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Will The West Sell Out The Kurds Yet Again

US President George W. Bush and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
By Laura Heaton
UPI Correspondent
Washington (UPI) Oct 04 2006
President George W. Bush pledged U.S. support for anti-terrorism efforts in Turkey, but concrete U.S. action seems a remote possibility, given America's split allegiances in the region. "Our desire is ... to help people who care about a peaceful future to reject radicalism and extremism," Bush said at a joint press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after their private meeting at the White House Monday.

Although Bush and Erdogan reaffirmed their collective efforts to combat terrorism, neither spoke specifically about threats posed by what Turkey sees as its prime terrorist organization, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. The paramilitary group has been fighting for an independent Kurdish state at the intersection of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran for the past two decades.

"Neither (leader) wanted to focus on an issue they knew they wouldn't be able to resolve," said Vali Nasr, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in California. "The goal of the meeting was to heal relations between Washington and Ankara ... so they chose to not focus on differences of opinion on Iraq."

The Turkish government has accused the PKK of perpetrating attacks on Turkish police, security forces and for targeting tourist areas. Turkey claims that the leadership of the PKK has taken refuge just over the border in northern Iraq, and that guerrillas are indoctrinated in and operate from these camps.

Washington views the PKK as a terrorist organization but has been reluctant to aggressively pursue terrorists in the region.

"The United States doesn't have the ability or the forces to go into northern Iraq, the only relatively stable region of the country ... and push some 5,000 (PKK) fighters out of Iraq," Nasr said. "Nor would this option be politically favorable."

The United States is wary of any offensive that might alienate the Iraqi Kurdish population, the group most supportive of U.S. presence in Iraq. The United States has a long history of favorable relations with Kurdish nationals, beginning as early as 1919 when U.S. President Woodrow Wilson favored an independent Kurdistan at the end of World War I.

"Kurds are supportive because the United States has offered them protection for a long time, covered up the Kurdish uprising of 1991 and provided air cover over Iraqi Kurdistan, for example," explained Edmund Ghareeb, a professor at American University and author of "The Kurdish Question."

Citing increased terrorist activity, Turkey recently threatened to use military strikes to quell the terrorist movement coming from northern Iraq. The U.S. government immediately warned against such action.

A military offensive against the PKK would "create a whole new environment, a lot of instability, and a lot of unknown factors in this very explosive area," Ghareeb said.

Addressing the likelihood that Turkey would take forceful steps against the PKK in the near future, Nasr said, "The PKK is a major irritant, but not significant enough to stage an attack (in northern Iraq) and put Turkey at odds with Washington."

The United States and Turkey recently appointed envoys to work to resolve the situation, but it remains to be seen whether the move was something more substantial than an attempt by Washington to placate the Turkish authorities.

"(The) United States is very sympathetic to the Turkish problem with the PKK, but won't be able to act definitively," Nasr said.

At the joint press conference, Prime Minister Erdogan thanked Bush for supporting Turkey's bid to join the European Union. "The United States is a strategic partner, a very important strategic partner for Turkey," Erdogan said.

But in light of the dismal state of U.S. efforts in Iraq, the Bush administration may be the one looking to Turkey for support.

"Turkey is an important ally of the United States because it is militarily strong, a member of NATO, has a relatively strong economy ... and (Ankara) has generally been a friendly government," Ghareeb said.

Turkey's favorable relations with a number of important actors in the region suggest that it could be a significant mediating force, particularly in post-war Iraq and in dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Given the balance of powers that any dramatic assertion of allegiance might upset, the United States will likely do little to change the status quo in U.S.-Kurdish and U.S.-Turkish relations. If the situation changes, however, what Ghareeb called "a general suspicion among the Kurdish population" may prove true once again.

"If the United States has to choose between the Kurds and the Turks, it will choose the Turks," he said.

Source: United Press International

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