By Donna Miles, American Forces Press ServiceOctober 17, 2007
WASHINGTON (American Forces Press Service, Oct. 17, 2007) - Turkey is a strong NATO ally and partner in the war on terror, and the best way to handle its conflicts with neighboring Iraq over Kurdish rebels is diplomatically, a senior Joint Staff official told Pentagon reporters yesterday.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is conducting "prudent planning" to evaluate how it would modify its operations in the event Turkey moves forward militarily and cuts off U.S. supply routes, said Army Lt. Gen. Carter F. Ham, the Joint Staff's director of operations.
Lt. Gen. Ham's comments came a day after the Turkish government asked its parliament for authority to conduct military raids across the border into northern Iraq. The vote is expected tomorrow.
If approved, the one-year authorization would permit Turkey's military to move into the Kurdish region of Iraq to go after members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party who have been launching attacks into Turkey. Known as the PKK, the group wants an autonomous Kurdish region in eastern Turkey.
"This is obviously a very sensitive matter right now and largely a diplomatic effort," Lt. Gen. Ham said. He noted that Iraqi Vice President Tariq Al-Hashimi is in Turkey today to discuss possible diplomatic solutions.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in a statement released yesterday that Iraq shares Turkey's commitment to stopping the PKK attacks and will strive to work with Turkey to resolve the crisis. Maliki emphasized, however, that his government "will never accept a military solution to the differences between Turkey and Iraq."
Lt. Gen. Ham noted today that Iraq is a sovereign nation "and obviously would take their sovereignty and defense of their territory quite seriously."
An attack by Turkey would put the United States in a difficult position. The United States and NATO are committed to each member country's mutual defense, although Lt. Gen. Ham said he was unsure if the United States has a treaty obligation to help Turkey stop the PKK incursions.
Lt. Gen. Ham called Turkey "a highly valued NATO ally" and noted that the U.S. and Turkish militaries share "a longstanding and very close and professional relationship."
However, the United States also is committed to Iraq's sovereignty and its right to protect itself. While emphasizing that Iraq is a sovereign nation with primary responsibility for providing its own security, he said the United States would "want to assist them as best we can."
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department has designated the PKK a terrorist organization.
Further complicating the issue is the fact that Turkey serves as a transit route for support for U.S. military operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In the event that Turkey launched an attack into Iraq, that access could be curtailed or cut.
Lt. Gen. Ham said the Defense Department is "looking at a broad range of options" it could pursue if that happened. "We are now addressing how we would modify our operations should the government of Turkey choose to change the access that we currently enjoy either by ground or air," he said. "And that is prudent military planning that you would expect us to do."
While expressing confidence the United States could continue supporting its military operations in Southwest Asia, albeit more expensively and more logistically challenging, Lt. Gen. Ham said he's hopeful it won't be necessary. "We would prefer to maintain the access that we have," he said.
Should diplomacy between Iraq and Turkey fail, the United States "will have to assess the situation," he said.
But for now, he expressed hope in a diplomatic breakthrough. "This is primarily and necessarily an opportunity to find a diplomatic solution," he said. "We think that is obviously the best way to approach this, diplomatically, rather than militarily."