The US should stop deferring to Turkey on the PKK

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After meeting his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu at the State Department last month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised “close coordination and collaboration in the efforts to fight against terrorist organizations” such as the Islamic State and the Kurdistan Workers Party, or the PKK.

This might be boilerplate diplomatic language, but it hides a logical problem: The defeat of ISIS and the PKK are mutually exclusive. Syrian Kurds sacrificed more than 12,000 men and women to fight ISIS at a time when Turkey and its Syrian proxies supported the group. Still, whether in Syria or Sweden, Turkey makes supposed Western tolerance of the PKK original sin. This is stated reason No. 1, for example, why Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan now vetoes Sweden’s NATO membership.

Rather than indulge Turkey, it is time to stop pretending that the Syrian Kurds — whatever their affiliation — are anything but allies in the war against terror and the fight for democracy.

True, the PKK started as a Marxist insurgency if not terror group. So too did Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. Both evolved. Unlike the Mujahedin-e-Khalq , the group never killed Americans. Belgium has concluded that the PKK is not a terror group. Frankly, the United States should follow suit. The State Department did not designate the PKK as a terror group during the height of its violence during the 1980s. That designation came later when President Bill Clinton wanted to clinch a multibillion-dollar weapons deal with Turkey. Ironically, this victimized the PKK twice: first by stigmatizing it and second by giving Turkey the weapons to slaughter not only members of the group, but also ordinary farmers.

Turkey’s partisans will say that such a move will destroy U.S.-Turkey relations. They exaggerate. For decades, State Department handwringing led the White House to sidestep recognition of the Armenian genocide. Finally, President Joe Biden simply ripped the Band-Aid off. So too did French President Emmanuel Macron, Pope Francis, Germany’s Bundestag, Russia’s Duma, and other states. When they called Turkey’s bluff, Erdogan blustered but ultimately did nothing. Nationalist tantrums aside, he needs the outside world more than the world needs Turkey.

Peace will not be possible if Washington embraces Erdogan’s irrational hatred of the PKK. Nor should policymakers accept the alarmism of Turkey’s partisans in the State Department or think tanks. After all, Turgut Ozal, who dominated Turkish politics as prime minister and president between 1983 and 1993, was prepared to negotiate with the PKK until a heart attack felled him. Thirty years on, it is time to recognize his wisdom.

Biden repeats “diplomacy is back” like a mantra, but sometimes, diplomacy means more than making opponents happy. It is time for a major course correction in U.S. policy in the Eastern Mediterranean. Only when Washington recognizes that Syrian Kurds are America’s best ally in a tumultuous region and stops succumbing to Turkish blackmail can a new, more peaceful order move forward, both within Turkey and throughout the region.

Biden: Rip the Band-Aid off. Delist the PKK. Reward allies. Be a peacemaker. Tell Turkey the age of ethnic incitement is over.

Michael Rubin ( @mrubin1971 ) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.



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