The Fog of War on Terror
What Does the US Attacks on the PKK Portend for
Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, and for Regional Stability?

by Sacha Guney

December 20, 2003

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Not so long ago, before the recent carnage in Istanbul, Richard Holbrooke (Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations) spoke out in the media and called the Bush administration’s request for a Turkish troop deployment in Iraq a “diplomatic fiasco.”

Holbrooke may be far from a post in any administration and no one actually may have been paying any attention to what he had to say, but still, one shouldn’t dismiss the accuracy of this statement. If anything, it serves to draw attention to developments in the region that could surely pass unnoticed.

All this seems like ancient history because, unfortunately, the world’s attention turned to Turkey for entirely different reasons and the shock of serial truck bombings could overshadow events and matters of extreme importance to Turkey, Europe, and the Middle East.

At about the same time Holbrooke was criticizing Bush’s failure to secure Turkish soldiers for duty in Iraq, Turkey’s foreign minister Abdullah Gul announced on November 10th that American military forces had “clashed” with the PKK in Northern Iraq.

As news from the new Iraq goes, this was a very unusual statement. We’ve heard of leftovers from the Saddam regime, Baath party holdouts, ill-defined insurgents or resistance fighters, looters, and of course, the hordes of foreign fighters that the US military has been fighting in Iraq since May 1st; but what is the US military doing engaging the PKK?

The PKK, or Kurdistan Worker’s Party, is a guerrilla force that emerged in the early 1980s to demand everything from more autonomy for Turkey’s Kurdish population to full independence and a Kurdish homeland. Their demands were met with fire and brimstone from Turkey’s military-dominated state authorities.

Since then, the conflict has done in as many as 30,000 people and displaced countless more. The Turkish army’s determined offensives during the mid-1990’s forced the weakened guerrilla movement to seek refuge in the remote mountain regions of Northern Iraq. The guerrillas have since benefited from the post-1991 Gulf war situation and a no fly-zone over Northern Iraq enforced by NATO.

The same campaign involved the burning and razing of 3,000 Kurdish villages, the displacement of millions of civilians, and a dirty civil war where the state security apparatus frequently took to eliminating suspected pro-Kurdish businessmen, intellectuals, journalists, and politicians.

This period was also marked by a strong, repressive regime in Turkey that employed the systematic use of torture as police procedure, and the prohibition of anything Kurdish. The Kurdish language, everything from children’s first names to music in cafes, was banned, as was any mention of the “Kurdish problem” in the media.

The PKK also used terror as a tactic and deserve no sympathy. They have since diminished in influence, partly because of the success of the Turkish campaign, and mainly since 1999 when the group’s founder and leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured and imprisoned.

When a PKK representative in Rome issued a statement in November, and fliers were circulated in Baghdad announcing the group’s new strategy of dissolution and the use of political means, this looked familiar.

The BBC reported that in April 2002 the PKK changed its name to KADEK and announced a transformation in its politics, renouncing violence and seeking resolution through political means.

Because of forces beyond their control, the PKK-KADEK are now more vulnerable than ever before. Unconfirmed reports of talks between the rebel group and US military occurred in late October. Reportedly, the chief demand of the rebels was not to be turned in to Turkey.

As for the recent skirmish, one may be tempted to think that it was just an isolated incident, but unfortunately all signs point otherwise. This is important because if the US has indeed begun a campaign against the PKK, the future is grim. A spokesman for the PKK warned, “We are here for peace, but if our freedom is taken from us we are here for the most horrendous resistance.”

The reports of combat between U.S. military and PKK fighters came only a few days after the plan to deploy as many as 10,000 Turkish soldiers in central Iraq was quietly and definitely shelved in less than glorious circumstances.

The temporary Governing Council opposed any such deployment, and despite all the Turkish government’s readiness to go through with the plan, Washington could not overrule the Council on this matter lest it mean a complete discrediting of any idea of a sovereign democratic Iraq.

Consider it quite a victory for the Iraqi Council, who stood by their statement of “no military forces from neighbouring countries.” Without stretching it too much, Iraq probably avoided a first step in the spread of conflict to neighbouring states.

In Iraq, where American forces are under daily assault, adding ten thousand fresh targets certainly would have had consequences. But would it have turned the tide, freeing American forces to fight the enemy more effectively? What would have been the toll on the civilian population?

Turkey was fully ready to commit a substantial amount of soldiers to patrol a portion of central and western Iraq, and the government had been preparing for this eventuality for months before the parliament’s positive vote in October.

