Turkey vs. Kurdistan

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The Thunder of Turkish War Drums

by Eric Margolis by Eric Margolis

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The current crisis between Turkey and the Kurds has been building up for decades. In recent weeks, Turkish-Kurdish tensions burst into flames. Marxist-nationalist PKK guerrillas fighting for an independent nation for Turkey’s 20 million or so Kurds killed a score of Turkish soldiers and captured eight.

Hundreds more Turkish soldiers have been killed in eastern Anatolia by increasingly effective Kurdish fighters known as "pesh-merga," who have been receiving more and better weapons from fellow Iraqi Kurds.

Fiercely nationalist Turks demand their armed forces invade Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish mini-state to destroy PKK bases. The Turks have massed 100,000 troops and armor on their mountainous border with Iraq. Limited Turkish air attacks and ground probes inside Iraq began last week.

A decade ago, I covered the brutal guerilla war in the hills of bleak, windswept Eastern Anatolia between Kurdish PKK guerrillas (Turks brand them "terrorists") and the Turkish Army. At the time, the world ignored this ugly conflict in which 35,000 people had by then died. I came away torn by sympathy for both sides in this tragic conflict.

No one should be surprised by this crisis. Critics long warned the US invasion of Iraq would inevitably release the genie of Kurdish nationalism. Creation of a virtually independent, US-backed Kurdish state in northern Iraq was certain to provoke a violent reaction by Turkey.

Ankara has warned for a decade it would never tolerate creation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq which it fears would quickly spark demands by Turkey’s restive Kurds for their own state.

Washington has been piously urging "restraint" on Turkey, a key US ally. By contrast, after two Israeli soldiers were captured last year in a routine border clash with Hezbullah guerrillas, the White House gave Israel a green light to bomb and invade Lebanon, killing over 1,100 civilians and causing $4 billion of damage.

This crisis is a huge mess for all concerned. Turkey provides 70% of air-delivered supplies to US forces in Iraq and allows US military aircraft to use its airspace. Turkey also quietly allows Israel certain overflight rights, which may eventually include the right to launch an air blitz against Iran through Turkish air space. Israel’s recent air attack on a mysterious Syrian building was flown over Turkish territory. Turkey’s military approved the Israeli overflight; its civilian government knew nothing about the attack until afterwards.

Meanwhile, anti-Americanism is peaking in Turkey. Turkey’s powerful army and civilian government make conflicting policies. Turkey’s popular democratic government wants no part of America’s war in Iraq and is loathe to attack Iraq, fearing getting embroiled in the US-created debacle. But Turkey’s powerful military establishment, a state within the state with very close links to the Pentagon and Israel, is pressing for an invasion of Iraq.

Iraq’s Kurds, America’s only ally in that strife-torn nation, discreetly back the PKK, and are working for fully a independent Kurdish state. The Kurdish mini-state in northern Iraq is already de facto independent, with its own government, finances, army, and flag. The feeble US-installed regime in Baghdad has almost no influence over the Kurds, even though its president, Jalal Talabani, is also one of the two senior Kurdish leaders.

Turkey’s government must respond to surging public outrage, but fears major military action in Iraq will foreclose its hopes of getting into the European Union, and put it on a collision course with the US in Iraq. Interestingly, US forces in Iraq have turned a blind eye to the PKK’s operations there and to its cross-border attacks into Turkey.

Israel, which has its eye on Mesopotamia’s oil, is secretly backing Iraq’s Kurdish mini-state and hopes one day to build an oil pipeline from Iraqi Kurdistan to Haifa, either via Jordan or through a splintered Syria — which is also high on Israel’s hit list. But Israel is also a close ally of Turkey’s right-wing generals who hate Kurds as much as their own democratic government led by able PM Recep Erdogan. The Israelis are thus caught in the middle of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, just as they were recently during the bitter dispute between Turkey and the Armenians.

A new danger looms. The US invasion devastated Iraq and effectively split into three pieces — fulfilling the first step in Israel’s grand strategy of fragmenting Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Iraq’s Mosul oil region, which formerly belonged to the Ottoman Empire, is a mere 119 kms from Turkey’s border. Kirkuk is only a bit further. After World War I, the British Empire grabbed this oil-rich region, cobbling together the unnatural state of Iraq to safeguard the oil.

If Iraq slides further into the abyss, Turkey and Iran may partition Iraq. Today, Turkey has no oil. Its fragile economy is hammered by having to earn US dollars to buy oil. But if Turkey repossessed Iraq’s northern oil fields, this nation of 70 million with 515,000 men at arms would become an important power that would reassert traditional Turkish influence in the Mideast, Balkans, Caucasus, and Central Asia.

"Pan-Turanism," the idea of spreading Turkish influence from its eastern border across the Turkic lands of Central Asia to the Great Wall of China remains dear to the hearts of many Turkish nationalists and far rightists. Iraq’s huge oil reserves are a big temptation Ankara cannot ignore. After all, if the US can invade Iraq for oil, why not neighboring, ex-owner Turkey?

Meanwhile, Washington mutters about launching attacks on PKK, which it also brands "terrorists." But with the glaring double standards typical of US Mideast policy, Washington closes its eyes — and may be secretly arming — Iraqi Kurds who are attacking Iran. Turkey insists it is fighting "terrorism" and has every right to strike into Iraq to protect its national security — one of President George Bush’s justifications for invading Iraq.

This Kurdish fracas comes just as Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush are fanning hysteria over Iran and threatening war. Their latest claim: Iran "might" have nuclear knowledge, so is a world danger.

Welcome to Washington’s new bogeyman: "thoughts of mass destruction (tmd’s)."

Throw in the growing crisis in key US ally Pakistan, and we face one unholy mess.

Eric Margolis [send him mail], contributing foreign editor for Sun National Media Canada, is the author of War at the Top of the World. See his website.

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