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Turkey and NATO

A winning combination in post-war Iraq

After 2 decades of fighting with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), 35 000 casualties, and the capture of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, many Turks thought the PKK era would come to an end. Yet in 2004, against the backdrop of a new balance of power brought forward with the US invasion of Iraq, the PKK ended a 5 year ceasefire and began attacking Turkish soil from Northern Iraqi territory. Now the public is mounting pressure on Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government to do something to solve the PKK problem.

The PKK drama is considered a watershed for Turkey’s young democracy. Turkey has dealt with the outlawed organizations’ claims for Kurdish autonomy in Southeastern Turkey with a heavy-handed policy that produced a mixed legacy and no clear winners. Now that the PKK is back with vengeance, questions arise as to whether a military crackdown on this secessionist movement will produce the desired outcome of eliminating domestic terror or take Turkey back into an era of unpredictability.

The U.S., which launched its own global “war on terror” in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, seems to agree with its Turkish ally on the PKK threat. Condemning a recent attack by Kurdish rebels that killed 17 Turkish soldiers in Southeastern Anatolia, the White House stated: “These attacks are unacceptable and must stop now.” Yet for all the help the US says it is willing to offer, Turkey is beginning to realize the limits of U.S. commitment.

Disillusioned with its allies’ and southeastern neighbor’s inaction to what it considers a threat to its stability, Turkey has decided to take matters in its own hands. In December 2007, shortly after the Turkish parliament voted to authorize a possible military action, the army launched cross-border military incursions targeting PKK camps in the mountainous terrain of Northern Iraq. As a retired Turkish general observed, these operations are unlikely to root out the PKK, but they might put pressure on the outlawed organization. They may also remind the Iraqi government and the international community that it is high time they supported their words with action.

As a staunch NATO ally and an active player in United States’ global war on terror, Turkey expects a more active NATO role in its own war against terror. In the words of NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) is a terrorist organization. If NATO lists the PKK as a terrorist organization, Turks wonder, why has NATO helped the U.S. in its war on terror and failed to support us in ours? While tangible disillusionment with the international community overshadows Turkey’s debate on how to solve the PKK problem, NATO is rarely singled out as a subject of public scorn. In contrast, the U.S. is harshly criticized for its lethargic foreign policy towards the PKK. For instance in recent anti-PKK demonstrations, some demonstrators held placards making the following statement: PKK=US. While publicly NATO remained in the background in Turkey’s terrorism debate, it was the target of criticism in a speech delivered by Turkey’s military chief Yaşar Büyükanıt, who is well known for his tough stance on terrorism. In a 2007 NATO summit, Büyükanıt expressed Turkey’s disappointment with “international cooperation” against terror.

Emphasizing the importance of agreeing on a common definition of terror, he said: “While we expected international cooperation against terrorism, we are disappointed by the response we received. This response does not just disappoint us, it also deals a serious blow to the understanding that the fight against terror demands better cooperation.”(translated by author). Implicit in this statement is a reminder that the PKK drama is unfolding on the watch of an international organization that has the resources, mandate, and responsibility to defend the territorial integrity of its parties.

This time, NATO seems to be listening. In response to Büyükanıt’s statement, the chief of NATO’s military committee, Ray Henault made the unprecedented remark that NATO may invoke Article 5 to help Turks in their fight against the PKK.

Article 5 of the NATO Charter says: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” Some analysts observe that the likelihood of a NATO operation against the PKK is slim because the alliance has no incentive to make dealing with the PKK a priority, and Turkey is not currently in a position to provide such an incentive because it has no viable alternative to the North Atlantic alliance.

Yet Turkey should not think of alternatives to NATO yet. While the likelihood of a NATO operation to neutralize the PKK may be slim today, there is a real possibility that a NATO peacekeeping mission will be launched in the aftermath of the Iraq war. The PKK does not operate in a vacuum – a dramatic shift in the balance of power in Iraq will have a direct impact on the PKK and neighboring states. In the event of an eventual withdrawal of the US military from Iraq following the election of a Democratic president in 2009, NATO might be called upon to stabilize the region. If this scenario is played out, Turkey can volunteer as a peacekeeping force with the condition that a limited scope mission is launched in Northern Iraq to neutralize the PKK – invoking Article 5.

NATO’s involvement in recent conflicts reinforces the case for its involvement in Iraq. Referring to a future role NATO may play in post-war Iraq, Michael E. O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute observes: “No alternative body is available for Iraq; only NATO is credibly up to the job, and this point is beyond serious debate in most of the international community.” In a similar vein, Mark Grossman, the former undersecretary of state for political affairs, observed in a 2003 testimony for the Senate Armed Services Committee: “At the end of the day, it is to NATO that we will all return to seek common ground and cooperation on the momentous issues facing the trans-Atlantic community.”

If Turkey decides to play a role in an eventual post-war reconstruction in Iraq under the NATO umbrella, it may also be able to solve one o the thorniest problems on its agenda: the PKK.

Leman Canturk has a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from University of Missouri.


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