WASHINGTON (IPS) —- Spurred by the deployment of at least 100,000 troops along Turkey’s border with Iraq, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is pressing its closest clients in Iraqi Kurdistan to crack down hard against the Kurdish Turkish Workers’ Party (PKK), which Washington considers a terrorist organization.
Given the administration’s refusal so far to back up that pressure with the military muscle, however, it remains unclear whether its efforts will translate into action by local Kurdish authorities, or prevent a cross-border offensive that could throw into chaos the one Iraqi region that has enjoyed stability since the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Indications so far are that U.S. pressure is having only a limited impact. The PKK’s offer to observe a conditional ceasefire was dismissed both by Ankara and officials here who noted that such declarations had proved meaningless in the past.
And a declaration by the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that it will close down all PKK offices throughout Iraq was also considered toothless, since Iraqi troops at least nominally under al-Maliki’s control are not permitted to operate in Kurdistan where the Pesh Merga, the Kurdish militia forces, are charged with maintaining security.
“I understand there’s this commitment to shut down offices,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. “Okay, but what you need to see are actual outputs from inputs that the Iraqi government might make.”
“The outputs are that you need to stop terrorist attacks; there needs to be prevention of terrorist attacks, and you need to get to the root cause here, and that is to stop this terrorist organization from operating on Iraqi soil,” he added.
Most analysts here believe that neither Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan nor his military commanders are eager to send their forces into Iraq to deal with the estimated 3,000 PKK guerrillas who are thought to be based there and that diplomacy, which has intensified dramatically over the last several days, has at least several more days to play itself out.
Indeed, senior Turkish officials themselves have stressed that they prefer diplomatic, and, if that doesn’t work, economic pressure to persuade Iraqi and regional authorities to move against the PKK. Kurdistan is landlocked, and its economy is heavily dependent on open borders with Turkey, as well as Iran and Syria, both of which, with large and restive Kurdish populations of their own, have expressed solidarity with Ankara in recent days.
But any major new attack by Iraq-based PKK guerrillas, who killed 12 Turkish soldiers and claimed to have taken prisoner eight more over the weekend, will likely force Erdogan to order his military to cross the border — initially with air strikes and commandos, according to analysts here — as authorized by the Turkish parliament late last week.
“If there is another event, Erdogan and the military, despite their reluctance to be drawn reflexively across that border, will probably have to do something, and the options aren’t particularly good,” according to a former U.S. ambassador to Ankara, Mark Parris.
“I have no doubt that (U.S. Amb. to Iraq) Ryan Crocker, (U.S. Iraq commander Gen. David) Petraeus, and people here are pounding on the Iraqi leadership to get this under control,” Parris added in a teleconference on the crisis sponsored by the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
At the same time, however, the administration finds its influence over the key parties at a particularly low ebb.
Anti-U.S. sentiment in an increasingly democratic Turkey is at an all-time high, not least because of Washington’s refusal to date to seriously address Ankara’s concerns about the PKK, a refusal that has fed the perception that the U.S. has a secret agenda to break up Iraq and create an independent Kurdistan that will naturally act as an inspiration for Kurds in Turkey to seek independence.
“We have just not answered the mail on this,” according to Ian Lesser, an expert at the German Marshall Fund and author of a new book on U.S.-Turkey relations, significantly entitled “Beyond Suspicion.”
“We’re seeing the result of letting this issue lie for so long,” according to Stephen Cook, a Turkey expert at CFR, who noted that the special U.S. envoy appointed by Bush last year to deal with Turkey’s concerns resigned recently, reportedly out of frustration at the administration’s neglect. “The Turks have very little trust in our ability to do anything on this issue.”
At the same time, Ankara enjoys considerable leverage over the U.S. both as a key NATO partner that contributes 1,000 troops to the alliance’s forces in Afghanistan and as the host of Incirlik air base, a major logistical hub for U.S. forces in Iraq.
Hints by Turkish officials that Ankara would restrict access to the base after a key congressional committee approved a non-binding resolution on the “genocide” of up to 1.5 million Armenians in the last days of the Ottoman Empire spurred an all-out lobbying effort by the administration and the Pentagon, in particular, to persuade lawmakers to drop the matter.
Washington similarly finds its leverage over the Iraqi Kurds limited, not least because it has all but ruled out deploying already-stretched U.S. troops from central and southern Iraq to the north’s mountain redoubts where the PKK guerrillas are based, and because the PKK is believed to have strong popular support in Kurdistan.
“U.S. action against the PKK could be as destabilizing as a Turkish incursion,” according to Parris, who also noted that U.S. strategy for building an Iraqi army capable of assuming much of the security burden that has been shouldered by U.S. troops has come to depend mainly on the supply of Pesh Merga recruits by the Kurdistan authorities, notably the province’s governor, Mustafa Barzani.
“We are hamstrung by our relationship with Barzani,” said Cook.
Barzani, in turn, may be seeking to exact a high price for cracking down on the PKK; namely, the holding of a referendum in oil-rich Kirkuk on its absorption by Kurdistan, a step that the Turks have long warned against and one that could provoke invite a broader military intervention.
On this issue, U.S. diplomacy until now has been somewhat more activist than on the PKK. It has successfully delayed the holding of such a referendum, which was mandated to take place this year by the 2005 constitution until at least next year. Washington is concerned that the referendum could spark major ethnic violence in the region, as well as intervention by Turkey.