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ISR Issue 57, January–February 2008


U.S. allies square off

Washington’s dangerous game with Turkey and the Kurds


WHILE THE Bush administration has touted the supposed success of its military “surge” strategy in Iraq in recent months, the U.S. also found itself trying to head off the eruption of a conflict between its Iraqi Kurdish allies and Turkey, Washington’s NATO partner to the north. On October 17, the Turkish Parliament voted to authorize the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to launch a cross-border military offensive against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an organization of Turkish-based nationalist rebels fighting for an independent Kurdish state from the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq.

The vote was the result of pressure from top Turkish generals, and was fueled by a xenophobic media campaign targeting the Kurds, who make up 20 percent of the Turkish population, in addition to the 5.5 million living in northern Iraq and millions more in Syria and Iran. As of early December, Turkey has more than 100,000 troops amassed along the country’s border with Iraq and saber-rattling from the Erdogan government has reached a fever pitch. There are frequent skirmishes between Kurdish rebels and Turkish troops, as well as the aerial shelling of PKK targets.

The PKK emerged in 1984 as a major force in response to Turkey’s oppression of its Kurdish population. Since the late 1970s, Turkey has waged a relentless war of attrition that has killed tens of thousands of Kurds and driven millions from their homes. The Kurds are the world’s largest stateless population—whose main population concentration straddles Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria—and have been the victims of imperialist wars and manipulation since the colonial period. While Turkey has granted limited rights to the Kurds in recent years in order to accommodate the European Union, which it seeks to join, even these are now at risk.

In an eerie replay of the U.S. rhetoric leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Turkish government has insisted that it needs no other nation’s permission—including that of the U.S.—to wage a full-scale attack on the Kurdish rebels. Like Russia’s scorched-earth campaign against Chechnya or Israel’s war on the Palestinians, Turkey’s escalation against the PKK is a clear example of how Washington’s “war on terror” has given nations across the world a political logic to justify inflicting state terror against populations that hold long-standing and legitimate political grievances.

The intensifying conflict puts Washington in a precarious spot. The U.S. has sought to balance between placating Turkey, an important strategic ally in the region, and assuaging the pro-U.S. Kurdish forces that play a central role in the federal government in Baghdad and run the relatively stable Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) zone in northern Iraq.

But this balancing act has come under great strain. The political autonomy and economic development of the KRG seriously alarms Turkey’s ruling elite. The Turkish establishment sees growing Kurdish power in Iraq as one step down the road to a mass separatist movement of Kurds within Turkey itself, fighting to unify a greater Kurdistan. In late October 2007, Turkey’s daily newspaper Hurriyet accused the prime minister of the KRG, Massoud Barzani, of turning the “Kurdish dream” into a “Turkish nightmare.”

A critical flashpoint in this conflict is the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, the potential future capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Kirkuk is a major strategic prize since 11 billion barrels of oil reserves are estimated to lie under the city, and it is home to two pipelines that export oil to Turkey, although sabotage by the Iraqi resistance has frequently taken these offline since 2003. A referendum is scheduled to take place by December 31 to determine whether Kirkuk will join the KRG, an outcome Turkey wishes to avoid at all costs. While the status of the referendum remained unclear in early December, the sectarian logic set in motion by the U.S. occupiers is now fully in play in the battle for governance over the city, with Kurdish parties, non-Kurdish Arab forces aligned with the Iraqi government, and the Turkish-backed Turkomen minority all vying for control.

A report by the International Crisis Group highlights how the struggle over Kirkuk could detonate the relative stability that Washington’s Kurdish allies have overseen in northern Iraq: “The Kirkuk question could...trigger total deadlock, breakdown, and violent conflict, just when the Bush administration hopes its security plan for Baghdad will yield political dividends.”

In the meantime, the Bush administration and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have taken an aggressive public stance backing Turkey’s effort to crush the PKK. Turkey has received pledges of intelligence support from the Pentagon to target the rebels, which the U.S. State Department classifies as a terrorist organization. Bush met with Erdogan on November 5, and affirmed that, “The PKK is a terrorist organization. They’re an enemy of Turkey, they’re an enemy of Iraq, and they’re an enemy of the United States.”

However, the U.S. anxiously seeks to avoid an all-out Turkish invasion of northern Iraq. Such an invasion could disrupt crucial military supply lines used by the American occupying forces, and undermine their most reliable relationship with their Kurdish collaborators, including the political parties of Barzani and current Iraqi president Jalal Talabani.

Unfortunately for Washington, Turkey’s version of the “war on terror” has the potential to spiral out of control and potentially damage U.S. interests in Iraq. As Asia Times columnist Pepe Escobar explains, “Ankara’s logic remains flawless, at least from a ‘war on terror’ angle. If Washington invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq to fight ‘terrorists,’ Ankara has the same rights to invade its terrorist-harboring neighbor, which just happens to be an American neo-colony. The irony is obviously lost on the Bush administration.”

The latest round in the Turkey-Kurdish conflict also puts into sharp relief the imperial hypocrisy involved in whom the U.S. chooses to brand as “terrorists.” When it comes to Kurdish rebels, in particular, as Escobar comments, “the war on terror is definitely not an equal-opportunity business.” While classifying the PKK as a terrorist threat, the Bush administration doesn’t bestow the same honor to the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan, or PJAK, a group of Iranian Kurdish guerrillas fighting for regime change in Iran. In fact, the Asia Times and other sources write that the CIA and U.S. Special Forces are aiding PJAK behind the scenes.

What differentiates the PKK and PJAK? Only the enemy they’re fighting. According to the New York Times, the two rebel groups “appear to a large extent to be one and the same, and share the same goal: fighting campaigns to win new autonomy and rights for Kurds in Iran and Turkey. They share leadership, logistics, and allegiance to Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader imprisoned in Turkey.” 

So Washington’s terrorists are, when fighting Iran, also its freedom fighters. The Bush administration’s manipulation of Kurdish nationalism in the service of the U.S. imperial project couldn’t be clearer. This fits two of its important goals: paving the way for a “soft partition” of Iraq—dividing up the country so that Iraqi Kurdistan would be counterbalanced by a Shia south and Sunni central and western spheres—and eventual regime change in Iran. But Turkey’s mobilization for war against the PKK shows how such imperial manipulation only paves the way for greater violence and instability.

As the socialist journalist John Reed explained early in the twentieth century, “Uncle Sam never gives something for nothing. He comes along with a sack stuffed with hay in one hand and a whip in the other. Anyone who accepts Uncle Sam’s promises at face value will find that they must be paid for in sweat and blood.”

Aaron Hess is a member of the International Socialist Organization in Madison, Wisconsin. He can be reached at [email protected]

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