March 25, 2003

March 25, 2003 | WebMemo on Middle East

wm238: Turkey Shot Itself in the Foot

The refusal of the Turkish parliament to grant the U.S. the use of air bases and troop transit to open the Northern front against Saddam is likely to signal a watershed in U.S.-Turkish relations. Policy makers in Washington and Ankara have expressed fears that the strategic ties between Washington and Ankara will be gravely weakened.

Turkey is about to pay a high price for what many in the two capitals see as the largest strategic blunder of its leaders since it sided with the German Empire and Austria-Hungary in World War I. 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.

After weeks of suspense, Ankara has finally allowed the U.S. Air Force to use Turkish airspace last weekend for strikes against Iraq. The Turkish government, however, failed to pass the authorization for the use of the Turkish air bases and for transit of the U.S. Army' s Fourth Armored Division through the Turkish territory, despite the Bush Administration offering Turkey $6 billion in military and economic aid.

Explanations abound as to why Ankara shot itself in the foot, as far as its relations with the United States are concerned. Turkish AK (Justice and Development) Party' s moderately Islamist government, led by the newly elected Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan 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 reject the war. The government, however, did not impose party discipline in the crucial parliamentary vote to allow U.S. troops to deploy, thus sending a subtle message to the members of Parliament to vote as they like.

Two factors contributed to Erdogan' s failure to prevent an unprecedented crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations: First, a lack of policy experience; and Second, a hidden agenda of broadening ties with Islamic countries.

However, the Turkish political establishment lists a series of concerns, which may be detrimental to Turkey in the future. Turkish experts and observers stress that the leading European states are highly unlikely to allow Turkey' s accession 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.

Washington' s policy toward Ankara may reflect a number of changes in the future, not the least of which is the U.S. no longer seeing Turkey as a special strategic partner, or even as a reliable ally. 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 economic and foreign policy issues, but today Washington will be less likely to unquestionably support Turkey. As the International Monetary Fund will disburse the $16 billion loan package, the U.S. Executive Director at the Fund is likely to demand a much more stringent adherence to performance criteria than in the past. Moreover, the future economic bailouts become more unlikely, while investors vote with their pocketbook: the Turkish stock market crashed by whopping 20 percent since it became clear that the Erdogan government effectively rejected the U.S. economic assistance package.

Geopolitically, numerous issues arise:

  • Washington will be less likely to support Turkey against Greek claims in the Aegеan Sea.
  • The U.S. State Department may become more critical of Turkey on partition of Cyprus, in place since 1974 due to the Turkish invasion.
  • American support for Turkey' s accession into the EU may also be called into question.
  • 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 Baku-Ceyhan Main Export Pipeline (MEP), including financing issues, may not be as enthusiastic as it was.

Issues related to the Armenian-Turkish relations are also 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.

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 democratically elected political masters. The anger is palpable, because the Pentagon has counted on Turkey to facilitate the opening of a crucial northern front against Saddam, and because of Turkey' s insistence on deploying its own troops in Northern Iraq a step the U.S. opposes. Turkey has already sent up to 2,500 troops into Kurdistan allegedly to prevent emergence of independent Kurdish state which may distract large Kurdish forces to guard against the Turks. 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. Instead, a nightmarish scenario of Turkish-Kurdish hostilities has emerged.

Moreover, reported contacts between Iranian envoys and the Turkish government further complicate prosecution of the war as the U.S. is 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 dramatically complicate American involvement in the volatile Northern Iraq.

Only a dramatic turnaround by the Turkish government and the military, such as allowing the Fourth Division to move through Turkey to Northern Iraq, and a green light to use military bases such as Incirlik both highly unlikely at the time of this writing - may quickly improve the bilateral relations. Otherwise, the U.S.-Turkish ties that were forged during the Korean and Cold War, will be set back by decades, not years.

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 violations of democratic norms by the military? 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.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation. He often visits Turkey.

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