What Lies Ahead for U.S.-Turkish Counterterrorism Cooperation in the Obama Era?

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 40

The strategic relationship between Turkey and the United States entered into a new phase on November 5, 2007, when President Bush pledged real-time intelligence sharing with the Turkish military while condemning the Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan – PKK): "The PKK is a terrorist organization. They’re an enemy of Turkey, they’re an enemy of Iraq and they’re an enemy of the United States” (Turkey.usembassy.gov, November 5, 2007). Since then, Turkish-U.S. intelligence sharing has been very productive in targeting the PKK camps in northern Iraq over the last year.

This week, Iraq’s parliament is voting on approval of the Status-of-Forces Agreement (SOFA), an accord that spells out the conditions of the U.S. occupation and provides a timetable calling for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by December 31, 2011. Approval of the accord will open yet another chapter to shape Ankara’s counterterrorism polices against the PKK. Turkish journalist Fikret Bila, who is well known for his close relations with the Turkish military and whose work usually reflects the views of influential institutions in Ankara, is not expecting a total American withdrawal from Iraq:

[U.S. President-Elect Barack] Obama would not seek to withdraw all American troops from Iraq. The U.S. would not give up its interests in Iraq. It would not change its traditional policy to control energy corridors and oil fields in the Middle East and the Caucasus. One of the options before Obama is to redeploy American troops into northern Iraq (Milliyet, November 2).
It is a common belief among the Turkish security bureaucracy that the United States will not want to withdraw its troops from Iraq.

To digest the new reality in Iraq, one of the questions Ankara seeks to answer is whether the Obama administration will allow Turkey to continue its military operations in Iraqi territory. In a speech given in the United States on November 13, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated:

Turkey is resolved to maintain multilateral and close cooperation with the new U.S. administration led by Mr. Obama. Naturally, we particularly expect the new U.S. administration to take into consideration Turkey’s sensitivities on matters which have vital importance. This is also important not only for bilateral relations but also for peace and security (Hurriyet, November 15).
Erdogan also described his expectations of Iraq:

Turkey has assisted [the] Iraqi people in all areas to finalize their efforts to get back to normal again. On the other hand, Turkey has a rightful expectation from Iraq. Iraq should terminate the ongoing presence of terrorist organization on its northern territories. We expect both the central government of Iraq and the local administration in the north to take more influential and tangible steps (Worldbulletin.net, November 14).
Details of a November 17 phone conversation between President-Elect Obama and Turkish President Abdullah Gul were released in a press statement from the Turkish president’s office. According to the statement, Obama declared Turkey “has the right to fight against terrorism as part of its right to self-defense, [while] emphasizing the importance of a special alliance relationship between Turkey and the United States" (Today’s Zaman, November 19). In this statement what needs to be understood is how Obama defines the “right to self-defense.” On the basis of self-defense, would the Obama administration allow Turkey to expand its fight into Iraqi territory, or is “self-defense” limited to Turkish territory?

In his draft agenda for a security partnership with Europe, Obama emphasized that America’s relationship with Turkey has been strained by the Bush administration’s “misguided and mismanaged intervention in Iraq, which has helped revive the terrorist threat posed to Turkey by the separatist Kurdish Workers Party.” The solution offered in the draft is to “lead a diplomatic effort to bring together Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish leaders and negotiate a comprehensive agreement that deals with the PKK threat, guarantees Turkey’s territorial integrity, and facilitates badly needed Turkish investment in and trade with the Kurds of northern Iraq.” [1]

Turkey has already resumed three-way talks on the PKK issue with Baghdad and Washington (Today’s Zaman, November 15; Hurriyet Daily News, November 20). In addition, Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin has revealed that Turkey may take further steps to ameliorate Abdullah Ocalan’s prison conditions if Ocalan calls on the PKK to lay down its arms (Hurriyet, November 25). Ocalan has not yet responded. However, what seems obvious is that the PKK has been revising its strategies against the changing nature of the Turkish and American approach to the terrorism problem. The PKK leadership has written a letter to President-Elect Obama while also intensifying its harsh criticism of the United States for aiding Turkey. According to Ahmet Deniz, the PKK’s head of external relations:

America is an enemy of the Kurds and it helps the Kurds’ enemies in their attacks on the Kurds in terms of explosives and intelligence. It provides information to Turkey. Their spy planes and Israeli spy planes fly over our area on a daily basis, yet they talk about the Kurds’ rights and get close to the Kurds when their interests dictate. When they have no use for the Kurds and their interests lie with other sides which are hostile to the Kurds, they will abandon the Kurds and not support them (Chawder [Sulaimaniyah], November 3; see also Terrorism Focus, November 19).
To send a message to the international powers, and particularly to the United States, that the PKK continues to be an important actor in the region, the group sabotaged the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline near Midyat in Turkey’s southeastern Mardin province on November 21 (hpg-online.net, November 22; Anadolu Ajansi, November 24).

In these uncertain times for the Kurds of Iraq, it remains to be seen whether the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) will seek to eliminate the PKK from its territory. What is interesting to note here, however, is that the Turkish military has not been involved in public discussions about the recent developments. At least two technical points are directly related to the U.S. withdrawal plan and Obama’s approach of bringing Turkish and Kurdish leaders together to find a solution for PKK terrorism. First, will the Obama administration allow the Turkish military to continue its air raids on PKK camps in Iraqi territory? Second, will the Obama administration continue to share the actionable intelligence provided by American unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with the Turkish military?

In what seems to be an effort to reduce the Turkish military’s reliance on U.S. intelligence, Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul visited Israel in October to try and expedite the long-delayed completion of 10 Heron UAVs being produced by Israel Aircraft Industries. Two of the Herons are scheduled to be delivered by the end of November, with the other eight scheduled for delivery in early 2009 (Yeni Safak, October 31).

Ankara appears to be adjusting its counterterrorism strategies according to the new reality in Iraq. This includes reducing dependency on American intelligence provided by UAVs and the establishment of better diplomatic mechanisms with the Kurds of Iraq to isolate the PKK. Turkey still considers American support as a vital element for its fight, but due to the expected U.S military withdrawal from Iraq, the nature of this support may shift from military cooperation to diplomatic coordination.


1. “Barack Obama and Joe Biden: A Stronger Partnership with Europe for a Safer America,” n.d., www.barackobama.com/pdf/Fact_Sheet_Europe_FINAL.pdf.