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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 2004, pages 38-39

Talking Turkey

Erdogan’s Third U.S. Visit Comes Closest To Being a Charm

By Jon Gorvett

Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan (l) receives the American Jewish Congress Profiles in Courage Award from AJC president Jack Rosen at a Jan. 26 ceremony in New York (AFP photo/Timothy A. Clary).

WHEN TURKISH Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s plane touched down in Washington in late January, he brought with him a host of expectations, alongside a generally expressed wish that this visit would be very different from his previous two. And, despite both sides failing to get exactly what they were after, the end result wasn’t so far off target.

The objective of Erdogan’s first visit, in mid-2002, was largely to convince Washington that, despite its Islamist background, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) did not constitute a threat to world peace. Soon afterward, the AKP won power in Turkey’s November 2002 elections.

On his next visit to Washington, Erdogan’s real target was the European Union—via a rather clumsy effort to bring U.S. pressure to bare on EU leaders gathering in Copenhagen to decide on Turkey’s membership application. This second trip was generally considered something of a disaster. “They were still clearly amateurs,” wrote respected columnist Cengiz Candar. Meanwhile, the unsubtle nature of Washington’s lobbying on behalf of Ankara was widely held up as a contributory factor in Turkey’s eventual failure in Copenhagen to get a date for the start of accession negotiations. The French in particular were not happy with such American “interference.”

This time, however, a much slicker operation was in evidence, with Turkey clearly now in an unexpectedly stronger position than it has been during many previous Washington trips by Turkish leaders.

This alone is a surprising enough turn of events, coming as it does at the end of a year in which U.S.-Turkish relations hit their lowest point yet.

Back in March 2003, the Turkish parliament voted down a resolution that would have allowed Erdogan’s government to give the green light to the deployment of U.S. troops in the country. As part of its planning for an attack on Iraq, Washington hoped—nay, expected—to open a “second front” in northern Iraq, which borders southeastern Turkey.

Parliament’s decision—which went against Erdogan’s party line—plunged U.S.-Turkish relations into a major tailspin. Highly popular with the Turkish electorate, which was almost unanimously against the war, the vote proved a source of great embarrassment to official Ankara.

Nor was that all. Ankara also had been at pains for some months before the U.S.-led invasion to stress that it had certain “red lines” regarding northern Iraq. Primary among these—and an event that would trigger Turkish military intervention—was the possible establishment of a Kurdish state. Prior to hostilities, the U.S., and Secretary of State Colin Powell in particular, had given some assurances that this would not happen, and that U.S. troops in northern Iraq would ensure no power grab by Kurdish militias—even though those militias were largely running their own state in northern Iraq anyway.

As it turned out, the Kurds in Iraq did make a grab—for Kirkuk, the regional capital still under Baghdad’s control when the war started—and the U.S. troops there were either insufficient or disinclined to stop them. Ankara was outraged—but perhaps more by the realization that it was incapable of preventing what was going on than by the scenes of Kurdish irregulars ransacking the city.

Then there was the Suleymaniye incident, in which U.S. troops bundled a group of Turkish officers into prison, having found them allegedly engaged in plotting to assassinate the mayor of Kirkuk alongside local, Iraqi Turcomen militia. By this point, it seemed as if events in Iraq would cause the terminal decline of the longstanding U.S.-Turkish “strategic partnership.”

Yet strategic partnerships aren’t fair-weather friendships. What makes them strategic by definition is that they exist almost regardless of the slings and arrows of day-to-day outrageous fortune. Just as the U.S. continues to be the global superpower, so Turkey continues to be a pivotal country between the Middle East, Europe and Central Asia—and between the West and the Islamic world. A breakdown of terminal dimensions, therefore, is something neither side can afford.

Thus Prime Minister Erdogan’s January trip to Washington. Along with the more general objective of restoring links, two major issues headed the agenda: Iraq and Cyprus.

Speaking the day before he was due to meet President George W. Bush, Erdogan told the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “We do not see the idea of a federated Kurdish state as proper. A federal structure based on ethnic or religious divisions would break Iraq apart. Iraq’s territorial integrity must be sustained.”

