Q&A: Turkey vs. Iraq

Turkey has deadly enemies in Iraq who continue to carry out raids across the border. One of the more provocative attacks took place on Oct. 21 when militants of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) killed a dozen Turkish soldiers and captured eight others. Yet the Bush administration wants Turkey to show restraint and to hold off on any military incursion into Iraqi territory. That strikes some in Turkey as hypocritical, given Washington's own determination to fight anti-American terrorists.

The border tensions come at an already sensitive moment in relations between Turkey and the United States. In recent weeks, a U.S. congressional committee approved a resolution that would have designated Turkish massacres of Armenians in 1915 as "genocide." The measure stalled on its way to the House floor only after it became clear that Turkey could respond by halting cooperation with U.S. forces in Iraq, cutting off vital supply routes.

With Turks, Kurds and Iraqis all sensing an escalating crisis, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with President Bush in Washington on Monday. NEWSWEEK's Jeffrey Bartholet recently spoke to Ankara's ambassador to the United States, Nabi Sensoy, and got a sense of Turkey's frustrations. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: First of all, do you know anything about the status of the Turkish soldiers taken captive?
Nabi Sensoy:
Well, efforts must be going on in Turkey and elsewhere to free the eight soldiers.

Are the Americans involved in those efforts?
I presume so. Those who have responsibility for Iraq, and northern Iraq, I'm sure they are trying to do something.

Turkey has threatened to attack the PKK bases on the Iraqi side of the border. What are the chances that Turkish forces will actually cross the border?
Let me talk to you about the mood in Turkey, which is one of outrage. Tens of thousands of people are taking to the streets to protest PKK terrorist activities in all the major cities. With this kind of reaction from the people, if you are the government, you cannot remain unresponsive. So the mood is very somber, and the government feels its responsibility to take all necessary measures to ensure the safety of the Turkish people. That is why they have asked for authorization from Parliament to intervene militarily in northern Iraq in pursuit of PKK terrorists, if and when necessary.

At one point, Turkish officials suggested that the decision on whether or not to cross into northern Iraq would wait until after Prime Minister Erdogan's meeting with President Bush on Monday.
These are all speculations. We think that the meeting with President Bush is an important one, but if the circumstances oblige Turkey to act militarily before then, I cannot really rule out that possibility.

What is Turkey hoping to hear from President Bush?
In the first place, we want to see concrete results from our cooperation with the United States of America. Since the U.S. intervention [in Iraq] in 2003, we've been working together with the United States to preserve the independence, territorial integrity and unity of Iraq. And of course we are part of the international effort to put an end to terrorist activities wherever they happen. The United States and its president are on record saying that wherever they see terrorist activities, they are going to work against that. And I know that the United States is determined to fight against PKK terrorists, because it was the first country to recognize this organization as a terrorist group. But the thing that's missing so far is concrete results. What we're saying is that these terrorists--about 3,500 or 4,000--have been entrenched in northern Iraq for more than 10 years. And they are conducting hit-and-run attacks into Turkey and killing soldiers and civilians. The situation has become untenable, unacceptable. We have lost in 20 years' time more than 35,000 people. So we have the obligation to protect our people, and others also have an international responsibility not to harbor terrorist organizations, not to give them logistical support, not to let them rove around their country, not to let them set up front parties. All of these things are happening in northern Iraq. They have a responsibility to put a stop to that--immediately.

Is there anyone in official Turkey who suspects that the United States or elements of U.S. forces in the region are providing aid to the PKK?
This is a country which is under the threat of international terrorism, especially after 9/11; it is unthinkable to assume that such a country is going to help any other terrorist organization.

Neither you nor any element of the Turkish security apparatus has seen any evidence to lead to suspicions.
If you look at the media, of course there will always be speculation of one sort or another. But as an ambassador in this country, I cannot imagine a situation in which the United States government would deliberately help or supply another terrorist organization.

There are tens of thousands of American-supplied weapons that were sent to Iraq that have either gone missing or are unaccounted for. One mystery concerns Glock pistols that were subsequently used to carry out attacks or murders inside Turkey. Can you tell me what you know about that?
We know that during operations of the Turkish security forces, they have captured weapons that originated in the United States of America. That is maybe why there is speculation in the media. We understand that they were given to certain groups of the Iraqi central government for other purposes--not to end up in the hands of terrorists. But we have supplied information to [officials in] the United States of America, and they are conducting an investigation. They have sent an inspector from the [Department of Defense]. And that investigation is still going on in Iraq. At the end of that examination, we do expect the United States of America to give us a full account and explanation as to how these American weapons have end ed up in the hands of the terrorists.

How long has the investigation been going on?
It has been a few months.

There have been reports that the United States wanted to relocate members of an anti-Iranian group Mujahedin-e Khalq out of Iraq. We heard from at least one source that there was a proposal to move them into Turkey. Do you know any thing about that?
What I know is that Turkey will never condone or shelter any kind of terrorist organization.

Has the United States provided any intelligence assistance to Turkey?
Yes, the cooperation between the United States and Turkey involves intelligence sharing. But how actionable that intelligence information is, I cannot say.

So they have provided intelligence information about the PKK?
I would assume yes. But everything is relative. How important that [intelligence] is, I cannot really judge. But from what I've seen, it has not been very effective.

