Do United States support PKK? – Turkey ‘has trust issue with US on intelligence’

ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News – 22.10.2012 – Speaking with Deniz Ülke Arıboğan

US intelligence has lost much of Turkey’s confidence as Ankara thinks the US administration has failed to move against Kurdish militants, a scholar says. Turkey no longer entirely trusts U.S. intelligence despite its apparent offer to help eliminate Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) figures, according to a prominent scholar, adding that Ankara has been convinced that the U.S. military presence in Iraq since the Gulf War has fed the militant organization.

Washington has come to see the group as an obstacle in Turkey and wants to eliminate certain figures in the organization, Deniz Ülke Arıboğan recently told the Hürriyet Daily News, while explaining a recent statement on the matter by U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone.

What is your assessment of the U.S. envoy’s messages offering help to kill PKK leader Murat Karayılan?

These types of assassinations are only meaningful when you know who will come afterward. And this might backfire as the successor could turn out to be more radical than his predecessor. This might be an initiative to consolidate [imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah] Öcalan’s leadership, as there are now other power centers in the PKK; like one in the Kandil [Mountains of northern Iraq] and another in Syria.

Why did the U.S. decide to make such a statement at this time?

Turkey is suspicious of the U.S. and is convinced that it is not lending sufficient support [against the PKK]. There is a continuous perception that the PKK has been supported by the U.S. ever since the intervention in Iraq. The U.S. might be aiming at changing this perception. Ever since the beginning of the terror problem, the Turkish public has been attributing [the growth in attacks] to the West despite the fact that the U.S. and the European Union have the PKK on their terror list. The public never talks about the Russian-PKK relationship, for instance.

But the perception has been there for a long time; why has Ricciardone chosen to speak now?

That’s one aspect. The other is that the willingness to eliminate the leaders outside [Turkey] leads one to think there is a leader they prefer. The U.S. might be thinking that the process should focus on Öcalan. Therefore, this might not just be limited to the declaration of intent but some action could follow suit. The U.S. is voicing its concern that Karayılan has increasingly come under the influence of Iran.

So does the U.S. proposal make sense?

Turkey’s dilemma is that, when you want to initiate a peace project, you might want to single out one interlocutor. At the same time, the day you eliminate other leaders, you should not forget that you render the remaining single leader very strong. There are usually two strategies: [On one hand], you can opt for a divide-and-rule [approach], weakening your opponents; but if you are to initiate a peace project, then it is very useful to single out one interlocutor.

Why was Turkey’s response to the U.S. negative? The U.S. ambassador also complained about the fact that Turkey was refusing further U.S. cooperation on processing intelligence.

There could be some weakness in Turkey about processing intelligence; yet Turkey does not have full confidence in the intelligence coming from the U.S. There are experiences that are known but also unknown to the public. The Uludure incident [when civilians thought to be militants were bombed following intelligence provided by drones] has put Turkish intelligence in a difficult position. In addition, the Turkish military and intelligence have [long] believed that the PKK has U.S.-Western support. There is a confidence problem between Turkey and the U.S. It is difficult in Turkey to act solely according to intelligence coming from the U.S. Turks need to process it themselves.

Do you think this suspicion is justified?

The Turkish army and intelligence believes the U.S. military presence in Iraq has fed the PKK, that the U.S. formed a Kurdish region [in Iraq] and that there are also concerns that the U.S. might be willing to divide Turkey. I don’t think the U.S. wants to divide Turkey. Yet U.S. intervention in Iraq has seriously jeopardized Turkey’s security, and the formation of a Kurdish region in the Middle East [in northern Iraq] has disrupted Turkey’s security paradigm. While the PKK is on the U.S.’ terror list, it also sees [the matter] as a struggle for freedom. The U.S. perception of the PKK is far from Turkey’s expectation. But in short, if it were up to me, I would not trust U.S. intelligence either.

However, I believe the grand U.S. strategy is based on a rapprochement between Turks and Kurds. The U.S. is trying to break Kurdish regions from the core body [of other states] and bring them closer to Turkey. The U.S. believes the PKK issue should be eliminated; it believes the Kurdish issue’s internal dimensions need to be solved following transformation in Turkey. And it is now convinced that the obstacle to Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement is the PKK. Yet while the PKK is constrained domestically, there is a PKK outside that strikes. Turkey has become more liberal and enacted political reforms, but strikes from abroad put the government in a difficult position. So the U.S. might be aiming at eliminating the paramilitary power of the PKK while trying to bring to the fore its negotiating power. It might be trying to open up the way to negotiations either through a political party or talks with İmralı [where Öcalan is imprisoned].

