Turkey's fate tied to stability in Iraq

May 12, 2006|By JOHN C. BERSIA

ISTANBUL, TURKEY -- As Turkish protesters railed against U.S. policies in the Middle East, singling out Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for criticism, a merchant in the city's Grand Bazaar dismissed the fury and proudly showed me a photo of him with first lady Laura Bush.

Clearly, the spectrum of opinion runs wide and is quite freely voiced in this democratic Islamic nation. As far as I could tell, the protests unfolded peacefully, although two people went too far for authorities. After they displayed a banner reading "Murderer Rice Get Out" from the upper-floor window of a McDonald's, police arrested them.

Americans, especially those who have had their own differences with the Bush administration's Middle East policies, can appreciate such intensity of feelings. But the debate somehow seems more palpable here, given Turkey's many troubled and disruptive neighbors: meandering Iraq in full flirtation with mayhem, ill-tempered Iran with its menacing nuclear program and meddlesome Syria.

The Turkish government particularly has a serious, urgent stake in Baghdad's return to stability. It centers on the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which waged a separatist insurgency against Ankara from 1984 to the late 1990s, leaving more than 30,000 people dead. Not surprisingly, in my conversations on terrorism here, the PKK entered the discussion more readily than groups such as al-Qaida that Americans know better.

Hard-core affiliates of the PKK returned to violence in recent years, prompted, some Turks suspect, by the intervention in Iraq. I have to admit that bombings attributed to PKK elements in Istanbul in March and April - and an earlier attack that damaged a hotel a short walk from mine - gave me pause.

Complicating matters, those miscreants easily find sanctuary in northern Iraq. That creates a sticky mess for Turkey, Iraq and the United States. Northern Iraq falls under the sway of Iraqi Kurds who, incidentally, are not only friendly to Washington but generally condemn the PKK's tactics. However, that's small consolation for Turks, who see Iraqi territory being used to attack them. Ditto for Ms. Rice's insistence that a permanent Iraqi government will help curtail Kurdish violence in Turkey.

Turks understandably are concerned first and foremost about their security, which tempts them to take matters into their own hands. In fact, rumors circulated in recent weeks that Turkish troops had crossed the border into Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish insurgents; Ankara denied it. Should that happen, it would add immeasurably to tensions in northern Iraq.

If the situation were not complicated enough, consider this ominous twist:

Turkish authorities arrested six suspected al-Qaida operatives last month who reportedly were plotting attacks in Turkey. Istanbul prominently was the site of that group's wrath in 2003, when attacks on the British Consulate, the HSBC Bank and two synagogues killed dozens and wounded hundreds.

I would not be surprised if al-Qaida sought an opening from the upswing in violence by Turkish Kurds. After all, their militancy draws attention from al-Qaida's activities. Even more disturbing, I have heard from more than one source that an association of convenience could have developed between al-Qaida and Kurdish insurgents in Turkey.

That would make sense, given that both seek to thwart the Turkish government. And there is no question that the PKK could offer invaluable information about chinks in Ankara's security apparatus. If so, violence inside Turkey easily could expand.

But if Ms. Rice is right and Iraq's government permanently gels, the terrorists - Kurdish and others - manipulating the situation would suffer setbacks, which would help ease the season of Turkish discontent.

John C. Bersia is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, a special assistant to the president for global perspectives and a professor at the University of Central Florida. His e-mail is jbersia@orlandosentinel.com.

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