America's planned withdrawal from Iraq has begun to change the dynamics of the Middle East. Perhaps nowhere are the effects of Washington's policies in Iraq being felt more strongly than in Turkey. Washington's focus on moving troops out through Turkey and protecting Iraq's territorial integrity has obscured the far more significant domestic debates that have been triggered in Ankara.
On August 5, for the first time in history a Turkish Prime Minister met with the leader of a Kurdish political party in the hopes of settling the long-festering "Kurdish Question." Putting his ruling AK Party's political capital on the line, Prime Minister Erdogan has prioritized the issue for both Turkey's foreign and domestic short-term agenda. Washington must take note, understand the important role it has to play, and actively engage this historic opportunity.
The stakes involved for Washington in solving Turkey's "Kurdish Question" are significant. True peace and regional stability for both northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey are directly linked to the ongoing debates in Ankara. A solution on the "Kurdish Question" will not only enhance Turkish-Iraqi relations, but will also go a long way towards the resolution on such sticky issues as Iraq's oil laws and the status of Kirkuk which presently plague Erbil-Baghdad relations. Finally, energy corridors such as the recently agreed Nabucco deal and the proposed link from northern Iraqi gas resources can only be realized if the transit routes that traverse the most volatile regions of Turkey are secured through a comprehensive settlement.
International and domestic factors have all aligned to favor a settlement for the Kurdish issue in Turkey in a way that would have been previously unimaginable. Iraqi-Kurds' recent elections produced a more positive calculus vis-à-vis Turkey with increased skepticism toward Iran and recognition of Kurdish weakness in the face of a resurgent Arab central government in Baghdad. The agreement reached between the US and Turkey in 2007 on the sharing of actionable intelligence on the PKK (Kurdistan Worker's Party) terrorist organization has created the military conditions under which a lasting political solution can now be found on the domestic level.
Fortunately, the political will is also evident on the domestic scene. With the Turkish economy in recession and unemployment rising, Erdogan needs all the support he can get from his Kurdish voters in the next elections, which are only a year and a half away. More importantly, Turkey's civil-military balance of power has shifted in favor of the government in light of the on-going Ergenekon trials of an extremist secular group -- which includes some active duty and retired officers. In addition the AKP government has realized that without being genuinely committed to a peace-first agenda, it will prove difficult to normalize Turkish politics and play the regional role it seeks.
The US Ambassador in Turkey in recent days has met with all opposition parties, including the Kurdish political party, to reiterate American support for the solution of the "Kurdish Question." Speaking in Turkish directly to the Turkish people and its leaders, the ambassador has been warmly received and applauded for his efforts. Along with these encouraging efforts, Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama must get involved, even by simply acknowledging the progress and opportunity that currently exists in Ankara. This support from the highest level of the US administration would go a long way towards supporting the process underway and put further pressure on Turkey's notoriously status-quo domestic constituencies to finding a solution.
Being Turkey's closest ally, the US has the responsibility, but more importantly the opportunity to work with the region and Turkey in finding a lasting solution to the "Kurdish Question." Given the Turks' inherent suspicion of outsiders, this will be a difficult challenge and balancing act for Washington to get right. If bungled, US-Turkish relations could deteriorate to the point that they did after the second invasion of Iraq when Turkey became the most anti-American country in the world. However if handled correctly, support for Turkey's Kurdish opening would serve all regional interests of the US, and the Turks would not forget who helped them achieve their goals. Helping Turkey facilitate this historic achievement is a rare win-win scenario that Washington should actively and energetically engage without delay.