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Turkey and Iraq

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Soli Ozel and Amar Bakshi
Professor of International Relations, Istanbul Bilgi University and PostGlobal Blogger/Reporter
Thursday, October 25, 2007; 11:00 AM

Turkey has ramped up military operations along its southern border with Iraq, with aircraft reportedly bombarding the mountainous terrain on Wednesday, part of a growing confrontation that threatens to open a new northern front in the Iraq war.

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Relations between Turks and Kurds are strained by recent events in Hakkari and along the border from where Amar Bakshi, PostGlobal blogger/reporter, recently filed reports.

Soli Ozel, professor of International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University, and Bakshi were online from Istanbul on Thursday, Oct. 25, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss policies and perceptions in Turkey.

A transcript follows.

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Amar Bakshi: Sorry for the delay. We just had some internet problems. I'm here with Soli Ozel, Turkish journalist and PostGlobal panelist. He's going to help us talk through some of the big issues facing Turkey today, and look at perceptions of America as well.

I'm currently traveling around the world looking at how America is perceived. Right now I'm in Turkey. Just arrived 5 days ago, and have been posting at www.washingtonpost.com/america. It's an important time to look closely at Turkey, and figure out its internal dynamics, and Soli is a great person to get us going. I'll be throwing in some questions, and if you have any questions about How the World Sees America feel free to throw them in as well.

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washingtonpost.com: How the World Sees America

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Princeton, N.J.:1. We invaded Iraq on the premise that they 'might' engage in terrorism at some time in the future. Turkey is right now experiencing terrorism. Why don't they have the right to invade Kurdistan?

2. We designated the part of the PKK attacking Turkey as terrorist. Why haven't we done the same with the part attacking Iran?

3. Even if the PKK are stopped, will Turkey take the part of the Turkish people being ethnic cleansed in Kirkuk?

Soli Ozel: If we look at the first two questions obviously there is aquestion of double standards, yes. We know the PKK has an Iranian branch fighting the Iranian governmetn and nobody calls them a terrorist organization but they are presumably the same branch of the terrorist organization. Making Turks suspicious of whether they are being taken on a ride. As far as Turkey's right I do think they present a case for self defense under UN rules because they are being attacked by a force being stationed within a neighboring country. However there is a debate within this country on whetehr moving massively insdie northern Iraq would be a wise decison esp. given the mess the US found itself in in IRaq proper. So the debate continues. Turkey believes it has a legal right to pursue those attacking it through cross border operations. Unless US forces (which Turkey considers to be the masters of the situation) and Northern IRaq collaborate to bring this under control things might really get out of hand. And they may bring in ground forces. As for Kirkuk the Turks are concerned about the fate of the Turkeman. The Turks have changed the demographics of the sitaution. The UNited States did the right thing by persuading the Kurds not to push the isue of the referenedum which has been pushed to an uncertain time in 2008 and it may not stll take place. Trying to annex Kirkuk through a rigged referendum would make a lot of trouble for a currently trouble free zone and that is currently the Kurdish regional government zone.

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Detroit, Mich.: Although most Americans are opposed to terrorist acts and groups, I think people are conflicted about Turkey's fight with Kurdish rebels. What we read in our newspapers here in the U.S. is that Kurds do not have the equal rights to express themselves that we expect minorities in countries to have. Turkey's reaction to the proposed Armenian genocide bill in the U.S. House of Representatives made many Americans feel that Turkey does not want to acknowledge the past treatment of minorities and thus may not want to have equal rights for them at this time.

Soli Ozel: Well, again it's a way of reading things which I think is not correct. To put it in the starkest possible terms this is not apartheid South Africa. Kurds don't have separate bodies of legislation. They do vote for the Turkish national assembly and many Kurds are elected into Turkish national assembly and since the reforms of the past 6 or 7 years things have gotten much better regarding citizens and currently there exists a party that represents the Kurdish. The opening of the political space for the Kurds in recent times is precisely why many Turks do not understand or are worried about what goes on becasue in a democratic system you try to get what you want through debate, reason adn parliamentary motions. If you use violence and do it indiscriminately, this is not something any democratically run government could accept. It has no legitimacy in that case at all. This is why when some observers of the Turkish scene try to legitimize or justify terrorism or acts of terror, the Turks are bewildered and they don't accept the reasoning.

