To say relations between Washington and Ankara are at a low point would be a gross understatement. Only 9 percent of Turks had a positive attitude of the U.S. according to the most recent Pew Global Attitudes Project, and that survey was taken almost six months ago. The situation almost certainly has worsened in recent weeks as senior Bush administration officials have grappled with Congress' debating a resolution on Turkey's role in the 1915 Armenian genocide and on how to handle Turkey's concerns with PKK fighters based in northern Iraq.
Thus, before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice could begin discussing the latest developments in Iraq with regional leaders and other international officials at a so-called "neighbors" meeting in Istanbul, she had to stop in Ankara for a critical round of meetings with Turkish officials.
"The Bush administration has periodically 'talked the talk' about Turkey's importance and the advantages of strategic partnership. But it has simply not delivered on matters of greatest importance to Turkey," says the Brookings Institution's Mark Parris, a former ambassador to Ankara.
The PKK, also known as the Kurdistan Workers Party, is considered a terrorist organization by both the U.S. and Turkey, and it operates with far too much freedom from bases in northern Iraq, say the Turks who have asked the Bush administration to use American military forces to go after PKK bases. Last month, the senior American commander in northern Iraq, Major Gen. Benjamin Mixon, said he planned to do "absolutely nothing" about the PKK. Needless to say, Turkish officials were none too pleased, reinforcing the widely held view in Turkey that the global war on terrorism doesn't apply to the PKK. Although this week the Bush administration came forward with an offer to increase the amount of intelligence information it will share with Turkey, that move alone is not expected to satisfy the Turks.
No matter how much progress Rice's mission to Ankara produces, the really critical talks will take place early next week in Washington when Prime Minister Tayyip Recip Erdogan visits the White House. Those talks will focus on specific actions the Turkish leader wants Washington to take, either with its own troops or with Iraqi forces, to make it harder for the PKK to operate from Iraqi territory.
Erdogan is under increasing public pressure to mount a cross-border military operation to wipe out the well-entrenched PKK leadership from their mountain hideouts, and the pressure mounts after every PKK attack. In the past month, Turkey says the PKK has killed at least 15 civilians and 40 of its soldiers, and Rice acknowledged in Ankara that after these recent attacks the problem had become more "acute." Turkey's military has approximately 100,000 troops on the border and only a political decision is needed before a cross-border offensive starts. Winter's approach has increased the feeling that a military operation, if it is to happen, is needed soon.
Rice is expected to participate in a three-way meeting with her Turkish and Iraqi colleagues in Istanbul. In Ankara, Rice said, "We have a common enemy and we need a common approach." With the Iraqis and Americans so far unwilling and/or unable to act against the PKK, it will at best be a session which keeps things in check for the next few days until President Bush meets the Turkish prime minister.
Much is at stake. Turkey's supporting role greatly eases Washington's ability to get troops and supplies into Iraq. The last thing the Bush administration needs is a break in that chain, not to mention a further deterioration in relations with a key NATO partner. Washington's being caught between its Iraqi-Kurdish and Turkish allies is just one more problem in the Pandora's Box we call the war in Iraq.