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Commentary Last Updated: Jun 6th, 2007 - 02:30:46

Kurdish rebel action tests Turkey-US ties
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jun 6, 2007, 02:27

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There are growing signs that Turkey is running out of patience with Iraqi Kurdish rebels alleged to be responsible for terrorist attacks on Turkish soil.

The Turks have stationed substantial troop contingents along their border with the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq for several years but in recent weeks have stepped up the numbers.

On Sunday, Turkish soldiers opened fire on Kurdish areas while earlier last week head of the Turkish armed forces General Ya'ar Buyukanit requested his government to authorise a cross-border incursion targeting Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) guerillas.

Oguz Celikkol, Turkey's special envoy to Iraq, has threatened his country is ready to act unilaterally if the US doesn't act to dismantle guerrilla bases.

This escalation of tensions is being taken seriously by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who last week warned Turkey not to invade, while at the same time admitting that he sympathised with Turkish concerns.

For its part, Turkey has accused the US of numerous violations of its airspace for the purposes of garnering information on its border troop and equipment levels. It has also accused Iraqi forces in the north of verbally abusing Turkish military personnel legitimately stationed in the region. The Turks and the Americans have long been staunch allies but cracks have formed in their relationship since the invasion of Iraq, which Turkey warned against at the outset.

Former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made clear he believed Turkey had let America down by refusing to allow passage of American ground troops into northern Iraq.

Turkey feels similarly aggrieved at Washington's disregard for its concerns over the manifestation of an independent oil-rich Kurdish state on its borders. Such a state, it fears, would incite, inspire and support the large Kurdish minority within Turkey to push for their own independence.

Indeed, the Iraqi constitution allows for a referendum this year on the status of the multi-ethnic oil town of Kirkuk, which Iraq's Kurds would like to see incorporated into their territory. If such a referendum goes ahead and results are in favour of the Kurds, not only will this lead to further sectarian clashes within Iraq, the Turkish government is likely to go ballistic.

In fact, Washington is in a difficult position. Although it officially deems the PKK a terrorist group it does not want to antagonise the Kurdish leadership.

Negotiated deal

However, if a recent negotiated deal between Washington and Tehran reaches fruition, Turkey will achieve its goal of limiting Kurdish puissance without firing a shot.

During a summit on Iraq held in Sharm Al Shaikh last May, Iran apparently agreed to quit its support of Shiite militant groups in return for a phased US withdrawal and a commitment that Iraq would not be split into three.

Iran further shares Turkey's concerns about an emerging Kurdish entity and has made it clear to the US that this would not be acceptable.

But Iraq isn't the only issue. In 2005, the Pentagon warned the Turkish president not to visit Syria; a warning he ignored. In 1998, Syria and Turkey were on the brink of conflict over Kurdish rebels that Ankara accused Damascus of harbouring but bridges were mended in 2000 and, in 2004, the two countries signed a free trade agreement.

In April last year, the Turkish foreign minister said his country had turned down a request from Washington to use Turkish airbases during an attack on Iran along with the accompanying carrot of US assistance with building a nuclear reactor.

Interestingly, while the Turkish-American friendship may be wearing thin, Turkey and Russia, once strategic rivals, have increased ties. Moscow firmly supported Ankara on the status of northern Cyprus, which is still to be decided and Turkey is dependent on Russian gas.

If Turkey is excluded from eventual membership in the EU, then it might have little choice other than to cozy up to other outsiders such as Russia, Syria and Iran.

Turkey is at a crossroads. Not only does it physically straddle Europe and Asia it is currently doing a political balancing act between the two. With a substantial population of 71 million, a thriving economy and a sophisticated military, Turkey should be wooed by the West. Instead, it is being marginalised and treated with suspicion. Big mistake!

There may come a day when Turkey decides it has had enough bending over backwards trying to fit into a mould created by the West and decide it's Asian after all.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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