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Turkey and the Rebel Kurds: Next Move

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President Bush's response to the Turkish Parliament's declaration of war against the 3,000+ rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in oil-rich northern Iraq was muted because the United States needs Turkey. The Kurdish administration in oil-rich northern Iraq seems unable to control the small number of PKK separatists, while labeling in advance any Turkish forays to strike at PKK camps as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Such forays would immensely complicate the war in Iraq and destabilize the region.

Turkey's economic needs might give it pause. Prime Minister RecepTayyip Erdogan is as friendly a Prime Minister as the United States could hope for in a 99 percent Islamic country in the fifth year of an Iraq war that has allowed Kurdish rebels to build up in the north and to kill many Turks recently on the border. He was reelected handily this year because he has delivered strong economic growth.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the Turkish Parliament refused to allow U.S. troops to drive through to Iraq - a "low point" for U.S.-Turkish relations, although Turkey allows U.S. supplies through via Incirlik Air Base. For many Turks, the low point was months later when U.S. forces - from Turkey's perspective - dissed Turkish soldiers serving with the U.S. army in northern Iraq. These events were the basis for a hugely popular Turkish movie, "Valley of the Wolves Iraq," which stirred up anti-American sentiments.

Relations looked better last year when a U.S.-Turkish shared vision was mapped out. But the over-stretched U.S. military and The Kurds in Iraq are understandably concerned about having as a guest Turkey's half-million troops, the second-largest army in NATO and the largest army in Europe? No wonder a barrel of crude oil for November delivery hit a record price today of $90.07.

What might restrain Turkey is its ongoing need for full access to American and, even more, EU markets. Turkey would dearly love to become a full member of the EU, and many in the EU would like to see Turkey join. Turkey's textiles and apparel industry, which accounts for nearly 40 percent of Turkey's exports, is being squeezed by low-cost competition from the rest of Asia and by concerns of western, especially European, buyers about labor conditions in Turkish factories. The Turkish government has contributed to the problem by raising taxes on employment to levels well above its neighbors, where wages may be as low as one-fifth of prevailing Turkish wages.

So the best hope for calming this crisis would be a combination of a serious effort to contain the Kurdish rebels while joining the U.S. voice with that of the EU, which has also warned Turkey against violating Iraq's territorial integrity. The grave danger is that in the frayed international environment of 2007 Turkey will sooner or later respond to its very real domestic pressures and defy western wishes on the bet that they can continue to get away with going it alone.