US-Turkish alliance crumbling

Only two weeks ago, the United States and Turkey sealed what they called a «shared vision document,» presumably a roadmap to stabilize the often bumpy relations between the two former strategic allies that are now no more than friends. Today, Ankara and Washington are once again in a bilateral mess, this time due to the parallel violence in the Middle East and in Turkey. If the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK in its Kurdish acronym, wanted to pit Turkey and the US against each other, it could not have done any better than to increase its campaign of violence at a time of Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. It is not difficult for anyone to come to the bitter conclusion, judging from recent Israeli attacks on Hamas and Hezbollah and increased PKK attacks on Turkish security forces, that the US supports Israel’s cross-border military offensive to fight its terrorists, but warns Turkey not to do the same in northern Iraq, where the PKK’s attacks originate. US Ambassador to Ankara Ross Wilson has failed to explain the double standard. «These are two different cases… they should be judged from different perspectives.» In other words, Ambassador Wilson says, Israel has every right to defend itself but Turkey does not. Or read Sean McCormack, US State Department spokesman: «I don’t believe that that’s (a possible Turkish cross-border operation) something that we have supported in the past.» That means the US has no plans to allow Turkey to enter northern Iraq to attack the PKK bases there. Public protests against America, Israel, the PKK and even Turkey’s own government come daily after a mounting campaign of PKK violence claimed the lives of 14 Turkish armed forces personnel within the span of a week. Two days ago, a stadium full of soccer fans booed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. PM Erdogan is in serious trouble. Earlier this year he pledged to find a «democratic solution to the Kurdish problem» – the first time a Turkish prime minister chose that wording in reference to Kurdish separatism. As coffins wrapped in Turkish flags tend to come in abundance, Erdogan has had to change his language. He not only pledged a full-fledged war against the PKK, but also challenged America when he said that it was the Turkish government’s job to decide on a military incursion into Iraq, not the US ambassador’s. But only two days later, he switched to a conciliatory tone that «Turkey was negotiating the PKK problem with the US and Iraq.» Erdogan is trapped between an increasingly impatient public, at a time when Turkey is heading for double elections (presidential and parliamentary), and a superpower whose best allies in Iraq happen to be the Kurds. Israeli attacks on Lebanese territory and civilian casualties there make things even worse for the Turkish premier. These attacks set a damaging precedent for his popularity, in that they show what a powerful state should be doing to fight terrorists, something Erdogan’s government is unable to do. The Israeli offensive also distances Erdogan from Washington (and Tel Aviv), as he has chosen a tough anti-Israeli rhetoric in his statements. Apparently, Erdogan wants to look attractive to the now larger Islamic, anti-Jewish and anti-American public in Turkey. But his anti-Jewish language has «astonished» the Israelis, in the words of an Israeli diplomat. According to Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and Middle East specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, «the United States and Turkey are no longer allies in the war against terrorism. The United States practically does not help Turkey against the PKK, and Turkey does not help on Hezbollah.» The PKK, by mounting its violence at the same time as the Israeli military offensive, has scored several strategic gains: It has caused casualties in Turkish security; attacked already fragile Turkish-US relations at their most vulnerable point; cornered the Turkish government at a politically critical time; and sparked not-yet-public tensions between Ankara and Tel Aviv. If there are more casualties in the near future, public tension will increase and turn into a collective frustration that may be politically costly for Erdogan. The Turks are hoping for an incursion into Iraq, but this is practically inpossible. Erdogan cannot dare to challenge America and risk the possibility of a Turkish-US military confrontation in northern Iraq. But how long can Erdogan keep the Turks waiting? Probably not too long. Violence in Turkey and in the Middle East has highlighted the bitter truth that Turkey and the US are no longer allies, just friends. Isn’t it true that friends go to lunch together when they want to, but allies go to war together when they need to?