Mark Parris discusses secularism, elections and Kurd Issue

Former U.S. ambassador to Turkey Mark Parris discussed online the coming weekend's elections.

Mark Parris discusses secularism, elections and Kurd Issue
Former U.S. ambassador to Turkey Mark Parris discussed online the coming weekend's elections, recent conflict regarding Islamic politicians and the nation's history of secularism, the problems with the nation's Kurdish minority along the Iraq border, and more.

Parris served as the U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 1997 to 2000. Prior to that he was senior director of the National Security Council from 1995 to 1997, and served in various capacities at U.S. embassies in Tel Aviv, Moscow, Lisbon and the Azores. He currently is a visiting fellow at The Brookings Institution.

Mark Parris: Greetings to all. As this is my first experience in a "chat" format, forgive any gaffes re process.

As you may know I was U.S. Ambassador to Turkey from 1997 to 2000. I am currently a Fellow at the Brookings Institution and direct our "Turkey 2007" project.

The election Sunday is obviously an important event for Turkey and potentially for its relations with the U.S. Anyone interested in our recent work on the subject here at Brookings Institution can go to the Brookings website and look under the Center for the U.S.and Europe (CUSE) section.

With that, I'll start working through the questions that are already in the queue.

Freising, Germany: While Nationalist political parties in Turkey are expected to gain seats in upcoming elections and provide parliamentary support for cross-border offensive operations against the PKK in northern Iraq, Kurdish candidates also are expected to win two or three dozen seats in parliament for the first time. How do you think that this will play out? Would the ruling Justice and Development Party consider developing closer ties to the Kurdish bloc, or would this make them look too unpatriotic?

Mark Parris: The polls do seem to indicate that there will be a couple dozen independent deputies, most of them Kurds, in the next parliament. That will at least make the next parliament a more colorful, boisterous place than it has been in the past, particularly if, as expected, the nationalist MHP is there, too. The good news is that the presence of Kurdish deputies will enable parliament to have an open, public debate on what Prime Minister Erdogan has described as the "Kurdish question." The bad news may be that that debate could degenerate into a shouting match that will make it harder to address the issue responsibly. Much will depend on how the Kurds in parliament comport themselves, not least with respect to future acts of violence by the PKK.


Istanbul: It's obvious that the U.S. supports the Islamic Party (AKP) -- which promotes radical Islamic ways and is against the Western, modern lifestyle and secularism -- instead of the parties that are modern and secular in the way of Ataturk. This situation decreases the trustworthiness of the U.S. What does the U.S. want to do?

Mark Parris: I know there has been a sense in Turkey that the Bush Administration "wanted AKP to win" the 2002 elections and that it has "supported" it as part, for example, of the late, unlamented "Broader Middle East" initiative. My own view is that Turkish opinion on this has been and is wrong. AKP's strong victory in 2002 was more than anything else in my view a reflection of the Turkish electorate's disenchantment with other parties after the 2001 economic crisis, not because of perceived American support. Once AKP came to power, Washington had to deal with it, among other reasons because it wanted its support for the impending operation in Iraq. It's true that Turkey later fit nicely, conceptually, into the Broader Middle East idea. But the fact is that Washington and Ankara under AKP have as often as not found it difficult to work together (despite what I think have been sincere efforts by leaders on both sides). And I have had the impression that Washington's excruciatingly balanced response to April 27 and the failure to "do something" on the PKK have recently been interpreted by many Turks (including many, I would guess, who support the AKP) as hostile to the AKP. I'm not sure that is correct, either, but I don't think one can today make the case that Washington "supports" AKP over other political actors there.


Santa Barbara, Calif.: Why doesn't the U.S. do anything about the PKK in Iraq? If they aren't going to do anything, then how can they ask Turkey not to? Why do you think the the U.S. media is hyping Turkey's so-called "troop mobilization" near the Iraq border? Hasn't Turkey always had troops there?

Mark Parris: Turkey not only has had troops on the border, but has had several thousand troops INSIDE Iraq since the mid-nineties, when they conducted repeated, big operations (with the cooperation of Barzani) against the PKK.

