Why won’t Barzani or Barham block the arms sale to Turkey?

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Article Highlights

  • Turkish President has suggested Turkey might seek to punish Kurds collectively for the actions of PKK

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  • Turkey’s robust lobbying campaign shows Ankara wants American weaponry quickly

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  • The United States should not reward bad Turkish behavior

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On October 28, 2011, the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency formally notified the U.S. Congress of its intention to sell Turkey three AH-1W Super Cobra helicopters. Turkish diplomats tell their American counterparts that they need the helicopters to combat Kurdish guerillas. Turkey may have other motives however. Turkish President Abdullah Gül has suggested Turkey might seek to punish Kurds collectively for the actions of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). “No one should forget that those who are inflicting this pain upon us will suffer in multitudes,” he declared. Egemen Bağış, a Turkish minister and confidant of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has also threatened Cyprus and Israel in recent months.

"Turkey is in no position to play its hand so strongly; a number of other countries--Poland, the Czech Republic or, even Romania--might fill the gap at far less cost or aggravation."--Michael Rubin

The Pentagon, acceding to a Turkish request, is however already quietly lobbying the Congress to clear the way for the sale of dozen Predator or Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles which Turkey also says it will use against Kurds in the rugged mountains along the Turkey-Iraq border. On November 1, Turkey’s Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz met with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Pentagon to discuss further arms sales. Some senators may fear that Turkish promises to host an early warning radar system would fall flat without the helicopters. But Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has already said Turkey might close the base after two years. Regardless, Turkey is in no position to play its hand so strongly; a number of other countries—Poland, the Czech Republic or, even Romania—might fill the gap at far less cost or aggravation.

Clearly, Turkey’s robust lobbying campaign shows Ankara wants American weaponry quickly. With regard to the helicopters, the clock is already ticking toward approval of the sale. If the U.S. Senate takes no action to block the Turkish request within 15 days—by November 12—then the sale of the helicopters will be approved automatically and the Pentagon will send the Super Cobras to Turkey, where the Turkish military will immediately deploy them not only against the PKK but, as Turkey’s troubled history of counterterrorism and collateral damage suggests, more broadly against the Kurdish population.

It is true that Turkey has faced a PKK challenge for the greater part of the last three decades, and the PKK is far from blameless. The biggest impediment to Turkey’s terrorist fight, however, is not a lack of weaponry: Turkey has more than enough in its arsenal. Rather, Turkey’s problem is that it refuses to define terrorism. While Turkey claims that the PKK is a terrorist group Erdoğan bends over backwards to exculpate Hamas and Hezbollah, groups guilty of far more deadly attacks on civilians than the PKK. European diplomats rightly question this hypocrisy; American officials do not.

Before the United States provides helicopters to Turkey which could be better used fighting the Taliban and associated groups in Afghanistan, Turkey should explain Gül’s threats of revenge, and clarify its threats to take military actions not only against the Kurds, but also against Israel and Cyprus. It should also explain why it undertakes military action against the Kurds when Erdoğan’s popularity suffers for unrelated reasons, but sits down with the PKK when Erdoğan feels himself politically secure. Counterterrorism is a serious issue; it should not be used cynically for political gain, nor should Iraqi Kurds die because Erdoğan wants to deflect Turkish attention from rising inflation and uncertain economic indicators.

The Super Cobra sale and the ticking clock also expose hypocrisy of the Kurdistan Regional Government. While Regional President Masud Barzani wraps himself in the Kurdish flag, complains about Turkish violations of Iraqi Kurdish territory, and makes nationalist rhetoric a staple of his speeches, he does nothing to stop the Super Cobra sale. Barzani is in the midst of a three-day visit to Turkey. He could speak out about the sale in Ankara or, if quiet diplomacy is more his desire, he could call Vice President Biden to request suspension of the sale. He has not done so.

Prime Minister Barham Salih is in an even better position to derail the sale. Barham cultivated close personal relations to senators during his days representing the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Washington. He wields more influence in Washington than any other Kurdish leader. If Barham asked his friends Senators Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and John McCain (R-AZ), both of whom serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee, to put a hold on the sale, provision of the Super Cobras to Turkey would be suspended immediately. Despite being in New York and Washington this week, however, Barham has not requested that any senators put a hold on transfer of a military platform that will be used against the territory he was selected to represent.

Nor has Qubad Talabani, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s representative in Washington, sought to activate the Kurdish Caucus in Congress about which he frequently speaks. Members, if asked by Qubad, might contact senators from their state delegation or at least demand fuller Pentagon and White House explanation for the sale. The Kurdistan Regional Government has spent hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars to fly retired American generals and officials to Kurdistan, and to wine and dine them. There is an implied quid pro quo to such hospitality, however. Should Masud, Barham, or Qubad ask these retired generals to speak against the Super Cobra sale, Congress would surely listen.

There are many reasons why senators could put a hold on the proposed arms sale to Turkey. It is in neither the American interest nor the Kurdish interest nor that of Iraq, Israel, or Cyprus for the United States to sell advanced helicopters let alone hellfire missile-equipped Predators to Turkey. The United States should not reward bad Turkish behavior. Realistically, most senators will not even realize this sale is controversial unless they are contacted. That the Kurdish authorities are asleep on the job would be tragic enough. That they are aware of their power to sidetrack Turkey’s acquisition of Super Cobras but do nothing, however, speaks volumes about the Kurdish political reality today.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI

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