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    Middle East
     Apr 29, 2006
Cool in Ankara: A partnership under strain
By M K Bhadrakumar

Conventional wisdom holds that any serious US diplomacy with any of Iran's neighbors at this time would have something to do with the US-Iran standoff. So the red-carpet welcome extended to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev by the White House this week underscored the extent to which Washington is prepared to go to woo Iran's neighbors.

Until very recently, Aliev figured prominently on the US "watch list" of dictators dotting the post-Soviet landscape. Indeed, hardly four months ago, Baku was paranoid that Washington was

plotting another "color revolution", this time in Azerbaijan.

But now it is time to kiss and make up, which Washington did without any hesitation. Azerbaijan happens to be very valuable real estate for any US operations directed against Iran. Iranian national-security chief Ali Larijani alleged in an interview with the Arab media earlier in the week that US intelligence operatives have already begun working out of Azerbaijan.

The warmth extended to Azerbaijan contrasted sharply with the coolness in Washington's relations with another important regional player. The Iran nuclear issue indeed figured in the talks during US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Turkey on Tuesday. But the two erstwhile Cold War allies agreed to disagree. As soon as Rice wound up her visit, Ankara accepted a pending proposal from Tehran for consultations with Larijani.

Iran's chief negotiator on the nuclear issue, Ali Larijani is expected to visit Ankara next Wednesday. (This is in addition to the likely meeting between Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on the sidelines of the Economic Cooperation Organization summit meeting scheduled to take place in Baku next week. Ankara also hosted Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for a two-day visit just before Rice arrived.)

The Rice visit throws light on the differing priorities of Turkey and the United States at the present juncture of Middle East politics. Even the prominent Turkish commentator Mehmet Ali Birand, a sincere proponent of Turkish-American friendship, had to admit, "The way Ankara and Washington see Hamas is worlds apart. The Justice and Development Party ... believes constantly slamming Hamas and cutting aid will not lead to anything concrete and instead will result in an escalation of violence."

On Iran, Birand pointed out, there is broad agreement between Turkey and the US that Iran should not become a nuclear-weapons state. But having said that, he added, "The difference of opinion is how Iran can be stopped. Are aggressive methods like embargoes, isolation and military intervention the way to go, or is diplomatic persuasion preferable?

"Ankara wants diplomacy, while the US prefers more aggressive approaches ... Turkey is worried about the US policies in the region that are based on trying to isolate countries. Efforts to isolate Syria, Hamas and Iran are causing consternation in Ankara. The basis reason this is so is the fact that such policies will shut down all of Turkey's links to Central Asia."

Conceivably, for Rice's Turkish counterpart, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, the priority in their talks in Ankara on Tuesday was not the Iran nuclear issue. The top agenda item in Turkish-American relations, as one views it from Ankara, happens to be Iraq. Specifically, this concerns the serious escalation in Kurdish violence in Turkey's southeastern provinces in recent weeks.

The German newspaper Der Spiegel gave a colorful twist to the situation by writing last week that "the government in Ankara is worried about a Kurdish intifada". But the realities on the ground are grave enough for Ankara to be seriously concerned. Fifteen soldiers, four police officers and more than 40 Kurdish militants have reportedly been killed in the recent outbreak of violence. There were eight incidents of terrorist bombings that left two people dead and 47 injured.

Turkish media reports in recent days pointed toward substantial reinforcements of the security forces in the border region with northern Iraq. Some reports put the figure of Turkish troop deployment at 250,000. The Turkish Daily News quoted military officials as putting the figure at about 120,000 troops. Naturally, considerable speculation followed whether Turkish forces might resort to "hot pursuit" of Kurdish guerrillas into their sanctuaries in northern Iraq. Turkey's chief of general staff, General Hilmi Ozkok, insisted that Turkey's national-security concerns could not be compromised in any way.

Talking to journalists in Ankara last Sunday, General Ozkok said, "Turkey is a sovereign country. If conditions warrant it, Turkey would use its rights just like any sovereign country. The country from where the attacks are made [Iraq] should take measures and prevent that. If they don't or if the [attacks] cannot be prevented, then those conditions ['hot pursuit'] will be considered."

On the eve of Rice's visit to Ankara, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani voiced concern over these Turkish troop deployments. Gul left no one in doubt about Turkey's expectations. At a joint press conference with Rice after the talks in Ankara, Gul said Turkey looked forward to "more cooperation" from the US in the fight against terrorism.

"We have more expectations from the American side," Gul said. He stressed, "The [Kurdish] terrorist organization is benefiting from a vacuum in northern Iraq, and they have started to inflict harm, and I have shared these views with my colleague."

In her response, Rice was non-committal. She treaded old ground by stressing the importance of intelligence sharing and "other means to prevent any vacuum from being used as a way to inflict harm here in Turkey". On the other hand, Rice exhorted Ankara on the "need to work with the new Iraqi government ... We have had a trilateral [US-Turkey-Iraq] mechanism to work on this issue, and I hope that we can invigorate it when there is a new Iraqi government."

Gul was clearly unimpressed by Rice's cool response. He went on to elaborate Turkey's concerns in a political idiom that one might hear from Moscow or Beijing: "Now, fighting against terrorism is a duty for us all, and as we fight against terrorism, we see that there are different kinds of terrorist organizations, and the terrorist organization that we are concerned about and the terrorist organization that our allies may be concerned about may be different from one another. International solidarity is important here, so if we take one terrorist organization more seriously as opposed to another one, that may create some sort of [double standards] in the fight against terrorism in the international platform. And Turkey has had a lot of [double standards] as regards PKK [Kurdish Workers' Party] terrorism."

