Turkish-American Relations: The Perfect Storm

October 15, 2007

The approval of the Armenian genocide resolution by the House Committee on Foreign Relations was always going to be difficult to digest for Turkish public opinion. Yet, the manner in which events unfolded made things much worse. The killing of 13 Turkish Special Forces by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) only a couple of days before the vote in Washington created a perfect storm in Turkish-American relations. The atmospherics of Turkish-American relations are now testing historic lows.

Where do we go from here? The real issue on everyone’s mind is whether Turkey will engage in a cross-border operation in northern Iraq next week. Before doing so, Ankara should realize that this is exactly what the PKK wants. Ever since the landslide electoral victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) on July 22, the PKK has been trying to provoke such an incursion. The PKK’s logic is simple. The AKP’s landslide electoral success, crowned with the Abdullah Gül presidency, was a disaster for the PKK. The first shock came when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party did so well in the Kurdish regions of Turkey; this was a democratic slap in the face to separatism. The second shock for the movement came when the AKP decided to re-nominate Abdullah Gül to the presidency.

The PKK would have been much happier with a hawkish nationalist — like the outgoing Sezer — who would have maintained his veto over any dialogue between Ankara and Erbil. Gül, on the other hand, is exactly the type of politician that the PKK fears, because he is open to conditional engagement with the Iraqi Kurdish leadership. A constructive dialogue between Ankara and Erbil is a nightmare that the PKK shares with the deep state in Turkey. For the PKK, such dialogue is terrifying because it would target its camps in northern Iraq. Perhaps more importantly, on the political front, such a rapprochement between Ankara and Erbil would sideline Ocalan as an irrelevant factor in the Turkish-Kurdish-American power equation. Moreover, a potential “grand bargain” between Ankara, Erbil and Washington would create positive political, security and diplomatic dynamics at the very expense of the PKK.

Aware of such risks, the PKK decided to torpedo any hope for dialogue between Ankara and Erbil after Gül was elected President. It is no coincidence that PKK violence and terrorism sharply mounted immediately after Gül’s successful visit to southeast Anatolia; unfortunately, the PKK is playing its cards right. By killing Turkish soldiers, the terrorist organization is trying to entice Turkey into northern Iraq. And make no mistake — the larger the military operation into Kandil, the better it will be for the PKK. The reason is simple: imagine all the things that the PKK will gain thanks to a Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq.

First and foremost, the incursion would achieve little in terms of military result but it would certainly end any hope of rapprochement between Ankara and Erbil. To the contrary, there will be mounting regional polarization and the PKK will continue to thrive. Second, a Turkish military operation will further exacerbate Turkish-American relations. After all, anything that isolates Turkey in the international arena is good for the PKK. Similar dynamics apply to Turkey’s relations with the European Union; the Turkish military intervention will jeopardize Turkey’s already tenuous partnership with the EU. The PKK would be delighted if Turkey’s democratization efforts come to an end. In the absence of democracy, violence gains legitimacy and PKK terrorists are perceived as “freedom fighters.” All these factors should make it abundantly clear why the PKK desperately wants to see Turkish tanks in northern Iraq.

As far as rogue elements within the Turkish deep state are concerned, it is not difficult to see why their interests also converge with those of the PKK. They too would be dismayed by a strategic engagement between Ankara and Erbil, since this could bring a political solution to terrorism. They, like the PKK, have a vested interest in the continuation of violence to legitimize their hold on power. And most importantly, they too want to isolate Turkey in the international arena in order to put a stop to democratization.

Those are very hard days for the AKP. Erdoğan should think twice before playing into the hands of the PKK and the Turkish deep state. To succumb to populist and nationalist anger is the tempting and easy thing to do. Statesmanship, however, requires what is strategically sound rather than what is popular.