Turkey's Pursuit of Kurds Disturbs the Neighbors

Ankara feels surrounded by sympathizers of the rebel Kurds. Its only friend may be Washington.

TURKEY'S military campaign to wipe out a rebellion by a Kurdish minority has put a severe strain on its ties with Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Greece.

Ankara's ire at its four neighbors was unleashed June 25 when senior military officers accused them of supporting the "terrorists" of the PKK - the Kurdish Workers Party, which is seeking autonomy for Kurds in southeast Turkey.

Turkey sees the PKK as its greatest threat since the end of the cold war. About 12 million Kurds live in Turkey, or nearly one-fifth of its population. More than 20 million Kurds live in the area that was known as Kurdistan before World War I, but is now part of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Armenia.

In April, Turkey sent 35,000 troops into northern Iraq to wipe out PKK bases. That operation - the largest undertaken against the Kurds - lasted five weeks and was severely criticized by the West.

On July 6, Turkey launched another cross-border military operation into Iraq to crush PKK militants. About 700 Kurdish families have been displaced in the latest incursion, the United Nations estimates.

Since the Kurd-Turkey fighting began in 1984, more than 15,000 people have died.

PKK establishing bases

Turkey claims that the PKK uses countries on its southeastern border, as well as Greece, as bases for launching attacks on Turkey. And Ankara promises it won't sit still and take it.

And it claims the PKK has a two-pronged strategy: use Iraq, Syria, and Iran as bases for operations while relying on Kurds in Europe to engage in a political campaign to garner support for the Kurdish cause.

"The PKK is today not only a threat to our security because of its terrorist activities causing the death of innocent people, but also to our relations with our neighbors," says a senior government official.

"Our problems and difficulties with most foreign countries now are caused by the Kurdish problem," he adds.

Turkey's charge that Greece may be supporting Kurdish rebels will likely worsen a relationship already tense over the divided island of Cyprus and control of the the Aegean Sea.

The PKK has launched most of its attacks on Turkey from bases in northern Iraq, where Iraqi Kurds were moved after the Gulf war and are under UN protection. Turkey asserts that the PKK has reestablished itself there, and that Baghdad is not doing anything to prevent it.

The Iraqi government on July 8 strongly condemned the new Turkish invasion, claiming it is a flagrant violation of Iraq's territorial integrity.

Last month the Turkish government said that the PKK is beginning to establish bases in Iran, close to the Turkish border, and that Iran was doing nothing to stop the terrorists.

Soon after, President Suleyman Demirel said: "Either Iran [closes the bases] or we will do it," indicating that Turkey is prepared to launch a cross-border raid into Iran, just as it did in Iraq.

Turkey is also angry at Syria because of the reported support it gives to the PKK. Syria has occasionally pledged to stop PKK activities on its territory, as well as in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.

But the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, known as Apo, continues to live in Syria and moves about freely in the Bekaa Valley - where the Kurdish rebels reportedly receive their training.

According to a recent report published in the Istanbul daily newspaper Hurriyet, an "Israeli-style" air attack against the PKK camps in the Bekaa Valley was considered recently, but the government eventually decided against it.

The deputy chief of the general staff, Gen. Ahmet Corekci, when asked at the military leaders' press conference whether Turkey should exterminate Apo, said bluntly: "This is beyond our responsibility. We stick to our mission in a legal way. But like any other Turkish citizen, I also want to see Apo killed."

Turks say Syria supports Apo because it wants to use "the Kurdish card" to press Turkey to release more water from the Euphrates River, which originates in Turkey. So far, Ankara refuses to submit to that demand.

The Turks are convinced that Greece also supports the PKK. Recent statements by the Turkish government claim that Greece allows the PKK to operate freely in Athens, that Kurdish militants who flee Turkey are welcomed in Greece, and that the PKK has training camps on Greek soil.

A group of Greek parliamentarians visited Apo in Syria two weeks ago and expressed support for the PKK cause. And Yasar Kaya, a leading member of the Kurdish Party (DEP), which was outlawed by Turkey earlier this year, was warmly received in Athens. Greece has also permitted the opening of a Kurdish office in Athens.

Prime Minister Tansu Ciller issued a warning to Greece: "Beware of our enemy . . . don't provoke us to counterreact."

But Greece says it opposes terrorism and does not support the PKK. A Greek government spokesman said the contacts with Apo and Mr. Kaya, who is the self-appointed chairman of the "Kurdish Parliament in Exile," were made by "a group of Greek parliamentarians on their own initiative and has nothing to do with the Greek government."

But tension is escalating between the two NATO allies, and other Western countries are urging both sides to use restraint in order to prevent a Greek-Turkish confrontation, which would be disastrous for the stability in the Balkans.

Turkey's relations with other European governments, particularly with members of the European Union, are strained because of the way it has handled the Kurdish problem.

Turkey needs final approval from the EU for a customs union agreement it sees as a first step to becoming a full EU member. But EU nations have urged Turkey to solve the Kurdish crisis through nonmilitary means and have cautioned Turkey to respect Kurds' human rights.

Last May, the Netherlands allowed the so-called Kurdish Parliament in Exile to meet in The Hague.

Turkey retaliated by clamping a boycott on military material from the Netherlands. Turkey has warned other European countries - from Denmark to Austria - against allowing the Kurds to hold anti-Turkish activities in their countries.

US remains supportive

The Clinton administration has remained supportive of Turkey's campaign against the Kurds, but the United States Congress is speaking out against Turkey's human rights abuses and the use of US weapons in fighting the PKK. This provokes anti-American anger in nationalist and conservative circles here.

But liberal Turks recognize that Turkey cannot afford to continue a policy with the "PKK criteria," which damages relations with neighbors and friends alike.

"Turkey's foreign relations are now indexed to the PKK factor," said Turkish commentator Cengiz Candar.

"Because of this policy, every week we are adding a new 'enemy' among our neighbors and European friends. The way to deal with this threat is not to aggravate the relations with the world, but to seek a solution to the Kurdish problem inside Turkey. The passing of the democratic reforms should be the starting point [for a solution]."

But the Turkish parliament voted down such legislative reforms on July 7, and the military is speaking out against any such reforms saying they will hamper the government's attempt to repel the PKK movement.

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