The Turkish government is expected to grant parliamentary approval for military incursions into Northern Iraq today, ostensibly to pursue fighters from the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), separatist guerrillas who use Iraqi Kurdistan as a base from which to harass Turkish troops.
Both the U.S. and the Iraqi governments are alarmed that a unilateral display of force by Turkey could destabilize Northern Iraq, which has remained relatively peaceful, thanks in large part to cooperation between Iraqi Kurds and U.S. forces. A Turkish attack could alienate the Iraqi Kurds and further dim the prospects for the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Turkish forces have been massing on the border and firing into Iraqi territory for some time now. The Turkish government has also authorized force against PKK guerillas in the past, but not attacked.
If Turkey attacks the PKK in Iraq, some U.S. observers will undoubtedly blame the House Resolution 106, acknowledging the Ottoman Empire’s genocide of the Armenian people during and after the First World War. More than 1.5 million Armenians were killed and many more were forcibly deported by Ottoman Turks during that era. Turkey acknowledges that mass killings took place, but denies that there was a systematic attempt to exterminate the Armenians as a people.
Introduced on January 30, the non-binding resolution passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week with a vote of 27-21. The passage of the bill sparked outrage from Turkey, which summoned its ambassador home for “talks.” Turkish President Abdullah Gul warned that this resolution could seriously damage U.S.-Turkish relations.
However, support for the resolution is faltering in advance of a full House vote tentatively scheduled to take place before Thanksgiving. Seven representatives who initially voted for the resolution rescinded their support on Monday. On Tuesday, at least four more followed suit. As of Wednesday, the bill has only 215 co-sponsors, down from 236 at the start of the year. President Bush, Secretary Rice, and high-ranking U.S. diplomats have moved quickly to assuage Turkey, but their efforts have done little to quell the ire of Turkish parliamentarians who are poised to authorize a military attack.
Alienating Turkey could have other serious logistical consequences for the occupation as well. Turkish officials have threatened to disrupt supply operations routed through Turkey or even kick the United States military out of key bases.
Seventy percent of the air cargo destined for the U.S. military in Iraq goes through Incirlik Airforce Base in southeastern Turkey. Incirlik became the major cargo hub for the U.S. occupation force in Iraq in mid-2005. C-17s ferry general cargo from Charleston, S.C., to Incirlik for distribution to multiple areas in Iraq. Using the Incirlik base allows the Air Force to move more cargo with fewer planes. U.S. Forces also obtain a significant share of their water and fuel through Turkey, and one of the key commodities that pass through Incirlik is additional armor for vehicles.
“Perhaps the least expected short-term consequence of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) was a serious aggravation in US-Turkish relations,” wrote Barak A Salmoni, an assistant professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. Salmoni was writing in 2003, but four years later the strain between Turkey and the United States has proven to be anything but short-term.
Turkish leaders were reluctant participants in the 2003 invasion. Prior to the invasion, the U.S. officials put heavy pressure on Turkey to allow the use of its airbases and territory. Despite generous promises of foreign aid and military support, the Turks were hesitant to collaborate in the invasion of a neighboring Muslim country that had not made hostile overtures towards Turkey.
Large-scale public opinion research by the Pew Global Attitudes Project shows that Turkish support for the United States began to erode long before the genocide resolution. In December of 2002, 83 percent of Turks opposed using force to remove Saddam Hussein from power. In 2003, 71 percent of Turks told Pew researchers that they were either very worried or somewhat worried about the United States as a military threat. In 2006, only 12 percent of Turks reported a positive view of the United States, down from 30 percent in 2002, and 52 percent in 1999-2000, Pew reports.
The conflict between Turkey and the PKK isn’t new, either. More than 37,000 people have been killed in this conflict since 1984. The PKK declared a 5-year unilateral ceasefire in 1999, but resumed hostilities against Turkey in 2004. On October 7, the PKK launched the deadliest attack on Turkey in years, killing 13 soldiers.
The timing of the genocide resolution may have exacerbated preexisting tensions, but the underlying conflict is far more serious and longstanding. Removing Saddam Hussein and giving the Iraqi Kurds a semi-autonomous state created a safe-haven for PKK guerillas. Iraqi Kurds are unwilling to oppose the PKK because they hope to use the guerillas as a bargaining chip to force Turkey to recognize Iraqi Kurdistan as an independent state. Now that the PKK guerillas have stepped up their attacks on Turkey, there is increasing domestic pressure on the Turkish government to take action where the United States will not.
The recent controversy over the House resolution to acknowledge the Armenian genocide overshadows a much deeper problem. Neither the Turkish leadership, nor the Turkish people supported the U.S. mission in Iraq. The current Turkish crisis is just one of the intractable problems that the United States faces as a result of its own unilateral incursion.
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