TCS Daily

Turkey's Historic Blunder

By Ariel Cohen - April 24, 2003 12:00 AM

After weeks of the geopolitical equivalent of friendly fire casualties, Ankara has finally allowed U.S. aid to move to Northern Iraq. Two weeks earlier, and after lengthy delays, it permitted the U.S. Air Force to use Turkish airspace for strikes against Iraq. This saved about $1.6 billion in aid to Ankara, but it was too little, too late.

At the critical juncture in a run-up to the war, the Turkish government failed to pass the authorization for the use of the Turkish air bases and for transit of the crucially necessary U.S. 4th Infantry Division through the Turkish territory. Despite the Bush administration offering Turkey $6 billion in military and economic aid as an incentive to facilitate U.S. troops deployment for the action in northern Iraq, Turkey's refusal to grant the U.S. request has made those payments moot - with devastating economic consequences to the ailing Turkish economy.

Turkish AK (Justice and Development) Party's Islamist government, led by the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdagan, a political newbie, and foreign minister Abdullah Gul, quoted broad opposition of the Turkish public as the main reason to limit U.S. involvement in Turkey. Some polls said that over 90 percent of the public rejected the war. The government, however, did not impose the customary party discipline in the crucial parliamentary vote to allow U.S. troops to deploy, thus sending a subtle message to the members to vote as they like. An Ankara-based analyst with close ties to the foreign policy and military establishment who requested anonómity told TCS that two factors contributed to Erdagan's failure to prevent an unprecedented crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations: lack of policy experience and a hidden Islamist agenda.

The adamant opposition to the U.S. use of air bases and troop transit is likely to signal a watershed in the U.S.-Turkish relations and raises fears on both sides that the strategic ties between Washington and Ankara will never be the same again. Turkey reminded Americans of the old English proverb, "a friend in need is a friend indeed" - by indeed failing to come to America's aid.

Many U.S. policy makers are fuming, because they view Ankara as throwing decades of close military cooperation to the wind. The Turkish military, for years favorites of the U.S., seem to be unable or unwilling to challenge their Islamist political masters. The anger is palpable, because the Pentagon had counted on Turkey to facilitate the opening of a crucial northern front against Saddam. Instead, a nightmarish scenario of Turkish-Kurdish hostilities has emerged, albeit briefly. Turkey's loud and threatening insistence on deploying its own troops in Northern Iraq to "control" the Kurds - but refusing to fight or even help to fight Saddam, was duly noted.

In the end, Turkey has sent up to 3,000 troops and some observers into Kurdistan - allegedly to prevent emergence of independent Kurdish state. Pentagon planners counted on the Kurdish militia known as peshmerga to attack Saddam's military and to assist the U.S. in securing northern Iraqi oil fields around Mosul and Kirkuk earlier than they could do it.

Moreover, reported contacts between Iranian envoys and the Turkish government earlier this spring further complicated prosecution of the war as the U.S. was trying to ensure that Tehran and Ankara do not enter the fray to partition Iraqi Kurdistan and secure the oil fields for themselves. Such a development would have further complicated American involvement in volatile Northern Iraq.

While speculations continue as to what caused the Turkish-American rift - AK Party's inexperience or an Islamist hidden agenda - advisors to the Turkish military interviewed in Washington and Ankara list a series of concerns that may be detrimental to Turkey in the future. They stress that the leading European states will never adopt Turkey into the expanded European Union, while closer integration with the Muslim world, advocated by the previous Islamist government let by Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, will derail Turkey's economic and technological progress. Thus, they say, abandonment of close ties to the U.S. is a strategic catastrophe for Turkey, comparable with the defeat in the naval battle of Lepanto in the hands of the Venetian Republica Serenissima, or bashing at the walls of Vienna in 1682 in the hands of the Polish king. Finally, some compared Turkey's blunder with entering World War One on the side of the German Axis. All three events signaled major geopolitical deterioration in the fate of the Ottoman Empire: the end of domination of the Mediterranean, the end of expansion into Europe, and the end of the empire itself.

These experts believe that Washington's policy toward Ankara may reflect a number of changes in the future. Not only will the U.S. not deliver the promised $20 billion dollar assistance package, it is likely that the Bush administration may instruct its Executive Director at the International Monetary Fund to oppose future bailouts. While it will be for the benefit of the Turkish economy in the long run, in the short run Ankara will feel slighted.

U.S. may cease seeing Turkey as a special strategic partner, or even as a reliable ally. This is at the time that links with small Gulf states, and NATO candidates such as Romania and Bulgaria, which provided crucial air bases, are stronger than ever. As Iran is arming itself with ballistic missiles and, quite possibly, nuclear weapons, the Pentagon may not be as happy with Turkey's participation in ballistic missile defense programs led by the U.S. as it was only some months ago. Further, on the technology transfer side, Washington may lean on Israel to curb or stop the current wide ranging cooperation between the Turkish military and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and military industries on both sides.

For decades, Ankara counted on Washington to support it on a number of sensitive bilateral issues, but today Washington will be less likely to side with Turkey against Greek claims in the Aegåan Sea. The U.S. State Department may become more critical of Turkey on the Cyprus partition issue. Despite past support of the Turkish membership in the European Union, as President Bush repeatedly stated, this no longer may be the case. In addition, it may be more difficult to see Ankara as a balance to Moscow in Central Asia, especially as radical Islam, not Russian neo-imperialism, is currently viewed as the main threat in the region. Long-standing U.S. support to the Baku-Ceyhan Main Export Pipeline (MEP), including financing issues, may not be as enthusiastic as it was.

The Armenian-Turkish relations are particularly sensitive. For years, the American-Armenian community has built its muscle in the Congress. The Armenian lobby counts over 100 members on both sides of the isle, many on key committees and with a powerful political clout. Turkish experts fear that the Bush administration will drop its long-term resistance to classifying Ottoman atrocities against Armenian civilians in 1915 as an "Armenian holocaust". In 2000, President Clinton personally intervened to defeat House Resolution 596 - a draft legislation to express the attitude of the Unites States on the Armenian alleged genocide. While that Resolution was defeated, after the recent U.S.-Turkish friction, this may not be the case in the future. Congressional recognition of the Armenian 'genocide' by the Ottoman authorities may become relevant if and when reparation claims by genocide survivors or their heirs may be launched.

Finally, the imbroglio may end potential U.S. support for future Turkish military involvement in domestic politics. If the Turkish military is incapable of weighing in on a matter of vital importance to the U.S., why would Washington tolerate in the future violations of democratic norms by the military as it did in the past? In the long run, Turkey may be dealt with "on case by case basis", a senior Washington military expert and a retired U.S. military intelligence officer said, "but the memory of what happened will hang like a dark cloud, slow to dissipate."

The U.S.-Turkish ties that were forged during the Korean and Cold War are set back by decades, not years. Turkey is about to pay a high price for what many in Washington and Ankara see as the largest strategic blunder of its leaders. It will take a lot of efforts on both sides to put this Humpty-Dumpty together again - and a thankless and difficult task that may be.

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