Are the United States and Turkey on a collision course?

Given US failures in Iraq, it is doubtful whether the administration can permit another failure.

October 15, 2007 23:47
3 minute read.
Are the United States and Turkey on a collision course?

US turkey protest 224.88. (photo credit: AP)

Turkish-American relations face two significant challenges. One has to do with the Turkish inclination to enter northern Iraq in order to deal with Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) fighters operating there. The other is connected with an upcoming US House of Representatives vote on a resolution to recognize as genocide the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Both challenges touch on very sensitive issues for the Turks, who are convinced that the US is insufficiently attentive to their needs and demands. The Turks have threatened to intervene in northern Iraq on several occasions since the fall of Saddam Hussein, but they now appear more determined than ever to do so. In addition to the massive buildup near the border, the government has now decided to ask for parliamentary approval to send forces into Iraq. This decision follows the killing of 30 soldiers and civilians by the PKK in the last two weeks, in what are considered unusually severe actions by the PKK. According to the Turks, the US has consistently failed to act against PKK fighters hiding in the Kandil area of northern Iraq and does nothing to prevent attacks on Turkey from that region. The approval of the resolution by the House Foreign Affairs Committee on October 10 prompted severe condemnation by Turkish leaders and led Turkey to summon its ambassador in the US to Ankara for consultations. President Abdullah Gül accused American politicians of sacrificing big issues for petty games of domestic politics. Given the Democrat majority in the House, it was expected that the resolution would be approved by the Foreign Affairs Committee despite strong opposition by the administration. Nevertheless, its passage has added to Turkish frustration at the state of relations with the US, and the expected majority for the resolution in the full House in November has strengthened the perception of the Turks that they have less to lose in terms of Turkish-US relations if they do act in Iraq. Given that Turkey is more determined to do so and less likely to heed American warnings not to intervene, it is possible that the US will decide to minimize the negative consequences of Turkish intervention by providing at least partial cooperation. The publication of reports about secret plans for such cooperation suggests that the possibility has already been extensively discussed by the two sides, notwithstanding American concerns about stability in the Kurdish-controlled autonomous area in the north of Iraq and about a hostile reaction on the part of the Kurds, who have been the most loyal American allies in Iraq. Indeed, these concerns suggest that if the Turks do intervene, the Americans may also have to undertake more aggressive actions. Given American failures in Iraq up until now, it is doubtful whether the administration can permit another failure in the form of unilateral Turkish intervention seemingly in defiance of the US. Such intervention would have negative consequences that could by neutralized, at least with respect to Turkish-US relations, if the Americans actually cooperated. By contrast, Turkey is unwilling to compromise on the Armenian genocide issue and the administration cannot impose its will on Congress. It is therefore difficult to see how the damage to bilateral relations of the likely forthcoming Congressional resolution can be limited. Turkish policy indicates that while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Gül are acting to promote domestic reforms that run counter to the Kemalist legacy, in foreign affairs they act in conformity with the hard-line Turkish tradition. It is true that close ties with the United States are also a traditionally important component of Turkish foreign policy, but it is increasingly difficult today for Turks to reconcile the contradiction between their interests and those of the US. Since the American invasion of Iraq, Turkish public opinion has also become more anti-American, and that influences decision makers to adopt uncompromising positions regarding the Kurdish issue and ignore American attitudes. Although Turkish-American relations appear to be headed toward a crisis, both sides remain aware of the importance of those ties and therefore try to deal with the challenges they face. But despite the common desire not to harm bilateral strategic relations, there is a clash between Turkish and American interests that may very well further convulse the already complicated reality in Iraq.

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