According to legend, its flag sprang from the
reflection of a star and the crescent moon in a pool of native warriors' blood.
The national anthem exults, "Martyrs would gush out were one to squeeze
the soil!" Of all the Muslim countries created after World War I, only
Turkey succeeded in expelling Western occupiers to achieve a modern statehood
that many consider miraculous. Today, its treatment by the U.S. as a backwater
pawn has roused the nation to defiance: 86 percent of all Turks now hold a negative
view of America.
Ruled by Muslim Turks since 1453, the Ottoman Empire entered a long period
of decline during the 19th century. Shrinking in territories and burdened with
war debt, it defaulted on its international loans in 1875, drawing France and
Britain to Constantinople – present-day Istanbul – to collect repayment from
the Ottoman treasury. When the sick
man of Europe crumbled during World War I, world leaders carved it into
a dozen pieces under the 1920 Treaty
of Sevres and subsequently refined the borders under the Sykes-Picot agreement.
A mandate system that allowed the newly formed entities varying degrees of independence
delineated five states: Britain claimed Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan (now
Jordan), while France took Syria and Lebanon.
Because the Entente powers considered the Anatolian
Turks incapable of self-rule, they parceled the strategic coastal areas among
the victors. The British, the French, and the Italians sent occupation forces
to Constantinople, and Greece, staunchly backed by Britain, took over the Aegean
port of Smyrna (Izmir). Its goal was to restore Constantinople – the seat of
the Greek-speaking Christian empire for a millennium – to its Byzantine glory.
And finally, to the east, the Bolsheviks were eager to stamp a communist footprint
on this strategic landmass. Strapped for foreign exchange, Russia needed unencumbered
transit from the Black Sea through the Dardanelles to export its wheat surplus
and newly discovered crude oil.
Against this backdrop, by 1922, the Turks drove out the Greeks (who had advanced
into the central plateau with the goal of capturing the newly declared capital
of Ankara), expelled the European powers, and reclaimed large territories to
the east from Armenia. The Turkish-Greco war still lingers bitterly. Historical
records blame the Greeks for a scorched-earth policy as they were driven out
of Smyrna, while others depict the Turks burning the Greek and Armenian Christian
villages to the ground. Witnesses say that 75 percent of Smyrna was destroyed.
Standing on the waterfront of the ancient Mediterranean port, I asked a Turkish
friend what happened during the postwar deportation of the remaining Greek and
Armenian communities, and he quietly told me, "The boats came and they
By 1923, all Western forces had demobilized. Turkey established most of its
modern-day borders under the Treaty
of Lausanne. Although the U.S. had stayed out of the Turkish wars, Turkey's
success at Lausanne caused the U.S. ambassador to Germany to proclaim,
"Christian civilization was crucified … and the Stars and Stripes were
trailed in the mire in the interest of a group of oil speculators."
Anyone visiting the capital city of Ankara is
struck by the ubiquitous presence of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the
modern Turkish state. His likeness appears in every visual form imaginable,
gracing photographs, paintings, busts, masks, bas-reliefs, and statues. On the
main thoroughfare, his face gazes out at the street procession from gigantic
Orwellian tapestries unfurled from the tops of buildings. The symbolism is forceful
– it serves the citizenry as a permanent reminder of Turkey's struggle for independence
84 years ago (Oct. 29) and fuses the state and the man into an enduring mythological
Ataturk's life was a one-man revolution of breathtaking proportions. Officially,
he is credited with the establishment of a modern, Western-leaning republic
that included a civil code and language reform, universal education, equal inheritance
and voting rights for women, and the abolition of the Caliphate, as well as
industrial projects, including railway development and state-run manufacturing.
Accounts of his personal life are dizzying: war hero, president (Time
dubbed him "dictator"), educator, arts patron, father of seven adopted
daughters – all of which he managed while drinking himself to death by age 57.
But beneath the glowing biography is a darker story of Kemalism. While espousing
republican principles and secularism, the doctrine sought to unify Turkey as
one culture and one language by forced assimilation. The new republic outlawed
mystical and ecstatic orders such as Sufism
and denied the Kurds – a minority accused of deviant
worship and orgiastic sexual practices – basic expression of culture and
language. As early as 1925, uprisings were repressed with bombardment,
slaying, and hanging. Beneath the philosophy of rational enlightenment lay
brutal repression and a strong dose of militarism.
After World War II
Since the Korean War and following Turkey's entry
into NATO (never mind that it is nowhere near the Atlantic), the U.S. has assumed
Turkey would dutifully bow to America's dictates. But Turkey – boosted by its
booming economy and its perception of the U.S. as a clumsy brute at its doorstep
– is experiencing a resurgence of nationalism. Its parliamentary rejection in
2003 of the coalition's plan to stage the Iraq invasion through Turkish territory
and its embrace of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – a devout Muslim – have
caught the U.S. completely flatfooted. The U.S. government fails to see that
its transformative design for the region and Turkey's desire for border integrity
and economic expansion are on a collision course.
On the economic front, Turkey, which has an energy deficit, envisions becoming
an energy transit hub. Its southeastern port of Ceyhan is the terminus for one
pipeline originating from the Caspian Sea port Baku (BTC) and another from Kirkuk,
Iraq. Turkey projects earning several hundred million dollars in transit fees
per year from these two pipelines and sees the restive Kurdish region as a threat
to its plans. It has announced intentions to secure a long-term supply
contract with Kirkuk and strongly opposes Kurdish plans to incorporate the
city (once claimed by Turkey after WWI) into the semi-autonomous northern Iraqi
region. Similarly, Turkey plans to expand trade with Iran, notwithstanding U.S.
disapproval. According to the Turkish press, trade has grown from $2.3 billion
to $6.7 billion between 2003 and 2006, and the two countries have signed a preferential
trade pact on a series of goods. Iran (along with Russia) supplies Turkey its
gas needs, which have been growing in pace with the economy.
On the political side, Ankara and Tehran progressively share a cause that unites
them – a "war on terror" against the PKK and its Iranian arm, PJAK.
For Turkey, the growing attacks by the PKK against Turkish forces are not just
acts of terrorism (the U.S. view), but the embodiment of the separatist movement
that wants to chip off its southeastern region. Turkey sees duplicity in America's
role: the U.S. condemns the PKK, but not PJAK – finding the latter useful for
provoking Iran. Hence,
Turks overwhelmingly support the military crossing the border – not just to
crush the rebels but to commit an act of defiance against the superpower.
As it begins to play a role of regional political power
broker, Turkey openly bristles at American sermonizing and patronizing,
especially since it correctly warned the U.S. how instability would ripple through
the whole region following the Iraq invasion. As a country that criminalizes
"insults to Turkishness," it views the recent U.S. congressional effort
to recognize as genocide the Ottoman Turks' massacre of Armenians in 1915 to
be an irreparable blow to its alliance with the U.S. Fiercely proud of its revolutionary
birth and protective of its sovereign borders, the rising crescent will increasingly
exert its own will in the region. For the U.S., that means one more miscalculation
in a bloody field of failures.