On the night of December 16-17, Turkish F-16 warplanes, using U.S.-provided intelligence, bombed the headquarters of the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), deep inside northern Iraq, in the first large-scale cross-border offensive on the rebel hideouts (Today’s Zaman, December 17). Turkey’s military hailed the night raid as a full success (www.tsk.mil.tr, December 17).
The operation was the latest example of the growing cooperation between Turkey and Washington against what they have formally identified as their common enemy: the PKK. Army General Yasar Buyukanit, chief of the Turkish general staff, told Kanal D television December 17 that the precision strikes had been carried out based on “intelligence provided by the U.S.”
The Kurdish rebel group wasted no time accusing the United States of being the “real power behind the attack,” the pro-Kurdish Firat News Agency reported on December 17. The rebel group threatened to retaliate and hurt U.S. interests, it said.
The United States is hoping that sharing intelligence about PKK positions in northern Iraq and in southeastern Turkey will eventually repair the crisis of confidence between the allies that arose in March 2003, when the Turkish parliament rejected a request to permit U.S. forces to invade Iraq via Turkey. Months later, U.S. forces detained and interrogated a group of officers from the Turkish Special Forces in Iraq in what was seen as one of the worst diplomatic crises between Ankara and Washington (Hurriyet, October 3). Since 2003 Turkey has resentfully complained of insufficient U.S. support against the PKK, and the population has voiced a sharp anti-Americanism.
However, there are signs that the Cold War allies are rebuilding a somewhat diluted version of their former strategic partnership. But the 21st century reincarnation of the U.S.-Turkish alliance is based on a fragile bond: Turkish-Kurdish relations. The emerging U.S.-Turkish “re-partnership” consists of two pillars. First, Turkey and the United States actively cooperate against what they jointly tag as a terrorist organization, and, in return, Turkey will be at least “receptive” to the idea of a future alliance with Washington’s best allies in Iraq: Iraqi Kurds.
Now, Turkey is skillfully using valuable U.S. intelligence to inflict heavy blows on the PKK. And, if Ankara can match its military drive with bold economic and political reforms, it could possibly force the PKK to gradually withdraw from the battle zone. “The support to Turkey, especially of the U.S., is quite important,” columnist Orhan Kilercioglu wrote this week (Turkish Daily News, December 17). “It is also significant that Turkey should speed up economic, health, and education reforms while it benefits from the support itself.”
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent announcement of plans to expand an existing amnesty to more rebels could be interpreted as the first sign of a new government approach to a long-standing question. “What’s clear for now, however, is the fact that the Turkish government is not only using ‘carrots’ but as well ‘sticks’ in its latest drive to marginalize the separatist terrorist threat, if not totally wipe it out,” writes analyst Yusuf Kanli (Turkish Daily News, December 17)
A Turkish security official told Jamestown that the “fresh Turkish-U.S. understanding” would help cripple the military wing of the Kurdish struggle while supporting the political wing. “That, basically, is the deal. No more PKK, but a lot of Kurdish political movement and Turks and Iraqi Kurds shaking hands,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “We are witnessing the embryonic stages of that understanding.”
But the Turkish police arrested Nurettin Demirtas, leader of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), upon his return to Turkey from Europe. Officials said that Demirtas had provided fake health documents to evade military service (see EDM, December 18). The arrest is yet another judicial blow to a political party already accused of ties to the Kurdish rebels (Anatolia, December 17).
Ultimately, the United States prefers a political solution to the Kurdish problem and is urging Ankara to put aside its grave concerns about the local Kurdish administration in northern Iraq, which is Washington’s staunchest ally in Iraq. Turkey rejects any direct dialogue with the Iraqi Kurds, fearing that they are after an independent Kurdish state that could fuel Kurdish separatism in areas bordering Iraq.
A London-based Turkey specialist, who asked to remain anonymous, commented: “There is also the public diplomacy side of the emerging [U.S.-Turkish] understanding. Turkish public opinion is very negative, but it’s also very volatile. It has changed unfavorably in recent years, and the opposite may also happen.”
Many Turks are still highly suspicious of U.S. intentions in the region and of Washington’s pressure on Ankara to build friendly ties with the Iraqi Kurds, who often cause outrage in Turkey with hostile statements.
A recent survey indicated that 66% of Turks see the United States as the biggest threat to global security — the highest rate among respondents, according to a poll conducted in nine countries by Angus Reid Strategies (Turkish Daily News, December 12). Ironically, the survey revealed that only 1% of Turks consider Iran to be a global security threat, and just 4% see al-Qaeda as the global menace.
Ironically, Turkey’s classified documents detailing foreign threats put Iran somewhere on top of the list, but the United States is officially an “ally,” or a “strategic partner.”
“This is the time when the Americans and Turks sit down and think about ways they can make best use of the U.S.-sponsored offensive against the PKK, today or in the future, in reversing the anti-American sentiment in Turkey,” the London-based analyst said. “One tool can be public diplomacy.”