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US envoy's Iraq vow: to fight, to ban flights or simply to 'deconflict'?

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News | 7/15/2010 12:00:00 AM | ARAS COŞKUNTUNCEL

As an ambassador's casual translation of military nomenclature turns heads, diplomats in Ankara wonder what level of support the US is likely to provide in Turkey's battle against terror.

As an ambassador’s casual translation of military nomenclature turns international heads, diplomats in Ankara are wondering what level of support the United States is likely to provide Turkey in battling terror from the airspace over Iraq.

The controversy started Tuesday, when departing U.S. Ambassador to Ankara James F. Jeffrey said in an interview published in daily Hürriyet that the United States would “boşaltmak” – meaning “empty out” or “clear” – Iraqi airspace to aid Turkey in its escalating battle with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

The implication of the front-page headline quoting Jeffrey, who is slated to become the top U.S. envoy in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, is that U.S. forces can move to enable an air war against suspected terrorists lurking across the border.

But however welcome such an offer may be to Turkey, it poorly squares with the fact that all Iraqi airspace was formally returned to Iraqi control last August. The return of airspace control was part of negotiations that led to the timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops after seven years, a process set to begin next month.

U.S. officials declined to comment Wednesday on the ambassador’s remarks.

In an interview with Hürriyet’s senior columnist Sedat Ergin, Jeffrey said the United States can help as “we deconflict airspace in Iraq and we have extensively.” At that point in the interview, the full text of which was delivered Thursday to the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review, Ergin asked just what the word “deconflict” means. “Boşaltmak,” Jeffrey responded. “We can’t give approval because we don’t own the airspace, but [we can] ‘boşaltmak.’”

While an unusual word, “deconflict” is a military term that generally means to change the flight path of a craft or weapon in order to reduce the chance of an accidental collision. How the term is likely to be interpreted in the context of Iraq’s newly restored sovereignty over its airspace, particularly as used by an incoming American ambassador, is open to conjecture.

“Americans know that is a gaffe and by describing the situation with those words [deconflict and boşaltmak], they were probably trying to defuse criticism,” Serhat Erkmen, the head of the international relations department at Ahi Evran University in the Central Anatolian city of Kırşehir, told the Daily News. “I think, he [Jeffrey] tried to soften [the airspace vow] as he was trying to make a nice gesture just before he leaves his post.

“Otherwise, this remark is awkward from all perspectives. I bet the Iraqi government will respond against this remark and say, ‘This is a violation of our sovereignty,’” said Erkmen, who is an expert with Middle Eastern Strategic Research Studies, or ORSAM, and also served as an observer during the March 7 general elections in Iraq.

Iraqi airspace control and monitoring transferred to the Iraqi authorities when the pullout agreement between Baghdad and Washington became valid. In light of the withdrawal agreement, Erkmen said, Jeffrey’s remarks indicate that Iraq’s sovereignty means nothing more to the United States than words on a piece of paper.

During his interview with daily Hürriyet, Ambassador Jeffrey mentioned the advanced cooperation of Turkey and the United States against the PKK, which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan noted following his June meeting with President Barack Obama in Toronto on the sidelines of a G-20 summit.

“We are looking at additional ways that we can provide assistance to Turkey, including weapons platforms,” Jeffrey said.

But experts say the ambassador’s statement contained nothing new and was far from being satisfactory, agreeing that sharing intelligence and opening airspace are not enough to help Turkey succeed in its fight against the PKK.

“Clearing the airspace of northern Iraq does not mean a lot for Turkey’s battle against terror,” retired Brig. Gen. Nejat Eslen told the Daily News. “These are cosmetic and collateral measures that the United States has been saying for years. They are nothing but diversion tactics.”

According to Eslen, Turkey’s success against terrorism depends on eradicating the PKK leadership from northern Iraq. “Despite Washington’s declarations about cooperation against terror, it is closing its eyes to the importance of the terror threat against Turkey from northern Iraq,” he said.

Former Foreign Minister İlter Türkmen, who is also a retired ambassador, agreed with Eslen, saying that Turkey often launches air strikes against PKK targets in northern Iraq. “This is not a new thing. Turkish planes and helicopters have raided hundreds of times in northern Iraq and of course without America’s help on airspace, [Turkey] can’t launch those kinds of operations,” he said. “When Turkey faces increasing terror attacks, people always start to talk about northern Iraq and military operations in northern Iraq. We should learn that military solutions can’t solve the problem by themselves.”

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