No Magic Bullet Against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Washington

November 5, 2007

What can be achieved by today’s meeting between Prime Minister Erdoğan and President Bush? The short answer is not much. There is a dangerous and irrational expectation in Turkey that if Washington suddenly decided to attack the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, the problem in Turkey would be magically solved. One can only wish things were so simple. In fact, the PKK is probably hoping that the US will take military action in northern Iraq. After all, being targeted and attacked by America will enhance the international legitimacy of this terrorist organization and elevate its status in the eyes of the anti-American world public opinion. How quickly we forget that there is always a “David versus Goliath” phenomenon when the weak encounter the mighty.

Over the last few weeks, the nationalist frenzy in Turkey has convinced itself that the PKK is an American and northern Iraq problem. Even well-intentioned liberal analysts started to revisit the thesis that Turkey would not be facing a PKK problem today if its parliament had decided to cooperate with Washington on March 1, 2003. Such views are naïve and wrong. It truly requires a strong degree of imagination to believe that the PKK is a product of America’s invasion of Iraq or Iraqi Kurds decision to hurt Turkey. Instead of constantly blaming nefarious external forces, Turkish analysts and policy makers should learn to pay attention to domestic dynamics. It would also help to understand how nationalism, socio-economic problems and unfulfilled political expectations can become a toxic cocktail that fuels radicalism.

The PKK doesn’t owe its existence, origins and power to external forces. It has been in action since 1978 and was at its most lethal and destructive in the early 1990s. With the end of the Cold War, the PKK became the symbol of Kurdish dissent and nationalism in Turkey. Yes, it was and still is a terrorist organization. The PKK used terrorism as a tactic to attack innocent civilians. But as the Turkish military unleashed its forces against it, the PKK also became — at least in the eyes of a strong majority of the world — a rebel movement fighting one of the most powerful militaries in the region. What Turkey failed to understand then, and still fails to understand today, is that terrorism is the weapon of the weak. Terrorists thrive when a larger and stronger force attacks them. This is especially true for guerilla terrorism. What terrorists are after is legitimacy and recognition. Once they gain regional sympathy and support, international legitimacy usually follows. Next thing you know the international media refers to them as “militants,” “rebels,” “insurgents” and finally as “freedom fighters.”

It is also high time to debunk the myth that Turkey would have gained much leverage had it decided to cooperate with Washington in March 2003. We keep hearing this urban legend. In fact, you only need to look at Britain’s Tony Blair, the most loyal of Bush supporters, to see a example of what would have happened to Turkey if Ankara had decided to play ball with the Bush administration. Blair received no rewards for his endless support for the American war effort in Iraq. He wanted a seat at the table after the war, but he soon discovered that the unilateralist Bush administration doesn’t believe in tables. In 2003, Blair’s only demand from President Bush was an international peace conference on the Middle East focusing on Arab-Israeli peace. Bush decided to wait until Blair was gone to consider the idea. To add insult to injury, Tony Blair ended up becoming the top envoy for the quartet dealing with Arab-Israeli peace, after he resigned as prime minister. History will not only remember him as the architect of “New Labor” but also as “the poodle of the United States.” — so much for sitting at the table with Washington.

It’s really an irony of historic proportion that such a belligerent and unilateralist American president whose doctrine argues that: pre-emption works; that America is winning the “war on terror” because it is fighting terrorists “over there” rather than “over here”; and that “states harboring terrorist are no different than terrorists” would advise caution, rationalism and multilateralism when it comes to others. I hope Erdoğan can respond with a sense of humor by saying that all he wants is to apply the “Bush Doctrine” to the PKK. Yet, he should also know that the Bush doctrine will not solve PKK terrorism. The problem is not “over there” in northern Iraq.