The Trouble with Turkey
A showdown over Cyprus, unease among the Europeans, military escalation on the Iraqi border, and recent elections that represent a sea change in government in other words, it's business as usual in Turkey.
A country seemingly always on the edge of greatness, Turkey's constant unpredictability makes it one of the world's most interesting countries. And, for a variety of interconnected reasons, it is also one of the most important. As the US steps up plans for a war on Iraq, Turkey and its untested pro-Islamic government face an unwanted trial at an inopportune time. Torn between appeasing American wishes and pleasing a thoroughly anti-war electorate, the infant administration is simultaneously being hit by several other interconnected challenges: UN pressure for a definitive settlement for the Cyprus problem, a scathing rejection of the Turkey's European identity from the French, and somehow, a solution for the country's economic dislocation. (Last year's recession only increased the seemingly endless loans that have made Turkey the IMF's largest-ever debtor).
The Islamicists Take Power
What Western media hailed on paper as a "landslide victory" for the Islamic Justice and Development Party may not translate into much in reality. The traditional role of the army in Ataturk's republic is to maintain democracy and secularism sometimes, by limiting the former. Notably, the American democracy-building crusaders are relatively silent concerning the role of the Turkish army in government. It is left to the Europeans who constantly face the possibility of letting a populous Muslim country into their ranks to stonewall the Turks, as we will see below.
Yet perhaps there is something to Ataturk's ideal. In an absolute democracy, voters could conceivably vote to overturn democracy, and live under another political system. In Turkey, such a scenario is deeply worrying to the generals. This is why the head of the Justice and Development Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was banned for life from holding office in 1997, after being accused of "inciting religious hatred."
To avoid stirring up trouble, Justice and Development has marketed itself as promoter of a pro-Western, pro-business agenda, thereby downplaying its populist appeal to dissenting Islamicists. On Saturday, it was announced by the party that the new prime minister would be one Abdullah Gul. According to Saturday's broadcast of BBC World, "Gul is seen as being pro-business, and acceptable to Turkey's NATO allies."
However, the brief television analysis also speculated that the banned Erdogan may himself someday try to become a prime minister. According to the BBC, "he's already being treated like one by the outside world." Such a thought cannot fail to unnerve the generals.
The Elections: Turkish 'Blowback'?
In a provocative recent article, Antiwar's Alan Bock argued that the landslide victory of the Islamicist Justice and Development party was
"...at least partly attributable to the increasingly aggressive tone of U.S. foreign policy regarding the region… the apparent determination of the Bush administration to achieve 'regime change' in Iraq, with or without allies, no doubt pushed many Turkish voters toward the Islamicist party as the most effective or visible way to register their disapproval."
While Bock also attributes the Islamicist win to widespread dissent over the old administration's failure to revitalize the economy, there is an element of truth to this. It is becoming clearer and clearer that US intransigence is starting to backfire. Now that rumblings are starting to come even from faithful ally Turkey, Washington should seriously reconsider embarking on a military adventure in Iraq one that would not only provide terrorists a perfect chance to strike again, but also destabilize an invaluable ally.
NATO Versus The European Union
The Turkish controversy is the strongest manifestation of yet another future showdown. The race for power between NATO and the EU, attested by the frenetic pace of their respective expansion plans, has been analyzed in depth. At bottom, it is the rivalry between America and the Continent, between the US (and British) desire to expand empire through enlarging NATO, versus the French-German hope that a European army may someday replace NATO policing missions in Europe, thereby reducing American influence. The rivalry has come to the surface recently: on 9 November, NATO chief Lord Robertson mocked Europe's defense funding as a "waste of money." In Macedonia, the French are currently incensed that the US has backed NATO's extension of its mission after 15 December they had hoped an EU force would take over.
Turkey, as member of NATO and aspiring member of the EU, is where the twain meets.
