(RIEAS Junior Analyst, Coordinator for the World Security Network Foundation at the Southeastern Europe Office)
2003 can be considered to be a crucial year for the USA-Turkish relations. During the first three months of that year the military preparations for the invasion in Iraq, included Turkey’s support for the American plans. Actually the military heads of Turkey accepted initially (1) to offer hosting ground for the American troops in order to launch an invasion to the North of Iraq. In return Turkey was to get 8.5 billion USD assistance and to be allowed to establish a limited armed presence in Northern Iraq where the Kurdish population mainly habituates.
The Turkish public opinion was feverously against the war, as well as, some of the most important segments of the diplomatic and military elite of the country. Therefore on March 1st the Turkish parliament rejected the entrance (2) to the country’s soil to the American Army, a decision that shocked the Bush Administration and gave a heavy blow (3) to the warm relations between the two states. Up until the 20th of March the Turks tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with the Americans for better terms of cooperation and finally agreed on the 20th of March to allow the over flight of their airspace (4) necessary for the Iraqi operations. In the meanwhile the 4th USA Infantry Division (5) that was supposed to launch the attack from the North was transferred to the South and fought in a total different war zone from the one already being prepared for. Apart from the tremendous logistics involved the American Administration was anxious of the stance by its traditional ally and that can be said to be the tipping point on which the relations of the two states diverged in most respects.
From their part the Turkish state believes that an autonomous or even independent Kurdish state-with American assistance- would become a perfect hideout for the Kurdish guerillas operating in South Eastern Turkey and most importantly a precedent for the Kurdish minority (6) in Turkey numbering some 12 million people, most of them to be found in the East of the state. Moreover the disappearance of Sadam Hussein and the all-powerful Iraqi Army, casts a reason less for the high importance of Turkey as the sole NATO state in the Middle East, especially since the American troops virtually control much of the region by themselves.
From the period of Gulf War I in 1991 the prospect of an autonomous Kurdish entity frightens the Turkish state that used a variety of methods in order to secure its interests. It cajoled and assisted in some respects two of the largest Kurdish organizations the KDP-Kurdish Democratic Party- (7) and the PUK-Patriotic Union of Kurdistan- (8) . At this point it is notable to note that there are various sources that refer to narcotics trade (9) being carried out by all of these groups with the assistance of Turkish paramilitaries as well. The all-timely fear of Turkey was the nationalist-semi Marxist party of PKK (10), led by Abdullah Ocalan (11) that conducted wide range of guerilla operations against the Turkish Army, and was very active during the 90’s , especially between 1994-1997.
In the period 1999-2003 there were continuous negotiations between Turkey-PUK-KDP for the future of N. Iraq, where Ankara firmly stated its strategic interest in the area-And the oil reserves of it- dating back in 1920’s (12) where it tried unsuccessfully to persuade Britain to accept a Turkish control of the region. The whole of Iraq was actually a part of the Ottoman Empire until 1918 and Turkish claims have been developed for the better part of the 20th century.
The USA-Turkish disagreement was the crucial factor that elevated the role of the Kurds as the staunch American allies in the Middle East that actually fought and suffered against the regime of Sadam Hussein. On October 2003 the Kurdish militia denied access to Turkish soldiers that tried to enter Iraq, a clear sign that the ex-guerillas were the ones in control in one of the most oil-rich and strategically important areas of the M. East.
The Turcoman (13): Turkey’s wild card?
The Turcomans is a Turkish ethnic group residing in Northern Iraq and numbers some 350,000 people. Most of them live in the Kirkouk area and view Turks as their only friendly nation in the area that is dominated by Kurds and Sunni Arabs. From its part Turkey has an opportunity of establishing a role in the new geopolitical environment by playing the”Turcoman card” and use this minority as a Trojan horde, should it wants too either invade or influence the Kurdish area. Moreover Ankara for obvious reasons is against any motion for the disintegration of Iraq that will subsequently lead to an independent Kurdish state. Already though the Kurdish Pesmerga-Paramilitary force- is nominally under the central Baghdad command and quite a few organizations that resemble a modern state have been established. Examples include the first national Kurdish university (14), the recognition of the Kurdish language and actually one can call Northern Iraq as a De Facto ethnic Kurdish state. Only the typical declaration is out of the context yet.
The President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani (15), a Kurd himself stated on September 2006 on his visit to Washington that Turkey, Syria and Iran should stop meddling in Northern Iraq (16) otherwise the Kurds would be forced to proceed with their own plans. This is a significant change from the late 80’s where the three mentioned states systematically persecuted Kurds, whereas now the latter are the only ones having the backup and assistance of the only global superpower! This is a clear case of how fast international relations can change and produce results not imaginable by anyone before.
Another factor influencing the Kurdish policy is Israel. The state of Israeli has vested interests in the region due to its antagonism with Iran and Syria and seems to assist Kurds as a bulwark to any Iranian mostly ambitions. BBC on September 2006 (17) revealed the existence of a training operation of a grand scale that included the antiterrorist and security preparation of Kurds by Israeli trainers. It cannot be excluded that should a war on Iran erupts the only Israeli allies apart from the Americans would be the war-hardened Kurdish fighters, that are very apt in mountain war and have substantial experience in the border area between Iran-Iraq. For the aforementioned it is needless to say that the USA-Israeli involvement is minimizing Turkish influence and further complicates the international relations of that state.
The ongoing diplomatic negotiations on the “Iranian nuclear affair” (18) are unavoidable related with Kurdistan and the USA-Turkish-Israeli relations. Should a war or a serious crisis erupt, Turkey will have to choose between relinquishing its interests in N. Iraq otherwise getting into opposite terms with its allies unraveling thus one of the greatest crises in the region. The elections in Turkey (19) this year, coupled with the ongoing negotiations with the EU, will present an amount task to any Turkish Administration that will have to balance an European, a Middle Eastern Policy and at the same time ease the tensions on the domestic level between nationalists-secularists and Islamists.
On overall a safe prediction for 2007, is that Turkish and USA relations will be much on the spotlight, illuminating thus the Thucydides paradigm that it is the interests and cold blooded realism that dictate the international arena and not fallacies like the terms “Friendship”, “Strategic role” and “Staunch ally”. It is always –For the short-term at least- the great nation that prevails and not vice-versa. Nations like the Greeks, Serbians and the Kurds have already experienced that; one has to expect a wider understanding of this simple fact of international policy for the years ahead.
A report on the events before the 2003 invasion
An article by USA today on the disagreement between USA and Turkey
An article by the Guardian discussing the USA-Turkish crisis
Encyclopedic information on the 2003 invasion of Iraq
A CNN coverage on the deployment of the 4th Infantry Division of US Army
Turkish-Kurdish relations by a FAS paper
The website of the organization KDP
The website of the organization PUK
A paper discussing drugs trade in South Eastern Turkey by the Monde Diplomatic
Encyclopedic information on PKK organization
Encyclopedic information on Abdullah Ocalan
The documents of the Lausanne treaty by the Hellenic Resources Institute
Encyclopedic information on the Turkish tribes of Northern Iraq
The website of the Kurdish university in Iraq
A BBC report on the voyage of the Kurdish leader in USA
An article by the NPR organization on the Kurdish –American relations
A revealing report by BBC on the training of Kurds by Israeli paramilitary forces
Coverage by the BBC around the crisis with Iran and the West because of the nuclear program of the former
A guide to the election calendar in Turkey by the Election Guide organization