The outcome of Turkey’s military operation against Kurdish separatist terrorist strongholds in Northern Iraq has yet to be realized. Military solutions are surely not the only way to eradicate a terrorist organization. On the other hand, no terrorist organization should have the right to represent the Kurdish people.
Iraqi Kurds have not only safeguarded the PKK terrorists, but they have also used the PKK as a proxy to intervene in Turkey’s domestic politics, suggesting that the PKK should be dealt with diplomatically. The United States seems to have accepted — and even sanctioned — this approach, causing a conflict in perception. Based on the U.S. reaction, it’s hard to know whether the State Department considers the PKK a terrorist organization or a representative of the Kurdish people.
Kurds take pride in being loyal allies to the United States in Iraq — especially after Turkey refused to allow the American army to invade Iraq via Turkish land. Yet the general perception among Kurds in the region has been that U.S. policy to support their dream of autonomous authority and an independent Kurdish state comes at the expense of Turkish sovereignty. In light of this, the refusal of Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Iraqi Kurdish region, to meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her surprise visit to Kirkuk last week speaks volumes. Mr. Barzani declined to meet as a protest against the Turkish operation into Northern Iraq. Pentagon officials say they are confident that Turkey targeted only PKK strongholds. “If there have been any civilian casualties, they were not intentionally targeted,” a Pentagon official told me.
It’s not an easy line for Washington to walk; Iraq is a sovereign nation as well. Yet it’s clear that Washington had advance notice of Ankara’s plans, and cleared Iraqi air space to prevent a friendly-fire incident between two NATO nations. Furthermore, U.S. officials insist that Washington will continue to share “actionable intelligence” with Ankara in its fight against PKK terrorism, “because Turkey acted responsibly,” a Pentagon official explained.
Put simply, in its fight against a terrorist organization, Ankara should not be overly excited to have Washington’s support — it is leading a global war on terror. Nor should Iraqi Kurds worry that America is selling them out. But it is a fact that since the first Gulf War in the 1990s, Turkey’s trust in U.S. policies regarding the Kurds has begun to wane. There has been constant suspicion that U.S. policies will lead to an independent Kurdistan. And although Turkey is a NATO ally, Turks have never had a clear sense of whether their country is regarded negatively in the United States. It’s just the contrary for the Kurds.
This is evidently a time for everyone to test their perceptions against reality. No one with common sense would argue that the president of the United States agreed to sacrifice American lives to create a semi- or fully independent Kurdistan. But Kurds feel they’re privileged partners of the United States.
Juan Cole, president of the Global Americana Institute, told me at a Middle East Institute event recently that Iraqi Kurdistan is the Taiwan of the Middle East. Kurds are a factor in the instability of the region, he observed, because of their relationships with both Turkey and Arabs. And to Mr. Cole, Kirkuk is the epicenter of an ongoing civil war. According to the Iraqi constitution, the Kirkuk referendum was supposed to have taken place by the end of this year. It has been postponed for six months, but nobody is sure what that extra time will mean for the future. Iraqi Kurdish leaders insist that they will not accept any circumstance in which Kirkuk is not part of their region — and as Mr. Cole points out, neither Sunnis nor Shi’ites in Iraq are willing to let Kirkuk be part of Iraqi Kurdistan.
It’s unclear what Washington thinks Kirkuk’s future should be. It’s also unclear what Turkey would do if Kirkuk becomes part of Iraqi Kurdistan. What is clear is that Iraqi Kurds need to realize that it’s in their best interest to cooperate with Ankara, and show they’re willing to build peaceful relationships and not be hijacked by a terrorist organization. The Kurds should give up on the idea of creating peace through violence.
Yet violence is the only way they can intervene in Turkey’s domestic affairs. Last week’s operation was a signal that the United States has heard Turkey’s message loud and clear. It was also a sign that the United States is troubled by the situation it is in — appearing to tolerate a terrorist organization and creating the perception of favoring the Iraqi Kurds.
Tulin Daloglu is a freelance writer.