I admit I am at a loss to explain the gap between U.S. assertions that "there is no place in post-Saddam Iraq for the PKK" and our failure to either do something ourselves to shut down their presence there or pressure Barzani to do so. Clearly, the task has only gotten harder with each month we have put it off. I suspect the reasons today that we have not taken action is that (a) we simply have too much on our plate trying to make the surge work; and (b) Barzani has become more important to our strategy as it has evolved. And I think Washington is wary of letting Turkey go into the north simply because it would add one more complicating factor to an already difficult picture.

That said, I think Ankara's failure to cross the border thus far is more a function of its own analysis of the costs/benefits than anything Washington has said. It would be hard to hurt the PKK very hard by the simplest measures, e.g. airstrikes or special forces operations. Creating a security zone would simply make Turkish forces more vulnerable on ground the PKK knows better. What if Barzani's Peshmerga resist? And what would be the impact in terms of Turkey's ability to work with Washington on issues of genuine strategic importance to them, like the fate of Kirkuk, Iraq this fall. Those are only the things one can foresee; there are likely to be additional unintended consequences. It is not a decision to be taken likely.

Why is the U.S. press hyping it? Because they only pay attention when it looks like there will be fireworks.


Philadelphia: I have a question calling upon your political science perspective. How would you compare the operations of the unicameral legislative branch in Turkey to the mostly bicameral legislatives and Congress that exist in the United States? Does legislation pass more quickly and is it scrutinized as thoroughly? What differences do you see?

Mark Parris: Turkey's system, like other parliamentary systems, has its advantages and disadvantages in terms of efficiency and checks and balances.

When a single party has a clear majority (or, as in the case of Turkey's constitution, a super-majority), a unicameral body can make decisions faster and more decisively than would be the case where concurrence of a second body is necessary. In such a system other institutions, (in Turkey's case, primarily the President, Constitutional Court and, some would argue, the military) tend to play the check and balance role. Indeed the current elections were triggered by an April crisis when it appeared the ruling party would gain control of the Presidency.


Izmir, Turkey: Dear Sir -- I was wondering why the "terrorist group" demarkation of PKK has fallen from usage in the U.S. and international media. The PKK (Kurdistan's Workers Party) officially is recognized by the U.S. and many international institutions as a terrorist group. It has not witheld from violence of a particularly malicious sort -- such as killing civilians, the young and the elderly, even babies -- to make its point. Can you evaluate the possible dangers to Turkey and the Kurdish minority in Turkey of letting PKK, or any other terrorist group, achieve one of its goals, namely being recognized in international public opinion as the self-appointed representative of the Kurdish minority in Turkey? Thank you.

Mark Parris: The U.S. has not, I think, stopped calling the PKK a terrorist organization. I have heard our current ambassador in Ankara and State Department and other spokesmen use that terminology repeatedly in the recent past. The PKK remains on our official terrorism list and the U.S. has named a special envoy to work with Turkey and Iraq to "close down" the PKK. The problem has been that those efforts have thus far not produced concrete, visible results, although I have been given to understand that U.S. - Turkish behind-the-scenes cooperation has been sigificant.


Rochester, N.Y.: How has the role of the army in Turkish political life been changing recently?

Mark Parris: Over the past five years, as Turkey has sought to harmonize its laws and governmental structure with those of the EU as part of the process of becoming a candidate for EU membership, the military's profile in Turkish life has been trimmed and, arguably, its powers circumscribed. For example, its weight on the National Security Council has been reduced; military courts have been abolished; the defense budget is now subject to parliamentary review. It has also been the case that, since its February 1997 "post modern coup" to bring down the Erbakan government, the military has largely stayed out of Turkish politics.

That changed the evening of April 27 of this year, when an "e memorandum" was placed on the Web site of the Turkish General Staff, suggesting the military would prevent election by the AKP-dominated parliament of an AKP President. That intervention was one factor that prompted Prime Minister Erdogan to bring general elections forward to July 22 (they had been scheduled for this fall).