The EU's Great Deception
It was exactly three years ago in Istanbul that an American soldier laid it all out for me. The European context of the new "Great Game," a story that is only emerging publicly now, was already lurking just under the surface of polite diplomacy. What had finally driven it into the light of day were twin disasters the August 1999 earthquakes in Izmit, Turkey and Athens, Greece. The instant aid both nations provided one another led to an unanticipated warming of relations. The Greek boycott of a Turkish EU application was dropped.
The soldier, who had spent considerable time working with the Turkish military elite, put it rather bluntly:
"So long as Greece was boycotting the Turks, the more 'evolved' northern European countries were full of sympathy: 'oh, Turkey, we'd love to have you, if it weren't for those sulky Greeks.' This, of course, was mere rhetoric. Now Greece has called their bluff. They know full well that any future wave of Turkish immigrants will not stop for long in Greece they will go to Sweden, England, France, etc.. Behind the well-wishing rhetoric, these countries are aware of this possibility. Someday soon they will be forced to say it out loud."
For years, carping European criticisms over human rights, the death penalty and Kurdish language rights have successfully stonewalled the Turks. Now that the latter have swiftly been making progress on these issues, the masters of Europe are groping to find another irrelevant labor for their latter-day Hercules to carry out. And preferably, one that would not betray the paucity of the leftist rhetoric that has justified a decade of Balkan intervention, and sparked the "conflict resolution" industry that has been cashing in ever since on that perhaps ruined subcontinent.
An Honest Frenchman Incites Uproar
Trumped by the Greeks, those caring, feeling Eurocrats were once again upstaged this time very recently, by a blunt and unwelcome messenger, the head of Europe's constitutional convention, Valery Giscard d'Estaing.
Citing Turkey's volatile economy, widely different cultural heritage, and the fact that only four percent of it lies in Europe, the dour Frenchman declared that Turkey's membership would mean "the end of the European Union." Indeed, any conception of a "Europe" that borders on Iraq is farcical. Unless, of course, the American dream of a "democratic" Iraq is fulfilled. In that case, is eventual EU membership for Baghdad inconceivable?
Even if they didn't like the message, the Turks should be grateful at least for the forthrightness of Monsieur d'Estaing. At very least, it should make them reconsider why and what for they have been laboring in vain to please Europe for so many years.
Europe's 'Moment of Truth'
Although it took three years, it seems that the soldier I encountered in Istanbul has been vindicated: a recent analysis from the BBC conceded that d'Estaing "…is merely saying out loud what others whisper behind the scenes." For example:
"Turkey's opponents say it is too big and too 'culturally different'. The idea of a large Muslim country joining the EU fills them with profound unease. If the Turks were to join, they would within a few years have the largest population in the Union. That would give them the largest delegation in the European Parliament and the biggest number of votes in ministerial councils."
A European Union whose center of gravity changed dramatically southward even as its impoverished population moved northward would be difficult to sell to many Europeans. As it is now, it seems the Eurocrats are committed to dangle the carrot forever, as a form of sustained damage control, to keep the Turks in a perpetual state of suspense. This is both to keep them Western-oriented (without actually being admitted into the West), and to keep them from going jihadi.
Europe's Economic Fears
The EU's imminent admittance of 10 central and eastern European countries has raised fears perhaps unfounded of economic peril among many Europeans. In some past cases, chiefly Ireland and Greece, EU largesse has contributed mightily to turning relatively poor countries into thriving ones. However, being much larger and more averse to accurate economic predictions, Turkey could be much harder to safely "improve." Of course, there is only one way to find out. But what matters here is not assessing a realistic future for Turkey in the EU. To understand the current controversies, we must merely look at what is steering the debate that is, the mental outlook of the parties involved.
One example was the harsh denunciation of Monsieur d'Estaing. Another was recorded by the AP recently an anonymous comment from a European diplomat, bemused by the undying American enthusiasm for Turkey's candidacy:
"The Americans just don't understand the complexities of EU membership… admitting Turkey now would be like Mexico becoming the 51st state of the US overnight."
