Can the U.S. Ease Turkish-Kurdistan Workers’ Party Tensions?

NEWSWEEK: What does it mean for the United States if Turkey launches a major operation in northern Iraq against the PKK?

Bruce Riedel:
I think the administration has a major embarrassment on its hands. Here’s a NATO ally invading our supposed Iraqi democracy, because the Iraqi government that we created won’t fight terrorism. It will be, at minimum, a major embarrassment—and it may require that we reverse our long-standing desire not to put American troops up there and at least have the appearance of pressuring the Kurds to do more.

Why isn’t the United States up there in northern Iraq already?

I think the administration’s posture toward the PKK has been, “We wish this problem would go away. Dealing with it is too hard.” The reason it’s too hard is that we don’t have the forces available to do it ourselves. It’s well known that American military forces in Iraq are stretched past the limit. This would be a very difficult military operation, given the terrain—given that the border is very hard to delineate. We have, from the beginning, not been willing to do it ourselves. We’ve relied on Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and Iraqi Kurds have never been eager to kill fellow Kurds on behalf of Turkey. The KDP and Barzani were never into the business of being the law-enforcement cop on behalf of Turkey, against their fellow Kurds. So they turned a blind eye. Meanwhile, the PKK got stronger and stronger. The odds are not very good that the KDP are going to change that position. We might hear promises in the next few days out of Iraqi leaders, but at the end of the day it’s very unlikely that they’re going to take the very severe military steps that would be required to take down the PKK. That leaves it to the Turks. They’ve been trying for 15 years now. They haven’t been successful, but this time I think they’ll make a pretty substantial effort across the border. At least to clear a zone along the border where they can move easily to target PKK groups once they have intelligence.

Hasn’t Turkey attempted to clear such a zone along the border before?
The problem is that it never stays very clear. They’ve had troops in the north since 1992 or ’93, more or less continuously—commandos and special ops. There’s a large Turkish intelligence presence. They’ve tried to recruit their own Iraqi allies from the Turkoman population. None of it has had the permanent effect of ridding the region of the PKK.

Read the full interview