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The Turkish Tragicomedy of Errors By: Michael Radu
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, April 02, 2003


After tortuous months of surprises and confusing signals from Ankara, which have brought U.S. relations with one of its most loyal allies to their lowest point in decades, Secretary of State Colin Powell will finally visit Turkey on April 2. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Powell would discuss with Turkish officials Turkey's possible sending of troops into northern Iraq, the war on terror, Cyprus, and other U.S.-Turkish relations issues. On the eve of his trip, the signals from Turkey are more confusing than ever. How did relations devolve so rapidly?

The short answer is timing. The war on Iraq and the dramatic but still incomplete change in Turkish politics are unfortunately occurring simultaneously, and both sides, with the Turks in the lead on this, have misjudged and misunderstood each other.

The election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan by an overwhelming vote in November 2002-the first time in decades that a Turkish party obtained a crushing majority in Parliament-was seen as a radical rejection of a corrupt establishment, rather than an endorsement of the Islamist origins of the AKP. Erdogan himself symbolizes the AKP's own transformation. A former mayor of Istanbul who was jailed for Islamist speeches a few years back, he was constitutionally prevented from running for Parliament until his party's winning the majority in November led to a constitutional change. He has since received 84% of the vote in a by-election earlier in March.

Between November 2002 and the by-election, Abdullah Gul (now foreign minister) was officially in charge, while Erdogan was the de facto decision maker. Adding to the confusion was the fact that almost none of the AKP member had any previous parliamentary, let alone ministerial, experience. In the confusion, the parliamentary vote on permitting the deployment of some 60,000 U.S. troops into northern Iraq through Turkey missed the required majority by three votes.

Erdogan was somehow certain that the vote would be easy. His AKP was officially in favor of the American deployment, and Erdogan allowed AKP deputies to vote free from party discipline. A large number of the deputies simply voted against it - a few because of their Kurdish separatist feelings, some because …they could…. The opposition CHP (Republican People's Party - Ataturk's old organization) , for whom opposition seems to simply mean all out obstruction, also voted no on the ballot. Considering the security issue at hand, that was quite unusual, but significant for the general change Turkey is going through.

President Ahmet Necdet Sezer acted as a potent free agent against the ruling party, fervently lobbying against the deployment. The military, which traditionally and constitutionally has a decisive say on security matters, kept quiet-at least until after the vote, which discredited a government they never liked anyway given its Islamist roots. Chief of General Staff Gen. Hilmi Ozkok then came forward and publicly stated that Turkey had only two unpleasant choices, supporting the U.S. or not, but not supporting it was the worse of the available choices. For the military (to the extent one can talk of "the military" given how divided, and quite unusually. they are now), the idea seems to be to give the AKP enough rope to hang itself with, so as to be able to accuse it of incompetence and endangering Turkey's security. The strategy is not unlike that of the discredited , old Istanbul political, economic, and elite establishment, which wants to redress its humiliating defeat in November.

But what of the polls CNN cites, which find that 90% of Turks oppose the war? Reading carefully, one sees that the very same people who overwhelmingly oppose the war (mostly for economic reasons) also gave Erdogan, a supporter of U.S. deployment, 84% of the vote in the largely Kurdish (hence particularly antiwar) Siirt district; and the equally pro-U.S. military still has a 70% approval rating, still making it the most respected institution in the country. More seasoned leadership could still have won the day, were Turkey's leaders willing and able to put the nation's larger interests ahead of mob emotions (as Tony Blair or José Maria Aznar were), but obviously this is beyond the reach of the AKP and Erdogan.

In fact, the AKP is largely the party of small merchants from the provinces and metropolitan slums, something the Istanbul elites never miss an opportunity to mention. It has only a limited understanding of security and wider regional or international politics, and the secularists among the Foreign Ministry bureaucracy and military-the natural advisers on such matters-mistrust it. Concerned to what degree the AKP has a hidden Islamist agenda, they are not inclined to help it.

