Another Middle East conflict rears its head

Sunday, October 28, 2007 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:11 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism, is the moderator for the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at

Loory: As if there isn’t enough trouble in the world, in the Middle East there is an old conflict, seemingly quiet for a long time, which has now reared its ugly head. Fighters of the Kurdish Workers Party, the PKK, have killed 12 Turkish soldiers and wounded several more in an attack near the Turkish/Iraqi border. Turkey has called on the United States and Iraq to strike back at the PKK but nothing has happened, although both countries have labeled that organization a terrorist group. The PKK say they are not terrorists and that they are only looking for ethnic and national autonomy. So, Turkey has threatened an invasion of Iraq by its own troops, and recently it carried out an air raid against the PKK that hit several villages in Iraq near the frontier. The U.S. certainly doesn’t like these developments, but it’s hard pressed to try to stop them. Turkey is a strong U.S. ally in the war in Iraq, and the U.S. moves a lot of supplies into Iraq through Turkey. Kurdistan in Northern Iraq is virtually autonomous and relatively peaceful, and the U.S. doesn’t want to get involved in a civil war in Kurdistan. Turkey has a large Kurdish minority that also feels oppressed and cannot be allowed to get too aggressive by the Turkish government. This is another international, ethnic and nationalist problem that could quickly get out of hand, as have others in Africa, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Philippines. What is going on in that northern frontier and can it be brought under control?

Omar Anwar, Iraqi journalist, Baghdad: Diplomatic efforts are ongoing. Turkey is a U.S. ally, and most of the supplies for American forces in Iraq come through Turkey, so this is an important issue. There has also been talk of joint U.S., Turkish and Iraqi operations against the PKK. The Iraqi government tends to agree that the PKK is a terrorist organization and that it should be stopped from launching activities against neighbors. It defines Turkey as an important ally also, and it’s important to the Iraqi government to solve this as soon as possible.

Loory: What is the Turkish outlook on the situation?

Amberin Zaman, Turkey correspondent, The Economist, Istanbul, Turkey: The PKK has been fighting the Turkish Army since 1984. It has said at various instances that it wants independence. Others have said it only wants autonomy. Its goals keep changing, but the end result is that it continues to pose a security threat to the Turkish state. For a while it had scaled back its operations following the capture of its leader. There was a period of relative calm that allowed the Turkish government to address the Kurds’ legitimate grievances and there were signs of change. We began to see Kurdish-language schools, Kurdish-language publications, and Kurdish music and television. Given Turkey’s decades of denial that the Kurds even existed, it seemed significant. Then we had the current Islam-rooted government coming to power in 2002, with the main goal of leading Turkey into the European Union. It set in motion sweeping reforms that also were directed against the Kurds. This year, during the election in July, the ruling Islamic party made huge gains in the southeast at the expense of the biggest Kurdish party here, which is known to share the same constituency as the PKK. The PKK began to feel it was losing ground and that is seen as one of the big reasons why it escalated the violence by crossing in from Northern Iraq and killing 12 Turkish soldiers.

Loory: How is the PKK viewed in Kurdistan?

Asos Hardi, editor, Awene newspaper, Sulaimaniya, Iraq: The majority of Kurds look at the PKK with sympathy because they see them as freedom fighters fighting for Kurdish rights in an establishment that cannot accept the Kurdish identity. No official or ordinary citizen in Kurdistan considers the PKK a terrorist organization.

Loory: The U.S. views the PKK as bandits. Is that really the situation?

Claude Salhani, editor based in Washington, D.C., of Middle East Times, Nicosia, Cyprus: That is a very touchy situation for the Bush administration because the Kurds have been their biggest allies in the war in Iraq. From the beginning, the Kurds have been supportive of the U.S. intervention and the administration doesn’t know how to handle the situation. On one hand, if it supports Turkey, which is a close ally of the U.S. and a member of NATO, the administration will upset the Kurds. If the Kurds turn against the U.S. presence in Iraq, it will complicate that situation that much more. The only certain U.S. allies for the moment are the Kurds, and Washington has to be careful not to upset the Kurds or the Turks.

Loory: The Kurds have achieved a great amount of autonomy in Iraq. Is that autonomy working to the advantage of the PKK and is that what the PKK is also looking for in Turkey?

Zaman: It’s become increasingly difficult to answer that question, given that Turkey has been making some moves toward addressing Kurd grievances. What the PKK wants is to re-impose itself into the whole Middle East dynamic.

Salhani: The PKK wants independence. Initially, it says it’s looking for autonomy, but the end game is obvious. It wants an independent Kurdistan, which is unlikely to happen because neither the Iranians, the Turks, the Syrians nor the Iraqis want an independent Kurdistan. Also, oil is at stake. Parts of Iraqi Kurdistan are oil-rich and if the Kurdish region breaks away, Iraq stands to lose those oil-producing regions. If one creates an independent Kurdistan, cut out of Iraq, it’s going to entice the Kurds in Turkey, in Syria and in Iran, and none of those countries wants to see that happen.

Loory: Is there any possible solution to this conflict, or is it going to escalate into a war?

Hardi: It cannot be solved until all the parties, including the PKK side, accept that in this new world there is no place for violence. At the same time, the Turkish side must accept that even if they were to destroy PKK guerillas completely, which is impossible, someday there will be more reaction and other guerilla groups.

Loory: Does the responsibility for settling the situation belong to the U.S.?

Salhani: The U.S. isn’t in a position to deal with the PKK in Iraq in any shape or form. The solution lies in getting Iraq back together, getting the Iraqis to secure their own territory, and having the Iraqi military for this situation. There isn’t a short-term solution to this situation. It will probably get more complicated and bloodier in the months to come.

Zaman: The Turkish government recognizes that military means alone cannot solve the Kurdish problem. However, there is growing pressure in the government to do something because the number of Turkish soldiers killed by the PKK is rising every day. There is also mounting anger among the Turkish people given that they feel the Americans are in a position to do something for the PKK.

Loory Afterword: And so the U.S. has grown deeply involved in yet another tangle of the chaos in the Middle East. It is asked to play a leading role in the solution and that appears to be not possible.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Devin Benton, Yue Li, Heather Perne and Catherine Wolf.

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