By Dorian Jones
The mistaken, late December Turkish airstrike that left 35 Kurdish civilians dead highlights an apparent shift in US policy toward Ankara. The change could end up undermining efforts to promote democratization in the Middle East and North Africa.
Officials in Ankara now suggest the late December tragedy was the result of faulty or misinterpreted intelligence provided by a US drone, which is believed to have misidentified smugglers crossing into Turkey from neighboring Iraq as militants belonging to a Kurdish rebel group, the PKK.
The ill-fated air strike was the byproduct of an ongoing Turkish military crackdown against the PKK, which is fighting for greater Kurdish minority rights in Turkey. Winter is usually a quiet time for the decades-long conflict, as the rebels have traditionally retired to their bases to wait out the region’s harsh winter. But this year the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised no let-up in the Turkish military’s pursuit of the militants. Drones appear to be an important asset in the government’s strategic push. Prime Minister Erdogan has expressed the belief that the insurgency can be defeated with help of high-tech weaponry. Parallels with Sri Lanka’s annihilation of the Tamil Tiger insurgency are increasingly being cited in Ankara. In the coming months, US Cobra attack helicopters are due to be delivered, as the Turkish military seeks to check off another item on its shopping list of American military hardware.
“The last few months we are seeing an escalating military response,” said Cengiz Aktar, political scientist at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University. “Within this conception of conflict resolution, it is clear governmental circles like very much all high-tech military equipment, like these drones, and we are seeing the results of it. Similar types of mistakes are happening all the time in Afghanistan.”
The four US drones that are reportedly operating out of the Turkish airbase at Incirlik were redeployed late last year to Turkey from Iraq. The drones remain under US control and they mostly monitor on-the-ground conditions in Iraq. But they also provide Ankara with intelligence concerning suspected PKK movements along the Iraqi-Turkish border.
In the past, Washington seemed reluctant to sell such military hardware as attack helicopters to Turkey, in part due to concerns about Ankara’s rights record and the possibility that the weapons might be used against internal enemies. But those hesitations appear to be fading.
“Cobras are being sold to Turkey without the US Congress making noise. That speaks volumes in my view,” said Soli Ozel, an international relations expert at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. “Now that the Americans have left Iraq, cooperation between the two partners has increased in order for Turkey to fight the PKK. And on Syria, we are on the same page, in fact some commentators have said Turkey is becoming [an American] sub-contractor.
“Turkish and American policy is being realigned: they are getting very tight,” Ozel added.
The importance of Ankara within the context of Washington’s vision for the region goes deep. The Obama administration sees predominantly Muslim Turkey as a potential model for the emerging democracies of the “Arab Spring.” But efforts to promote a Turkish democratization model are hampered by a dichotomy in Turkey itself: the government has taken controversial steps of late that seem to go against core democratic principles.
Emma Sinclair Webb, the Turkey representative for the US-based group Human Rights Watch, voiced frustration over what she believes is the alarming indifference from both US and European Union leaders to troubling domestic developments in Turkey.
“Unfortunately because Turkey’s foreign policy is so attractive to the West, the effect of that focus on the foreign policy is a greatly diminished focus on the domestic scene, on human rights, on the process of democracy in Turkey. All of these are getting a lot less attention than they merit,” Webb said.
“While you have got the Kurdish [PKK} issue, you have got a huge crackdown on Kurds who are in a legal, democratically elected party,” Webb continued. Turkish government actions that create the appearance of stifling civil rights make it harder for Turkey to be a credible role model that encourages democratization in the Middle East and North Africa, Webb suggested.
Among the questionable moves made by Ankara of late have been the December arrests of more than two dozen Kurdish journalists under broad anti-terror laws. They are accused of supporting the PKK. Since last June’s parliamentary election in Turkey, nearly 4,000 members of the main legal Kurdish political movement, the Peace and Democracy Party, have been detained on similar charges.
In December, US Vice President Joe Biden raised more than a few eyebrows when he did not raise democratization concerns while on his visit to Turkey. That may well be because a key part of the vice president’s mission centered on enlisting Ankara’s full support in enforcing sanctions against Iran, as well as bolstering cooperation in addressing geopolitical challenges in Syria and Iraq.
The apparent free hand that Washington is giving Ankara has potentially significant risks, cautioned Aktar, the political scientist. Ankara could end up winning its war against the PKK in such a way that lowers the odds of the Arab Spring evolving in a democratic direction. “What we are seeing is Obama is prepared to ignore bad behavior by his ally for his own goals,” Aktar said. So what we see today is not a political or proactive reformist action by the (Turkish) government, but instead a very radical robust completely militarily minded response to the Kurdish conflict.”
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.