Two obsessions in Turkey may appear unrelated – a recent surge in Kurdish militant attacks and the mass killing of Armenians nearly a century ago – but they are swiftly combining as a strategic tipping point in US-Turkey relations that could affect American forces in Iraq.
Amid widespread calls for revenge after the killing of some 30 Turkish soldiers and civilians in two weeks by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – and the failure of US and Iraqi forces to curb the attacks from bases in Iraq – the Turkish parliament is expected next week to authorize cross-border operations into northern Iraq.
Turkish warplanes and artillery are reportedly already targeting PKK camps, but an incursion could destabilize the one area of Iraq that has been relatively peaceful since the US invasion in 2003.
And complicating the situation is a US congressional committee's approval Wednesday of a resolution calling the 1915 massacres by Ottoman Turks a "genocide." Turkey called the decision "unacceptable," after warning that the vote could jeopardize US access to a military airbase crucial to resupplying US troops in Iraq.
President Bush said the non-binding resolution "would do great harm to our relations with a key ally in NATO and in the global war on terror," echoing a letter from all eight living former secretaries of state opposing the resolution.
Turkey accuses the US and Iraqi Kurdish forces in northern Iraq of providing safe haven and military support for an estimated 3,000 PKK rebels, and not doing enough to stop cross-border attacks. US commanders and Iraqi Kurdish officials say they are doing all they can to stamp out PKK activity, but their reach is limited in the remote mountains along the border.
The US has "been caught between their tactical alliance with the Kurds in Iraq, and their strategic alliance – at least what it used to be – with Turkey," says Bulent Aliriza, a Turkey analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"The reality is that the US relies to an incredible extent on the Iraqi Kurds … and any meaningful action by the Turks would annoy the Iraqi Kurds and change the balance in Iraq against the US in this war," says Mr. Aliriza. "The worst thing that could happen, from the point of view of the [White House] is for the Turks to intervene, creating an even bigger mess in Iraq."
Analysts say a large incursion is not likely, though domestic pressure is growing on Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to act against the PKK. A spike in attacks this spring prompted the top brass of Turkey's military – the second largest ground forces of the NATO alliance, after the US – to call for government approval to cross into Iraq.
Turkish troops into Iraq?
This week Turkish units have begun deploying along the border, as the Turkish media speaks of a possible incursion of 15,000 soldiers and even creation of a buffer zone 10 to 20 miles deep inside Iraq.
But Turkey has been here before, during an estimated 24 previous cross-border operations against the PKK in the 1980s and 1990s. The two largest took place in 1995 and 1997, the latter with 50,000 troops, but the PKK remained.
The Turkish military is "very well aware of the pros and cons of a cross-border operation into northern Iraq, and everybody knows it wouldn't be an easy task to step there because you could have some losses, you could have some terrible results – you never know," says Metehan Demir, a military specialist in Ankara with the Sabah newspaper.
"When you go there, you will not only be facing the PKK. You don't know what the peshmerga [Iraqi Kurdish militias] will do; you don't know how the Americans will contribute to the peshmerga or PKK behind the scenes," says Mr. Demir. "These are real concerns in the Turkish capital."
A mechanism created in August 2006 to defuse a crisis and prevent a Turkish incursion has brought few results.
President Bush appointed retired Gen. Joseph Ralston, a former NATO supreme allied commander, to be his envoy to counter the PKK. But his mission has been fraught with frustration and his resignation was confirmed this week.
General Ralston's Turkish counterpart was fired several months ago after making comments critical of the US, and in tough words published this week, he said anyone who did not help Turkey fight terror was also guilty.
Effects of US 'genocide' bill
"Some people claim the PKK is doing these attacks to pull Turkey into the northern Iraq swamp, in order to harm Turkey's relationship with the US and to isolate Turkey," adds Demir. "If you add an Armenian genocide bill onto this ongoing turmoil over the PKK attacks, it will be terrible for Turkish-American relations."
Already much of that damage is being done, though the vote by the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday – taken in the presence of four Armenian survivors of the World War I-era events – mirrors one passed by a wider margin in 2005 and another in 2000 that were withdrawn. This time, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she will bring the nonbinding resolution to a vote of the full House, perhaps in mid-November.
Turkish newspapers on Thursday were scathing. The mass-circulation Hurriyet called it "bill of hatred." The daily Vatan gave this front-page headline, about those who voted for it: "27 foolish Americans."
American businessmen in Turkey have also lobbied against the measure, noting how French market share has tumbled by double digits as high as 70 percent in the year since France passed a bill criminalizing Armenian genocide denial.
French exports to Turkey have also fallen by $1 to $2 billion in the past 12 months, by one count, while the value of most other trading partners expanded. Turkey denies that a systematic genocide of up to 1.5 million Armenians ever took place – a description and figure accepted by many historians – saying that mass killing was carried out by both sides.
Weighing the pros and cons
Speaking about "this enormous blot on human history," congressional committee chairman Tom Lantos (D) of California opened the session this way: "We have to weigh the desire to express our solidarity with the Armenian people and to condemn the historic nightmare through the use of the word 'genocide,' against the risk that it could cause young men and women in the uniform of the United States armed services to pay an even heavier price [in Iraq and Afghanistan] than they are currently paying."
Some congressmen said the Turkish warnings of retaliation were a bluff, with one saying he felt as through a "Turkish sword" was over his head. "We can't provide genocide denial as one of the perks of friendship with the United States," added Rep. Brad Sherman (D) of California.
But others expressed shock. "This is crazy," said Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana. "We're in the middle of two wars and we've got troops over there that are at risk, and we're talking about kicking the one ally that's helping us over there in the face."
Administration officials – and Turkish politicians – pointed out that 70 percent of the US military's air cargo destined for Iraq transits through the US air base at Incirlik in eastern Turkey, and 30 percent of the fuel used by US forces.
"Our most reliable resource of unfettered intelligence that is helping us in the Middle East comes through Turkey," Rep. David Scott (D) of Georgia told the committee.
"The Armenian question is plain as day: What was done to them is wrong. The issue is: What is in the best interest of the national security of the United States?"