In the midst of the dangerous escalation in the Middle East, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have assured their Turkish counterparts that the United States will not allow the separatist Kurdish terrorists to infiltrate Turkey via northern Iraq. But last week, 15 members of the Turkish security force died in PKK attacks, bringing the total number of Turks killed or wounded by the PKK to nearly 2,000 since the group unilaterally ended its cease-fire in 2003. The ongoing violence has prompted Turks to favor a military operation led by Turkey to target PKK safe havens in northern Iraq. The question is whether or not it makes sense to carry out such an operation.
Most Turks believe that when the parliament refused to allow U.S. troops to cross into northern Iraq through Turkey, the parliament lost its ability to fight PKK terrorists in the region. It is, however, a peculiar assessment. The late president Turgut Ozal fully supported the first Gulf War and remains the only Turkish president to visit Camp David. But when he decided to take over Mosul and Kirkuk, Turkish Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Necip Torumtay resigned, followed quickly by the foreign minister and defense minister. After the first Gulf War ended, PKK took advantage of the power vacuum in northern Iraq to launch its most aggressive and bloody attacks. U.S. officials, however, say Mr. Ozal’s support sealed the deal for the future — when the United States handed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan over to Turkish authorities in 1999.
Concurrently, Turkey’s treatment of its Kurdish citizens hasn’t exactly been a hit in the United States. Former Illinois congressman John Porter, one of the most outspoken members of Congress on the issue, called Turkey’s behavior toward its Kurdish citizens “genocidal.” In a “60 Minutes” report in 1996, correspondent Ed Bradley asked Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John Kornblum, “How does the destruction of Kurdish villages in Turkey differ from the destruction of Kurdish villages across the border in Iraq, Saddam Hussein?” Mr. Kornblum, who helped shape policy, answered, “If you are in the village, there is no difference whatsoever.”
Such statements over the years created sympathy in the United States for the PKK and its “terrorist” activities. For example, on Jan. 26, 2004, a federal judge in California ruled that the State and Justice departments cannot prohibit groups from “providing expert advice and assistance to” the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — the PKK, which remains on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.
In the case of Ibrahim Parlak, a PKK member who killed Turkish soldiers, Wikipedia writes: “[H]e was taken into custody by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on July 29, 2004, based on his alleged past ties to the PKK. Parlak won his writ of habeas corpus and was released from prison on June 3, 2005, much to the delight of his hundreds of supporters in his hometown of Harbert, Mich. and elsewhere.” It would be naive to claim that Turkey’s refusal of a northern front is the cause of such examples. But, think of what the American reaction would be if Turkish courts ruled on behalf of al Qaeda and if Turks sympathized with al Qaeda tactics.
Today’s question is, however, what makes Hezbollah different than the PKK. On so many levels there is no difference. Both claim to fight against occupation. Although the U.N. resolutions state that Israel has not been an occupying force in Lebanon for the past six years, Hezbollah doesn’t see it that way. The PKK’s goal is to create a Kurdistan out of land taken from Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Iraqi Kurdistan is just a small part of what they claim as their homeland.Iraqi Kurdish leadership claims that they have no control over the PKK areas — just like the Lebanese government’s lack of control over Hezbollah. Alas, speaking to a German weekly, Die Zeit in 2002, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani said: “We respect the PKK. We don’t interfere in one another’s business; get along well.” Furthermore, while the international community is demanding Lebanon to disarm the militia, Kurdish peshmergas in Iraq — technically — are no different.
What is more puzzling is the U.S. insistence that Turkey should deal with the Iraqi-Kurdistan regional government on the PKK matter. In the U.S. federal system, if a foreign country claims to be victim of a “terrorist” attack originating in any part of the United States, Washington takes the responsibility. Therefore, the U.S. insistence on doing things the other way around in Turkey is equated as supporting an independent Kurdistan.
If there is any mistake, though, this week’s meeting between President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will be a golden opportunity for them both to send a strong message in the fight against PKK terrorism. After all, Turkey is the only country in the region that has imported terrorism from Iraq. And its patience is time well spent in clarifying the parts of the big picture going forward. Mr. Bush has said that every country has the right to defend itself. And it is never late to start doing so.
Tulin Daloglu is a freelance writer.