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
In fact, Washington is in a difficult position. Although it
officially deems the PKK a terrorist group it does not want to antagonise the
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
Iran further shares Turkey's concerns about an emerging
Kurdish entity and has made it clear to the US that this would not be
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.
S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes
feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.