On July 25, during talks held in Washington, US President George W Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki agreed on a range of measures to combat militants from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in northern Iraq.
If effectively implemented, these measures could go a long way towards helping repair US-Turkish ties, which have been strained of late due to Turkish frustration with rising PKK violence in south-eastern Turkey. In the past several months, PKK militants have stepped up attacks on Turkish civilian and military targets. Several weeks ago, 15 soldiers were killed in two days of clashes. Particularly worrisome for the Turks has been the PKK's return to the use of landmines in south-eastern Turkey, which killed one soldier and wounded two others on July 28. Ankara says there are an estimated 5000 PKK militants who are using northern Iraq as a safe haven from which to launch attacks into Turkey.
Turkey, which has the second-largest military in NATO after the US, currently has some 260,000 troops stationed in the south-east of the country, near the border with Iraq.
Ankara has been stressing its right to launch cross-border operations against PKK bases located in northern Iraq, as it feels the Iraqi government and US forces based in the country are not doing enough to tackle the PKK presence. This puts the US in a difficult position; though it considers the PKK a terrorist organisation, it fears military action could destabilise northern Iraq, one of the few relatively peaceful regions in the country.
Washington is worried that should the Turkish military enter northern Iraq to tackle the PKK threat, it may well end up coming into conflict with the local Kurdish militia, the Peshmerga, sparking further violence. There are also concerns that Turkish operations could set a precedent, allowing the Iranian military to enter Iraq on the same pretext to pursue opposition groups. Prior to the US invasion of Iraq, Turkey regularly engaged in "hot pursuit" operations against PKK militants over the border in northern Iraq.
Accordingly, the US has tried to dissuade Turkey from taking unilateral action, stressing that the issue should be addressed in a trilateral forum involving Turkey, the US and Iraq. As US Ambassador to Turkey Ross Wilson noted in a Turkish television interview, "The PKK is not just a northern Iraq problem - it's a problem in Europe and it's a problem in Turkey. Going to deal with the PKK in northern Iraq will not solve the problem."
The Turkish government has also been frustrated by what it perceives to be Washington's double standard, whereby the US has tolerated Israeli strikes against Hizbullah in Lebanon while opposing Turkish operations against the PKK in Iraq.
But Washington has also made some conciliatory gestures of late to ease Turkish concerns. When speaking on the telephone last weekend, Bush promised Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he would step up measures to tackle the PKK threat in Iraq.
During the press conference that followed Tuesday's US-Iraqi talks, National Security Advisor Stephen Hardley told reporters the PKK issue "is something we have to address more aggressively. The president had made that assurance to Prime Minister Erdogan, and I think he was relieved. Now we've got to deliver on it."
Hardley went on to add that during the talks, there was little ambiguity on the US position regarding the PKK. "We left no doubt that we view the PKK as a terrorist organisation. We have proposed that it be addressed in this trilateral context [Turkey, US and Iraq]. I think the Turks are comfortable with that," Hardley said. "And there have to be concrete steps that we can take to show both Iraqis and Turks that there is a plan to deal with that problem."
As of yet, the new measures agreed upon by Bush and al-Maliki have not been publicly spelled out, though some analysts speculate they will involve the closure of PKK offices in parts of Iraq as well as other steps to isolate the PKK and limit its effectiveness.
Some political analysts have been quick to link US concessions on the PKK issue to Washington's desire to see Turkish troops deployed as part of an international stabilisation force in southern Lebanon. As Bulent Aliriza, the director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Turkey Project, noted, "The intensity of US messages sent to the Turkish government in recent days not only reflects US recognition of the seriousness of Turkish warnings on northern Iraq, but also perhaps a desire for Turkey's participation in a multinational force in southern Lebanon."
Aliriza went on to add, "In view of the fact that the US has been reluctant to take major steps on the PKK issue, what I expect to see in the next days or weeks are some moves that would please the Turkish government but not eradicate the problem."
While US-Iraqi plans to crack down on the PKK may yet prove effective, in terms of repairing strained US-Turkish ties and helping to enhance regional stability, the US has promised much before, and delivered little.