A Triadic Conundrum: Turkey, Kurds, and the United States

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Exclusive to The Daily Banter

By Daniel Ritchie

The United States has entered a precarious situation in an area of the world which has been notoriously entangled in historical turbulence: northern Iraq. The Ottomans, the British, the Baathists and now the Americans are playing a deadly game of divide and conquer, with the local Kurds being the major playing piece.

The United States, and subsequently the Iraqi government, have been using the Kurds in northern Iraq to help combat Islamic militants in the northern territory due to their willingness to cooperate with the US (with the hope of strengthening their position in the new Iraq), and their existing and relatively organized infrastructure, something that has been in existence since 1992 when a no-fly zone was established over Kurdish dominated territory after the first Gulf War. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which has been working with the US, has solidified power in the region and maintains political hegemony over Kirkuk, an oil rich, and thus valuable strategic city which the Kurds claim as the capital of the stateless Kurdish nation.

However the support of the KRG has caused many problems with Iraq’s neighbors, namely Turkey. Turkey has been battling the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a group set on establishing a Kurdish State by force, in and out of its boarders since 1984, and now the new freedom granted to the Kurds in northern Iraq since the US invasion has created a haven for the terrorist group. The PKK, from northern Iraq, has been killing Turkish soldiers around the Turkish/Iraqi border, which has led to the recent military operations by Turkey in Iraq in order to stop the attacks. In May of last year, the Turkish government declared martial law in three provinces that border Iraq, and proceeded to mass troops, armor, and artillery along the border and threatened to invade if the United States and the Iraqi government did not halt the PKK attacks, which this year they made good on their threat. The KRG is reluctant to reign in the PKK because if its usefulness as a strictly secular battle-hardened force against Islamic extremists and the great sympathy held among the Kurds for the desires of the PKK.

This seems, at face value, straight forward, however it is not. Rather than working to curtail the PKK, the United States is using its offshoot, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PEJAK), a group like the PKK but set on freeing up sections of Iran instead of Turkey, to attack Iran by proxy. According to a Financial Times investigation in 2006, U.S. Marines are working with Iranian minorities to see if “Iran would be prone to violent fragmentation along the same kind of fault lines that are splitting Iraq.” I have also been living in Ankara since July of 2007 and am currently working for an independent Turkish think tank, and have listened to US think tank representatives give lectures on Iran and mention the US’s support of PEJAK. “I think everybody in the region knows that there is a proxy war already afoot, with the United States supporting anti-Iranian elements in the region as well as opposition groups in Iran,” says Vali Nasr of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The problem of course is that the aid given to PEJAK circulates through the various Kurdish networks and US arms end up in PKK hands, which they then use to kill Turks. Turkey has long been complaining that the PKK is using U.S. weapons, urging Washington to resolve the problem and to illuminate past cases. The Turkish Daily News quoted Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell: "We don't deal with terrorists. We don't deal with the PKK and we certainly don't arm the PKK. So if American-issued weapons have ended up in the hands of criminals in Turkey or terrorists in Turkey, that is not based upon the policy of this department or this government." Of course it may not be the direct policy of the US government to arm the PKK, an official terrorist organization according to Washington, but the arming of the terrorist organization PEJAK in turn helps arm the PKK, and they of course know this.

This policy is causing major problems in Turkish/US relations, which Turkey is a NATO member and strong US strategic ally, not to mention potential member of the EU. In addition, it is indirectly arming an officially designated terrorist organization, which the hypocrisy is disgustingly self-evident. Furthermore, the arming of PEJAK will not do much to the Iranian government in the end and be little more than a thorn in its side, while the arming of Kurdish terrorist groups escalates the scale of violence and conflict in the region, complicates northern Iraq, angers Turkey, and makes the US a hypocrite.