Iran Looms Over Turkey Crisis Diplomacy

Monday, October 29, 2007

M. K. Bhadrakumar 

With the crisis on the Turkish-Iraqi border region at its peak, and amid distinct signs that a large scale Turkish invasion is imminent, eyebrows were raised when Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan left Ankara on Monday and headed for London. Why London?

another time, in the year 1914, it might have made sense - an Ottoman sultan facing the Arab revolt instigated by Britain, setting out on a voyage from Constantinople, seeking settlement. Of course, analogies from history never quite apply. But there is something extraordinary about these diplomatic activities.

United States President George W Bush revealed on October 17 that he's "told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them [Iran] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon".

Man has never before in his bloody history waged preemptive war against the spread of knowledge. The nearest he came was with the Inquisition when he insisted knowledge was heresy. But when Bush warns of preemptive war, it must be taken seriously. With a world war on its doorstep, Turkey is coming under enormous pressure to take sides.

Erdogan did the right thing visiting Britain. He should check out the thinking in London, pick up signals. The sun may have set on the British Empire, but London still has an enviable say in the affairs of Mesopotamia. The London Times quoted British Defense Ministry sources on Sunday saying that SAS (Special Air Service Regiment) commandos, operating jointly with the US and Australian special forces units, have engaged in at least a dozen intense firefights in the recent weeks with Iranian border guards. The newspaper spoke of British special forces having repeatedly crossed into Iran several times in recent weeks, and of "persistent reports of American special-operations missions inside Iran preparing for a possible attack".

Erdogan would be justified if he wondered as he left Ankara whether the world war had already begun. There are many who think the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York on 9/11 was in line with a 1654 prediction by Nostradamus. They recall that the 16th century seer had written:

In the City of God there will be a great thunder,

Two brothers torn apart by Chaos,

While the fortress endures,

The great leader will succumb,

The third big war will begin when the big city is burning.

To be sure, there is an ominous ring about Bush's revelation on October 17. He could well be the "great leader" that Nostradamus meant.

It's Iran, stupid!

It seems a coincidence that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also happened to be visiting London on Monday. Miri Eisin, Olmert's spokesman, said a meeting with Erdogan had been "added" to the Israeli prime minister's itinerary, and that they would likely discuss Iran's nuclear ambitions and the Palestine peace moves. But why the hurry? It is hardly a fortnight since the Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan visited Israel.

Besides, if the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, is to be believed, there is still plenty of time for diplomacy with Iran. He told Le Monde newspaper over the weekend, "I cannot judge their intentions, but, assuming Iran does intend to acquire a nuclear bomb, it would need between another three and eight years to succeed. All the intelligence services agree on that. I want to get people away from the idea that Iran will be a threat from tomorrow, and that we are right now faced with the issue of whether Iran should be bombed or allowed to have the bomb. We are not at all in that situation. Iraq is a glaring example how, in many cases, the use of force exacerbates the problem rather than solving it."

Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband left London at the weekend for Washington for consultations over Iraq and Iran, with particular focus on the tensions on the Turkish-Iraqi border. Erdogan himself is traveling to Washington at the beginning of November. And whenever there is criticality in Western strategy in the Middle East, little Jordan gingerly pops up. To be sure, King Abdullah is visiting Turkey next week.

An apparent theme running through all this diplomatic activity is the snowballing crisis in the Turkish-Iraqi border region. But somewhere in the near background, there is the lengthening shadow of the Iran question. Israeli diplomatic activity has picked up sharply. Olmert has just concluded a packed European tour. Israeli intelligence officials and opinion makers in the strategy community are fanning out and are descending on friendly capitals such as New Delhi. They carry fearsome tales about Iran. Israel seems geared up for a big-time role.

The point is, several unanswered questions remain about the sudden eruption of Kurdish violence in Turkey's eastern provinces bordering Iraq and Iran. Some templates are visible.

The PKK enigma

It is at once obvious that the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) is not acting on its own. The PKK cadres are extremely well equipped and far better trained than at any time in their 25-year campaign of violence. Equally, it is common knowledge that the president of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, Massoud Barzani, is playing hide and seek (which comes naturally to a wily Kurd reared in the tough mountains of his homeland) - publicly dissociating from the PKK; pleading inability to curb PKK activities from bases located in territory under his control; but reserving the right to oppose any Turkish cross-border operations in pursuit of the PKK.

There is also much evidence that weapons given by the US to Barzani, ostensibly for fighting al-Qaeda, are finding their way into the PKK's hands. How this can happen no one cares to explain. Barzani is a staunch ally of the US - and of Israel. The US pleads its forces are overstretched in Iraq and cannot do anything much by way of curbing PKK activities.

Yet nothing much can happen in that region without US acquiescence. It is a region where the US Special Forces have been active in kidnapping visiting Iranian functionaries. They are pretty much clued in on what goes on there. The Kurdish region is a crucial theater of US strategy in Iraq. The US is using northern Iraqi Kurdistan as a launching pad for undertaking covert activities within Iran.

The same is the case with Israel. Israeli businessmen are having a whale of a time in northern Iraq. They are there for the long haul. They have bought up much real estate in and around Suleymaniah. They are traveling in a gravy train with corrupt Kurdish local officials. They have grandiose business plans riveted around the evacuation of northern Iraq's oil and gas via Turkish pipelines. They are thick with Barzani too.

Northern Iraq is a region where Israel has established a very strong intelligence presence over the past four years. It is a region that is central to Israel's strategy toward Iran. Without doubt, Israel enjoys extraordinarily close ties with the Kurds of northern Iraq who have lately been taunting and bleeding Turkey.