Zaman Newspaper in Turkey reported that:

This happened despite the fact that the vast majority of the [Turkish] people opposed the motion, despite there being no U.N. or NATO decision asking Turkey to send troops, despite no major country agreeing to do so, despite the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council making no invitation, despite the fact that even the Iraqi Turkmens declared “Turkish troops should not come without U.N. authorization,” despite the resistance against American occupation hardening with every passing day, despite the hostility against the U.S. growing in the Islamic world, and despite increasing signals indicating that Turkish troops would be treated like occupiers.

Richard Holbrooke’s statement that the whole incident had left Ankara “angered and embarrassed” is not inaccurate. The opinions of Talabani and Barzani on the Council, and Kurdish opinion in general, are simply irrelevant to the Turkish military command. Many could not understand why the U.S. did not secure service in Iraq for Turkish troops when they had specifically asked for it. The diplomatic failure, in Turkey’s eyes, was the failure to get the Council to go along with the plan.

In any case, Turkey seems to have convinced the U.S. to do its dirty work in Iraq. Moreover, Turkey’s military will continue to operate in Northern Iraq. They have said so many times.

The government’s spin campaign for a troop deployment in Iraq lasted for weeks, if not months, with constant reminders from government officials. The official justification for a military commitment followed the logic that an unstable Iraq would be no good for Turkey (which is true, trade is crucial and would benefit the chronically underdeveloped southeast) and Turkish soldiers would be there to “provide peace” and maintain the “territorial integrity of Iraq” (a matter of opinion and an unsettling euphemism).

Beyond this simple equation lies a web of competing interests that can erupt into full-scale violence at any time. This much is true: besides the economic opportunities, Turkey’s main interest in Iraq really is to maintain the “territorial integrity of Iraq.”

Translation: no autonomous state for the Kurds in Northern Iraq.

If this wasn’t clear already, when Turkey’s ambassador to the US said that a Kurdish Northern Iraq would be a “disaster”, he was referring to the influence Kurds are now wielding in the Governing Council and any doubt should have been erased. Turkey is afraid of Kurdish autonomy like an elephant is scared of a mouse.

Should a leading role have been given to Turkey in the reconstruction of Iraq, how could this not have conflicted with the Kurdish population in Iraq?

The capture of Turkish special forces in Suleymaniya in the summer and sporadic communal violence between Kurds and Turkmens in Mosul and Kirkuk are mere preludes to an answer.

As for the PKK, the truth is that Turkey feels that this is the America’s responsibility. After all the PKK are a terrorist group and the US is the de-facto authority in Iraq.

So is Washington merely pursuing its war on terror or is it more a case of complying with the demands of a crucial ally?

When the Associated Press quoted senior rebel commander Cemil Bayik as saying, “Turkey ... wants to eliminate us by pitting the United States against us in Iraq,” this only confirmed what the Turkish government had been saying all along. Government officials have been quite clear: one way or another the PKK was going to be “eliminated”.

In the same breath, Turkish officials would deny that a Turkish troop deployment to the “Sunni heartland of Iraq” was bartered for US action against the PKK, and then deny that the very same Turkish troop deployment in central Iraq was bartered in exchange for not stirring the pot in Northern Iraq (i.e. not moving against the PKK lest the Iraqi Kurds blow up at them). No, Turkey was going to Iraq to provide peace and that was that.

Many predicted that after the war in Iraq, the US was going to have to balance a fine juggling act to avoid disintegration in the north and the involvement of neighbouring states.

Well according to Bush the war is over and the first ball has been thrown into the air.

Abdullah Gul let it slip that the most pressing issue was what the US would do to fight against the PKK in Northern Iraq. Gul added that he did not believe the US administration had any intention of making Turkey wait for concrete steps in this matter.

Curiously, the same article quoted Gul as having said that the US hadn’t made any demands about a Turkish troop withdrawal from Northern Iraq.

There are no secrets in Turkey, just carefully avoided truths. Turkish special forces have regularly gone into Iraq to strike at PKK guerrillas. The US decision to engage them is a move to prevent Turkey from escalating its offensive and possibly igniting the powder keg that is Northern Iraq.

Strategically, the US is trying to prevent Iraqi Kurdish fighters from engaging Turkish soldiers. Conceivably, the addition of another military target unconnected with Saddam’s regime can be considered as part of the plan for stabilizing Iraq.

But this must be recognized for what it is: the PKK have nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction or Saddam’s “reign of terror.”

