When Turkey refused to give the United States a northern front to invade Iraq, the U.S. accused its NATO ally of breaking faith. But NATO did not endorse the war in Iraq, and though it provides training to Iraqi security forces, it refrains from taking an active role on the ground.
Meanwhile, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited New York last week, he was asked about reasons for anti-Americanism in Turkey. “[W]e have found U.S.-made heavy artillery — such as tanks and cannons — in the PKK camps,” he said. Yet, there is no evidence that the PKK, Kurdish separatist terrorists, are attacking with tanks and cannons. But Mr. Erdogan’s claim forces to light the question of whether Turkey’s refusal to give the United States a northern front into Iraq and American inaction against the PKK are causing Turkey to re-evaluate its NATO membership.
Turks question whether the NATO alliance benefits their country. Last week, Gen. Ilker Basbug, the Turkish Land Forces commander, summarized the situation, saying, “The developments in Northern Iraq have given political, legal, military and psychological strength to Kurds living in the region as they have never had or experienced before. We must be careful about the developments in Northern Iraq, as they may give some of our citizens a feeling of belonging to this region.”
U.S. policies with regard to the Iraqi Kurdish leadership have created a greater threat to Turkey’s national security than the PKK — and Turks see U.S. inaction as tantamount to an endorsement of Kurdish nationalism.
In Washington in March, Ergin Saygun, the deputy chief of the Turkish General Staff, discussed Turkey’s disappointment in NATO: although the members — including all European Union countries — see the PKK as a terrorist organization, they fail to act against it. “[Y]ou may adopt resolutions against terror, but what matters is the practice,” Mr. Saygun said. When NATO Secretary-General Jaap Hoop Scheffer visited Ankara in June, he responded, “Allies don’t support the PKK, which NATO qualified as terrorist organization.”
On Sept. 28, Turkey and Iraq signed a security agreement to crack down on the PKK, but hot pursuit issue remained unresolved. The next day, close to the border in Sirnak, Turkey, PKK terrorists ambushed a minibus and killed 12 Turkish citizens. The PKK is responsible for killing and wounding over a thousand Turks since the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Turkey has traditionally been, along with Israel, the most loyal U.S. ally in the region. But compare U.S. support of Israel — a non-NATO member country — in the war against Hezbollah last year. U.S. officials refrained from criticizing Israel, whose military operation killed many Lebanese civilians, and Congress affirmed Israel’s right to self-defense when Hezbollah attacked it from Lebanon. But when Eric Edelman, the under-secretary of defense for policy, secretly briefed some members of Congress about “[p]lans for a covert operation of U.S. Special Forces helping the Turks neutralize the PKK,” someone leaked it to Robert Novak and prevented it from happening. Even further into the irony, while there is all opposition against a Turkish cross-border operation — with serious warnings of possible repercussions of the United States, the EU and NATO actions, the Independent, British paper, reported on Sept. 12 that “General Petraeus strongly implied that it would soon be necessary to obtain authorization to take action against Iran within its own borders, rather than just inside Iraq.”
Tuncer Kilinc, a retired general and a former secretary of the national security council, was a lone voice a few years ago when he said that Turkey should consider abandoning its efforts to secure EU membership and pursue alternative alliances with countries such as Russia and Iran — even if it meant losing its membership in NATO.
Today, this is an active debate. Turks are growing more disappointed in the United States over the PKK issue, and perceive the United States as supporting an independent Kurdistan. Furthermore, Armagan Kuloglu, a prominent retired general, recently offered some suggestions for Turkish leadership in dealing with the situation. “Turkey can deny transit rights to U.S. forces withdrawing from Iraq,” he said. “Turkey can take steps that will negatively affect Washington’s Iran policy. Turkey can withdraw its support of the U.S. within the context of NATO in Afghanistan. And Turkey can deny training rights to U.S. warplanes in Incirlik.”
It is one thing for Turkey to refuse to allow the United States to use its land to invade Iraq. But it is something else to deny it a path for withdrawal from Iraq. For now, it is not an option for Turkey to withdraw from NATO. The Turkish military is so intensely engaged with the alliance that leaving could paralyze it. Yet Turks are convinced that because their country has no viable alternative to the Euro-Atlanticalliance, there is no incentive for ally countries to make dealing with the PKK a priority. That negatively affects Turkey’s trust in the U.S. and increases anti-American sentiment.While the U.S. is fighting a global war on terror, the terrorist PKK has managed to poison U.S.-Turkey relations.
Tulin Daloglu is a freelance writer.