- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2008


Last week, Turkey began its long-anticipated ground incursion into northern Iraq, mounting a deadly offensive against the Kurdish separatist terrorist organization PKK — and bringing with it concerns over possible clashes between the Kurdish peshmerga forces and Turkish troops. “As the cross-border operation only targets the terrorist organization, it’s expected that the [peshmerga] won’t use force against our units” the Turkish General Staff said in a written statement. Massoud Barzani, head of the Iraqi Kurdish region, said “if the clashes harmed any of the Kurdish citizens… Kurds are instructed and prepared to counterattack.” Although the United States supports Turkey’s fight against the PKK, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that “[t]his latest operation ought to be of the shortest duration possible… there really can’t be a destabilization of that region.” The Turkish military has said the operation will end when its mission is completed.

Yet in the midst of such concerns, there appears to be no tension between President Bush and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the operation. In 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon and began bombing West Beirut, a frustrated President Reagan telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and demanded that the shelling stop. Less than four hours after Mr. Reagan sent his initial message of “outrage” to the Israeli Cabinet, Mr. Begin called the U.S. president to let him know that a “complete cease-fire” had been ordered.

It was by and large expected since the Iraqi occupation started that Mr. Bush would react similarly to a cross-border operation into northern Iraq, and would call Ankara with a blunt order to cease. But in this case, Mr. Erdogan called Mr. Bush beforehand to brief him on the details of the operation. “[T]his is something that we were aware of in advance,” said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel. “The U.S. agrees with Turkey that the PKK is a terrorist organization, and it is an enemy of Turkey, Iraq and the United States.” Indeed, Mr. Erdogan’s meeting with Mr. Bush in early November had sealed a turning point as far as the fight against the PKK and cooperation with the United States were concerned.

In recent weeks, there have been a number of high-level visits between the Turkish and the U.S. militaries in Washington and Ankara. This week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will stop in Ankara on his way back from Asia. And if the northern Iraq operation goes as planned, Washington’s rhetoric will not change. The U.S. will be able to send the message that although it has not acted militarily against the PKK, it will not prevent a NATO ally country from defending itself. The United States and Turkey will remain united in the fight against terrorism.

It is, however, important to put this operation in context and understand where it fits within U.S. policy in the region. Yet that’s easier said than done, given the unknown variables about both Iraq’s future and Iran. It’s almost impossible to say for certain whether Iraq’s territorial boundaries will remain intact. Partition may not be favored, but it could be unavoidable. The Kurds, seeking independence, need the backing of regional powers — and Iran has undeniable influence over Iraqi affairs. One of the most important debates in the U.S. presidential race has been the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. It would be nearly impossible to sustain the current troop level over the long term. Yet Iran is right next door — with 70 million people.

The United States may not be losing the war, but it’s definitely not seen as winning the war — and all of the regional powers, including the Kurds, have begun making relations with one another a priority. That raises questions about Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s visit to Iraqi Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s upcoming visit to Baghdad. Mr. Talabani should certainly speak to all Iraqis, but the Iraqi Kurds have played their ethnic card to maximize their interests.

Iran cannot unite the Shi’ite part of Iraq — but it has already become a satellite, which is only natural. State Department envoy David Satterfield has said that the Iranians are trying to create as many partnerships in the region as possible. In this light, Kurds could go along with some Iranian demands to get their support for Kurdish independence if things fall apart. Now nearly all the regional powers are playing both sides, working with the United States and positioning themselves for alternative regional alliances as they watch how the future of Iraq plays out.

Therefore, Turkey’s land incursion into northern Iraq is not the issue; it’s about what it stands for. U.S. support for Turkey in this operation elevates that nation’s position in the region, tamping down questions about the capabilities of the Turkish Army — NATO’s second largest — in the region since the Iraq war began. It may also insure a safe exit through Turkey for possible withdrawal of the U.S. troops.

Separately, Turkey is one of the first countries to recognize Kosovo’s independence, basing its reasoning on Cyprus and historical ties to Kosovars. Yet anyone can use this precedent. If Kurds follow the same path, Turkey’s eager recognition of Kosovo could mean trouble for its argument against the Kurdish case.

Tulin Daloglu is a freelance writer.

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