Winning Back the Turks


Nov 14, 2006

This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on November 14, 2006.

Once considered one of America's closest allies, Turkey today is engulfed by growing anti-Americanism. A recent survey by the German Marshall Fund found that only 7 percent of Turks polled approved of U.S. policies, while 81 percent disapproved. The poll found that 56 percent of the respondents thought that U.S. leadership was "very undesirable."

The main cause of the current rift dividing Turkey and the United States is the war in Iraq.

The Turks opposed the war - not out of any love for Saddam Hussein, but because they feared it would lead to greater sectarian violence and strengthen Kurdish nationalism. Over the last three years, Turkey's worst fears have come true.

America's invasion of Iraq seriously exacerbated Turkey's Kurdish problem and gave new impetus to the separatist struggle waged by the Kurdistan Workers Party, known by its Turkish initials of PKK.

Since January, more than 91 Turkish security officials have been killed in PKK attacks believed to originate from training camps in northern Iraq. Many Turks blame the United States for the increase in PKK violence, since northern Iraq is under U.S. control.

The government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly called upon the United States to take military action to eliminate PKK training camps in Iraq.

But while the United States has given verbal support to Turkey's struggle against the PKK, America has been reluctant to take any concrete action at a time when U.S. forces in Iraq are stretched thin.

Moreover, the United States has not wanted to irritate the Kurds in northern Iraq, whose support is needed to keep Iraq together.

This has given the impression to many Turks that the United States was siding with the Kurds on a security issue of paramount importance to Turkey, leading to increasing strains in relations between Ankara and Washington.

Frustrated by the lack of action and results, the Turkish government has threatened to take unilateral military action to destroy the PKK camps in northern Iraq.

The United States, however, strongly opposes any Turkish attacks in Iraq, fearing this could destabilize Kurdish areas of northern Iraq that are relatively tranquil.

In an effort to reduce Turkish anxiety, the Bush administration recently appointed a special envoy responsible for coordinating the U.S. response to the PKK. The appointment of retired General Joseph W. Ralston, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, is a welcome sign that the Bush administration is finally beginning to take Turkish concerns seriously.

However, to stem the tide of rising anti-Americanism in Turkey, Ralston's appointment needs to be followed up by further concrete actions by the United States to underscore American seriousness and resolve to end the PKK threat. Specifically, the United States should:

Arrest and turn over to the Turkish government the key leaders of the PKK, many of whom currently roam freely in northern Iraq.

Restrict PKK movements in northern Iraq by cutting the PKK's logistic lines.

Put the city of Kirkuk, which sits astride one of the world's largest oil deposits, under Iraqi rather than Kurdish administration.

This would help defuse Turkish fears that the recent massive return of Kurdish refugees expelled under Saddam Hussein will lead to the "Kurdization" of Kirkuk and an attempt by the Kurds to gain access to Kirkuk's oil wealth. If the Kurds succeed in that effort, they could use oil money to finance the establishment of an independent Kurdish state on Turkey's southern border.

Taken together, these actions would provide tangible proof that the United States is serious about helping Turkey eliminate the PKK terrorist threat, and would give concrete content to recent efforts to develop a serious strategic partnership with Turkey.

Failure to take these actions, on the other hand, is likely to lead to a further deterioration of U.S.-Turkish relations and an increasing estrangement of Turkey from the West.

F. Stephen Larrabee holds the corporate chair in European security at the Rand Corporation.

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