WikiLeaks VI: U.S. Supporting Separatist Kurd Party Fighting Turkey?

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the sixth in the series.

Already rocky relations between Washington and Ankara may get a whole lot rougher this coming week. As part of the massive WikiLeaks document dump set to drop this week, files will purportedly be released suggesting that the United States and Turkey have been active underminers of one another’s security.

The Wikileaks dump will supposedly demonstrate US support for the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a separatist organization that has been fighting the Turkish state for the past thirty years. The group has been classified a terrorist organization since the late 1970s, and the George W. Bush administration worked closely with Ankara to help Turkey root out PKK redoubts in northern Iraq.

Unsurprisingly, the Obama administration denies the claim as part of its blitzkrieg damage-control offensive.

Deborah Guido, spokeswoman for the US embassy in Ankara, told the Daily News that the US government’s policy “has never been nor will ever be in support of the PKK. Anything that implies otherwise is nonsense.”

Recalling that the United States considers the PKK a terrorist organization, Guido said: “Since 2007, our military cooperation with the Turkish government in fighting the PKK has shown results. The U.S. Treasury Department has also named top PKK figures as ‘drug kingpins’ in issuing further sanctions against the PKK…

“We are committed together with the Turkish government to fighting terrorism, whether from al-Qaeda or the PKK. My government remains firmly committed to supporting Turkey’s efforts to combat the PKK, which has for too long threatened Turkey and taken Turkish lives,” Guido said. “The United States is continuing all operational and informational support and, since the increase in PKK attacks, it has increased facilitation in various ways.”

For their part, the Turks aren’t themselves idle victims—if the leaked leaks prove accurate. The document dump will supposedly show that the United States had come to believe that Turkey was facilitating arms transfers across its borders into northern Iraq, weapons destined for use by al-Qaeda in Iraq against American forces.

But others aren’t so sure.

Pinar Tank, a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, said media reports about the WikiLeaks release suggested that Iraqi citizens residing in Turkey aided groups in Iraq with links to al-Qaeda.

“A U.S. military report charges Turkey with failing to control its borders,” Tank wrote in an e-mail to the Daily News. “While this may be the case, this cannot be equated with an official policy of aiding al-Qaeda.”

If preliminary reports concerning the contents of the latest Wikileaks dump prove accurate, the revelations couldn’t come at a worse time for the Obama administration. Beyond the increasing divide between the White House and Anakara on the appropriate approach to dealing with Iran, relations are suffering from the absence of a US ambassador to Turkey. The post has been vacant since July, and will likely remain empty well into 2012. Obama’s appointment, Frank Ricciardone, has been denied confirmation by antagonistic Republicans in the Senate. As the Daily News reports,

Obama nominated Ricciardone, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and the Philippines, for the Ankara post July 1. Ricciardone won the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s backing July 22. But on the last day before the Senate went to a summer recess in August, influential Republican Sen. Sam Brownback from Kansas formally put a hold on his nomination, saying: “I am not convinced Ambassador Ricciardone is the right ambassador for Turkey at this time – despite his extensive diplomatic experience.”

Brownback’s move effectively prevented a full Senate vote on Ricciardone’s nomination.

US presidents have the right to bypass the Senate and appoint senior administration officials at times of congressional recesses. This opportunity was expected to arise Nov. 2 when the United States held midterm congressional elections. But this year, the Senate has not gone to an official recess—for the first time in modern history—robbing Obama of the chance to appoint Ricciardone.

As Michael Werz notes, Brownback’s resistance to Ricciardone’s appointment may have less to do with Barack Obama and more to do with George W. Bush.

The continuing holdup of Ambassador-to-be Frank Ricciardone’s confirmation by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) is incurring considerable damage. Sen. Brownback’s reasons for doing so have the taste of payback because he is suggesting that Ricciardone “downplayed” the Bush administration’s pro-democracy efforts in Egypt during his time as ambassador in Cairo, and did not subscribe to working with Iraqi opposition groups before the U.S.-led invasion. Holding up a key ambassadorial appointment is yet another indicator that conservative leaders in Congress are tone deaf to the changed environment and the consequences of the Iraq invasion—some are still dancing the old polka to the new rhythm of a polyphonic world. (Ricciardone is not the only collateral damage of partisan politics. Robert Ford is being prevented from starting work in Syria and so is Matthew Bryza, the nominee for Azerbaijan.)

Regardless Brownback’s motivations, the failure to situate an ambassador in Anakara—stupid even during moments of political calm—will surely produce negative dividends for both sides as Wikileaks revelations continue surfacing over the coming weeks.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.