- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Of the problems that have beset the U.S.-Turkey relationship since the war in Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, one of the most intractable centers around Turkey’s fight against the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). U.S. policy in Iraq directly contradicts Turkish interests: The United States recognizes the threat that PKK terrorism poses to Turkey and thoroughly condemns the group, but has firmly opposed cross-border operations by the Turkish military against PKK facilities in Northern Iraq.

This continued estrangement could hardly come at a worse time. With the European Union accession process on the skids, Turkey’s Western anchors are allowing the country’s political alliance — and, indeed, its own identity — to shift dangerously into an unfriendly and Islamist Middle East.

Washington has so far been able to walk this delicate tightrope with a series of diplomatic initiatives. In an effort to show Turkey that the United States takes its PKK concerns seriously, the State Department in August created the position of special envoy for countering the PKK. The Turkish leadership, however, has expressed doubts about the actual effectiveness of the coordinated effort: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently criticized the lack of progress in confronting the PKK and said last week that “we expect concrete results more than abstract results.”

The concrete actions that Turkey wants — Ankara threatened military raids on PKK camps in Northern Iraq — are actions that the United States cannot take while working toward a unified and stable Iraq. While some observers have suggested that either U.S. forces or Kurdish authorities make a series of high-profile PKK arrests, the United States should be reticent to jeopardize Kurdish support by pushing for military operations.

Turkey’s immediate concern with stopping PKK terrorism is exceeded by its long-term concerns about the effect that a Kurdish separatist movement, fueled or at least emboldened by an autonomous or even semi-autonomous Kurdish state in Northern Iraq, will have on Turkey’s territorial integrity. Many in the large Kurdish population in Eastern Turkey feel that they lack compelling reasons to feel Turkish — the region is poorer and far less developed than Western Turkey. Since 2003, Turkey has worried that the Kurds would come to control the oil resources of Northern Iraq, which was reason enough for the Turkish parliament to vote against granting U.S. troops access to Iraq. This concern has intensified.

The elections in 2007 add a sense of urgency for Mr. Erdogan, who is widely expected to nominate himself for president, and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Much like the stalling EU accession process, increased PKK terrorism fuels Turkish nationalism and shifts votes to the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) at AKP’s expense. The challenge of holding these two irreconcilable diplomatic positions will be an even tougher test during Turkey’s election cycle.

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