There's been some speculation that the Americans might be OK with airstrikes across the border, as opposed to ground forces across the border. In that case, perhaps they would provide actionable intelligence on target sets for airstrikes. Does that sound like …
I don't know if there is that kind of distinction in the minds of American authorities. What I see from official declarations is that they are opposed to Turkish military action [across the border]. But then, those who are responsible for the security of the area cannot expect Turkey to sit idly by while terrorists coming from northern Iraq are killing people in Turkey.

The Iraqi Kurds lay claim to the Iraqi city of Kirkuk and plan to absorb the oil-rich area into the borders of autonomous Kurdistan. Turkey is opposed to this, right?
Turkey is opposed to a change of status quo for that city. Over the years, of course, Saddam Hussein has really altered the demography of that particular city. And now people are talking about the Kurds who were supposedly evicted from their places in Kirkuk during the Saddam days, that they're coming back to their city. This is something that is very dangerous. About 600,000 Kurds have been placed now in Kirkuk. This has more or less rendered the referendum [on Kirkuk's future], which is envisaged in the Iraqi Constitution, irrelevant. It will be a foregone conclusion. After the demographic changes that have already been done by the Kurdish entity there, it's going to be meaningless. What we are saying is that the Iraqi government needs more time to fulfill the obligations set forth in the Constitution before a referendum takes place. It would be quite impossible to have a referendum now.

In the Constitution, the referendum should be held by the end of the year.
That's right. But it seems more unlikely now.

What would Turkey's response be if there were a referendum?
We are urging those who are responsible not to [allow] this to take place now. It will also be unconstitutional. I don't want to speculate about a referendum taking place this year. It would be a grave mistake.

Some analysts are suggesting that the Iraqi Kurds are using the PKK as a kind of bargaining chip to be used with Turkey.
If they're thinking that way, perhaps they're making a big mistake, because they need to have the best of relations with Turkey in order to have anything viable in the north of the country. Turkey has been very helpful to Iraqi Kurds over the past 15 or 16 years. You will recall in 1991, when Saddam's forces had an onslaught in the north of the country, and 500,000 Kurds fled to Turkey. It took two days [for them to flee], and they went back after two years. And who took care of them during that time? It was Turkey, which gave them shelter, safety, food, something to wear, even jobs. Those who think that Turkey is against the Kurds are very much mistaken. We have our own citizens of Kurdish origins who are relatives of the people in the north of Iraq. We want to have the best of relations. Now, what we need is support from them. What we need is to cut the logistical support to the PKK in the area.

Some Iraqi Kurds apparently argue that it's hard to crack down on the PKK because they're too well armed, and their bases are in the Qandil Mountains, which are nearly inaccessible and easy to defend …
If they can't do it, they shouldn't object to Turkey taking its own action.

Next door, you have the Americans in Iraq. It hasn't been a happy experience [for U.S. forces] occupying that area. Just a few years ago, you mostly finished a long war or insurgency that has cost 35,000 lives. Do you really want to get back into a full-fledged conflict?
If we're left with no other alternative, then we'll do it. We're trying to pursue all peaceful avenues before we go to the last resort, which is the use of force. Now the Turkish government has shown responsible restraint. If worse comes to worst, there's nothing else to do … It's not just that [the Iraqi Kurds] are not doing anything against [the PKK], they are helping them: providing them safe haven, giving them logistical support, supplying them with weapons, letting them appear on their televisions.

What are the possibilities of negotiations with the PKK?
There are no possibilities. You don't negotiate with a terrorist organization. It's out of the question.

So there's no question of amnesty in return for ending the conflict?
No. It's not on the agenda in the first place. And the PKK terrorists were given that opportunity some years back. And because of the pressure coming from the leadership, the rank and file did not really want to take advantage of that possibility. And I don't see any possibility now of that happening. But I want to say one thing: People refer to the stability in the north of Iraq. They say, "There is stability there now; why meddle?" But what is called an area of stability is a source of instability for Turkey. They have to recognize that. All is not roses.

One of the proposals to ease tensions was to put American forces up in that area as a kind of buffer, and if I'm not mistaken, Turkey rejected that. Can you tell me about that?
I would doubt that Turkey would reject anything which involves cooperation with the United States of America. We don't want to fight terrorism all by ourselves. We will welcome all help and assistance.

How does Iran figure into this complicated puzzle? Obviously, they've got their own Kurdish rebel group, which is aligned with the PKK. They have fired across the border on occasion. How do they figure into this? Are they supportive of you, are they wary of the Americans in the area?
The Turkish and Iranian authorities have come together and talked about cooperation against the terrorists.

Would Turkey, if it felt it was not getting the necessary cooperation from the United States, consider cooperating with Iran?
I don't see it as an alternative to U.S. cooperation. We'll get any kind of help we can against PKK terrorists.

How can Iran help?
I don't know. It will depend on the talks between the two security forces and the authorities. They will be able to determine what kind of cooperation [is possible].

Let me turn very quickly to the recent effort to pass an Armenian genocide resolution in Congress. Obviously, Turkey very strongly opposed that. It spent a lot of money on lobbyists and ultimately was successful, at least for now. Looking back, how do you see that, and how do you see this going forward?
This is not a new phenomenon. This has been going on for 20 or 30 years now, and we've been constantly fighting against the passage of this resolution. We simply say that we have our own arguments. The Armenians have their claims. That's why we also say that we are not monopolizing the truth about this. But this is a very contentious issue. The interpretation of the events of 1915 differ. So we say the best thing is for the two sides to come together and set up a committee of experts, who can go into the archives in Turkey, which are open, and in Armenia, which are not open … Let's have all these archives open to public scrutiny and the scrutiny of historians, and let them dig out the truth.

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