As Turkey tackles PKK, it can play Nato card

Although labelled as a "terrorist organisation" by the entire world, including the US, EU, and Nato, America did nothing to curb the influence of the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Image Credit:Illustration: Nino Jose Heredia/Gulf News
Gulf News

On January 30, 2003, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey gave a speech at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, saying: "I have held a series of very positive meetings with President Bush. At our meetings, we have gone beyond reconfirming our friendship that is built on common vision and mutual interests. I am pleased that we have determined concrete steps that are geared to further develop the Turkish-US partnership."

All of that, of course, was before the Iraq War in March 2003. It was before the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) set up base in northern Iraq, under the watchful eye of Bush, Iraq's President Jalal Talbani and Prime Minister Nouri Al Malki. Although labelled as a "terrorist organisation" by the entire world, including the US, EU, and Nato, America did nothing to curb the influence of the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Americans failed to realise that if it wanted, Turkey could simply cut off a supply route it gives the US, which accounts to 70 per cent of their needs in Iraq. Turkey can - if it wants - cut the electrical power provided to Iraqi Kurdistan and prevent the passage of fuel products through its territory.

Too much

The Americans, however, simply have too much on their hands in the rest of Iraq, to mind the Kurdish rebels. The US could not - even if it wished -engage itself in another guerilla war. Rather than worry about the PKK and upset its Kurdish allies in Baghdad and Irbil, the Americans simply decided to turn a blind eye to PKK activity, which aims at establishing 55 per cent of the future-state of Kurdistan, on Turkish territory. The rest will be carved out of northeastern Iraq, northeastern Syria and northwestern Iran.

Watching the Americans do nothing about the PKK since 2003 was Al Malki. Nowadays, Al Malki needs the support of Iraqi Kurds because he has been abandoned by his former parliamentary allies, the Sadrists, and the Iraqi Accordance Front. He is supporting them and they are helping him to stay in power in Baghdad.

In August, Al Malki went to Ankara and met Erdogan. Smiling for the cameras, and with a completely straight expression on his face, Al Malki said: "Iraq does not allow party members (to operate) from its territory and will not allow it in the future." Such an assertive statement was repeated this week by Al Malki himself, and his Kurdish allies.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, commented, "The Iraqi government has asked them to leave Iraq." Asked if there was a timetable for PKK withdrawal, Zebari said, "As soon as possible!"

This seems all too familiar for Erdogan, who finds that the exact scenario has been repeated too often since he came to power in 2003. This time, the Turks say, things are different.

Erdogan, however, should not get carried into a trap being set out for him by Kurdish militias. Supporters of this theory claim that a Turkish offensive against the PKK can serve as a great PR stunt for the Kurdish militia -their biggest since the arrest of the Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan.

They claim that PKK lost its Turkish power base since the 1990s. During the latest elections, the ruling AKP won a majority in 12 out of 15 provinces. Even provinces with an overwhelming Kurdish population voted for the AKP.

Young Kurds, those born after the PKK revolution started in the late 1970s, were more interested in securing stable jobs and higher income than waging a war of liberation against the Turkish government. Ever since the APK came to power, nearly five years ago, it has put a lot of money into the Kurdish-populated southern region.

These projects have embarrassed the PKK, affected their popularity, and increased support for the APK. If the APK continues helping Kurdish Turks achieve a better life, a call to arms by the PKK will fall on deaf ears. That is why the PKK needs a face-lift; a political comeback at the expense of Erdogan.

The US, already upset with Erdogan's policies on a variety of issues related to Palestine, Iraq, Iran and Syria, decided to favour the Kurds at the expense of Turkey. Erdogan after all, had warmed up with Syria. He had received Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal in Ankara. He refused to meet Ehud Olmert, then the Housing Minister of Israel, in Ankara. He coordinated anti-PKK activity with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And he did nothing to influence the Turkish parliament, packed with his AKP Party members, to change course vis-a -vis allowing US troops to use Turkish territory to launch their war on Saddam Hussain.

Then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who spoke to Fox News in March 2005, and said, "Clearly if we had been able to get the 4th Infantry Division in from the north, in through Turkey, more of the Hussain-Baathist regime would have been captured or killed."

Upcoming visit

During his upcoming visit to Washington on November 5, where he is scheduled to meet Bush, it is doubtful if Erdogan would say things similar to what was said in 2003. Rather, he would tell the American president that the PKK is to Ankara what Al Qaida is to the US. He would remind Bush of how helpful Turkey was in the fight against communism back in the 1950s, and against Islamic fundamentalism since 2001.

He might tell him about Article 5 of Nato, which calls all nations of the international organisation into mutual military defence. Meaning, if Turkey comes under attack by the PKK, it is the duty of all Nato states - especially the United States - to come to its defence.

Nearly 40,000 people have been killed by PKK terrorism over the past three decades. Article 5 was used only once; in defence of the US after 9-11 to legitimise an attack on Afghanistan. It's time to use it again, would be Erdogan's words, or else suffer the consequences for American passiveness, Iraqi helplessness and Kurdish stubbornness.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.