The foreign minister said there are thousands of Kurdish terrorists in northern Iraq and "they are able to freely move around, and that area has become a training ground for them ... they have begun stepping up their activity inside Turkey ... And, of course, like every country, Turkey will take her own precautions, and as we take our precautions, international relations and relations with our neighbors are very important for us. And within that framework of course, we will - we have a lot of expectations from the coalition forces ... And what we are doing is to establish better control of our borders ... our job is to protect our own soil ... And the security forces are taking precautions and measures, and this is not something new. It's been done in previous years. So, otherwise, we have no claim on anybody's soil, on any country's soil for that matter."

Rice remained icy cool, nonetheless. She insisted the US was "active in helping" Turkey. Then she warned, "But of course we want anything that we do to contribute to stability in Iraq, not to threaten that stability or to make a difficult situation worse. And that is why a cooperative approach to this problem, cooperation between Iraq, Turkey and the coalition is very important, and it's that cooperation that I think we're both committed to."

No sooner had Rice left Ankara, however, that she changed her earlier travel plan to proceed to Sofia, Bulgaria, and instead headed for Baghdad, where the Iraqi government delivered a protest note to Ankara alleging Turkey's "hot pursuit" into northern Iraq and conveying concern over the Turkish troop buildup on the Iraqi border regions.

The growing perception in Turkish opinion is that the United States' Kurdish allies in northern Iraq are actively helping the PKK guerrillas, and that the US itself is "the master of all puppets in Iraq" - as the Turkish Daily News sardonically commented on Rice's visit. According to media reports, after the Turkish troop movements, PKK leaders in northern Iraq have been spirited away to "safe areas in Baghdad" - presumably, so that they will be beyond the long arm of the Turkish military.

For its part the US seems to be sending an unambiguous message to Ankara - friendship is a two-way street. If "strategic partnership" were to make allowance for differences of opinion regarding the Iran nuclear issue or Hamas and Syria, can it be any different apropos the fight against terrorism?

But the issue is not a limited question of Turkey's "hot pursuit" of Kurdish guerrillas. There is a fundamental clash of interests between the US and Turkey over the future of Iraq. There is no country that has such a high stake in the preservation of Iraq's territorial integrity as Turkey. But in fact Iraq is disintegrating - and Turkey sees that happening day by day.

More important, Turkey is not unaware that a debate has begun in the US about how to cope with a splintering of Iraq. The debate is no longer an esoteric intellectual exercise by pro-Kurdish opinion-makers like Peter Galbraith. The strategic community is getting involved - including pro-Israel neo-cons.

Turkey's interest in the former Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Arab Sunnis arguably devolved on a common denominator - their commitment to Iraqi identity in traditional nationalist terms. Turkey views with consternation that the Kurdish north is already acting as if an independent Kurdistan is a reality.

Ankara suspects that the Kurdish leadership's real reason for insisting on removing Jaafari from the post of prime minister was that he wanted to pursue a "recentralization strategy" in the direction of a unified Iraq with the support of Sadr and Arab Sunni groups. This explained Ankara's decision to host a visit by Jaafari in March and even to contemplate a visit by Sadr to Turkey - Talabani could barely disguise his anxieties about what Turkey was up to. (The Washington Post reported that in the recent days the coalition forces cited units of Sadr's militia for the first time in Kirkuk.)

In this context, the real intentions of the US in rooting for Jaafari's removal must be viewed by Turkey as serving Kurdish interests. The Kurdish groups are understandably opposed tooth and nail to any restoration of Baghdad's authority. They would prefer a weak central authority in Baghdad presiding over an confederal Iraqi state for the present until such time as Kurdistan can assert its full independence. The Kurdish groups would not allow under any circumstances the stationing of Iraqi military forces on Kurdish soil without the concurrence of the Kurdish National Assembly, nor would they forfeit their right to police northern Iraq's border regions with Turkey and Iran.

With the removal of Jaafari from power, Turkey would conclude that the process toward a looser Iraq was gaining momentum. The only thing breaking that momentum would be if an Arab nationalist bloc could be galvanized to take up arms to oppose Iraq's slide toward federalism. But Turkey will not take such an initiative.

At the same time, the US would be hard-pressed to persuade Turkey that federalism itself could have the potential ultimately to reduce violence and disorder, which was, after all, Turkey's main concern. Turkey knows that the US is hardly in a position to give any guarantee that tomorrow Kurdish national aspiration may not assume wider proportions - encompassing an entire arc running from Syria to the Iranian border, which includes Sinjar, Makhmour, Mosul, Tuz, Kirkuk, Khanaquin and Mandali.

Certainly, during Ali Larijani's visit to Ankara next Wednesday, Turkey would want to harmonize its concerns over the Iraqi situation with Iran. Turkey would ascertain whether on the broader plane of the loosening of Iraq as a federal state Iran would see a positive process in its implications for "Shi'astan" - the Shi'ite-majority southern provinces. But, equally so, Iran would seek Turkey's continued understanding on its standoff with the United States.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

Iraq's next premier: Spot the difference (Apr 25, '06)

Turkey snaps over US bombing of its brethren (Sep 18, '04)

Turks, Kurds and the US-Turkish relationship (Jul 29, '03)

Turkey, Kurds highlight rift in US alliance (Feb 28, '03)


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