The crisis coming to a boil along Turkey’s border with Iraq, pitting Turkish troops against Iraqi-based Kurdish rebels, could hardly come at a worse time for America or the West. Turkey, population 70 million, straddling the Asian and European continents, is the most secularized of Muslim nations and the one most critical to the strategic planning of Israel, America and Europe. For all that, Turkey suddenly finds itself, in the wake of the 2003 Iraq invasion, facing a re-energized insurgency from its most disgruntled minority, the Kurds.
At press time, Turkey was perilously close to responding with an invasion of Iraq’s Kurdish region. The invasion, if it comes, could prove devastating to America’s hopes for pacifying Iraq and to Israel’s hopes for successful negotiations with its Arab neighbors.
Most disheartening of all, this crisis was predictable. Indeed, it was predicted, well before the American invasion of Iraq that set the current events in motion. Yet America proceeded with its invasion, and now the chickens are fluttering back home.
Turkey has been fighting a counter-insurgency war for years against Kurdish nationalists, who seek an independent Kurdish state stretching from eastern Turkey through northern Iraq into Iran. Israel once sympathized with the Kurds, but since its ties to Turkey blossomed into a full-scale alliance in the 1970s, it has sided with Turkey. Turkey is now Israel’s closest friend in the Muslim world, and an essential intermediary in Israeli-Arab contacts.
Europe, for its part, has struggled for years to define its relationship with Turkey, which seeks membership in the mostly post-Christian European Union. European negotiations with Turkey over the Muslim nation’s role in the secular society of post-Christian Europe has taken on an anxious symbolism in the European imagination, standing as a surrogate for the larger question of Islam’s place in Europe. For Israel and Europe alike, a rupture in Turkey’s ties to the West — meaning, first of all, Washington — would be extremely dangerous.
As for Washington, it relied heavily on the Kurds, with their hatred of Saddam Hussein, as a lynchpin in its plans for post-Saddam Iraq. American planners never seriously considered the possibility — a near-certainty to many observers — that the newly liberated Iraqi Kurdistan would quickly present Turkey with an intolerable irritant.
As Turkey lost patience, a crisis would erupt in Turkey’s relations with Iraq, then with America, then with Israel and finally with Europe. Pentagon officials dismissed the scenario as a fantasy, just as they dismissed the near-certain emergence of a Shi’ite-led Iraq closely allied to Iran. But they were wrong, and now we are here.
America’s best hope now, from all available signs, is that the Iraqi Kurds will crack down on their brothers’ insurgency and that Turkey will be patient and give the Kurds time to act. Neither of those seems likely. At best, Turkey is likely to give Washington and the Kurds a few weeks to play at pacification, and then it will cross the border with a force large enough to make an impression but small enough to avoid touching off a regional conflagration.
The implications for Israel are sobering. Jerusalem has long known that sooner or later it would have to begin a painful, dangerous negotiating process with the Palestinians and the Arab League. It assumed it could count on the support of its friends in the West and the Muslim world.
If Turkey’s relations with the West enter a crisis period just as those Israeli-Arab negotiations begin, Israel will enter the talks more vulnerable and alone than it anticipated, thanks to the work of its good friends in the White House. And yet, proceed it must. Hold on to your hats.