9 November 2004
When Turkey's parliament voted in March 2003 against allowing American troops to open a northern front against Iraq, Turkey's traditional strategic partnership with the United States ended. The two countries still recognise many mutual interests, but now they manage these interests on a far different basis.
The vote shocked old Europe and the Arab world as much as the Bush administration. Europeans who considered Turkey a potential Trojan horse for America within the European Union were forced to reconsider. For many Arabs, the vote showed that Turkey was not an American lackey and would not cooperate with American imperial designs, despite close Turkish-Israeli relations.
Long-simmering disagreements between Turkey and the US came to a boil with the emergence of the Kurds of northern Iraq as the Pentagon's main allies in the Iraq war. The American administration made it clear that military intervention by Turkey in northern Iraq would not be tolerated.
That message was confirmed on July 4, 2003, when American forces arrested several Turkish Special Forces troops in the town of Suleimaniya, humiliating them by putting sacks over their head as they took them into custody. Only intervention by US Vice President Dick Cheney two-and-a-half days later secured the release of the soldiers, who were alleged to have been planning clandestine operations within the Kurdish zone.
Despite ongoing tensions, the Turkish government has been eager to mend relations with America, as it is anxious to have some influence over developments in Iraq. So the authorities responded quickly to the Bush administration's request for Turkish troops to join the coalition, although the idea was stillborn rejected by both the Kurds and the American-appointed Governing Council in Iraq.
America has its own reasons to patch up the relationship. Turkey's secular, capitalistic, democratic order has become especially valuable to the Bush administration as it seeks to integrate the wider Middle East into the world system by liberalising its economy and democratising its polity. Thus, America trumpeted its continuing support for Turkish membership in the EU, notably in President George Bush's speech in June at Istanbul's Galatasaray University at a bridge that joins Asia and Europe.
But serious bilateral problems remain. The government is irritated by US occupation forces' neglect of the northern Iraqi bases of the PKK, the Kurdish separatist insurgents who have fought a 15-year war against Turkey. More broadly, the government regards the US as too complacent vis--vis Kurdish political developments and unmoved by Turkey's concerns about Kurdish independence. The US, for its part, is unhappy with the government's objections to unrestricted American use of the Incirlik airbase in southeastern Turkey, as well as by recent tensions with Israel.
In the meantime, Turkey is moving closer to the EU, with the government overcoming nationalistic objections in the parliament to push through comprehensive reforms. Turkey also showed its goodwill over Cyprus, removing a nagging political obstacle to EU membership. These steps led to the European Commission's recent recommendation to begin accession negotiations with Turkey.
The EU accession process has also underpinned a shift in Turkish policy on Iraq. Previously, Turkey viewed Iraq solely in the context of its domestic Kurdish problem. But widespread European opposition to the war removed the possibility of Turkish military intervention, forcing the government to develop another vision of Turkey's interests.
At the same time, the Iraqi Kurds also appear to appreciate how much they need a friendly Turkey. The northern border with Turkey is their lifeline to the outside world. As a result, Turkey no longer considers a federalised Iraq a threat to its security, as long as each federal unit maintains a measure of ethnic diversity.
Of course, Turkey remains opposed to an independent Kurdistan. But now its concern is more closely tied to regional politics than to the Kurdish issue. Turkey has no desire to serve as a strategic counterweight to Iran and believes that only a territorially intact Iraq can continue to play that role. Furthermore, Turkey is concerned about the possibility of civil war in Kurdistan between the two largest Kurdish factions.
But, unlike either Iran or Syria, Turkey genuinely wishes to see a strong and representative government in Baghdad. Thanks to EU pressures, Turkey's domestic Kurdish problem is well on the way to being resolved democratically, with most Kurdish leaders in Turkey expressing their commitment to Turkish unity.
For Turkey to consider military intervention in Kurdistan, EU member states would first have to renege on their commitment to negotiate Turkish accession. Equally dramatic would be any attempt by the Kurds to forcibly change the demographic balance of the multiethnic city of Kirkuk.
Turkey would prefer that Kirkuk, with its large Turkmen population, be given special status in the forthcoming draft Iraqi constitution. The US also shows signs of understanding the importance of maintaining a multiethnic Kirkuk and is putting pressure on its Kurdish allies.
Turkish diplomacy has thus become a well-calibrated balancing act, moving closer to European positions in the Middle East, but eager to maintain close relations with the US. If this approach succeeds, Europe's bridge to Asia may also become its bridge to America.
- Soli Ozel teaches at Bilgi University and is a columnist for the Turkish daily newspaper Sabah.
From: Jordan Times via Merhaba.Net