Turkey Steps Back From the Brink

For both George Bush and Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the stakes at Monday's Washington meeting could scarcely have been higher. For Bush, Turkey's threat to launch a large-scale invasion of northern Iraq to destroy Kurdish rebels threatened to destabilize the fragile gains of the U.S. military's troop surge—and throw into disarray the only consistently stable part of Iraq, the Kurdish-controlled north.
For Erdogan the risks were, if anything, greater. The Turkish premier has been under intense pressure from the public and the opposition to launch an all-out attack on Kurdish rebels, who have killed more than 40 Turkish soldiers and civilians in the last month alone. But at the same time Erdogan and his government have been seeking a way to get out of actually carrying out their threat to invade. Sending troops into Iraq carries the risk of escalating into an all-out war with Iraqi Kurds, which would doubtless quickly ignite tensions among Turkey's own 14 million-strong Kurdish minority. That would spell disaster both for Turkey's troubled southeast and for its relations with the European Union and the United States.
Fortunately for both sides, yesterday's White House encounter produced a solution that allowed both sides to step back from the brink. Bush not only declared the Kurdistan Workers' Party (or PKK), "an enemy of Turkey, a free Iraq and the United States," but also committed to providing actionable intelligence to Ankara on the whereabouts of PKK positions. Officially, Bush publicly stuck to the line that Iraq's territory should not be violated. In practice, though, the United States would cooperate "in order to chase down people who murder people," Bush pledged. Essentially, that appears to be a green light for the Turks to carry out limited raids into Iraqi territory with the blessing of the United States. And, crucially, it also allows Erdogan to call off a full-scale land invasion—though he stressed that that option remained on the table if raids proved unsuccessful.
"Finally, we have a plan of action," says one senior Turkish official not authorized to speak on the record. "We are tired of promises with no action."
Getting to this agreement was the result of weeks of intense behind-the-scenes diplomacy by the administration. The primary challenge was to get the Iraqi Kurds, America's closest allies in the region, to sign off on any kind of Turkish intervention in their territory, says a U.S. official with knowledge of the diplomatic effort. Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq's Kurdish foreign minister, admitted to NEWSWEEK last week that Iraqi forces had "no control" over the lawless Qandil mountain range, where the PKK is headquartered. Yet Baghdad—and the Iraqi Kurds—were extremely wary of allowing the Turks to deal with the PKK, because it would set a "dangerous precedent" for neighbors' interference in Iraqi affairs, warns Zebari. "The concern of many people is that Turkish ambition may stretch beyond taking out the PKK."
Nonetheless, under U.S. pressure the Kurds have acquiesced to limited Turkish operations—and have also put pressure of their own on the PKK. Last week, in a key turning point in the tense relations between Ankara and Iraqi Kurds, the PKK was persuaded to release eight Turkish soldiers captured during an Oct. 21 ambush of a military convoy near the Turkish border city of Hakkari, which left 12 other Turkish soldiers dead. The kidnapping had provoked outrage all over Turkey and dramatically increased calls for large-scale military action. The release was brokered by the Iraqi Kurds and the Democratic Society Party (DTP), a Turkish political party with strong Kurdish links, backed by the U.S. Embassy in Ankara and the Baghdad government. The Turkish soldiers were handed over by the PKK on Sunday to a delegation lead by Karim Sinjari, interior minister of the Iraqi Kurdish regional government, who then passed them on to the U.S. military. The U.S. troops drove them to the small Turkish-controlled Pamerni military base in northern Iraq. The eight men were finally flown on a U.S. plane along with Iraqi Defense Minister Abdulkader Cassim and Gen. David Petraeus to a Turkish military base in Diyarbakir.
The hostages' convoluted journey home reflects Ankara's deep distrust of Iraqi Kurds, whom they accuse of harboring the PKK. But the Iraqi Kurds' help in securing the hostages' unconditional release will, the U.S. hopes, help ease tensions and build trust. The release should stimulate "continued, deepened, and immediate cooperation between Iraq and Turkey in combating the PKK," says U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. And raids on the PKK, expected within days to beat the onset of winter snows in the Kurdish mountains, should also dent the PKK's fighting ability—as well as assuage Turkish public opinion.
Erdogan says that he told Bush that Turkey "expects immediate concrete steps against the terrorists," and that the problem of the PKK is a "sincerity test" that will "determine the fate of our future relations." Hopefully, the release of the hostages and the tacit blessing of Washington for Turkish raids on the PKK will allow Erdogan to tell his people that the United States is now on the same side as Ankara—and, more important, will allow Erdogan to stand down hawkish plans to send tens of thousands of Turkish troops into Iraq.