Obama, Turkey, and the PKK

In less than one month, US President Barack Obama will make an official visit to Turkey.  The visit, arranged during Hillary Clinton’s trip there, is designed to “strengthen and deepen” the ties between the two countries while working together “on behalf of peace, prosperity, and progress.”  As part of his visit, Obama will also address the Turkish parliament in Ankara.

During the previous US administration, US-Turkey relations dipped to low, low levels.  Even in the general public US approval ratings were at 12%. Ankara saw the US as preventing them from “chasing down the PKK.”  Relations, however, improved tremendously in 2007 when the Bush administration began to share intelligence with Ankara on PKK movements in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.  Turkey has been bombing the area since December of 2007.

In the last 72 hours alone, four Kurds with the PKK have been killed by Turkish shelling in the area.  The Turkish government says under international law, Turkey enjoys a right to pursue the PKK into northern Iraq to protect its citizens and sovereignty, a right indistinguishable from the United States claim of authority to invade any country that harbours terrorists.  The “if you can do it, then we can do it” argument.

In November 2008 the US, Turkey, and Iraq set up a joint committee to monitor the PKK. The central command centre, established in the Kurdish city of Hewler (Arbil), is designated to eradicate the PKK in northern Iraq.

There are a number of PKK-related initiatives on Obama’s Turkish agenda.  One is designed to get the group “to lay down arms”, reported by Sabah.  Prior to Clinton’s visit to Turkey, US diplomats had meetings with Kurdish politician from different political parties to discuss possible solutions to the Kurdish question.

While Turkey now seems overly enthusiastic with Obama’s prospective visit, the country was downright apathetic over Obama’s election last November.  In fact, the only message sent from Erdoğan noted that “the election result shows there is no longer a black-white problem in the United States.”  This stems partially from Obama’s strong support for recognition of the Armenian massacres of 1915-1917 as a genocide.  Obama has said repeatedly that the Armenian genocide is a “widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence.”

Erdoğan referred to Obama at that point (early 2008) as “an amateur of politics” and said that Obama may one day have to “choose between 70 million Turks and two million Armenians.”

So fast-forward twelve months or so and Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ali Babacan is saying that he thinks “the new American administration understands Turkey’s sensibilities better today” and strongly suggested the US not interfere.  He also described the US as a “friend and ally.”

What does all the diplomatic double-speak actually mean?  And what is the bottom line for the region’s Kurds?

Photo taken from the now defunct blog Zanetî

Photo taken from the now defunct blog Zanetî

The US needs its airbase at Incirlik (located near Adana).  The military will apply its pressure on the US administration to maintain good relations with the Turks.  More pressure will come from the Turkish lobbying group, the Turkish Coalition of America.  In the end Turkey will continue to have the green light to pursue the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan.  Obama will embrace Turkey to help him succeed in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan.  Clinton will seek Turkey’s support in negotiating peace deals between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

In short, the US administration will turn a blind eye to the plight of the Kurds in favour of its regional agenda of reconciliation.  So no help for the Kurds, and if Obama wants Turkish assistance in the region, no mention of the “genocide” either.


Butler, D.  Turkish trip intensifies dilemma for Obama.  14 March 2009.  AP

Obama to visit Turkey, says Clinton on damage control visit.  08 March 2009, Brisbane Times.

Obama’s PKK plan. 13 March 2009.  Sabah.

Obama’s Tepid Turkish Welcome.  09 November 2008. Untold Stories: Dispatches from the Pulitzer Cener on Crisis Reporting.

Sassounian, H. Erdogan’s Insulting Words about Obama May Haunt Turkey after the Elections. 31 January 2008.  The California Courier (found at Armeniapedia.org).

Turkish Minister warns Obama against ‘genocide’ recognition.  09 March 2009. The Daily Star.

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