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer went even further, declaring that Turkey's admittance would be like "Mexico and Central America joining the United States."
The Base Of American Support
But does the US really not understand this somewhat accurate approximation? Of course it does. America's enthusiastic backing of Turkish membership in the EU is not only a means for undermining the Eurocrats. There are very real concerns behind keeping good relations with the Turks, who by an accident of history have what may be the most important geographic positioning in the world. For the Americans at least, Turkey's borders with Syria, Iraq, Armenia, Georgia and (across the Black Sea) Ukraine and Russia make for a necessary courtship. The US would like to keep its presence at Incirlik air force base (near Adana) for any war on Iraq. Maintaining the status quo has required strategic deference on occasion. For example, Turkish threats to end the Incirlik presence allegedly stifled Congress's plans to officially declare Turkey guilty of "genocide" against Armenians in 1915. The French, however, had already obliged.
Forcing The Issue: The UN And Cyprus
At this year's EU summit in Copenhagen, Cyprus is expected to be admitted whether or not there is a settlement between long-term antagonists Greece and Turkey.
Turkish threats to annex the northern part of the island if the (Greek) Cypriot Republic is admitted to the EU are being taken seriously by the UN, which has recently issued an 11th-hour peace settlement one that would seem on paper to be quite favorable to the Turks. The Financial Times reports:
"The new UN plan proposes a loose Swiss-style confederation of two 'component states' in Cyprus, joined as a 'common state.' It would be headed by a rotating presidency, a two-chamber parliament with special voting safeguards for the Turkish Cypriot community and a supreme court where a third of the judges would be non-Cypriots. The plan says Cyprus will be 'an independent state in the form of an indissoluble partnership.'"
As it is now, Cyprus is a prosperous democratic country, with a strong economy and good relations with the West. The Turkish-occupied north, on the other hand, is poor, undeveloped, and restricted by a huge military presence. The "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus," as it is farcically called, is unrecognized by any country save Turkey.
Both sides in the dispute have many and mutually-exclusive demands. But what Cyprus would have to gain by re-uniting, and deferring such enormous power to an Ankara-backed minority, is a serious question. There is one apparent victory for the Greeks a massive reduction in Turkey's 30,000 troops. But even this may be more than Turkish politicians who must dance to the tune of their military minders can stomach. On 13 November, outgoing Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit declared that any troop reduction was "out of the question." Of course, it was Ecevit who had ordered the invasion of Cyprus in 1974.
The Turkish military, therefore, has its eyes on the new leadership. Notably, party boss Erdogan has expressed cautious optimism about the UN plan. His counterparts in Athens are also eager for a settlement especially prime minister Costas Simitis, who would like to be remembered as the man who signed Cyprus into the European Union. On January 1st, Greece will begin its one-year EU presidency. But a lot more than prestige is on the line. Should no settlement be reached, and a divided Cyprus admitted, Simitis may have to deal with a very unpleasant possibility a Turkish annexation in the north.
The Iraqi Border Heats Up And The Americans Are There
The US recently announced up to $1 billion of new military aid to Turkey already the world's fourth-largest arms importer. Last week, cross-border clashes between Turkish troops and Iraqi Kurds were reported, in a provocative article which reveals increasing Turkish-CIA cooperation:
"Turkish government sources said the CIA wants Turkey to play a major role in capturing northern Iraq and maintaining order in the Kurdish- and Turkmen-populated areas. The CIA plans focus on Turkish military help in capturing the northern Iraqi cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, the sources said. The operation is meant to include Kurdish forces friendly to Ankara.
….the CIA and Turkish intelligence have been cooperating on wide-scale operations, and U.S. intelligence agents are operating in northern Iraq. The CIA and the U.S. military are refurbishing abandoned Iraqi airports near the Turkish border, the sources said."
