December 1, 2003

December 1, 2003 | Commentary on Middle East

Turkey's Trial By Error

Last Thursday's attacks, which killed 30 persons, came days after bombings at two Istanbul synagogues killed 23 others. More than 500 people were wounded. An al Qaeda-linked Turkish terrorist cell, the Islamic Great Eastern Raiders' Front, has claimed responsibility for the deadly attacks. More than 1,000 Turkish volunteers are believed to have fought and trained in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya. Turkey's reluctance to send troops to Iraq did not prevent carnage on its soil.

Turkey is reeling in the aftermath of what many in Ankara have called "our September 11." These acts of mayhem come after similar attacks in Iraq, Morocco, Tunis and Saudi Arabia and are aimed at destabilizing these Muslim states.

The attacks are likely to change Turkish society, state policies and politics, as much, if not more, than the September 11 terrorism changed the United States. Moreover, Turkey will be more concerned about the security of the Bosphorus Straits, a relatively easy target for a terrorist maritime attack, possibly involving oil or liquid natural gas (LNG) tankers or the two bridges spanning the straits.

The fallout from the latest series of terrorist atrocities for this important Eurasian country, for the Middle East and for the war on terrorism is just beginning to be felt.

As the ruins of the British Consulate and HSBC Bank in Istanbul were still smoldering, and the victims of the earlier bombings of the two synagogues were buried, Turkey braced for more homicide bombings.

On the day of the attack, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdallah Gul told CNN that his country would not be deterred by bloodshed. "Turkey will certainly not bow to terror," he said. "We hope this is the beginning of a new era in fighting terrorism globally." Turkish officials and commentators vowed that the war on terrorism will escalate.

Turkey's geopolitical position, straddling Europe and the Middle East; its maritime and pipeline transit routes, connecting Iraq, the Caspian, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean; its democracy and religious tolerance all make it a key U.S. ally in the region.

As a result of the attacks, Turkey is likely to tilt toward the U.S.-led anti-terrorist coalition. The Turkish government is certain to improve the capabilities of the country's security forces to fight Islamist terrorism. That calls for intelligence sharing and cooperation with the United States, Britain and Israel.

Some in the Turkish military and security establishment are suspicious of the European Union's reluctance to take tough measures against al Qaeda and its networks. However, attempts to join the E.U. will continue.

Turkey is not turning into an Iranian-style religious dictatorship. However, the elites will face a choice between more democracy and striving toward E.U. membership on the one hand and a robust pursuit of terrorists, sometimes beyond the E.U.'s stringent human rights standards, on the other.

The "Muslim democrats" of the ruling AK Party will inevitably be forced to fight Islamist terror. There are two major wings of the AKP: the liberals, who seem to dominate the party's decision-making mechanism, and the conservatives. The latter are led by Bulent Ar|nc, whose group has until now supported more radical positions when it came to divisive religious issues like wearing head scarves, and relaxed guidelines for religious education. AK religious radicals do not practice violence but are sympathetic to it. As professor Ahmet K. Han of Istanbul Bilgi University said, "These radicals are creating intolerable legitimacy for terrorism."

In the aftermath of the terrorist bombings, the Turkish military, along with its traditional decision-making elites, security services and state bureaucracy, the anti-E.U. groups, the hard-line supporters of Prime Minister Rauf Denktash of Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus are all likely to place increased political pressure on the AKP to change its reformist policies. The pressure on the ruling party is also likely to be exacerbated by the economic ripple effect of terrorist attacks.

The recent terrorist attacks will have negative economic consequences on the brittle Turkish economy, which was barely recovering after a painful recession. Phillip Rosenblatt, a U.S. attorney practicing in Istanbul, says that the attacks came at a time when the economic stresses had just begun easing up. "Turkey hopes to receive a date from the E.U. at the end of next year to commence negotiations on full membership. Tourism to Turkey, which is $15 billion out of a total GDP of $200 billion, is almost certainly going to be hurt, especially if there are follow-up attacks on tourist targets along the Mediterranean coast."

The Bush administration should welcome Turkey's firm commitment to fight terrorism and oppose its state sponsors. It should expand security and intelligence cooperation with the Turkish military and security services, initiating joint operations to penetrate al Qaeda and other radical Islamist terrorist organizations.

Turkish and U.S. security agencies should jointly conduct an audit of potential terrorist targets, especially on and around the Bosphorus Straits and the Incirlik Air Base.

Finally, the United States should support Turkish economic, legal and democratic reforms aimed at joining the E.U., including declaring a date for Turkish accession to the E.U. by the end of 2004. 
    
Ariel Cohen is a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. His last visit to Turkey was in June.

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Middle East

First appeared in The Washington Times