Last Chance for U.S.-Turkish Relations?

Mark R. Parris
Mark R. Parris Former Brookings Expert

October 31, 2007

Two meetings during the next week will likely define U.S.-Turkish relations for the rest of George W. Bush’s presidency.

Condoleezza Rice will be in Turkey Friday and Saturday to meet with senior Turkish officials and to attend a conference of Iraq’s neighbors. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan will travel to Washington over the weekend for a Monday meeting with President Bush. Rice’s main task is presumably to set up a successful outcome for the Oval Office event.

It won’t be easy. America’s fifty-plus year strategic partnership with Turkey has been in free-fall since early 2003. While Erdogan’s government has contributed the occasional sin of commission or omission to the process, it has by and large found ways to support U.S. policy on issues we really care about: Iraq, Iran, Arab-Israeli relations, energy.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for Washington. The Bush Administration has periodically (most recently in a September speech by Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns at the Atlantic Council) “talked the talk” about Turkey’s importance and the advantages of strategic partnership. But it has simply not delivered on matters of greatest importance to Turkey.

Since 2004, when the terrorist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) resumed armed violence against Turkey from sanctuaries in northern Iraq, ending that threat has been at the top of Turkey’s list. Turks not unreasonably expected that a Bush Administration that had declared war on terror, that had announced in 2003 that “there was no place in post-Saddam Iraq” for groups like the PKK, and that had made clear it wanted Turkish troops to stay on their side of the border, would find ways to do so, or to help Turkey do so. What they have seen instead is a “slow roll”: a series of “trilateral initiatives” to bring Iraqi, Turkish and U.S. authorities together to discuss the problem. None have resulted in any concrete actions against the PKK. Indeed, the terrorists in recent months have escalated the tempo and scope of their operations.

The result in Turkey (accelerated by gratuitous slaps like last month’s abortive attempt in the House of Representatives to pass an “Armenian genocide” resolution) has been a hemorrhaging of trust in and support for the United States. America’s public approval rating stood at a sobering 9 percent before the Armenian resolution was approved in committee. Our failure to act against the PKK has caused many Turks to conclude we are actually backing it: mourners at the funerals of soldiers killed in recent terrorist attacks have conjoined “PKK” and “USA” in their slogans.

Thus Secretary Rice arrives in Ankara with 100,000 Turkish troops and substantial air and armor forces poised on the Turkish-Iraq border. The irony is that neither Turkey’s political nor military leadership – for different reasons  – wants to pull the trigger. That is why Prime Minister Erdogan agreed after the most recent and serious PKK attack two weeks ago to give the U.S. “a few days” to deal with the matter.

Mr. Erdogan and his colleagues expect to hear from the Secretary what Washington is prepared to do. They have, in the meantime, set the bar pretty high: closing the PKK’s camps; arresting its leaders and handing them over to Turkey. Nor have they been impressed by reactions on the Iraqi side of the border. Iraqi Kurdish leaders have been dismissive or provocative; central government authorities unconvincing. And Ankara has long since discounted moves like closing PKK offices (which soon re-open) or announcements of ceasefires (just when the winter is closing down operations).

It is frankly hard to see, given the depth of mistrust that Washington’s temporizing on the PKK issue has generated in Turkey, what Ms. Rice will be able to say to prepare the ground for a civil, much less positive, Bush-Erdogan meeting. Short of an outright commitment to take direct action against PKK camps (possibly with Turkish participation), the Secretary will likely find her interlocutors skeptical that the quite remarkable restraint they have displayed over three years of mounting terror should be extended.

This suggests a fairly stark prognosis for next Monday’s meeting. If Erdogan hears from Bush credible assurances that Washington is finally prepared to act on its designation of the PKK as a terrorist organization (and if Washington acts on those assurances in a timely manner), the Administration will likely be able to patch up the vessel of U.S.-Turkish relations enough to keep it afloat for the next 14 months. If he does not, given the pressures he is under in Turkey to “do something” about the PKK, and pervasive revulsion there against a partner so discriminating in its choice of terrorists, the Prime Minister will have to draw conclusions. That will almost certainly mean Turkish military intervention of some sort in northern Iraq before the snow falls. It could also mean that putting U.S.-Turkish strategic cooperation back on solid footings will wait until the Oval Office has a new occupant.