Can U.S. Ease Turk-Kurd Tensions?

Is Turkey likely to launch a major attack on Iraq? Tensions around that question were underscored after the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) launched a deadly cross-border attack on Turkish troops on Oct. 21. The quality of intelligence gathered is crucial during such times, and Bruce Riedel spent nearly 30 years answering such questions at the CIA and National Security Council and as adviser to Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. Now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Riedel spoke with NEWSWEEK's Seth Colter Walls about the administration's strategy on the PKK since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as well as how he views the overall behavior of the Kurdish authorities in Iraq toward the group. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What does it mean for the United States if Turkey launches a major operation in northern Iraq against the PKK?
Bruce Riedel:
I think the administration has a major embarrassment on its hands. Here's a NATO ally invading our supposed Iraqi democracy, because the Iraqi government that we created won't fight terrorism. It will be, at minimum, a major embarrassment—and it may require that we reverse our long-standing desire not to put American troops up there and at least have the appearance of pressuring the Kurds to do more.

Why isn't the United States up there in northern Iraq already?
I think the administration's posture toward the PKK has been, "We wish this problem would go away. Dealing with it is too hard." The reason it's too hard is that we don't have the forces available to do it ourselves. It's well known that American military forces in Iraq are stretched past the limit. This would be a very difficult military operation, given the terrain—given that the border is very hard to delineate. We have, from the beginning, not been willing to do it ourselves. We've relied on Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and Iraqi Kurds have never been eager to kill fellow Kurds on behalf of Turkey. The KDP and Barzani were never into the business of being the law-enforcement cop on behalf of Turkey, against their fellow Kurds. So they turned a blind eye. Meanwhile, the PKK got stronger and stronger. The odds are not very good that the KDP are going to change that position. We might hear promises in the next few days out of Iraqi leaders, but at the end of the day it's very unlikely that they're going to take the very severe military steps that would be required to take down the PKK. That leaves it to the Turks. They've been trying for 15 years now. They haven't been successful, but this time I think they'll make a pretty substantial effort across the border. At least to clear a zone along the border where they can move easily to target PKK groups once they have intelligence.

Hasn't Turkey attempted to clear such a zone along the border before?
The problem is that it never stays very clear. They've had troops in the north since 1992 or '93, more or less continuously—commandos and special ops. There's a large Turkish intelligence presence. They've tried to recruit their own Iraqi allies from the Turkoman population. None of it has had the permanent effect of ridding the region of the PKK.

What about the theory that says Barzani is merely waiting to act against the PKK as a quid pro quo for securing Kirkuk and its oil?
He may hope that this is a card he can use at some point, but I'm skeptical it's a card he can really play. I don't think you're going to find a lot of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga [guerrilla fighters] willing to kill fellow Kurds.

In the past the peshmerga have boasted publicly about actions against the PKK, though. Isn't it in their interest to police the area well?
[Peshmerga fighters have] often proclaimed that they've captured someone, only to make sure that the revolving door moves pretty quickly. Iraqi Kurdish parties have always been less than honest about what they're doing with the PKK. The truth is that they don't really do much at all. They round up some people, close an office or two when the heat is on. But they've never really taken any action to permanently take the PKK down. At the end of the day, they all share the same dream: an independent Kurdistan that goes beyond Iraq to include parts of Turkey and Iran. The Kurdish Iraqi leadership is very careful when it speaks to Westerners, especially in public, to downplay those aspirations. [But] they know it's what their constituency wants. Every poll shows it. Ninety-five percent of Iraqi Kurds want independence. It's particularly true among younger Kurds, many of whom have grown up in a liberated Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991, and whose only memories of the Baghdad government and the Arab part of Iraq is genocide. So it's understandable why there's no real sympathy there for staying as a part of Iraq and being the policeman of Turkey in suppressing its Kurdish population. I think the administration and the military in Iraq are well aware of these facts. And that's why the PKK issue is always put on the back burner—hoping that it will somehow go away or stay under the radar screen until we're out of Iraq.

But other countries in the region would rather not wait that long …
There's nothing that unites countries [in the region] more quickly than fear of Kurdistan. Syria has its own Kurdish minority, at 5 percent of the population. It would like to see Kurdish aspirations placed in the icebox. All these countries are terrified at what they've seen in the last decade: the rise of this semi-independent Kurdish state. They all see this as a threat to the territorial integrity of their own countries. The more [Iraqi] Kurdistan is a success, the more it is seen in Ankara, Damascus, and Tehran as a danger.

What can the United States do to defuse the situation now?
In this case my view is we can't solve this. We can't fix these problems. In the short term, what the administration should do is what it has been doing: pressuring the Iraqi government and Kurdish leadership. I'm just skeptical that this will have anything but a Band-Aid effect. By toppling the Baghdad government we have set a train of events into motion that we can't control—one of which is Kurdish nationalism. It's very hard to be in control of what 95 percent of Iraqi Kurds want. The other alternative of just telling the Turks to live with it and get over it doesn't work either. The Turkish government has a lot more leverage with us these days than we have with them. We desperately need access to their bases. And we also want the Turks to play a role in Afghanistan and a constructive role in NATO. Just like with the Armenian issue, we want to try to find some way to accommodate their concerns. This puts the U.S. in the middle of one of the Middle East's most unresolved—and irresolvable—national identity problems. The history of America's relationship with the Kurds is a pretty sad one. And I suspect there will be another sad chapter—when we abandon the Kurds at the end of the day. I hope not. They deserve better. But I'm afraid that's where it will end up.