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In the early morning hours of May 31, 2010, Israeli forces intercepted the Mavi Marmara, a ship owned by a radical Turkish charity to run the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. In the melee that followed, Israeli forces killed nine Turks, one of whom had dual American citizenship.
Both Turkey and Israel cooperated with a United Nations investigation of the incident. While the commission did not formally release its report publicly, The New York Times published an article based on a leaked copy. While realpolitik considerations normally stack the United Nations against Israel for much the same reasons as they do the Kurds, the committee chaired by former New Zealand premier Geoffrey Palmer largely exculpated Israel and confirmed the legality of Israel’s actions, even though the report found that Israel used excessive force.
"Diplomacy is a hard-knuckle sport. It is not about self-enrichment, but about seizing advantage."
In the aftermath of the release, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threw a diplomatic temper tantrum. The Turkish government expelled the Israeli ambassador (whose term in Ankara ended this month at any rate) and all diplomats above the second secretary level. Turkey has promised further sanctions, and a broad array of Turkish diplomats have demanded both that Israel apologize and also pay compensation to the families of those killed in the Mavi Marmara incident.
Interpretations and perspectives about the Arab-Israeli conflict are varied and Israel’s actions do not directly impact Kurdistan. Turkey, however, is setting a precedent for itself which a more skillful Kurdish government might exploit. After all, if Turkey considers the Israeli interception of its ship illegal because it occurred in international waters, then Turkey is all the more culpable for its repeated violation of sovereign Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish territory.
Last month, a Turkish air raid killed seven Kurdish civilians in Iraqi Kurdistan. Surely, the Turks—by Erdoğan’s own definition—used disproportionate force against the unarmed Kurds—several of whom were children or infants. After all, if Turkey defines Israel’s actions illegal because the Israeli Defense Force used disproportionate force—helicopters and hand guns versus activists wielding knives and clubs—then what exactly would the Turkish Foreign Ministry consider Turkey’s own use of supersonic aircraft versus unarmed villagers?
The precedent of Turkey’s position works in Iraqi Kurdistan’s favor in other ways. If Israel’s actions were illegal in Erdoğan’s mind because they occurred in international waters (even if Erdoğan’s interpretation does not conform to maritime law), then Erdoğan certainly should consider the murder of the seven Kurdish civilians illegal because it happened in Iraqi territory. Simply put, by Turkey’s own rules, the Turkish air force pilots, their commanding officers, and Erdoğan himself should be defendants in a war crimes trial.
Likewise, if Turkey believes that Israel must pay compensation to the families of those killed in the operation, at the very least, the Iraqi Kurdish government should demand Turkey pay similar compensation for the Kurds killed by Turkish warplanes. The Kurdistan Regional Government’s silence on the issue is deafening. Then, again, Israeli politicians go to jail if they get kickbacks from business contracts. The same standards do not apply in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Turkish position has broader implications. Turkey justifies its actions in Iraq because it considers the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to be a terrorist group, a definition the State Department shares. But, if it is willing to supply and support Hamas—a group that engages in far bloodier actions than the PKK—then Turkey has no moral or legal basis to continue its crusade against the PKK. That Hamas won an election is beside the point. After all, within Turkey, the BDP has won many elections.
Diplomacy is a hard-knuckle sport. It is not about self-enrichment, but about seizing advantage. Iraqi Kurdistan will always be weaker than Turkey and, to officials in Washington, it will always be less important than Turkey so long as Turkey remains in NATO. Still, the Kurdistan Regional Government can seize diplomatic initiative and perhaps protect its own people and force Turkey to moderate its actions, if only Kurdish leaders would play their hand more skillfully.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.