Recent statements by U.S. military officials have revived Turkish suspicions about Washington’s true intentions toward the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging a nearly 24 year-old insurgency for greater rights for Turkey’s Kurdish minority.
Although the PKK is included on both the State Department’s and the EU lists of proscribed terrorist organizations, most Turks believe that the United States and Europe are at least sympathetic to the PKK and probably actively supporting the organization. They argue that the West sees Kurdish nationalism in general, and the PKK in particular, as a means of weakening Turkey so that it can strengthen its grip on the region, particularly on its oil supplies, in a continuation of a policy stretching back to the abortive 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which foresaw the possibility of the creation of a Kurdish state out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire.
Such suspicions are actively inculcated through the Turkish education system. Turkish history textbooks portray the Treaty of Sevres as representing the true intentions of the West even today. The suspicions about the West’s attitudes toward the Kurds have proved remarkably resilient and survived even the key role played by the United States in the tracking and eventual capture by Turkish Special Forces of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan in February 1999, something that imaginative conspiracy theorists have attributed to a subtle plot by Washington to undermine the PKK’s ability to wage violence and thus remove the pretext for Turkey’s refusal to grant political concessions to its Kurds.
Turkish suspicions of Washington intensified in the wake of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which most Turks believe was primarily motivated by the desire to control Iraq’s oil supplies rather than destroy its alleged weapons of mass destruction. The following year, in June 2004, the PKK resumed its insurgency after a five-year lull. Not only did Washington repeatedly warn Turkey against staging any cross-border military operations against the PKK’s bases in northern Iraq but many Turks believed that Washington was secretly cultivating a relationship with the PKK in order to secure its cooperation in a forthcoming military operation against Iran. The allegations of collusion were actively encouraged by the PKK itself. Militants from the organization frequently told visiting Turkish journalists that they were in contact with U.S. military officials on the ground in northern Iraq. Official U.S. denials were hardly helped by the visit to Washington in summer 2007 of Rahman Haj-Ahmadi, the leader of the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), during which he met with U.S. officials. Although it is primarily composed of Iranian Kurds, PJAK is ideologically affiliated with – though organizationally distinct from – the PKK and has its main training camps close to those of the PKK in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq.
In November 2007, the United States finally abandoned its opposition to Turkish cross-border operations and agreed to provide Ankara with actionable intelligence on the PKK’s presence in northern Iraq (see EDM, November 6, 2007). For the next four months, U.S.-Turkish relations were more harmonious than at any time since before the 2003 Gulf War. In December 2007, Turkey initiated a series of air raids against PKK positions in northern Iraq. On February 21, an estimated 1,400 Turkish commandos crossed the Iraqi-Turkish to strike at PKK camps (see EDM, February 22).
However, on the Turkish side, nagging doubts remained. Most believed that the U.S. decision to provide actionable intelligence and tolerate relatively small-scale Turkish air strikes and commando raids had been taken reluctantly, and then only to stave off a full-blown Turkish invasion of northern Iraq.
The first signs of strain came when U.S. officials issued a series of public statements calling on Turkey to wind up as soon as possible the ground operation that had been launched on February 21 (see EDM, February 29). The recent statements by U.S. military commanders have simply revived all the old Turkish fears about the true nature of U.S. intentions.
On March 4, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, the former commander of the Multi-National Corps in Iraq, declared that the PKK should be kept under pressure so that talks could be launched with members of the organization.
On March 5, Admiral William Fallon, former commander of the U.S. Central Command responsible for the Near East, told a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee that he believed the solution to the PKK lay in reaching “some kind of accommodation” with the organization.
On March 6, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino told journalists that the U.S. had not engaged in talks or negotiations with the PKK and did not expect Turkey to do so either. There is no reason to doubt Perino’s sincerity. But that does not mean that she will be believed in Turkey.
Coming so soon after the pressure from Washington for the Turkish military to wind up its incursion, Odierno’s and Fallon’s remarks have been greeted with a mixture of anger and bewilderment in Turkey.
“The U.S. is pursuing a very clumsy policy,” said Parliamentary Speaker Koksal Toptan on national television (CNNTurk, March 7).
But many in the Turkish media were more direct. “Has the Pentagon lost its mind?” wrote Ali Aslan in the Islamist daily Today’s Zaman. “Obviously the two allied militaries are not completely on the same page when it comes to dealing with the PKK. Optimism about their relations has been short-lived. We are heading into another low period in U.S.-Turkish relations.” (Today’s Zaman, March 7)
The Turkish ultranationalist press has been even blunter. “Our backstabbing ally the USA, which wants to divide up Turkey, no longer even feels the need to conceal these despicable aims,” bellowed the daily Yeni Cag (Yeni Cag, March 7).