At full exertion, Turkey’s political heavyweights are doing their rounds in Washington this month, lobbying and pressuring members of the US elite over three particularly explosive issues - the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) continued and undeterred presence in Northern Iraq, a destabilising referendum in Iraq’s oil-rich city of Kirkuk and the controversial Armenian resolution that threatens to pass through the House of Representatives this year. A three-waved thrust – punctuated by visits from Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and Deputy Prime Minister Abdullatif Sener, followed by General Yasar Buyukanit, the chief of general staff and a Turkish parliamentary delegation – testifies to the gravity of each issue for Ankara, with rumblings of a serious fallout should Washington fail to address Turkey’s concerns.
The most emotive – if not provocative - for the Turks, is the campaign by representatives in the US House to pass a resolution recognising the so-called Armenian “genocide”, implicating Ottoman Turks in the mass-murder of Armenians during the First World War. The Bush administration needs little convincing of how damaging a resolution would be, with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging Congress to drop the issue, or risk poising relations with an essential Muslim ally bordering Iraq, Iran and Syria. Yet, the White House has only limited leverage over a Congress dominated by Democrats and led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is adamant to pursue the issue with the backing of the Armenian lobby in her Congressional district. Pelosi’s unwillingness to meet Gul during his visit was duly noted by Ankara.
Meanwhile, the continued presence of the PKK in Northern Iraq remains an itching sore for the Turks, with Ankara determined that the organisation be flushed out from its safe-haven across the border. The Turks are certainly aware that the American forces have their hands full in the rest of the country, struggling with a full-blown insurgency, but no trouble from the Kurds. Such is the American rationale: why risk rocking the boat in the north of the country, where the Kurds have acted as willing political partners. Better to encourage the Turks to discuss the problem of the PKK directly with the Kurdish regional authorities and the Iraqi central government – a position reiterated by Washington during Gul’s visit.
But the Turks have long been nonplussed by the US stance, with no concerted effort by the Americans to respond to Turkish security concerns next door. The appointment of General Joseph Ralston in 2006 in the newly-created role as US Special Envoy for countering the PKK, came as a positive step, but is regarded by many local analysts as insufficient. The inspection of the Mahmur Refugee Camp – believed to be hosting PKK members by Iraqi security forces in January was also welcomed by Ankara, as was subsequent news that it will be closed. But no fighters were found on site, having likely fled thanks to a tip-off prior to the operation. While Washington is lending a sympathetic ear to Turkey’s concerns, members of the political establishment in Ankara are baying for effective action by the US rather than words. Gul pointed to a greater attentiveness in Washington during his trip, referring - optimists hope - to an undisclosed plan of action.
Yet, the US administration has not sent any public signals to suggest that it would tolerate a cross-border incursion by the Turkish military to eradicate the PKK. Washington has long warned Ankara against such a deployment, fearing a conflagration of violence in northern Iraq. The Turks meanwhile don’t expect any breakthrough in their dealings with Iraq’s two Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) or the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Mutual distrust between the Iraqi Kurds and Turks persists.
The status of multi-ethnic Kirkuk has also been another bone of contention, with the Turkish government urging Washington to delay a referendum on the northern Iraqi city scheduled for 2007. In spite of complementary recommendations from the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group and many warnings from Turkish politicians, the White House continues to take a hands-off approach leaving the decision to the Iraqi government, with no plans for a postponement in the local referendum. The Turks point to the fact that the Kurds have been massively moving into the city (over 100,000 according to Turkish estimates) spurred by incentives from the local Kurdish authorities. All comes to the detriment of the ethnic Turkmens, Arabs and Christians, who are being elbowed out of Kirkuk.
Ankara forebodes that a referendum on the back of Kurdish gerrymandering and demographic manipulation could well unleash unabated bloodshed in the northern al-Tamim province, which like Baghdad, may fracture the whole country. With control over oil-blessed Kirkuk the Kurds would have the wherewithal for independence, which Ankara fears may stoke the Kurdish separatist drive in Turkey.
As two stalwart long-standing NATO allies with a multiplicity of shared, though not identical, regional security-related concerns, there is no questioning of this Turkish/US connection, spanning back to Turkey’s participation in the Korean War and accession to NATO in 1952. Indeed, the turbulence and instability in the Middle East – underscored by events in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Iran and the Palestinian territories – has made this relationship more important than ever. The Turks though are pressing Washington to demonstrate this more clearly. If not, relations will suffer.