No way to treat an ally

Erdogan told the Sunday Times, "We have told President Bush numerous times how sensitive we are about this [PKK] issue but up till now we have not had a single positive result. America is our strategic partner. But in northern Iraq we feel that both the terrorist organization and the administration there are sheltering behind America ˇ¬ It makes us sad to see American weapons being found in the possession of the terrorist organization acting against Turkey."

Erdogan couldn't be grandstanding. The allegation is very serious. Thus, we have a curious situation in which PKK terrorists, equipped and trained by hidden forces, launch operations inside Turkey and retreat to their safe havens in northern Iraq. But the US opposes any retaliation by Turkey that might affect the stability and tranquillity of northern Iraq. Yet Turkey has been one of the staunchest allies of the US for the past half a century.

What is slowly emerging is that Washington has begun bargaining with Turkey. The timing of the raking up of the controversy over the Armenian massacre of 1915 in the US Congress reinforces suspicion that there is a pattern here.

The fact remains that Turkey's regional policies have changed course under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. Ankara has become noticeably circumspect in the recent years toward the US's regional policies. Apart from the Islamist roots of the AKP government, other factors have come into play. Turkey's resounding "no" to the US request for support during the invasion of Iraq in 2003; the chill in Turkey's relations with Israel; the dealings of the AKP government with the Hamas leadership in Palestine; the warming of ties between Turkey and Iran and Syria; Ankara's calibrated distancing from the US strategy in Iraq; the strengthening of Russia-Iran cooperation; the growing flexibility in Turkey's relations with the West and a newfound proximity between Turkey and the East: all these added up as complicating factors in US-Turkey relations over the past four years.

All the same, Turkey remains crucial for US strategic interests in the Middle East and the Black Sea regions. There is added urgency if a US military strike against Iran is to be mounted by Washington in the coming months.

To be sure, the PKK raids from northern Iraq are forcing Ankara to make an existential choice. Ankara is on a painful learning curve. Unseen hands are compelling it to turn to the West and knock on Washington's door for help.

There is no doubt that the cascading PKK violence is beginning to hurt Turkey. In the words of opposition leader Deniz Baykal, "The knife has reached the bone." Ankara is being made to realize that it simply cannot afford to have an independent foreign policy in the region. The bottom line is, Turkey forms part of the Western security system and the bondage is like a Catholic marriage. A divorce is simply inconceivable.

Britain steps in

From such a perspective, it stands to reason that in the true spirit of the good guy, Britain is stepping in with loud affirmations of sympathy for Turkey's suffering. On the eve of Erdogan's arrival in London on Monday, and just prior to emplaning for Washington, Miliband gave a resounding statement of support to Turkey. He said, "Let us be clear. The PKK is trying to destroy the Turkish government's efforts to improve the situation of people in the southeast of the country, provide conflict between Turkey and Iraq, and damage regional stability."

He called on "all in the region, especially Iraq, to express their disgust at these [PKK] attacks. I call on the international community to be unequivocal in its condemnation of PKK terrorism and to support Turkey in restoring stability."

Following Erdogan's talks with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the two countries signed on Tuesday a strategic partnership agreement, which inter alia commits Britain to support and maintain the momentum of Turkey's European Union accession talks. The two sides have vowed to promote trans-Atlantic partnership and improve cooperation in global security, especially in the fight against terrorism and nuclear non-proliferation; and promote regional stability and peace, especially in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

But what remains unanswered is whether the Turkish agenda and the Anglo-American agenda in Iraq are fundamentally reconcilable. Any partition of Iraq will impact on Turkey's national interests. Turkey cannot but react to the emergence of a Kurdish entity on its borders. There is no certainty what form a Turkish reaction may take. Again, Turkish public opinion will overwhelmingly remain hostile toward a US military strike against Iran. The Ankara government cannot remain impervious to the public opinion. That means, in essence, Ankara would have a problem meeting the expectations of the US (and Israel) to become a "balancer" vis-a-vis Iran on the Middle East chessboard.

A US settlement

Least of all, as Erdogan told the Sunday Times, "In our country a serious wave of anti-Americanism is fast gaining a momentum all of its own. This did not happen overnight for no reason. The developments in Iraq are very important here."

Erdogan went on to explain why this is so: "The United States came to Iraq from tens of thousands of kilometers away. Why and for what purpose it came I cannot say. But if you ask me my personal opinion, there is no success that I can see. There is just the death of tens of thousands of people. There is just an Iraq whose entire infrastructure and superstructure has collapsed. These need to be correctly evaluated."

That is why Bush's apocalyptic vision of an impending World War III will not easily convince Turkey. How to make Turkey bend to the US regional policies in the Middle East remains an open question. The PKK card may have outlived its utility for the present. From now on, the law of diminishing returns will be at work. The better course will be the British way of doing harsh things - first, completely identifying with Turkey's sorrows, and then making an offer that Ankara may be hard-pressed to refuse.

But the buck ultimately stops in Washington. The key meeting will be on November 5 when Erdogan sits down with Bush. Erdogan will want to hear from Bush that Washington is determined to rein in Barzani and the PKK so that a new Iraq war can be avoided. The pashas in Ankara, cautious by temperament, will await the outcome of the meeting. By beating the war drums in the meantime, Turkey has called attention to its demand that PKK leaders based in northern Iraq must be handed over.

Tehran, too, will be watching closely. Its worst fear will be that a Bush-Erdogan settlement could always have a hidden clause regarding World War III. The heart of the matter is that unfortunately, Turkey and the US are seeking mutual concessions rather than addressing the real issues confronting the region.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).


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