Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 2003, pages 32-33

Talking Turkey

Its Strategic Relationship With U.S. in Jeopardy, Turkey in Weaker Position Than Ever

By Jon Gorvett

While U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was "disappointed" by Turkey's refusal to allow U.S. troops to be stationed in-country prior to the Iraq invasion, officials in Ankara were livid about Gen. Jay Garner's remark late April that Kirkuk was a "Kurdish city."

Yet there was even more outrage to come, when U.S. newspapers printed remarks by American Marines alleging that they had captured Turkish special forces soldiers attempting to arm the Turkomans in that very city. Taken together, these comments show just how far things have drifted in recent months from the cozy "strategic partnership" that had characterized pre-war Turkish-U.S. relations.

Back then, Washington was one of the staunchest advocates of Turkey's European Union membership, lobbying—perhaps, as it turned out, too strongly—for Ankara to be given a date for accession talks at last December's EU summit in Copenhagen. Turkey, meanwhile, seemed only too pleased to allow U.S. and UK planes to patrol the northern Iraq no-fly zone from its Incirlik airbase. U.S. support for Turkey also was crucial in securing the massive IMF and World Bank loans that have underpinned the country's economic program. At the same time, Turkish troops have patrolled the streets of both Kabul and Kosovo.

Now, however, many officials and politicians in Ankara are wondering if the ruptured relations of the Iraq war might not have dire repercussions on relations for a long time to come. The recent decision to pull U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia is being seen by many as something of a warning that from now on, perhaps, Iraq will have the "strategic partnership" role Turkey has let slip.

The relationship first soured dramatically when the Turkish parliament failed to pass a resolution allowing the U.S. 4th Infantry Division the right to deploy in southeastern Turkey prior to crossing the border into northern Iraq. This unexpected decision also led to the collapse of a major financial aid deal—reportedly some US$25 billion to $30 billion in loans—offered by Washington as "compensation" for expected Turkish war losses.

Yet reports now circulating suggest that the relationship had been rocky for some time before. The Turkish government—with the then-prime minister, now Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul at the helm—seems to have drastically overestimated the strength of its hand. The "compensation" package being requested was initially three times higher, while the Turkish negotiating team also considered an invasion of Iraq impossible without the "second front" the 4th Infantry was to open.

In the end, as Rumsfeld told journalists in early April, the U.S. Army was able to use Turkey's misapprehension to convince the Iraqis as well that no attack would come until the Turks had agreed to the U.S. troop deployments. Meanwhile, the financial card also became turned around as a US$1 billion grant for Turkey appeared in the new Bush war budget late March. Seized on by Turkey's businesses and financial markets as a "last chance," this gave Washington extra leverage over Turkey when it came to the war itself and the occupation of cities such as Kirkuk by Kurdish irregulars—a fact that was itself supposedly a casus belli for Ankara.

Now, with the invasion over and the occupation begun, the Turkish government finds itself in a weaker position than ever. While the short duration of the war has heartened financial markets—the losses to the Turkish economy calculated in late April by analysts from Deutsche Bank (DB) are around US$3.5 billion, some way off the package demanded back in March—it has also raised demands from businesses for a share in the potentially lucrative reconstruction effort.

Getting a foot in that door, however, depends on good will from the U.S....something which currently is in short supply, as the comments above illustrate. In an attempt to improve things, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in mid-April that it had appointed senior diplomat Ahmet Okcu to coordinate government and private sector lobbying efforts in the U.S. to secure contracts for Turkish companies. The Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen's Association, TUSIAD, also sent a delegation to Washington in late April to add its weight to Turkey's case.

At the same time, however, the government has been pursuing a regional policy somewhat at odds with this attempt to curry Washington's favor. On April 29, Gul was on an official visit to Syria, accused by President George W. Bush of harboring Iraqi leaders and weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, there is at best some confusion over the activities of Turkish special forces in northern Iraq. Turkey has long backed the cause of the Turkoman Front, a more militant Turkoman group in Kirkuk which claims that the city should be under its control and fears ethnic cleansing by the Kurds. Ankara denied reports that U.S. Marines had uncovered an attempt to arm them, and in late April U.S. Ambassador to Ankara Robert Pearson attempted to calm things by suggesting that the reports had been exaggerated.

What comes out of much of this, though, is a sense that there are several different Turkish policies in operation at the same time. Gul appears to be pursuing a long-standing foreign policy goal of the liberal pro-Islamists he represents—that of reviving economic and political ties between Muslim countries, and in particular between those of the region. Others, meanwhile, are pursuing a more nationalist goal of support for the Turkomans—whom most Turks regard as ethnic brethren—and a long-term struggle to prevent Kurdish power from rising on Turkey's southeastern border.

Recently this diversion of targets has found domestic expression as well. In Turkey April 23 is a national holiday, when the parliamentary speaker organizes a reception in parliament which all the deputies, the president and the armed forces chiefs attend. This year, however, the only people who came were members of Gul's Justice and Development Party (AKP). The president, the generals and the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) all stayed away. The reason was that the AKP parliamentary speaker was thought to be bringing his wife. While many have nothing but the deepest respect for Mrs. Arinc, the fact of the matter is she wears a headscarf—the symbol to many secularists of political Islam.

The days that followed saw a major escalation of tension between the traditional foes of Turkish politics—secularists and Islamists. The CHP was accused of advocating a "military + CHP" government, while, somewhat ironically, the AKP was denounced by CHP leader Deniz Baykal, for "bringing the military into politics."

AKP leader Recip Tayyip Erdogan has spent much of his political career trying to avoid just such a collision. Since the AKP took power in November 2002, however, this core dispute has been building up steam. Allegations are now being made by the largely anti-AKP press that the AKP has appointed many of its supporters—and old employees from Istanbul City Hall, which Erdogan used to run—to top state jobs. Meanwhile, there are also allegations that the AKP is taking control of the state bodies that run education—with an idea to removing the headscarf ban on students that has caused so much grief in the past, and re-establishing religious schools known as Imam Hatips.

Elsewhere, the military issued a circular in late April expressing its "uneasiness" at allegations that pro-Islamist organizations such as the National View—of which Erdogan was once a member—and the Fetullah Gulen brotherhood—an Islamic group led by Gulen, who currently is hospitalized in the U.S.—are receiving support from the AKP.

All these are old issues, and also may be increasingly at odds with the real problems faced by ordinary Turks, as they battle the aftermath of the economic crisis. With government cutbacks axing jobs and services, and the government in mid-April resetting the official minimum wage for a family of four at less than US$900 a month, the main question for many is not secular vs. Islamic, but putting enough food on the table.

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

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