On the one hand, it wants to eliminate the PKK, but on the other, it accepts it as an interlocutor for negotiations. Can you elaborate on this point?

The PKK has many parts. It is a structure that is organized locally and thus supported by the Western alliance so long as it is organized locally; but when it goes beyond Turkish borders, it leads to the involvement of other regional powers. We are at a point where the people’s demands are in conflict with the striking power of the PKK. The paramilitary PKK is breaking away from the locals by committing violent acts that are against the interests of the people. Turkey is at the point of differentiating between the PKK of Turkey and the other PKK. When you look at the makeup of the PKK, there is serious change. We see that more than a majority of those committing acts of violence are not from Turkey. The PKK from Turkey is closer to the Western alliance and is willing to negotiate; [the PKK of Turkey] is the BDP [Peace and Democracy Party] and Öcalan, and it also has armed militants, but it is easier to make them lay down arms. You cannot do the same with the Syrian and Iranian PKK by promising more freedoms in Turkey, which they are not interested in directly. Instead of fighting against Bashar [al-Assad], Syrian Kurds come and strike in Turkey, so you can’t impress them with constitutional changes. Every time there is a peace initiative with Öcalan, violence increases.

Even when all rights are given to Kurds, this will not totally eliminate the PKK’s striking power.Turkey is trying to solve the Kurdish issue through negotiations and the terror problem through military measures.

If you were to take a snapshot picture, where are we right now on the Kurdish issue?

The arithmetic of the region changed in the 2010s. There are serious security risks for Kurds. Iraqi Kurdistan depends on Turkey. There is interdependence between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey provides security to the region and will get energy. Turkey has built all its energy policy on Russia and Iran but the moment its policies conflict with those of Russia and Iran, Ankara cannot move. That’s why it is seeking an energy corridor through Baku and northern Iraq. The U.S. is withdrawing from the Middle East and there is a Kurdish population left [behind].

So you don’t believe those who say the Kurdish Spring has come?

With which soldiers or aircraft can Masoud Barzani defend the Kurds against [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki, for instance? In addition, when you look at the [Iraqi] Kurdish rhetoric, they say they are not envisaging a Kurdish state and they say they are not the enemies of the Turks. They don’t have a problem with Turkey; on the contrary, they live in a security belt provided by Turkey.

Ankara is also aware how [Iraqi] Kurds have been abandoned, as well as the need to have an alternative energy route from the region. The loss of the Kurdistan region will mean the loss of the south and southeastern axis to the Iran-Iraq-Syria alliance with Russia.

Are we heading in a positive or negative direction on the Kurdish issue?

The Kurdish question is no longer solely an issue for Turkey but has become a problem of world balances. How the world will be shaped has a role to play in the Kurdish issue as much as how Turkey will act. Turkey has some very important momentum to solve it. The public is convinced, the Kurds saw their limits, and Turkey is transforming into a trading country from a military country.

But the Kurdish issue can change all the balances in the Middle East. Looking from the Russian and Iranian perspective, if you prevent the formation of an alternative energy route, then you render Turkey dependent on yourself. If the relations between Turks and Kurds are disrupted, Iraqi Kurdistan is bypassed and Iran can reach as far as the Mediterranean via Iraq and Syria. So let’s not forget that the rapprochement with Iraqi and even Syrian Kurds will bear a cost on Turkey just like in the Cyprus problem. Russia, Iran and Iraq will try to prevent this. You cannot be on good terms with al-Maliki or Iran if you are on good terms with Barzani. So there will be a power struggle.

Who is Deniz Ülke Arıboğan?

Born in 1965, Professor Deniz Ülke Arıboğan received her undergraduate degree in international relations from the Faculty of Political Sciences at Ankara University.

She studied international security and terrorism at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Arıboğan is the author of eight books, including “Map of the Future,” and “From the End of History to the End of Peace.” Arıboğan began her academic career at Istanbul University. She then moved to Istanbul Bilgi University. In 2007 she became the rector at Bahçeşehir Universitiy and served until 2010. Currently, Arıboğan is a member of the Board of Trustees of Istanbul Bilgi University. A member of the World Academy of Arts and Sciences, which was founded by Albert Einstein, Arıboğan writes columns for Daily Akşam.