“America will always do the right thing, but only after exhausting all other options,” Winston Churchill once famously remarked when asked about US foreign policy. Little has changed since Churchill expressed his frustration 60 years ago. Today, all of Turkey is angrily waiting for Washington to do the right thing. Yet Washington, as usual, is busy exhausting all other options. It is no secret that Ankara wants the United States to take immediate military action against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq. For Washington, however, such action is unlikely to solve any problem. To the contrary, American policy-makers believe attacking the PKK in the Kandil Mountains will only exacerbate the Kurdish problem in Turkey and jeopardize the relative stability in northern Iraq.
Washington may have a point. But sometimes you have to do certain things because the cost of not doing so reaches too high a price. This is exactly what is happening with the PKK question in Iraq. After a quick cost-benefit analysis, Washington should realize that it has simply reached the very end of the road in terms of procrastination. Clearly Washington has neither the willingness nor the capacity to conduct a large-scale land operation against the PKK in northern Iraq. But at this current juncture, some targeted American air strikes in the environs of the Kandil Mountains would significantly lower the likelihood of a large-scale Turkish military intervention. Although it is still questionable to what degree the Turkish military really wants to engage in such an operation, one thing is certain: The PKK is doing its best to provoke such a large-scale Turkish military incursion.
Having kidnapped eight Turkish soldiers, the PKK wants to be sure that a Turkish intervention in northern Iraq goes beyond just air strikes. The objectives of the PKK are twofold. The first and foremost goal of the PKK is to gain international legitimacy as “freedom fighters.” Since most of the international press refers to them as “rebels” or “guerillas” — especially after each attack against military targets rather than civilians — this is a propaganda campaign they seem to be getting better at. Gaining legitimacy is crucial for the PKK. Once it achieves such global status, the PKK believes it will have much stronger bargaining power with the Iraqi Kurds. But perhaps more importantly, the PKK desperately wants to become the representative voice of the Kurdish question in Turkey and the main interlocutor with the Turkish government. In short, it wants respect and recognition.
The second goal of the PKK in trying to secure a large-scale Turkish military intervention is to create Turkish-Kurdish polarization in Turkey’s urban centers that are home to significant Kurdish populations. This is an extremely dangerous plan with the potential of fatally destabilizing Turkish politics and society for years to come — and there are already alarming signs that it is a process under way. The sad reality is that Turkish nationalism fuels Kurdish nationalism. The Turkish press is already playing into the hands of such sinister plans with its inflammatory headlines against Barzani. Given Barzani’s own reckless declarations, there is no shortage of people in Turkey who want to go beyond the PKK in their definition of the enemy in northern Iraq. This is something that greatly benefits the PKK because a real war between Barzani and the Turkish army in northern Iraq would secure further international sympathy for the Kurdish cause in the region. Such a war would also significantly increase Turkish-Kurdish polarization and confrontations in urban Turkey.
In short, we are going through depressingly dangerous times, and a US air operation against the PKK appears to be the best option to avert further damage in the region. One can only hope that this time Washington will take the risk of a Turkish military operation seriously and see all the potential costs associated with inaction. There may still be American policy-makers who believe Turkey is just engaged in posturing, brinkmanship and bluffing. I think Turkey has passed that point and reached the very end of its patience. We seem to have reached a point where — short of a US military intervention against the PKK — all options will rapidly unravel toward a point of no return. Washington should realize the sense of urgency in Turkey and try to gain political leverage in Turkey after its military intervention against the PKK. Who knows, once the risk of a Turkish operation is averted thanks to an American one, there can even emerge some room for creative politics. Imagine how the PKK propaganda machine would feel if Turkey declared a partial amnesty after US air strikes in the Kandil Mountains? It is high time to understand that terrorism will not be defeated using only military means. It will be an irony of historic proportions if Turkey takes this lesson to heart thanks to an American administration that could use the same lesson itself.
The objective of this kind of [safe zones] project may be described as fundamentally humanitarian, but the reality is that any number of parties, starting with the Assad regime and the Islamic State, are going to see it as a threat, and that’s going to make it a target instead of a safe place.