The United States seems finally to have abandoned its hesitant attitude on supporting Turkey’s fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but Ankara is increasingly driving the agenda. On Sunday, January 27, Turkey’s deputy chief of the General Staff, four-star General Ergin Saygun, arrived in Washington for consultations with U.S. officials about more closely coordinating U.S. and Turkish efforts against the PKK. Besides meeting with U.S. military officers, on January 28 and 29 Saygun and Mary Beth Long, U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security, co-chaired the annual meeting of the U.S.-Turkish High-Level Defense Group, a gathering used by senior U.S. and Turkish officials and officers to review the two countries’ military and defense relationship, following up on the 2007 round of talks held in Ankara.
The High-Level Defense Group's subcommittees discuss U.S.-Turkish cooperation in the defense industry, regional issues of joint concern, and other military matters. Prior to the 2007 Ankara gathering the meetings had been suspended, a casualty of the stresses in relations between Ankara and Washington in the wake of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Saygun also met with the vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General James Cartwright, to discuss U.S.-Turkish intelligence on the PKK. He also conferred with Under Secretary of Defense Eric Edelman and the commander of U.S. forces in Europe and supreme commander of NATO Allied Forces in Europe, General John Craddock. Saygun will return to Turkey on February 7 after visiting various U.S. military bases (Turkiye, January 28).
Saygun’s visit epitomizes the sea change in U.S.-Turkish military relations from a year ago, when Ankara began to threaten a massive ground operation in northern Iraqi Kurdistan if Washington did not more strongly support Turkish efforts against the PKK guerrillas based there.
Saygun’s memories of Washington must be mixed. On November 19, 2006, as a member of a Turkish military delegation, he was scheduled to meet with U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor J.D. Crouch in the Old Executive Office Building. According to the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, when Secret Service officers told Saygun to remove his uniform’s jacket before entering the meeting room, he turned on his heel and left (Milliyet, November 19, 2006). Turkish diplomats in Ankara later stated that U.S. officials had apologized to Saygun for the incident and said the issue was closed; it was reportedly left to the U.S. Ambassador to Ankara, Ross Wilson, to explain the gaffe to Turkish journalists, telling them, “I think Saygun rejected the Secret Service's general procedure applied to the visitors when entering the White House. I'm sorry about the incident” (New Anatolian, November 22, 2006).
Like many military officers Saygun, Turkey’s second-highest military officer, speaks bluntly, doubtless a major reason why Ankara sent him to Washington. Four days before he flew to the United States Saygun sat in on a meeting between Ambassador Wilson and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The meeting, called at Wilson’s request, was to discuss cooperation in combating the PKK (Anadolu Ajansi, January 23).
Saygun seems to be emerging as Turkey’s man on Iraq. On January 16 he made an unannounced visit to Baghdad, where he met with his Iraqi counterpart, Lt. General Nasier Abadi, and U.S. General David Petraeus, providing them with intelligence about Turkey's recent air strikes against PKK installations (Milliyet, January 16).
Saygun’s Washington acquaintances undoubtedly received some bracing talk, as last month the general excoriated a number of European Union countries, particularly Great Britain and France, during a talk at the “Prevention of Economic and Ideological Support for the PKK/Kongra-Gel” symposium, organized by the Turkish General Staff Military History Archives and the Strategic Studies Institute in Ankara. Saygun said that the PKK is “conducting propaganda campaigns in the European Parliament, as well as in the French and U.K. parliaments,” adding that the PKK has offices in many EU countries under different names, while the PKK's Roj TV channel continues to broadcast from Denmark to Turkey.
Saygun told his audience, “We have witnessed important steps taken by the EU recently against the PKK, which is a good thing. However, the outlawed organization is still able to sponsor conferences in the European Parliament and the parliaments of France and Britain… We cannot understand why some countries still continue to call members of the terrorist group ‘PKK guerillas,’ ‘armed fighters’, and ‘Ankara dissidents’.”
The general also directly addressed European critics of Turkey’s human rights policies, saying, “Steps taken by Turkey in its fight against terrorism are criticized by European countries for reasons of human rights, but these countries forget that they take stricter measures against terrorist organizations when necessary. Though all European countries remain silent in the face of tough measures taken to curb terrorist attacks waged against their countries, they are critical of a court case opened to close down a political party that explicitly supports a terrorist organization” (Anadolu Ajansi, December 12, 2007).
Saygun’s visit to Washington indicates a new assertiveness in Ankara. After waiting through nearly five years of Washington’s wavering over Turkish concerns about the PKK, Erdogan’s government is determined not to allow U.S.-Turkish cooperation to slip back into the fog of diplomacy.