By Tulin Daloglu
- As Turkish military jets pounded the strongholds of Kurdish separatist terrorists in Northern Iraq, 2007 ended on a hopeful note for the relationship between the United States and Turkey. Despite all of the fear mongering about a cross-border Turkish operation against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets in Northern Iraq, Washington continues to share with Ankara actionable intelligence to help these operations succeed.
This may signal a "return to normal" after four years of complicated and strained relations since the Turkish Parliament refused to allow U.S. troops to cross into northern Iraq via Turkish land. Now, the question is whether this new atmosphere of cooperation can be sustained. It's hard to know. But Turkish President Abdullah Gul will be one of the first official foreign visitors to Washington in 2008, when President Bush welcomes him to the White House on Jan. 8.
It's difficult to judge whether this visit will further boost the already positively energized atmosphere. On the one hand, the mere fact that the meeting is taking place in the immediate aftermath of Turkey's operation into northern Iraq is important. Without a doubt, the two presidents will use this opportunity to create warm, candid pictures of friendship. But it will be a brief meeting in the morning followed by a quick lunch, as Mr. Bush will leave for a Middle East tour. No state dinner or other pageantry will signal a special relationship; the meeting will take place as a duty to be fulfilled. Its ultimate significance may well become clear in the next six months.
The Kirkuk referendum will take place six months from now. While Kurds claim historical ownership of oil-rich Kirkuk, Turcomans believe that historically it is theirs. Over time, Saddam Hussein's policies changed the fabric of the city, making it more Arabized. Now Kurds are following in his footsteps, alternately pacifying and scaring the Turcomans and other minorities of the area. If Kirkuk becomes part of Iraqi Kurdistan, Turks might surmise that the U.S. supported the Turkish military operation against PKK targets in Northern Iraq to ensure that Kirkuk would be part of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Iraqi Kurds already sign oil deals without the approval of the Baghdad central government. If Kirkuk were to become part of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurds' aspiration for autonomy that may pave the way for full independence will be interpreted as U.S. policy.
The irony is that Washington continues to stress the importance of keeping Iraq's borders intact, while Kurds only care about maximizing their welfare and freedom at the expense of the central government. Yet if Iraqi Kurds give up their aspirations on Kirkuk, the U.S.–Turkey relationship will not only return to normal, but the broken trust between the two will be repaired. It's always best to hope for a revitalized relationship. Turkey is signaling that it is aligning with U.S. policies and does not feel the need to look for alternatives.
On the other hand, Turkey's relationship with Iran continues to cause concern in Washington. "Now is not the time for business as usual with Iran," said Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, at an Atlantic Council event in September. "We urge all of our friends ... not to reward Iran by investing in its oil and gas sector — not while Iran [is] seeking [a] nuclear weapons capability and currently defying two U.N. Security Council resolutions by proceeding with this nuclear research at its plant at Natanz." Since then, Washington has not only stopped criticizing Turkey's strengthening relationship with Iran, but the National Intelligence Estimate has concluded that Iran had stopped its nuclear program, which confused many people about whether or not Iran really poses a nuclear threat.
In this environment, Washington continues to embrace the leaders of the current Turkish government as representatives of "moderate Islam." Last night, Istanbul's traditional New Year's Eve celebration in Taksim Square — the city's equivalent of the Times Square extravaganza in New York — was cancelled. The official reason was to pay respect to the mourning families who had lost loved ones in PKK attacks. America is also mourning the many brave men and women who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet the celebrations in New York weren't called off.
Little by little, decisions like this chip away at the influence and presence of Western culture in Turkish life. Violence and mourning are an unfortunate fact of life. But they aren't all of life. They can't be, else those who aim to impose tyranny and fear on society will succeed. Life must go on. The decision to cancel the Istanbul celebration was wrong — and it's a bad way for Turkey to ring in the New Year.
Tulin Daloglu is a freelance writer.