Tension rises in Turkey-U.S. ties

October 15, 2007 - 0:0

ISTANBUL/WASHINGTON (The Washington Post) -- U.S. officials began an intense lobbying effort Saturday to defuse Turkish threats to launch a cross-border military attack against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq and to limit access to critical air and land routes that have become a lifeline for U.S. troops in Iraq.

“The Turkish government and public are seriously weighing all of their options,” Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried said after meetings with Turkish officials in Ankara, the capital. “We need to focus with Turkey on our long-term mutual interests.”
But even as the U.S. official appealed for restraint, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking at a political rally in Istanbul on Saturday, urged the parliament to vote unanimously next week to “declare a mobilization” against Kurdish rebels and their “terrorist organization,” the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Fears of a new frontier of instability in the troubled Middle East sent oil prices soaring Friday to a record high of $84 a barrel. U.S. military officials predicted disastrous consequences if Turkey carries out a threat to strike northern Iraq, and they warned of serious repercussions for the safety of American troops if Turkey reduces supply lines in response to a congressional vote last week on the killing of Armenians nine decades ago.
The confluence of two seemingly unrelated events could not have come at a worse time. Thirteen soldiers killed last weekend in Turkey in the most deadly attack by Kurdish separatists in more than a decade had barely been buried when the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington approved a resolution labeling as genocide the mass killings of Armenians during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey does not deny the deaths but argues that they occurred as part of a war in which Turks were also killed.
“This is not only about a resolution,” said Egemen Bagis, a member of the Turkish parliament and a foreign policy adviser to Erdogan. “We’re fed up with the PKK -- it is a clear and present danger for us. This insult over the genocide claims is the last straw.”
Domestic politics in both countries -- the Armenian lobby that pushed for the genocide resolution in the U.S. Congress and growing pressure on the Turkish president to stop Kurdish rebel attacks -- collided to create an international crisis.
A recent poll conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a transatlantic public policy organization, found that Turkish attitudes toward the United States were becoming increasingly hostile. Using its 100-degree thermometer scale, the fund found that Turkish “warmth” toward the United States had plunged from 28 degrees in 2004 to 11 degrees in 2007.
“Each time we have a soldier killed, many people look at Washington and they believe that Americans are responsible for this because they prevent us from stopping the infiltration into Turkey,” said Onur Oymen, deputy chairman of the opposition Republican People’s Party.
Erdogan is feeling increased heat from his military, which is suspicious of his Islamic roots and acquiescence to Washington in taking no action against Kurdish rebels in Iraq. His public is angry over the genocide vote, frustrated with a European Union that is unwilling to admit Turkey to its club, and outraged that the United States has turned its back on what Turks consider their own fight against terrorism, a 23-year-long war with the Kurdish separatists.
“The Turkish newspapers are printing full front-page pictures of dead soldiers with Turkish flags,” said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The accusation is that this guy is soft on the Kurdish issue and does only what the U.S. wants him to do.”
That perception prompted Erdogan to issue a warning to Washington this week: “If you’re against (the rebels), make your attitude clear and do whatever is necessary. If you cannot do it, then let us do it.”
A major operation by Turkey “would start a war with the Iraqi Kurds,” said Henri Barkey, a former State Department official who now heads the International Relations Department at Lehigh University. “Northern Iraq is the only place that the U.S. has managed to achieve a modicum of stability and (it) is afraid that a major operation would unleash violence in the north.
“I’m sure the U.S. would say okay to a limited, one-time operation,” Barkey said. “But everyone knows a one-time operation is not going to solve the problem. The Turks want a carte blanche to do whatever they want to do. That’s the problem.”
Marc Grossman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and undersecretary of state for political affairs during President Bush’s first term, said there were three reasons the United States has been reluctant to take action in northern Iraq against the PKK: U.S. troops are already fully engaged, and the north is generally stable. Plus, he said, “there’s a lot of sympathy in some parts of our government for the Kurds and some residual disappointment for the Turkish government decision on March 1, 2003,” to forbid the United States to launch an assault in Iraq through Turkey.
The PKK problem had become so frustrating to both Turkey and the United States that the retired U.S. and Turkish generals appointed in 2006 to help resolve some of the tensions have left their jobs: The Turk was relieved of his position just before he planned to resign, and the American offered his resignation letter weeks ago, though it was accepted by the Bush administration only this week, according to U.S. and Turkish officials.
Bagis, the soft-spoken Turkish lawmaker and Erdogan adviser, has what for the moment might be one of the world’s least enviable positions -- chairman of the Turkey-USA Interparliamentary Friendship Caucus, a group of Turkish lawmakers who meet regularly with their counterparts in the U.S. Congress.
Bagis could not shake the frustration of the past several months. He and other Turkish officials, including Erdogan, have been warning the Americans for months that the situation on the Turkish-Iraqi border had deteriorated.
The PKK leadership operates freely in northern Iraq, they argued. The rebels have established camps and a safe haven, and the attacks in Turkey are becoming increasingly bold. Neither the United States nor the Iraqi government had taken any action to arrest PKK leaders or curb their activities.
Even though the U.S. government was the first foreign country to declare the PKK a terrorist organization, it appeared to many Turkish officials that the United States was setting a double standard in not allowing them to launch an attack against the rebels to protect their soldiers and citizens.
After the past two weeks’ spate of PKK attacks, which killed a total of 30 soldiers, police officers and civilians, Turkish authorities arrested suspected rebels who were carrying U.S. military-issue 9mm Glock semiautomatic pistols. U.S. officials said at the time that the weapons had been stolen.
Bagis’s response: “The good news, we have found your stolen weapons; the bad news, they’re killing us.”
He added, “And while all this is going on, all of a sudden this resolution comes along with this ally you consider as your most important strategic partner in the world, your strong NATO ally -- insulting you with something that is claimed to have happened back in 1915.
“It’s not like we’re saying, ‘Oh, it never happened,’ “ Bagis said. “We’re saying, ‘Let the historians judge it, not the politicians.’”.