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Newark, N.J.: How much of what's happening now can you attribute to Resolution 106 to recognize the events of 1915 between Armenians and Turks as genocide? And what do you think the implications will be if this resolution passes when it is put to a full House/Senate vote?

Thank you

Soli Ozel: I really dont think there is a conneciton between resolution 106 and what the PKK had been doing. Let's recognize the fact that the PKK affiliated parties candidates received a lower percentage of the votes nationally in the 2007 elections than they did in 2002. There was almost a 3% drop which is perciptious. Second, the ruling AKP party acheived more votes in the Kurdish area. This shows the PKK civilian movement was certainly retreating in terms of its political pull or attraction. Under those circumstances, any violent organization would try to bring back the bad old days of the violence of the olden days.

I see their activities as blatant provocation which is why I would not want to see Turkey going into a massive invasion of Iraq which would be falling into the trap the PKK set up for it.

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Arlington, Va.: Is this Kurdish conflict Turkey's opportunity to acquire an interest in the northern Iraqi oil fields?

Soli Ozel: There may be some people who fantasize about that but it is not part of the debate. The Turkish oil company is bidding as a legitimate bidder to develop northern IRaqi oil feields but thats basically it.

Soli Ozel: The oil bill that the US wants enacted in Iraq is being blocked by the Kurds so looking at the timing of certain things there are Turks who believe the PKK is attacking Turkey and drawing the rage of Turkey against Barzani in particular because the UNited States wants to punish the Kurds for blocking the oil bill. IN that case you assume the PKK is on the pay roll of the US and it really gets too complicated. But it does fit a certain chain of thought pattern.

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Freising, Germany: I've read that a concern of the Turkish government regarding Iraqi Kurdistan, is that if it becomes independent, then Kurds in Turkey will want to separate from Turkey and join the new Kurdish state.

But I'm confused about the actions of the PKK. By attacking Turkey and provoking the Turkish government into attacking Iraqi Kurdistan, aren't they just going to weaken and destabilize Iraqi Kurdistan, and destroy any chance at a Kurdish nation?

What are the locals' opinions their Iraqi brethren and on the PKK?

Soli Ozel: Excellent reasoning. Yes the Turksih fear an independent Kuridstan will be irredentist. Barzani expressed irrendist views many time. It would be an attraction for Turkey's own Kurds. The argument against this, taht people who favor Turkey's further integration with the EU, if we become a country with a 15000 income, there would be no reason for Kurds to desire to be citizens of a Kurdistan which may or may not become stable or democratic in the near future. As for PKK's actions, I think Turkey may be attacking Iraqi Kurdistan and that would mean Turkey getting involved in the United States and that's number one.

The reasoning of the PKK for porovking Turkey to enter Northern Iraq, US is displeased so US-Turkey relations are harmed and Turkey's own Kurds are going to feel their Iraqi brethren are being hit by the Turkish government on ethnic basis. This could return repression to the region and cause a resurgence of separatism, serving PKK's interests.

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Princeton, N.J.: To further the consporacy theory you mentioned. PKK terrorists in Turkey have been found with modern American weapons. "Some people believe" that these were given to them to use in Iran (by the CIA, etc.), but found their way to Turkey instead.

Soli Ozel: You have the same organization on the same mountain. On what side there are the "good guys" attacking Iran and on the other side of the mountain they are PKK and they are a terrorist organization. How do you distinguish the two? TUrks find it incredible. If the US gives it to one side of the mountain what prevents it from putting it on the other side. IT's absurd. You'd be hard pressed to convince the Turks there isnt something fishy there. The US has not been credible or persuasive in getting the Turkish public to actually see the US side which says it did not have any contacts with the PKK. I see no reason why the US would prefer the PKK to Turkey but the entire situation is a bit absurd.

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Fairfax, Va.: What is the target of Turkey? The PKK terrorists or preventing a Kurdish entity there in the long run? And do you think the military operation is in the interest of Both Turkey and the Region?

There is nothing clear about the length and specific objectives of the military operation. As a Kurdish origin Turkish citizen I do not beleive that an intervention will solve the problem but rather it will deepen the current cleavages among the people of the Turkey....

