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July 28, 2004

Iraq War Straining US-Turkey Ties

by Jim Lobe

While the image of the United States has sunk to an all-time low in the Arab world, the Iraq war has also had a devastating impact on U.S. ties to another predominantly Muslim power and one of Washington's closest and most strategically situated Cold War allies, Turkey, say experts just returned from the region.

Ties between Turkey and Israel – countries that have long considered themselves strategic allies against hostile Arab states – have also become deeply strained as a result of recent events, according to former U.S. ambassador in Ankara, Mark Parris, who also served for several years as the number two in the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv.

"There's been lots of news, and most of it is not good," he told a meeting Tuesday at the Nixon Center here, noting that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly referred to Israeli actions in Gaza and the West Bank as "state terrorism," an assessment that is now shared by 82 percent of the Turkish population, according to a recent poll cited by Zeyno Baran, director of the international security and energy program at the center.

While the shifts in Turkish public opinion toward both the United States and Israel are wreaking havoc with political relationships, they have not yet seriously damaged the core strategic relationships, in part because the military in Turkey retains considerable autonomy, but it very easily could over time, according to the analysts. Another survey released in the past week showed that 75 percent of Turks wanted "no" relationship with Israel.

Aside from the Iraq war, which has spurred distrust in Ankara about U.S. aims in the region, the Bush administration appears to have misjudged the impact of the sweeping electoral victory that brought the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in 2002.

"People here didn't fully appreciate how big a difference the AKP is in worldview," according to Parris, who stressed that Erdogan has consulted more closely with Arab governments than previous Turkish leaders and, in a major coup, Turkey last month saw its candidate, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, elected secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), the global caucus of predominantly Muslim nations.

The other major factor in the growing alienation is rising expectation that Turkey will be given a certain date for joining the European Union (EU) at the body's meeting in December, according to Geoffrey Kemp, a top Middle East aide under former President Ronald Reagan (1981-89) who directs the Nixon Center's regional strategic programs.

"Becoming part of Europe is the overriding strategic objective," said Parris, who served in Ankara in the mid-1990s. On issues regarding the Middle East, Israel and Iran, the views of both religious and secular Turks "are now much closer to mainstream European perceptions than to mainstream American positions," he added.

The growing estrangement between Turkey, on the one hand, and the United States and Israel, on the other, is particularly ironic because Washington's biggest boosters of war in Iraq – mainly neoconservatives who favor Israel's governing Likud Party, such as former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, who played a key role in promoting trilateral ties – had seen the ouster of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and the installation of a pro-U.S. government there as key to decisively transforming the balance of power in the region in favor of an alliance of secular, relatively democratic states, specifically Israel, Turkey and a new Iraq, backed up by Washington.

"It hasn't turned out to be that way," noted Kemp, who said that, if anything, the war has created unprecedented instability and uncertainty throughout the region in ways that could well bring about a major realignment in the area, but not of the kind desired by the neoconservatives.

Of greatest concern is what is taking place in Iraq itself, particularly in the northern Kurdish region, where 5,000 members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Turkish insurgency that just ended a five-year unilateral ceasefire, have been based. Despite repeated urgings by Ankara, U.S. occupation forces have not moved to disarm the guerrillas, nor have they asked Iraqi Kurds to do so, despite the fact that the PKK is listed by the State Department as a "terrorist" organization.

"If you make a discrimination among terrorist groups," according to one Turkish diplomat who attended the Nixon Center meeting, "then the war against terrorism will never work."

"The Turks told the U.S.: 'Either do something about it or let us do something about it,'" said Baran, who added that Washington has adamantly opposed any direct Turkish presence in Iraq, in contrast to its attitude during the 1990s when Ankara maintained a virtual continuous presence in the northern part of the country, close to its border.

Turkey is also concerned that Iraqi Kurds may break away from Baghdad, a step that would almost certainly spur direct military intervention by both Turkey and Iran, who worry that an independent Kurdistan would provoke Kurdish uprisings within their borders. Those fears have resulted in Turkey drawing closer to both Syria, which also has a significant Kurdish population, and Iran, where Erdogan himself is being hosted for a two-day summit this week.

"There is a real concern that, regardless of who wins the [U.S.] elections [in November], the United States is not up to fixing Iraq," Baran noted, adding there is also "fear that the U.S. is going to get involved militarily in Syria and Iran" in ways that could further destabilize the region.

These concerns, as well as the sour taste left by U.S. pressure on the Turkish parliament to approve the use of its territory to launch an invasion of Iraq from the north, the occupation and the widespread publicity about abuses by U.S. soldiers against Iraqi detainees, according to Baran, "has led Turkish people to feel closer to their Arab neighbors. Until a few years ago, Turks would feel much closer to Israel.”

But Israel's actions – particularly the similarity of the television images of its occupation of Palestinian territories and the U.S. Occupation in Iraq – have also resulted in a dramatic rise in anti-Israeli sentiment, she added.

Among other ominous developments for the relationship, according to Parris, in the past few months Israeli arms sales to Turkey have been canceled.

And two weeks ago, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Ohmert, who said he was bearing a special message from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for Erdogan, was snubbed by the Turkish prime minister. Although Ohmert was warmly received by other senior officials, Parris called it "devastating [that] he couldn't talk to the top guy," given the long-standing close relationship.

Israel's intentions in Iraq have become a subject of growing suspicion, particularly since the publication in the The New Yorker magazine in June of a much-disputed story by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh that asserted Israel had infiltrated scores of "intelligence and military operatives" into Iraqi Kurdistan to train and supply the 50,000-strong peshmerga militias and conduct operations against targets in Kurdish areas of Syria and Iran.

The story, which was leaked in advance to a Turkish opposition newspaper, fueled concerns about Kurdish secession and the possibility of a Kurdish seizure of Iraq's major oil-production center of Kirkuk, where ethnic tensions between Turkmens, Kurds and Arabs have already resulted in fatal clashes.

While the Kurds and Israelis strongly denied Hersh's account, and some independent experts have cast doubt on it, "there is still huge distrust," said Baran. "They simply don't believe [the denials]."

Israeli and Turkish militaries are still carrying out joint exercises and U.S. forces are still using Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey to help supply the occupation in Iraq, but whether the fundamental strategic interests that the three countries share can long endure in the face of growing Turkish anger and distrust remain uncertain.

It will be difficult to reverse current negative trends, according to Baran, so long as Sharon and Bush remain in power, although even their successors may find it difficult to improve ties given Turkey's strategic reorientation toward Europe and the degree of alienation that will need to be overcome.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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