It has a lot to do however with a Northern Iraq at peace or in chaos. Depending on the way things follow through between the PKK and the US, the lid might just be kept on the boiling pot.

At any time, all of this can be swept aside by the grumbling tensions of the local populations in Northern Iraq. Turkmen and Kurd populations, and their militias, are dangerously near open conflict. Several incidents have already been recorded, including attacks on civilians and assassination attempts on politicians.

The PKK is thought to have somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 fighters in their mountain bases of the Qandil region. America’s course of action in this matter is important to say the least. In October, the Turkish military announced it had clashed with PKK militants in the Tunceli region of south-eastern Turkey. Business as usual. Not much is ever reported on this front.

All this has been overshadowed by the bomb attacks in Istanbul. Bush has designated Turkey as a battleground in the war on terror. Thanks a lot. Who wants to live in a “battleground”? To be sure, the scenes of the bombings sure look like a battleground, but the rest of Istanbul and Turkey for the most part do not … at least for now.

The bombings have prompted many world leaders to offer statements of support for Turkey and they stress the need for unity in the “global war on terror.” Many commented that the bombers targeted Turkey because it is a moderate, secular, and democratic state.

Frequently, the case for Turkey’s accession to the European Union is made along the lines that the country can serve as a model for the Islamic world. There is much to support this idea, and support is absolutely crucial.

However, all is not so black-and-white. Statements that “Turkey is the world’s only Muslim democracy” belie a more complex political history. In the strictest sense, it can be hard to defend Turkey as a pluralist democracy.

Ten years ago, the Turkish army burned and razed 3000 Kurdish villages from the map, displaced millions. The secret police killed or “disappeared” a couple thousand journalists, writers, lawyers, politicians and human rights activists. Thousands more were beaten by police at demonstrations, sometimes shot and killed, tortured in detention, and sentenced to dozens of years in prison.

All this in the name of “protecting the unity of the Turkish state” from “separatist terrorists.”

It is worth mentioning that parents still have trouble registering their son or daughter’s name if they happened to have given their child a Kurdish name. Although the law on “Native Languages” was amended last year, there are still no language courses for Kurdish and it will be a while before Kurdish is heard on national radio or television.

It is equally worth mentioning that things have progressed and there are numerous improvements. The goal of European Union membership remains a powerful agent for reform.

November’s terrorists were not Kurdish and want something entirely different. So this is not a comment on the situation of Kurdish people in Turkey.

The point is that after the bombings in Istanbul, everything has just been royally confused, and it could spell danger.

The US is waging a war on terror.

Terrorists have struck a major blow in Istanbul.

Turkey’s allies are denouncing this attack on a “moderate, secular democracy.”

Behind the scenes and unconnected with the militant Islam of Al Qaeda, the US is certain to continue its operations against the PKK, or whatever they call themselves now.

Suddenly, with the US military’s new target, the “war on terror in defence of freedom” has just been tangled up with the very real and legitimate democratic aspirations of Turkey’s 12 million Kurds.

This is not to say that the Kurdish people by and large support the PKK or armed rebellion or terrorism as a means for achieving their demands.

This is saying that the Turkish state came down incredibly hard on these demands in the most undemocratic way. The labels “separatist” and “terrorist” were handed out like candy to the detriment of thousands.

Leyla Zana, the country’s first Kurdish woman member of parliament, and her democratically elected colleagues are still in jail, coming up on ten years, for addressing the Turkish parliament in Kurdish and representing the wishes of their constituents. Their parliamentary immunity was revoked in order to prosecute them for “promoting separatism.”

The lines have been blurred once again. Only time will tell if the new war on terrorism morphs into a rollback for the limited but significant advances in Turkey’s democracy. Turkey has a long way to go still, especially in terms of resolving the problems of its minorities -- many of whom live in the southeast regions and share ethnic bonds with their neighbours in Iraq, that other battleground in the war on terror.

A justification for military action against PKK militants is beside the point. The US military is still accountable for their actions, even if they enjoy impunity.

Just because another distraction from the important long-term issues in Iraq has got everybody’s attention (the capture of Saddam Hussein) doesn’t mean we can afford to forget that a daily war is being fought, and has been fought for a long time – and it has nothing to do with a “liberated Iraq” and the insurgency.

Silence kills as much as bullets do.

Sacha Guney is a Canadian journalist currently living in Istanbul, Turkey, and working for a Turkish daily newspaper. Sacha can be reached at: sacha@rift.com.







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