The Turkish Turnaround

October 14, 2003

“Forgive Russia, ignore Germany and punish France” was how the US policy was described in the aftermath of the war in Iraq. Turkey, absent from the list, was left guessing. The result was a disturbing sense of uncertainty in Turkish-American relations since March 1 when the Turkish parliament, after a very close vote, denied the US troops access to Iraq through its borders. The decision was a major setback for the Pentagon’s war plans and a shock for Turkey’s neo-conservative friends in Washington. Europeans and Arabs were also surprised, though pleasantly.

Most interesting was the Turkish reaction itself. Turks were stunned. Although they almost unanimously opposed the war (94 percent according to some polls), very few believed their politicians could resist US pressure, especially after being offered US$24 billion in loans and foreign aid. Now, with the war over but no sense of peace and security in Iraq, Turkey is getting ready to send 10,000 troops—almost as many as Britain has on the ground—to help America stabilise the country. What has caused this Turkish change of heart?

The short answer is pragmatism. The victory of Turkish democracy and national pride against American supremacy was certainly gratifying. Turkey gained self-respect as a real democracy and scored good points with the French and German governments who hold the key to Turkey’s European Union membership. But realism set in soon enough and Ankara came to realise that it has no interest in seeing the United States fail in Iraq.

The moderately pro-Islamic AKP (Justice and Development) government has been particularly willing to mend fences with Washington in the last seven months. In fact, the AKP was never opposed to cooperating with the United States in Iraq: seventy percent of AKP parliamentarians voted in favour of US troops on March 1. In order to understand why Turkey changed its mind about Iraq one has to look elsewhere. The source of the change comes from the Turkish military.

As always, the most important concern in the minds of Turkish generals is Kurdish separatism. An Iraqi federal state divided along ethnic or sectarian lines is a nightmare scenario for Turkey’s very insecure security establishment. To Ankara’s dismay, the new Iraq is likely to have a Kurdish federation in the north with the oil-rich city of Kirkuk as its regional capital. The problem for Turkey is compounded by the fact that Kirkuk is seen by most Turks as the heart of Iraq’s Turcoman community. The fear of an independent Kurdish state was one of the main reasons why the Turkish military was reluctant to publicly endorse the American invasion last year. Their policy turned out to be short-sighted and counterproductive since it ended up strengthening the Kurdish-American alliance.

Today, the Turkish decision to send troops to Iraq—without a United Nations mandate—is once again motivated by a narrow focus on the Kurdish question. Ten thousand Turkish troops in Iraq may temporarily revive the Turkish-American strategic alliance, but down the line this scenario has all the potential to exacerbate bilateral relations. And problems will start with where to put Turkish troops.

There is no doubt that the Turkish military would have preferred northern Iraq. This, of course, is out of the question. The Kurdish part of Iraq is not only the most stable region in the whole country but also the most anti-Turkish. The Kurdish members of the Iraqi Governing Council, including Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, are strictly opposed to the idea of Turkish troops, not only in northern Iraq but anywhere in the country.

Iraqi opposition to Turkish troops is hardly confined to Kurds. Sunni and Shi’a Arab members of the Iraqi Governing Council are equally against having Turkish troops patrol their cities in central and southern Iraq. Only half-jokingly, they must be telling each other that the last time the Turks came they stayed for four hundreds years. Despite their objections, the United States appears willing to deploy Turkish troops in the problematic “Sunni triangle” north of Baghdad. This situation gives us an idea about who really governs the Iraqi Governing Council.

With an overwhelming 70 percent of Turks still opposed to sending troops to Iraq and a clear understanding that Turkish soldiers will not be welcomed in Iraq, why has the Turkish military agreed to send troops in the harm’s way? Because since March 1, the Bush administration and especially the Pentagon held the Turkish military primarily responsible for not doing what it usually does: put pressure on civilians. “For whatever reason, the Turkish military did not show the strong leadership we would have expected,” was Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz’s comment to the Turkish press when asked about how disappointed was the US with Turkey.

Today, with its army overstretched and recovering from a very bloody summer in Iraq, the US needs help with its occupation. Ideally, the Bush administration wants to do this without relinquishing much power to the United Nations and by bringing some Muslim military presence to the ground. For its part, the Turkish military decided that putting a substantial amount of Turkish troops under US command in central Iraq is the best option to improve damaged relations with the United States. Ultimately, the real motivation of the Turkish security establishment is to keep the Kurdish-American cooperation in check. Both Ankara and Washington should realise that they are improving their relations on very shaky grounds. This is certainly not a match made in heaven.