The Bush administration is courting influential Kurdish factions in Iraq. But across the border in Turkey, it is supporting Turkey’s subjugation of its large Kurdish population. The United States has just approved the sale of F-16 and F-35 fighter jets to Turkey that are to be used for the express purpose of crushing Kurdish militants in the eastern provinces. It has also appointed an envoy with strong business ties to a leading American defense contractor as well as to pro-Turkey American lobbies. The Kurdish problem in Turkey is a longstanding one, stemming from the failed promises of the international community to create a Kurdish state after World War I, and Turkey’s repression of its 20-percent-strong Kurdish population thereafter. A main party to the conflict has been the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, a notorious guerilla movement once led by the imprisoned Abdullah Ocalan. The 15-year war between the PKK and the Turkish government has led to the death of some 40,000 people, with civilians targeted on both sides. Human rights groups have long documented the obliteration of thousands of Kurdish villages by the Turkish military in their war against the Kurds. After Ocalan’s capture, because of European pressure on Turkey, the PKK’s leadership declared a unilateral ceasefire with the Turkish government. Ankara rejected the proposal. While isolated attacks by Kurdish militants continue, the Kurdish region has been largely peaceful. Turkey however, has resumed its military campaign against PKK guerillas hiding in the border region, and its new American firepower can only encourage it to pursue the goal of destroying the Kurdish group. It against this backdrop that the US has appointed Joseph Ralston as “Special Envoy for Countering the PKK. Ralston happens to be a board member of the defense company Lockheed Martin, which is providing the new jets. It has been reported that he also has ties to the American-Turkish Council. In other words Ralston has a financial interest in seeing Turkey gain deadly American weaponry, and is in a position to both influence the US government in helping Turkey procure arms and facilitate those purchases on behalf of Lockheed Martin. On learning of this appointment, Kurdish groups were, legitimately, outraged. The issue of Kurdish human rights in Turkey is intrinsically tied to stability in Iraq. An escalation of fighting in Turkey can only destabilize northern Iraq, and vice versa. Iraqi Kurdish parties have until now tried to contain the PKK to appease Turkey, and Iraq’s Kurdish Democratic Party has even fought limited engagements with PKK guerillas trying to use Iraq as a safe haven from the Turkish Army. As far as the PKK is concerned, the Americans are being hypocritical in supporting Kurdish rights and identity in a new Iraqi polity, while failing to do so in Turkey. Meanwhile, the Turks are assembling troops on the border with Iraqi Kurdistan and have threatened to invade. The Iraqi Kurds have responded that any encroachment on their territory by Turkey will result in war. This situation is particularly troublesome, particularly at a time when the US is in the process of rethinking its presence in Iraq. Kurdish groups in Turkey and Iran would welcome the opportunity to contribute to instability in Iraq and see this spill over to their side of the border. Kurdish irredentists have long talked about a cross-border revolution in Kurdistan. The PKK, with nothing to lose given Turkish intransigence, would again resort to terrorism and do everything it could, with help of rebel groups in the rest of Kurdistan, to destroy peace in Iraq. The US simply cannot afford to allow such a situation to develop. That’s why it is not doing itself any good by pursuing perverse arms interests in Turkey that will only encourage further armed conflict in Turkish Kurdistan. This would have unforeseen consequences in Iraq. Now is the time for Turkey to politically engage the PKK and the Kurdish population, not try to resolve the problem through military means. A framework for this exists thanks to Turkey’s accession talks with the European Union. Ankara should take advantage of the opportunity. The fight for Kurdish rights in Turkey is on hold, but history shows that further Turkish obstinacy will only restart the conflict. The US must withdraw Ralston and push Turkey to engage its Kurdish population and introduce democracy and pluralism once and for all in the Kurdish areas. Otherwise, expect to see a resurrection of the Kurdish problem in Turkey, but also more volatility in northern Iraq, very soon.
Ali Ezzatyar has consulted for Kurdish parties in Iraq and is a doctoral candidate in law at the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently performing research in France. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.