Turkey Rattles Sabers at Kurdish Iraq

David Cuthell on Kurds and Turks

Turkey is threatening to cross into northern Iraq, pursuing Kurdish rebels who've killed 15 Turkish soldiers since Sunday.

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LUKE BURBANK, host:

Well, for all the chaos in Iraq since the U.S. invasion, there's been one place of relative calm in the country: Kurdistan. Located in the north of the country, the region largely runs itself. It even has a tourism Web site. That calm, though, could be interrupted as neighboring Turkey considers invading Kurdistan to do battle with local rebels - rebels who've allegedly killed 15 Turkish soldiers since Sunday.

Turkey is a U.S. ally, and the Bush administration is really hoping they stay out of northern Iraq. But things are getting sticky, because even as things devolve over there, a resolution floating around over here in Congress would brand the Turks guilty of genocide for their actions almost a hundred years ago.

All right. If you're a little confused, don't feel bad. We've got someone here to kind of fill us in on this. David Cuthell is executive director of the Institute of Turkish Studies and a professor at Georgetown and Columbia.

Hi, David.

Professor DAVID CUTHELL (Executive Director, Institute of Turkish Studies; Professor, Georgetown University, Columbia University): Good morning.

BURBANK: Let's start with this fight between some of the Kurds in northern Iraq and the nation of Turkey. What exactly are they fighting over?

Prof. CUTHELL: Well, this is a battle that goes back several decades. It involves a group called the PKK, which is a Kurdish independence group that seeks to, essentially, take part of northern Turkey and turn it into a Kurdish homeland. So needless to say this - from the Turkish perspective, this is unacceptable, just as it would be unacceptable for a group to carve out, say, Arizona and New Mexico and then take it away from the U.S.

BURBANK: Turkey is a pretty important ally to the U.S. in terms of what's going on in Iraq, for one thing because it, you know, borders Iraq. How has that relationship gone during the war?

Prof. CUTHELL: Well, it's been difficult. And, you know, at the beginning of the war, the U.S. basically went and told the Turks that they were going to have to transit U.S. troops. And they'd recently had elections, and 95 percent or more of the Turkish public didn't want to do it. And the Turkish government listened to the public and denied the transiting of troops. And since then, relations with United States have been fairly cool.

On the other hand, our big airbase in southeastern Turkey, Incirlik, is the key staging area for logistics in northern Iraq. So it's been tense, but it's been a, you know, a relationship that works.

BURBANK: I mean, does this threaten to really undo that, though?

Prof. CUTHELL: It has the potential. The question now is, you know, do the Turks sort of ramp up to the next level? Clearly, yesterday's activities are a slap in the face of the Turks in terms of Turkish pride.

There is considerable debate, actually, as to what really happened. There is no debate as to the fact that the Armenians lost their homeland and hundreds of thousands, if not a million plus were killed. But, you know, for Congress to essentially go in and legislate history or try to legislate history is something that will drive a great number of Turks crazy now. Today's a holiday. So we really won't know…

BURBANK: What holiday is it?

Prof. CUTHELL: Sorry?

BURBANK: Do you know what holiday it is?

Prof. CUTHELL: The end of - it's the end of the Biram, where you fast.

BURBANK: Okay.

Prof. CUTHELL: And when things get back to business, I think you'll see, you know, some activity in parliament. I think the Turks have been pretty…

BURBANK: Let me just, if I could, though, back you up…

Prof. CUTHELL: Sure.

BURBANK: …for a minute, David, because you said yesterday you're talking about this resolution in Congress. Now, this is a kind of separate but related kind of beef, and it has to do with how the Ottoman Empire treated the Armenians. This is back in the early 1900s.

Prof. CUTHELL: Right.

BURBANK: These people are not the Kurds. But there has been this kind of long running point made by some historians and certainly by people of Armenian extraction that this was a genocide that happened. And the Turks have really not wanted to call it that and said it hadn't - that wasn't the case. So what happened in Congress yesterday?

Prof. CUTHELL: Well, Congress essentially passed a - or in the committee in Congress passed a non-binding resolution condemning the Armenian genocide. So essentially, they put there their prestige behind the notion that, in fact, there was a genocide. Now, the problem is that the - all the sides have not - the Armenians and the Turks - have never sat down and had a really rigorous series of conferences and opened up the archives and looked at what actually happened.

I mean, what happened - we know that many hundreds of thousands of people were killed, including hundreds of thousands of Turks - or Turkic people, as well as Kurds. The circumstances are, basically, no one has absolutely ascertained what happened. And I know there are a lot of people who will disagree with this. But some of the archives - French and the Armenian archives, the Dashnak archives which are in Boston - have never really been open to the public. So…

BURBANK: Well, with that…

Prof. CUTHELL: …on one hand, you have an academic issue. On the other hand, you have politicians deciding that they're going to throw their weight behind and de facto say that this existed.

ALISON STEWART, host:

Did I miss something, David? Why would this House committee get involved at this point?

Prof. CUTHELL: Because the Armenian lobby in the United States is extremely powerful. And it's the Armenian community in Southern California has been pushing for this for a long time. And we also have weakened in the presidency. And it was interesting to see their justifications yesterday. But it's their -the Turkish lobby is not as effective here in this country. And they lobbied hard as well. But it's politics, pure and simple.

BURBANK: Well, I'm putting aside a possible minefield of what exactly happened a hundred years ago in Turkey. Let's talk about sort of these times. Basically, what this is, is an insult to the nation of Turkey by the U.S. Congress by adopting this, even if it's just in a committee.

Prof. CUTHELL: Well, they're certainly going to take it that way. I think that, you know, they've let it be known that they would consider this to be a major insult to them. The question now becomes, you know, do they want to balance this against the other things that they want? And they're still dedicated to joining the E.U.

The U.S. and Turkey has been longstanding allies. And, you know, it's a political calculation here. Do they want to ramp it up and risk a total rupture? On the same time, you know, at the same time, we have strong interests in maintaining, you know, Turkish friendship, especially in terms of prosecuting the war in Iraq.

BURBANK: Yeah. It should be noted the president was not happy with this resolution…

Prof. CUTHELL: No.

BURBANK: …at all because, you know, he certainly has to play in the same sandbox as Turkey.

Prof. CUTHELL: It could make things very, very difficult. If, for instance, they really do close down Incirlik Air Force Base, we're going to be logistically blind in the north, and it would be extremely difficult for us to re-supply and to coordinate air strikes. We're allowed to launch cruise missiles in Incirlik. You know, they haven't totally cut us off there. In fact, we have a pretty free hand.

It also would probably allow the Turks to use this as cover to - and I think that this is a possibility, is they'll use this as cover to - we are now going to pass a law that says we can, in fact, go into northern Iraq. And there's one of that were one of the nightmare scenarios, as if you get U.S. troops exchanging fire with Turkish troops.

I don't think it'll happen, but I think that, you know - unless cooler heads prevail, we could be in a situation that's - it really becomes a good deal more nasty. And I think Congress should have thought this one through. Although, there was a lot of talk about this from the people who voted against the bill yesterday.

BURBANK: There's another interesting question I want to get to you about dividing Iraq up into three countries and how Turkey feels about that. We're unfortunately out of time, but maybe we can take that up with you at a future time.

Prof. CUTHELL: It'd be a pleasure.

BURBANK: David Cuthell, executive director of the Institute of Turkish Studies, professor at Georgetown and Columbia University.

STEWART: We have his phone number. We will be calling him again about that subject.

BURBANK: It's in the archives, in the database.

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