By Scott Ritter
As a teenager, I had the opportunity to spend two years (1975-1977) in Turkey, where my father, an active-duty Air Force officer, served as part of the Joint United States Military Assistance Advisory Team in the capital of Ankara. It was an exciting time for a number of reasons. First and foremost, experiencing a foreign culture firsthand (we lived among the Turks, not on a military base) was the opportunity of a lifetime. But what made it even more of an experience was the moment in history that these years represented. Turkey, a key NATO ally, had invaded Cyprus in 1974, an act which severely strained U.S.-Turkish relations. When we arrived in Turkey in the fall of 1975, the American flag was not permitted to be flown over the American installation at Balgat Air Base, on the outskirts of Ankara, where the American school and the U.S.-Turkish military logistics support establishment were located. There was one exception: July 4, 1976, when the flag was raised as part of the U.S. bicentennial celebration. But the flag came down the next day.
Everywhere one traveled in Turkey, the visage of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was visible. The “Father of the Turks,” Mustafa Kemal made modern Turkey out of the ruins of the defeated Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I. A strict believer in a secular constitutional republic, Mustafa Kemal tasked Turkey’s military with the defense of constitutional governance. Twice prior to our arrival in Turkey, in 1960 and 1971, the armed forces of Turkey made good on that commitment, removing governments from power that the military command felt had either deviated too far from the vision of Atatürk , or whose inability to govern threatened the Turkish constitution. Each time, however, the Turkish military served as a shepherd of democracy, giving up power once it had facilitated the transition back to civilian government.
The years 1976-1977 were extremely turbulent times to live in Turkey. Leftist groups protested in the streets, and right-wing “Gray Wolf” gunmen carried out targeted assassinations. Being nearby when a Turkish general was gunned down in front of your apartment (as happened to one of my friends as he was coming home from school) or watching a pistol-brandishing “Gray Wolf” charge after your school bus, only to be gunned down by Turkish police (as I myself witnessed) might have been the stuff of adolescent adventure, but it was symptomatic of an underlying instability which had gripped Turkey, and which the military could no longer stomach. In 1980 the Turkish military once again stepped in, throwing out yet another failed civilian government in the name of defending the mandate of Mustafa Kemal.
The decade of the ‘70s saw other political turbulence as well. Turkey, in addition to being a staunch NATO ally of the United States, also served as part of what was then known as the Central Treaty Organization, or CENTO. Organized in 1955 as a means of containing Soviet influence in the Middle East, CENTO was comprised of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. A military coup in Iraq in 1958 prompted the withdrawal of Baghdad from the organization, and the CENTO headquarters was moved to Ankara, where it was maintained until 1979. CENTO never really accomplished much as an organization (Iraq, after withdrawing, initiated close military ties with the Soviet Union). The refusal of CENTO to go to the aid of Pakistan during its 1965 and 1971 wars with India frayed the fabric of the treaty relationship, and Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974 likewise strained an organization which was failing in its ostensible role of containment of Soviet power. By 1970, the Soviet Union had thousands of troops in Egypt, a naval facility in Syria and strengthened military ties with Iraq and Yemen. The fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979 represented the death knell for CENTO, and it was formally abandoned that year.
One of the main reasons CENTO never succeeded is that its mission was really nothing more than an extension of a unilateral American policy of Soviet containment. Other than showing support for the United States, there was never any real value to CENTO’s membership. The ultimate testimony to the failure of the CENTO mission is found in an examination of the four regional powers that comprised its original membership. Iraq has been invaded and occupied by the United States. Pakistan is in a life-or-death struggle with extreme Islamic fundamentalists brought on by its support of the American decision to invade Afghanistan and oust the Taliban government in Kabul. Iran remains in the cross hairs of the United States, with a policy of regime change in Tehran openly embraced by policymakers in Washington. Of the four charter regional members, only Turkey remains as a staunch ally of the United States, and yet even this time-honored relationship is being severely tested by American unilateralism.
One of the major challenges facing Turkey in the period after the 1980 military coup was the need for radical political and economic reform. The Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 severely impacted the Turkish economy, as two of its largest trading partners were effectively nullified by conflict. Increasing difficulties with the Kurdish minority in Turkey manifested in guerrilla warfare and the declaration of martial law in Turkey’s eastern provinces and likewise strained the Turkish nation. The Persian Gulf war of 1991 against Iraq and the subsequent decade of economic sanctions against Iraq also retarded normal economic development. By 2002, however, internal reforms had progressed to the point that Turkey was turning the corner on issues such as inflation, trade balance and debt payment. Critical to the success of Turkish reforms were stable trade relations with Iran, a reduction of ethnic Kurdish violence and a normalization of trade relations with Iraq. Considerable assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also played a significant role.
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.
