The 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States represented a key turning point in the souring of relations between Turkey and America. Turkey, a neighbor of Iraq, did not view the regime of Saddam Hussein as either a regional or global threat to peace and security. While Turkey had supported the military action against Iraq in 1991, and provided basing for American military aircraft enforcing the northern “no-fly” zone, it had paid a significant economic price in the process, losing billions of dollars per year in trade opportunities. Likewise, Turkey’s unhesitating support of the United States in pursuing military action against al-Qaida after Sept. 11, 2001, also hit the Turkish economy hard. Public indebtedness and inflation threatened the very reforms Turkey was trying to put in place. The U.S. decision to provide Turkey with $200 million in financial aid in 2002 was useful only in helping maintain the balance of payment on outstanding debt, and not in terms of engendering economic stability. Only the maintenance of normal economic ties with its traditional regional economic partners could accomplish that.
The U.S. rush toward war with Iraq in 2003 threatened the very foundation of stability Turkey needed to rise above its debt burden and emerge as a regional economic power. This, combined with the majority of the Turkish people opposing participation in what was viewed as a completely immoral and unnecessary war, drove Turkey to stand against the American-led invasion of Iraq. As predicted, the invasion has proved to be an economic and political disaster for Turkey. The billions of dollars in lost trade has created even more debt and fiscal instability, which can hardly be offset by the millions of dollars in financial aid the U.S. provides annually. Even more disturbing for Turkey is the prospect of another U.S.-led military action in the region, this time against Iran. Simply put, the Turkish economy would be severely stressed to the point of outright collapse should the U.S. intervene militarily against Iran.
American-Turkish relations have been further exacerbated by the re-emergence of Kurdish militancy based in northern Iraq. In this the Turks find common cause with the Islamic Republic of Iran. For some time now, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a terrorist organization violently advocating for greater independence for Kurds living in Turkey, and the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), a similar organization which carries the struggle for Kurdish independence in Iran, have been using northern Iraq as a base from which to carry out attacks against their respective enemies. The PKK and PJAK have cooperated to the point that they have, in many respects, become a single entity.
Not surprisingly, the United States has exploited this situation, with support from Iraqi Kurdish groups such as the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The U.S. has provided covert assistance, in the form of money, training, weapons and communications/logistical support, to the PKK/PJAK fighters in order to encourage destabilization operations inside Iran. To the horror of Turkey, and the embarrassment of the United States, PKK/PJAK fighters have used this covert largess to carry out bloody cross-border operations inside Turkey, where over 50 Turkish soldiers and scores of civilians have been killed in recent months.
Turkey was one of the first Muslim nations to provide material support to the United States’ “global war on terror” following the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Turkish forces helped spearhead the NATO move into Afghanistan. But the call for global conflict against terror rings false in Ankara in light of the prospect of PKK terrorists operating with near impunity across the border in Iraq, a nation which since 2003 has been under the de facto control of the United States. Indeed, the discovery by Turkish security forces of U.S.-supplied weapons in the possession of Kurdish terrorists operating inside Turkey makes a farce of American claims of the phantasmal Iranian weapons alleged to be “pouring” into Iraq from Iran. If one were to take the case for military intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11 and the justification for targeting the Taliban as facilitators of the al-Qaida attack and compare these to the terrorist threat that Turkey faces in dealing with a U.S.-backed PKK, it would be seen that Turkey had a case (albeit unrealistic and impractical) for holding the administration of George W. Bush, as well as the government of Iraq, accountable in a similar manner. At the very least, Turkey has a valid case for self-defense through military operations in northern Iraq in order to neutralize a military threat which has manifested itself in real, as opposed to theoretical, terms. And yet both the United States and the European Union strongly oppose such action on the part of Turkey, despite their expressed support for the so-called global war on terror.
On the surface, at least, Turkey possesses strong pro-Western credentials. A charter member of the United Nations and a longtime member of NATO, Turkey was one of the first nations to align itself with the U.S. when war broke out in Korea in 1950. The performance of the Turkish Brigade in that conflict is legendary. In 1959 Turkey applied for associate membership status in the European Economic Community, and in 1963 an agreement was signed that formalized the process of customs union [a free trade area with a common external tariff]. Additional protocols were signed in 1970, and in 1973 the protocols entered into force. Turkey, it seemed, was well on the way to becoming a full-fledged member of the European community.