If, as some polls indicate, AKP will be returned to power with a strengthened popular mandate (albeit probably with fewer seats in parliament) it will set the stage for revisiting the issue of who should be Turkey's next president, and what the role of the military will be.


Lexington Park, Md.: Is the future of Cyprus an election issue? It would seem to me that this is going to be a big stumbling block if Turkey still wants to pursue EU membership.

Mark Parris: As I have followed the election, Cyprus has not loomed as a major issue, although the opposition parties have accused Erdogan of "selling out" Turkish Cypriots by accepting the so called "Anan Plan" in 2004. Since a majority of Turkish Cypriots voted to endorse the plan, the accusations haven't done AKP much damage, as far as I can tell.

I agree with you, however, that Cyprus will continue to complicate Turkey's discourse with the EU on the way forward.


Milwaukee: Is there any chance that violence could be avoided if the Kurds shared a percentage of their oil revenue with Turkey and Iraq? Also logistically, is such a sharing even a realistic possibility?

Mark Parris: I don't think there is any question that Turkey and the Kurds of northern Iraq have the potential for a mutually advantageous future, regardless of what happens to "Iraq" in the months and years ahead. The normalization of trade across that border has boosted prosperity on both sides already, and there is no good economic reason why that should not continue. Oil can and ought to be an important element in that, if for no other reason than that Turkey is the shortest way to world markets for the energy resources of northern Iraq. The question is whether leaders on both sides of the border will find the political wisdom when the time comes to pursue a win-win solution, or be drawn into zero-sum games. I don't think Turkish acquiescence can simply be bought with oil or anything else.


Princeton, N.J.: I have seen maps of a "greater Kurdistan" stretching from northwestern Iran to southeastern Turkey. What is our policy toward this idea? What is our policy toward the ethnic cleansing of Kirkuk, Iraq? Will we protect the 1,000,000 Sunnis in Mosul, Iraq from the Kurdish units of the Iraqi Army?

Mark Parris: U.S. policy during the last three U.S. administrations has been not only not to support, but to oppose, the creation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. The issue of a "greater Kurdistan" therefore has simply not arisen as a matter of U.S. policy, and as one who has been involved with this issue inside and outside of government for a decade and a half, I can say I have never heard anyone express an interest in or recommend such an approach.

U.S. policy in Iraq remains, as far as I can tell, to keep the country together. That is what the surge is all about. It is also a reason I have doubts that it will be possible to hold the Kirkuk referendum on schedule: Washington will simply have too many balls in the air in Iraq at that point, and trying to hold a poll under circumstance likely to prevail at the time will in my view be more than the traffic will bear. I hope we don't get to an "ethnic cleansing" of Kirkuk (although I am aware of efforts to settle more Kurds there). If we do, it will obviously become a major issue between Turkey and the U.S.


Carbondale, Ill.: Can the U.S. or Turkey close down the PKK when all over Europe PKK sympathizers are busy helping it collect funds, establish front organizations and even provide them with TV outlets?

Mark Parris: The U.S. and Turkey have, according to press reports, had some success in convincing some European states to cooperate in squeezing the PKK's fund-raising and, to a lesser extent, freedom of movement. Clearly a lot more needs to be done. But even if we did make some progress along these lines, my guess is that this will remain an issue in Turkish-American relations as long as (a) the PKK is able to operate from camps in northern Iraq; and (b) Turks continue to be killed by terrorists operating from or supporting those camps.


Princeton, N.J.: We constantly get articles that portray the AKP as the democratic party, and the secular one as the "old elites." This does not seem to be consistent with either the history of Turkey or the record of Islamic parties in other states.

Mark Parris: This is really a question about U.S. press coverage of Turkey which has traditionally been, in my view, episodic and shallow. I do think the events since April have been useful in focusing our media on Turkey's fascinating and complex political universe, and have been pleased to see an increasing volume of reporting that goes beyond stereotypes.


Mark Parris: I'm afraid I will need to sign off now because of other commitments. Thanks for the opportunity to chat.

Washington Post

Güncelleme Tarihi: 21 Temmuz 2007, 00:58