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US Should Take Care With Turkey Comments
Ankara Needs Face-Saving Option to End Border Crisis
By CHRISTINA DAVIDSON 10/19/2007 11:26 AM ET
SIRNAK, TURKEY - SEPTEMBER 19: (TURKEY OUT) Turkish army commandos patrol on foot during their routine duty near Uludere in the south-eastern Turkish province of Sirnak, October 19, 2007.
Burak Kara/AFP/Getty
SIRNAK, TURKEY - SEPTEMBER 19: (TURKEY OUT) Turkish army commandos patrol on foot during their routine duty near Uludere in the south-eastern Turkish province of Sirnak, October 19, 2007.

Seasoned diplomats recognize the importance of allowing nations a means of 'saving face' after they've embarked on a game of brinkmanship. Often it can be the only way to decelerate a confrontation and prevent conflict.

In the current border tensions between Turkey and Iraq, for example, Ankara could relax its bellicosity if Baghdad (or Arbil) and the US demonstrated a seriousness of intent to crack down on PKK operations.

But Turkey has significantly raised the stakes by going so far as seeking parliamentary approval for a cross-border incursion, and will find it difficult to back down otherwise, particularly if American officials continue making public statements about how it's unlikely Ankara will really follow through on its threats.

Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell at a press conference on Wednesday told reporters that Turkey was clearly frustrated with the situation, "But I also do not think there is a great deal of appetite to take this next step," he said.

"It would be an enormous step. It would have enormous implications not just for us, but the Turks, and I don't think there is any rush to war for the Turks.... I don't think there is any willingness or desire to have to solve this through a cross-border incursion in this area. I think, as frustrated as they are, they see as we do that the best way to deal with this is to keep the pressure on the PKK, on the Iraqis, on all of us to solve this problem diplomatically."

While what Morell expressed is exactly true, his comments gave ammunition to Prime Minister Erdogan's political opponents, who accuse the current leadership of weakness on the PKK issue.

Erdogan's AKP party has not been eager to use force, but has been pushed into a more hardened position by the agitation of the Turkish military and the leaders of their rival CHP party.

Seeking parliamentary approval is a thinly-disguised move to temper domestic criticism while leveraging pressure against the US and Iraq, but for the sake of keeping the face-saving options open for Ankara, US leaders should at least pretend in public to take it seriously.

The Turkish media questioned Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Çiçek about the opposition's accusations, following Morrell's statements, that Erdogan's administration was hesitant to use the parliamentary authorization.

"We have made the decision, and we will do what is necessary," Çiçek, who also coordinates the government's counterterrorism efforts, told Today's Zaman. "We are not reluctant."

President Bush on Wednesday stated that he was "making it very clear" to Turkey that he didn't think it in their interests to send troops into Iraq, to which Erdogan responded that it wasn't important "who has said what," only what the Turkish parliament says.

It's not so important who says what, but top Iraqi officials recognize the signals and have responded appropriately, with Maliki re-committing to the bilateral accord signed last month, Tareq al-Hashimi attesting to his government's seriousness in Ankara, Jalal Talabani calling on the PKK to stop its attacks or leave, and Hoshyar Zebari saying Iraq wanted the PKK off its territory.

KRG officials, as could be expected, haven't been as helpful in their public statements, but even the Barzanis' calls for diplomacy instead of military action don't have the effect of hardening the Turkish position as do American comments about how the prospect of invasion is actually low because crossing the border isn't in Ankara's interests.

It's clear to everyone that Turkey finds itself in a very tight spot, and that invading Iraq could bring a cascade of negative consequences. But Erdogan's administration has put its credibility on the line with this latest resolution.

Ankara hasn't upped the ante so high that concerted US and Iraqi action would fail to dial it back, but questioning Erdogan's leadership could push his government into such a corner that he would feel compelled to unleash the military--or risk losing face.


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