- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Statements in recent weeks from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan make it clear that Turkey is stepping up its fight against the terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), going so far as to threaten military operations into northern Iraq. The Bush administration has walked a fine diplomatic line with regard to Turkey and the PKK. While the United States has firmly declared the PKK a terrorist organization, the administration has opposed any cross-border military action by Turkey.

Domestic political pressure in Turkey and an election next spring have ratcheted up the pressure on Mr. Erdogan to take more assertive military action to counter the PKK threat. While U.S. officials try to encourage Turkey and Iraq to work together against the PKK, the truth is that this cooperation has not yielded results — measured either in terms of a drop in PKK terrorism or in arrests of PKK leadership — that Turkey finds satisfactory. U.S. support of Israel’s actions to defend itself against Hezbollah in Lebanon has brought sharp criticism of a double standard from the Turkish leadership, despite efforts by U.S. officials to make clear that Israel’s situation is different.

Since the removal of Saddam Hussein, PKK terrorism in Turkey has increased, and popular opinion in Turkey holds the latter occurred as direct result of the former. The United States is unpopular in Turkey, and the prominence of the PKK and its operations from Iraq are one major source of discontent.

Politically unacceptable in Turkey is the model of an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq — a model that Turkey is concerned that Washington quietly supports — as Turkey fears its own, larger Kurdish population would attempt to emulate that model. U.S. concern about the PKK is genuine, but the first priority for Washington is calming the current violence in Iraq; a Turkish invasion of northern Iraq is starkly inconsistent with that goal. Mr. Erdogan’s stronger rhetoric and the orders to prepare plans for an invasion may play well with Turks. But they further strain U.S.-Turkey relations.

A serious question is whether Turkey would mount a full-scale operation in northern Iraq without some form of agreement from Washington. That agreement cannot be granted. In addition to the destabilizing effect such an operation would have on the region, any Turkish military force that crosses the border risks confrontation with non-PKK Kurdish forces.

Walking the diplomatic tightrope between condemning PKK terrorism and opposing Turkish operations in Iraq may be the only option for the United States, but convincing Turkey of the U.S. commitment against its terrorist enemy is becoming more difficult as time passes without tangible results. Our government should find other ways, such as continued support throughout Turkey’s EU accession process, to show its deep appreciation for Turkey’s forbearance on this issue.

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