Washington's U-turns on the Kurds have come so fast that you might be forgiven for thinking the US is trapped in a set of revolving doors, writes Galal Nassar
November 8, 2007
It was the US administration that gave the main two Kurdish Parties -- The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani -- permission to harbour members of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). The latter established offices and training camps in northern Iraq in full view of the US occupation forces. Which raises these two questions: why did the US administration encourage dissident Kurds to spring to action? And why did it change its position when the Turkish government decided to go into Iraq?
The story begins with the end of World War I, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk created a European- style Turkish republic on the ruins of the Ottoman Caliphate. Many Turks consider Ataturk the founder of modern Turkey and a symbol of progress and reform. During his rule Ataturk absolutely refused the creation of a Kurdish entity in southeast Turkey.
Ataturk gave Western countries something they always wanted and had tried and failed to accomplish by force. In the first 15 years of his rule, he turned Turkey around, introducing a secular system, modern government and separating the mosque and state. He accorded women rights and introduced the Latin alphabet. These changes paved the way for closer links between the West and Turkey, especially after the end of WWII.
During the Cold War, Turkey came to be viewed as a major ally by the West, not least because it bordered the then Soviet Union, as well as oil-rich Iraq and Iran. It controls land routes to Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and China. It straddles the Dardanelles, the waterway connecting the Soviet Union to the world. And it has borders with Syria, the gateway to Palestine and the Arab peninsula.
Turkey was central to Western schemes concerning the Middle East. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Doctrine of the mid-1950s gave Turkey a major role, and it a major partner in the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) and the Baghdad Pact. Even during the Turkish-Greek conflict over Cyprus the US took a neutral stand, at least in public. For all the historical and cultural ties between Greece and the West the US wasn't about to risk Ankara's ire.
At one point Turkey forged close ties with Israel. This was particularly true under Turgut Ozal's government. In 1989, Ozal proposed to transfer water from Turkey to Israel. He didn't even consult with Syria and Iraq. Turkey built major reservoirs on the Euphrates, the largest of which was behind the Ataturk Dam. Ozal argued that Turkey was entitled to control water resources just as the Arabs control oil. When the Gulf war took place, following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Turkey sided with the Western coalition. Turkish sources suggest Ozal hoped to annex Mosul and Kirkuk during the course of the war and ordered Necip Torumtay, the army's chief of staff, to make plans to achieve this. Only strong opposition from both Torumtay, and prime minister Yildirim Akbulut, aborted the move.
When the PKK was formed, with a separatist, Marxist agenda, it was clear which side the US was going to take. Washington sided with Ankara, viewing PKK actions within an essentially Cold War context. The PKK was engaged in acts of terror and armed struggle against a US ally. It was seeking to form a Kurdish state in southeast Turkey, a move that had no international or regional backing. The CIA cooperated with the Turks, helping them arrest PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. Ocalan is now in a Turkish prison.
Things started to change with the rise of the Islamists in Turkey. As public opinion in Turkey started to show sympathy with the Palestinians and the Iraqis the Americans began to have second thoughts. By the time Necmettin Erbakan came to power the tide had already changed. Turkish demonstrators chanted slogans supporting the rock- throwing children of Palestine, and protests were staged against the US embargo of Iraq.
The 2003 occupation of Iraq was a watershed. The Turkish parliament voted against participation in the war. Protesters marched across Turkey denouncing the war. Turkish politicians took a dim view of the political arrangements the Americans were introducing across the border, especially the constitution and federalism. The Americans felt the need to retaliate. This was when they sanctioned PKK facilities in Irbil and Dahuk in northern Iraq.
Turkey made it clear that it would not tolerate the creation of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq, nor would it approve of the Kurds gaining control of Kirkuk. The Americans pretended not to listen. Meanwhile, popular displeasure with Washington's pro-Israeli policies has mounted steadily in Turkey. Sympathy with the Palestinians has taken many forms, most recently convening an international conference on Jerusalem that Turkish NGOs plan to hold in Ankara in mid-November 2007.
Tensions increased when the US Congress passed a non-binding decision calling for the partition of Iraq, something which observers saw as a way of putting Turkey in its place. Then came a bigger blow, with Congress condemning Turkey for genocide against the Armenians. All the above, coupled with the escalation of PKK operations, hardened the resolve of the Turks.
The Americans were seemingly too weighed down by other problems to dispute the decision by Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government to send troops into northern Iraq. Reacting to the Turkish decision, US officials merely stated that issues of security in northern Iraq were Kurdish, not US, responsibility. But does this wash? Has the US turned a blind eye to Kurdish separatists to punish an increasingly independent Turkey? And will Turkey now fall back in line?
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