Then came the invasion of Cyprus by Turkey in 1974, the military coup of 1980 and the rise in Turkish-Kurdish violence throughout the 1980s. The reality of Turkey’s status as a “bridge nation” between Europe and Asia, replete with all of the problems associated with the melding of two historically disparate and incompatible cultures, was exposed, together with Europe’s unwillingness to recognize the uniqueness of Turkey’s situation. Negotiations between Europe and Turkey over customs union came to a halt and were revived only in 1986. In 1987 Turkey applied for full EEC membership, an application which was endorsed by the European Council in terms of eligibility but not necessarily viability. In 1995 Turkey seemed to make progress in its quest to become a formal member of the Western bloc when customs union was finally ratified, but two years later Turkey’s hopes were shattered when the European Union declined to offer candidate status. Under pressure from the United States, this decision was reversed in 1999, and since that time there has been hesitant progress toward the dream of European Union membership for Turkey.
Turkey has made huge progress in terms of financial and legal reform. Its parliament has passed sweeping legislation which more closely aligns it with the European Union in terms of legal structure and content. But the reality is that historical, ethnic and cultural prejudices within Europe, combined with Turkey’s “bridge nation” status between East and West, make union with Europe a near impossibility. One can see just how complex this situation is in how Turkey deals with issues along its borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran. Although a full-fledged member of NATO, Turkey excludes the operations of its forces in its eastern provinces from NATO command, control and oversight. Turkey is, in reality, two nations within a nation. One, looking toward the west, seeks union with Europe. The other, looking toward the east, seeks stability in a region clouded by history, ethnic diversity and religious fanaticism. Turkey’s status as a Muslim nation further complicates a union with Europe. While the United States and some European nations, Britain in particular, support European Union status for Turkey on the grounds that this would provide a foundation of stable relations between the West and the Muslim world, many European nations, especially France, the Netherlands and Germany, oppose Turkey’s membership on the basis that Turkey and Europe are incompatible entities not given to comprehensive political, cultural and economic union.
At least the French are honest in their approach. Europe, while labeling the Kurdish PKK as a terrorist group, is indifferent to the reality of PKK terrorism from the perspective of Turkey. While remaining mute on its own complicity in controversial anti-terrorism practices of the United States (rendition, illegal confinement and torture) carried out on European soil and with the assistance and permission of many European governments, the EU continues to condemn Turkey for human rights violations, limitations on free speech, and other political problems arising from its decades-long struggle against PKK terrorism. While every effort should be made to encourage Turkish conformity with the legal and moral practices set forth under international law, the hypocrisy of the European position is evident, especially to the people of Turkey, who have become jaded in recent years to the notion of union with Europe. While some 66 percent of the Turkish population supported entry into the European Union a decade ago, today the number hovers around 40 percent. This trend, if it holds, will make Turkish membership in Europe all but impossible.
The question, therefore, is what should be done about Turkey and the West? There is no doubt that both the West (Europe and the United States) are best served by maintaining the closest possible ties with Turkey. The problem is, does such a close relationship likewise benefit Turkey? At a time when the United States Congress foolishly debates whether to apply the label of “genocide” to events (i.e., the Armenian tragedy of 1915) nearly a century past, and Europe blindly repeats the mistakes of recent history (i.e., its complicit support for the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003) by rubber-stamping U.S. policy objectives vis-à-vis Iran, it can come as no surprise that Turkey finds itself feeling left out of the West at a time when events in the East consume its political and economic energy. The Turkish government’s recent call for the creation of a “Turkic Union” is but the most recent manifestation of a trend which has the Turkish sociopolitical-economic compass starting to swing away from Europe.
During the time of the Ottoman Empire, what is now known as Turkey was often referred to as “the sick man of Europe.” Today, it seems, many in Europe and the United States act as if this status still stands. But the fact is, Turkey today is neither sick nor European. It is a pro-West Muslim nation which not only physically bridges east and west but also serves as the conduit for social, economic and political intercourse. The key for the United States and Europe is not to keep trying to choose between forcing Turkey into becoming European and rejecting it for being too Asian, but rather to respect the progress Turkey has made in forging a Muslim nation with a secular government and democratic stability. Turkey today, as a bridge nation, holds the key for the peaceful resolution of many current crises (Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran in particular), and most potential future crises involving East-West conflict. Properly nurtured and managed, the West’s relationship with Turkey can be beneficial to all parties in the long term.
However, a bridge runs two ways, and if the West, in particular Europe, continues to approach its relationship with Turkey with the arrogance and indifference it displays today, and if the United States continues to pursue imperial policies in the Middle East which act to the detriment of Turkish interests, rest assured that this critical Western ally will drift away from Europe and firmly into the grasp of the East and radical Islamic fundamentalism. This would be a disaster for both Turkey and the West. At a time when the search for stability represents such an important part of the West’s foreign policy objectives, the lack of attention given to Turkey is astounding. Far from being the modern incarnation of Europe’s “sick man,” modern Turkey is healthy and vibrant, and does matter. We need to formulate and implement policies that reflect this reality before it is too late.
AP photo / Murad Sezer