What did Turkey lose by sending such confused signals? Tactically, and most dangerously in the long run from the military/intelligence perspective, it lost the ability to finish off its main enemy, the Marxist/separatist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has retreated over recent years into northern Iraq. (There are some 7,000 PKK cadres there, as compared to less than 700 inside Turkey proper.) The PKK insurgency that began in 1984 and ended with the capture of the PKK's leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999 led to some 30,000 fatalities. Indeed, the plan initially offered by Washington included having U.S. heavy forces move south from Turkey into Iraq, with Turkish forces cleaning up the PKK stronghold behind.

Economically, Turkey lost some $6 billion in U.S. grants and much more in loan guarantees from IMF loans-money Turkey desperately needs after a decade's mismanagement of the economy. When I visited Turkey in 2001 the lira was at 400,000 to the dollar. When I left Ankara two weeks ago after a follow-up visit, all Turks were millionaires: the lira was at 1,700,000 to the dollar.

Politically, Turkey's support for Saddam (which is what the rejection of the U.S. force deployment amounts to) is a lose-lose proposition. Arabs hate Turks, and always will; Turks despise Arabs; the idea of the overwhelmingly secular Turks expressing "solidarity" with Iraqi Arabs is simply preposterous.

Strategically, Turkey only has one serious friend in the West, the United States, as demonstrated by the November 2002 NATO imbroglio, when France, Germany, and Belgium refused to give Ankara the defensive support it requested. It was only Washington that pressed for a different and better result.

By rejecting a U.S. deployment that would have established a strong northern front against Saddam's regime, Ankara managed only to increase the Iraqi Kurds' influence-the light American forces in northern Iraq are more, rather than less, dependent on Kurdish military support. This is precisely what the Turks did not want to do. Worse still, both Washington and the EU, as well as NATO, now oppose any Turkish incursion into Iraq, even one directed to the PKK-an organization considered terrorist by the U.S. for years and, since 9/11, by the EU as well.

In terms of U.S.-Turkish relations, the damage is enormous. Americans who supported Turkey against powerful Greek and Armenian lobbies feel disappointed; and most of the Pentagon, always the American institution friendliest to Ankara, rightly feels that the Turkish decision, or lack of one, will inevitably lead to American military fatalities, now that a northern Iraqi front has to be established through airborne operations.

But what about the United States? While Turkish indecision bears the largest part of the blame for the current situation, one wonders why the U.S. embassy in Ankara failed to understand the always complicated Turkish domestic politics. It would appear that Ambassador Robert Pearson was asleep at the wheel, since during the run-up to the war in Iraq, the only high-ranking U.S. officials to visit Ankara were from the Defense Department. This suggests that Washington assumed, erroneously as it turns out, that the traditionally close military-to-military ties with Turkey were enough to "deliver" Ankara.

Secretary Powell's belated April  visit to Turkey may or may not contain the damage to bilateral relations, but its immediate goal-preventing a massive Turkish military incursion into Iraq-is evidence of how far the miscommunication between the two countries was allowed to go.

Ultimately, Turkey has a legitimate right to eliminate PKK strongholds in northern Iraq, hopefully with the support of a post-Saddam regime in Baghdad. On the other hand, Ankara's own indecision has postponed that eventuality, and the price will be paid in Turkish lives. Whatever calculations the Turkish military made regarding the PKK and the possible impact of Iraqi Kurds on U.S. operations were wrong. Ankara is blinded by its fear of an unlikely independent Kurdish state in Iraq, especially if it gets its hand on the oil fields of Kirkuk. But by rejecting the U.S., Turkey only strengthened the hand of the Kurds, making them a far more valued U.S. ally than they needed to be.

But in one amazing development in Turkey, I found on my visit that cabbies as well as establishment figures do something very unusual for Turks talking to a foreigner: they say "We made a mistake." Let's hope that such feelings spread to the antiwar types in Istanbul.


Michael Radu is Senior Fellow and Co - Chair, Center on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.


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