- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 22, 2006

Kurdish unrest in Turkey, which has continued with bombings in Istanbul in recent weeks and almost daily clashes and rioting in the mountains, strains U.S.-Turkey relations at a time when Ankara’s support for U.S. policy in the Middle East and against Iran is crucial. Winning Turkish support to confront the Iran issue will be a challenging task, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tried to steer Turkey toward friendly relationships with all its Arab neighbors while continuing to pursue accession into the European Union. Losing Turkish support would be a difficult setback for the United States.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will travel to the region next week, where she will face the challenge of maintaining the delicate balance the United States has struck. Washington’s approach must include building a stronger alliance with Turkey, keeping the Iraqi Kurds involved in the governing process in Iraq and opposing acts of violence, which are mostly the work of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a radical Kurdish faction that both the United States and Europe recognize as a terrorist organization.

Washington should also be concerned that Turkey, a secular Muslim democracy and bridge between the Western and Muslim worlds, has seen fundamentalism rise and pro-American sentiment erode so much that the overwhelming majority of Turks now consider the United States as the biggest obstacle to peace.

Turks see Kurdish sovereignty in Iraq as a threat to the integrity of their state: They regard a fully autonomous Kurdish state in Iraq as a precursor to a stronger push for independence and more divisive civil strife among the Turkish Kurds. Playing on these concerns, the Iranian ambassador to Turkey asserted that “the U.S. will carve pieces from us for a Kurdish state.” The Turkish government is not alone in its distaste for the idea of a Kurdish state; Ayad Jamal al Din, a Shi’ite Iraqi legislator who represents the southern city of Nasiriya, told editors and reporters at The Washington Times earlier this month that many Iraqis also want a stronger central government and less Kurdish autonomy. Mr. Erdogan’s statements indicate he is on the right track, proposing to engage the Kurds as citizens and promising “more roads, more hospitals, more schools and places of work,” along with “more freedom, more democracy, more welfare, more rights and justice.”

Relations with Turkey soured as a result of that nation’s refusal in 2003 to allow U.S. troops to use Turkey’s territorial border with Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom — a decision that low point in the 50-year alliance between the United States and Turkey. The subsequent arrest of Turkish soldiers in Iraq by U.S. forces, which has been inaccurately interpreted in Turkish popular culture as a sign of American support for the Kurds over the Turks, did nothing to help rebuild the relationship. Today most of the PKK clashes with Turkish military occur in the Southeast mountain region, and reports abound of PKK guerillas operating out of camps in Northern Iraq and fighting with weapons supplied from Iraq.

Terrorism is a pressing issue for Mr. Erdogan and his government, and Washington should not let Ankara think that the United States restricts Turkey’s ability to fight the PKK. Such a conclusion would risk pushing Turkey closer to its Muslim neighbors, including Iran, at the expense of its Western ties.

The alliance has been on the mend, but the process hasn’t happened quickly enough. Polls show public opinion regarding the United States in Turkey is resoundingly negative, and Turkish opposition to American action against Iran is strong. When Miss Rice visits Turkey next week, ensuring that the pre-Iraq failure was not an indicator of how the alliance will function when tested should top the agenda. Clearly, this is a daunting challenge, and one that will require a Bismarckian level of diplomacy.

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