This was a reprise of the same Ankara line that had led many to anticipate Turkish tanks rumbling into northern Iraq back in April, as Iraqi Kurds took over. While the claim to be preserving Iraq’s territorial integrity might not have stood too much scrutiny under such circumstances as a Turkish invasion, it is one that Iraq’s other neighbors also endorse. Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad had said much the same thing on his groundbreaking visit to Ankara only a few weeks earlier, while the Iranians are similarly ill-disposed toward any increased autonomy for the Kurds.

All three countries oppose such an idea because of the fear that a federal northern Iraq would simply be a stepping stone to separation—which in turn might lead to increased demands for autonomy from their own ethnic Kurdish populations. In other words, it is not so much Iraq’s territorial integrity that concerns its neighbors, as their own.

President Bush was only too eager to reassure Erdogan on this occasion that Washington had no intention of allowing such a fragmentation to take place. “The United States’ ambition is for a peaceful country, a democratic Iraq that is territorially intact,” Bush told Erdogan before a White House lunch.

This brought a reciprocal backslap from Erdogan, who then told an audience at a meeting of the American Enterprise Institute, Washington’s neoconservative bastion, that he was in agreement with a continued U.S. presence in Iraq. “I believe it’s necessary to actually go through the process,” he said. “If that process is disrupted and everybody is left to their own means, then there is no meaning [to] the initial action in the first place.”

Returning the favor, the U.S. then reiterated its position that Turkey’s ethnic Kurdish separatist guerrillas constitute a terrorist group. Originally known as the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), these militants have undergone several name changes, and are now the People’s Congress of Kurdistan (KONGRA-GEL). Last November the group announced a change of direction, declaring that it was now looking to form a broader based, purely political movement. This failed to convince Washington, however, which announced during Erdogan’s visit that it saw KONGRA-GEL in the same light as the PKK.

Earlier Erdogan’s government also had authorized the rotation of some 120,000 U.S. troops in Iraq via the Turkish airbase at Incirlik, while also making Turkey a major route for supplying the U.S. military in Iraq. The U.S. has numbered Turkey among the favored countries allowed to bid for Iraqi contracts, making Turkish firms major contenders in the bidding for Iraqi reconstruction contracts—many of which rely on the goodwill of U.S. corporations, such as Bechtel, which has picked up the lion’s share of reconstruction work. They can subcontract, although there must also be local, Iraqi participation in any such arrangements. Erdogan’s trip was also about pushing these economic ties further.

The next major issue was Cyprus—with Turkey attempting to secure Washington’s involvement in the latest round of U.N.-sponsored efforts to reach an agreement. Erdogan wanted a U.S. mediator (preferably Secretary of State Colin Powell) at the talks, due to be held in New York in early February. This followed Erdogan’s increasingly public backing of a solution, and acceptance of the U.N. position that these talks should be the last “filling in the blanks,” in Erdogan’s words, prior to referenda on both sides of the divided island. The U.S. mediating role seems to have been aimed at applying pressure on the Greeks and Greek Cypriots, with the latter no more keen—at least at a leadership level—on agreeing to the U.N.’s Annan plan than Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash. The message seemed to be that Ankara would see to Denktash, if Washington saw to the Greek Cypriots.

The pressure seems to have produced results. In a breakthrough announced Feb. 13, the two sides agreed to continue negotiaions, and to involve Greece and Turkey if the Cypriots fail to achieve a settlement. If an agreement still is not reached, Secretary-General Annan himself would be allowed to fill in the remaining blanks prior to an April referendum on both halves of the island. Such a vote would give Cypriots a chance to express their views on reunification and the Annan plan directly—and before May 1, when Cyprus, reunited or not, is scheduled to join the European Union.

By the time Erodgan left, then, both sides were able to say that ties had been strengthened and the bad days of 2003 were over. At the same time, however, their conflicting interests over Iraq remain. In de facto terms, northern Iraq already is operating largely independently of Baghdad, and has done so for over a decade. Preserving Turkish face may be easier, therefore, if an effectively federal Iraq is allowed to continue, even as Washington and Ankara continue to denounce any such structure at the official level.

Meanwhile, for the militants of KONGRA-GEL, the future continues to look highly uncertain. Perhaps a similar official denunciation and unofficial tolerance will continue to exist there—although this may prove to be a shaky basis if and when Iraq moves toward greater independence.

Jon Gorvett is a free-lance journalist based in Istanbul.