This quote must be taken with a grain of salt. Despite official opposition to any war, the Turks are pragmatists. If the US decides to go in for the kill, they will be forced to go along for the ride. As we will see below, their "major role" is not only of American design.
Then there is the topic of "friendly" Kurdish forces. As I found on my recent trip to the region, this means the "alternative policeman" program by which village Kurds are armed and uniformed by the authorities; the rationale is that this will increase Ankara's military potential in remote regions, and also keep the Kurds out of anti-state paramilitary organizations like the PKK.
While the locals were tight-lipped about the consequences of not accepting a Turkish uniform, it was clear that life could become rather uncomfortable for Kurds who did not want to comply.
While some have speculated that an Iraq war would provoke the Turkish Kurds to revolt, this is unlikely. Besides the tacit intimidation with which they still live, there is the fact that life is improving every year. The government has rebuilt many destroyed homes, and language rights are on the rise so long as Ankara's hopes of EU membership are not dashed. Otherwise, there is little incentive for the government to aid a people it associates with years of terrorism. No doubt about it, it is a slippery slope indeed.
Iraq: All About Oil, And If So, Whose?
Almost as an afterthought, the article concludes with the following:
"Turkey's military has opposed a U.S.-led war against Iraq. Ankara has asked for a multi-billion compensation package that includes Turkish control of the oil fields in northern Iraq."
If we have to go along with an American adventure in Iraq, Turkish thinking goes, we had better get something out of it. And that something, it seems, is oil. For reasons of both finance and security, the oilfields of northern Iraq are key to all parties involved.
It goes without saying why the "democracy-building" Americans have aspirations on oil-rich Iraq. But if the Kurds do get their "liberation" as expected, their economic power as a state (and therefore their ability to challenge Turkey militarily) will derive largely from the oilfields near Kirkuk. For Turkey, therefore, control of these areas is strategic for security as well as for economy.
The Kurdish Situation
The Iraqi Kurds, however, have other ideas. As the Associated Press ("Kurdish Army Seeks Oil-Rich Areas") recently reported:
"The battlefield strategy outlined by (Iraqi Kurd) Cmdr. Hamid Efendi gives added muscle to a draft constitution proposed earlier this month that envisioned the oil center of Kirkuk as the future capital of their homeland.
"…Kirkuk is Kurdish. So are parts of Mosul," said Efendi, leader of the 50,000-strong Iraqi Kurdish armed forces comprising soldiers and irregular militia. "We would want to take these areas if the Americans attack."
Be Careful What You Wish For…
Right now, Turkey stands in the very center of this vortex of conflicting forces. Hazardously, the country upon which so much depends is on the defensive. Suspicions abound about virtually everything foreign about US intentions for the Iraqi Kurds, about European Union sentiment, about potential enemies (like their own Kurds) and about the unnerving prospect of being forced into a face-saving but politically suicidal intervention in Cyprus.
Critics of American imperialism often cite the US' "steamroller" effect, whereby all pretenses of diplomacy or cooperation with international bodies are merely for show. In the end, critics say, America always gets whatever it wishes.
Yet while Washington may ultimately get the war it wants in Iraq, the price remains unknown. There are many players in this new "Great Game." With such complex and opposing forces in play, "blowback" is the least of the potential dangers the West may face in forcing Turkey's hand. Indeed, the simultaneous power plays of America, the UN, European Union and NATO may someday seem to have been trivial and grievous rivalries, should the misguided antagonisms of intervention throw Turkey off course.
Previous articles by Christopher Deliso on Antiwar.com
Christopher Deliso is a journalist and travel writer with special interest in current events in the areas of the former Byzantine Empire the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and the Caucasus. Mr. Deliso holds a master's degree with honors in Byzantine Studies (from Oxford University), and has traveled widely in the region. His current long-term research projects include the Macedonia issue, the Cyprus problem, and the ethnography of Byzantine Georgia. He just returned from a long stay in Turkey, near the Iraqi border.
Back to Antiwar.com Home Page | Contact Us