increase in PKK [the Kurdistan Workers’ Party] violence recently that makes it very difficult for Turkish politicians to look at the situation in northern Iraq and Kurdish nationalism as anything but a threat to national security. Whether [or not] the Turkish business community is lobbying the government and saying, "Look, we are benefiting from this situation," that is not going to outweigh—particularly for the Turkish military—the very serious national security concerns the Turks have with regards to the situation in northern Iraq, regardless of whether [there is] Turkish oil infrastructure, development. All kinds of companies are in there doing business. The number one issue is national security. It is front and center in Turkish politics. Turkey is entering an election year in 2007, and this is going to be a major issue. PKK, Kurdish nationalism, the situation in Iraq—all in the front and center of Turkish politics.

The United States recently said it would send an envoy, General Joseph W. Ralston, to northern Iraq to address Turkey’s national security problem. Was that a wise move?

That has to do with the conflict with the PKK, which is a Marxist terrorist organization. The United States has been out in front of this issue. It has stood with Turkey on this issue about the PKK for a long time. The PKK and Turks fought a long and bloody battle between the 1980s and 1999. They killed upwards of 30,000 Turks. In 1999, after the capture of the PKK’s leader Abdullah Ocalan, they declared a five-year self-imposed cease-fire. That ceasefire expired in 2004. It just so happened to coincide with the U.S. occupation in Iraq. And the Turks say, "With American military forces in Iraq, we want you to do something about the PKK problem." The problem from the U.S. perspective is that northern Iraq remains relatively stable. We need the Kurds for our broader political project in Iraq, and it would be foolhardy from a military perspective for the United States to go after the PKK and destabilize the one region where people really aren’t shooting at Americans.

The envoy has been sent to try and work the issue of the PKK with Turkey, the United States, and the Kurdish parties in northern Iraq, which are different from the PKK. The Turks obviously are concerned that the KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party] and the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] provide refuge for the PKK from which to turn around and attack Turkey. And this issue is a very important and sensitive one for the Turks and the United States. The PKK, since it called off its unilateral cease-fire, has killed many people. Five bombs went off yesterday in Turkey, in Antalya as well as in Istanbul, killing tourists.

How has this affected U.S.-Turkey relations?

It has had a dramatic and negative affect on U.S.-Turkey relations. We understand the Turkish perspective on the situation and they understand the political constraints that we operate under in Iraq, but it has placed us at loggerheads with Turkey. Because we invaded Iraq and we control Iraq, many Turks blame the United States for their national security problems and the larger concern about the emergence of an independent Kurdish State.

Is Turkey upset we are not supportive of sending troops to northern Iraq?

That is precisely the problem between the United States and Turkey right now. The Turks would like the United States to take on the PKK directly militarily. If we are not going to do it, they would like us to supply them with "actionable intelligence" that they can take on the PKK directly, essentially giving them a green light to invade parts of northern Iraq to clean out the PKK. We are not in a position to do that right now. This is causing a significant amount of friction between the United States and Turkey. Even with the appointment of General Ralston as this representative, there has been some commentary in the Turkish press that the Turks are even uncomfortable with this because they see it as providing legitimacy to the Kurdish cause or as a de facto ambassador to a Kurdish state in the making. Those perspectives are not necessarily mainstream, but it gives you an idea of the very real, sensitive, and complex differences between the United States and Turkey on this issue.

Are there shared political interests between the Kurds in Turkey and the Kurds in northern Iraq?

Well, that is the concern of the Turks: that the emergence of an independent Kurdistan in Northern Iraq will both psychologically as well as materially provide support for Kurds inside southeastern Turkey to seek the same. The PKK, although it does not represent all Kurds in Turkey, reports to be a nationalist organization. So you can understand why the Turks are so concerned about the effects of the emergence of an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq, and what it would mean for their own country. It goes back historically to the post-World War I period when the Allies sought to carve up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, including the Anatolian Rectangle. They see a Kurdish state in Iraq as a potential prelude to the carving off of portions of the southeast of Turkey where the Kurdish population is concentrated. Let’s provide a little context. The largest Kurdish city is Istanbul. There are many, many Kurds who are integrated into the political life and the economic life of Turkey. That all being said, the southeast area—where the Kurds predominate—is massively underdeveloped. Up until recently, it was illegal for Kurds to be educated in their mother tongue. Even though it is legal now, it is very difficult for them to do that. You couldn’t have broadcasting on the Turkish state television and radio. That has changed, but by and large, the plight of the Kurdish community in Turkey is a difficult one. Although there are many Kurds that are willing to live in Turkey.

What about the Turkmen minority issue in northern Iraq?

The Turkmen minority is an issue directly related to the pronto status [referendum to decide the final status] of the city of Kirkuk. The Turks obviously have an abiding interest in this ethnic Turkmen minority in Iraq. They have also used the issue for political purposes. But it is primarily about the logic of Kurdish politics, Kirkuk, and the final disposition of that city and ultimately the final status of northern Iraq.

What about the Kurds in Iran?

Just looking at it regionally, the Turks, Iranians, and Syrians are greatly concerned about Kurdish nationalism because all three of those countries have large Kurdish populations. Turkey has the largest of the three, and the warming of relations between Turkey, Syria, and Iran is due in part to this common concern about the rise of Kurdish nationalism and what it might do to their own Kurdish ethnic minorities.

If Iraqi Kurds successfully gain autonomy, how do you think Turkey will respond?

It depends on what you mean by autonomy—autonomy within a federal, stable Iraq? I think they will look wearily upon it, but there is not probably much at this point they can or would do about it as long as there is no state called Kurdistan or the Independent State of Kurdistan. Those things are anathema to the Turks. If the Turks sought to break away, there [would be] a lot of saber rattling on the part of the Turks, saying they would forestall the emergence of an independent Kurdish state. They would take all kinds of basic diplomatic, political, and other actions on the table. Does that mean there is going to be a full-scale invasion? That may be a lot of saber rattling, but it is certainly a major concern for the United States—what Turks might do in the event of a Kurdish drive for independence. With the PKK violence they are already surging forces closer to the border. We will just have to see how the conference of domestic politics in Turkey, as well as the situation in Iraq, affects decision making in Ankara.

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