Soli Ozel: First of all there has not been an order for a massive incursion of ground troops therefore it is unreasonable to expdect the timetable and objective and all the rest. There are undoubtedly people in this country who would like to do away with the Kurdistan political entity. I am not convinced that this is the majority. I think the primary aim is to get the PKK. The Kurdistan regional gov and mr. barzani become targets of ire when they seem to be protectin the PKK and they defy Turkey to do anything. Under those circumstances things get really out of hand. In the long run this is the wrong calculus.

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Amar Bakshi: Hi all, sorry for not answering any questions so far. I'm typing away for Soli who isn't too fast at this, so he can get his thoughts out there. I'll answer your questions directed to me at the end. Thanks for being here!

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San Francisco, Calif.: This question is for Soli. Turks are famous for their nationalism. How does the average Turk view the possibility of getting more involved in this war?

Soli Ozel: The public mood is very very attavistic, and militarized, and that in my view is unfortunate. The media are adding fuel to this fire and that's I said earlier I hope cooler heads will prevail and that the US will step in and do something other than just give us talk and the tempers subside. If there is another PKK attack or any harm done to the hostages, the flood will destroy whatever damns are put before it and I don't think any governmetn could stop the public cry out for a vengeful military incursion.

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Istanbul: Do you know difference between Terrorists and Rebels? Please take responsibility for international rules. USA and England government recognized PKK, PEJAK and so on as a Terrorist. You have to take responsibility for people who read your newspaper. They can take this knowledge in different way.

Soli Ozel: In all of the conflicts we know of we have this problem of definition. Someones terorrist is someone elses freedom fighter. But for me the bottom line is anything that harms civilian lives is terorrism period. And secondly, wehn there are democratic means availble I dont see any justification for a resort to violence.

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Stockholm, Sweden: It did not take more than a few months for Indonasia and the representatives of Aceh to solve the "Aceh Problem," but it has taken more than 80 years for the Turks to recognize the very existence of the Kurdish people. Turkey wants to become a member of the EU, but the behavior of Turkey is far from that of civilized Europe. The Turks don't even recognise the Iraqi Constitution and refuse nogtiating with any Iraqi delegation with representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government in it. If you don't negotiate with the constitutionally recognized Kurdistan Regional Government, then how can you expect them to solve your problems?!

Soli Ozel:

Turkey did have a period when it refused to recognize Kurds and they were not mountain Turks. Those idiocies are behind us. Speaking the Kurdish langauge was also banned for a period of eight years but that is over too. We can go back and dispute a lot of dirty history and that will be done I'm sure but I dont see the point of it when you can actually look forward. We first have to establish all the liberal and democratic credentials and then we can look back and see what to retel in history.

The AKP, then the foreign minister, Mr. Gul, now our president was going to meet Mr. Massoud Barzani's nephew and two weeks prior to the meeting the chief of staff in a talk indicated that he did not really favor such a meeting and stopped it cold.

Refusal to recognize the Kurdish parliament is part of the struggle between the Turkish military and the AKP or has become so.

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Falls Church, Va.: Amar, it seems from your writing like you've been right in the thick of things over there. Can you tell us a little bit more about what exactly the Kurds you talked with are afraid will happen? How will a military offensive affect them?

Amar Bakshi: I've met Kurds with many different points of view. In Van, I spent a day with a teacher who loosely sympathized with Kurdish rebels, but I also heard stories of people repulsed by PKK violence, committed to distancing themselves from it, and using the democratic process to acheive their ends. PKK terror also affects Kurds, who are anxious to get rid of the guns on either side of the. An escalation in tensions frightens everyone I spoke to, who hope Turkey does not invade Northern Iraq, and also hope PKK violence stops so another mechanism, be it international intervention or more internal negotiation can lead to resolution. But times are tense, and what people say on the surface and act upon are different. But the impoverished Kurds I met are between a rock and a hard place, looking for a safe way out. And that means talking and moving forward rather than stewing on old resentments. I say this, but there is lot of nationalist feeling to. It is still hard to parse it all out for me as clearly as Soli does, but I will keep trying to do so day by day.

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Amar Bakshi: Thank you Soli for talking with us. You helped me think through some of this, and I'm sure our readers as well. Readers, you can follow Soli at PostGlobal (www.washingtonpost.com/postglobal) and you can follow my travels through Turkey day-by-day at www.washingtonpost.com/america. Many thanks for talking through this with us.

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