On July 4 as the United States was celebrating its Independence Day, Turkish-American relations hit a new low. On the day, American forces in northern Iraq arrested 11 Turkish soldiers after a military raid on the headquarters of the Turkish Special Forces in the city of Suleymaniye. The Turkish soldiers were reportedly suspected of training underground forces to assassinate the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk. Although the crisis ended in 48 hours with the release of the detainees, the incident showed what was left of the legendary Turkish-American alliance.
What happened in northern Iraq had created ?The most importance crisis of trust ever? in Turkish-American military relations according to the Turkish General Staff. Under the circumstances, with anti-Americanism gaining unprecedented levels in Turkey, one could have logically expected the Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul to cancel his scheduled visit to Washington. Yet, unlike the nationalist press, the outraged public and the frustrated Turkish military, the AKP (Justice and Development) government reacted with measured resentment against the United States. Gul?s visit to the American capital took place last week.
What is even more surprising is that the AKP is now looking for face-saving ways to put thousands of Turkish troops under US command in Iraq. Whether the US asked for Turkish military assistance or Turkey selflessly offered to help in order to mend fences with the superpower remains unclear. What is for sure is that sending Turkish troops to Iraq will be a very tough-sell for the Turkish government.
Yet the AKP is determined to improve damaged relations with the superpower. It is an irony of history that a pro-Islamic Turkish political party is trying so hard to have good relations with both the United States and the European Union. Even more paradoxical is the fact that the AKP is pursuing such a pro-EU and pro-US agenda despite the obstructionism of Turkey?s Kemalist-secular pro-Western establishment. It is as if roles have been switched and the conventional Islamist-Westernist paradigm turned upside-down.
The pillars of Turkey?s Western political establishment, the Military and the Kemalist Republican Peoples? Party (CHP) in opposition, often express strong reservations about the pro-EU domestic reforms. They are also much more confrontational in relations with Washington. On relations with the US the reasoning of the military is simple. According to Turkish General Staff, the US may end-up loosing control of Iraq and the result would be a Kurdish state in north of the country. Needless to say this is a nightmare scenario for the very insecure Turkish Republic.
As far as the European Union is concerned both the military and the CHP are troubled by one basic question: Why is the AKP so pro-EU? Most secular westernised Turks are highly suspicious. They see in AKP?s democratic and pro-EU reforms an attempt to hide their true political agenda, which is to undermine the political role of the Military. These conspiracy-prone secular circles, ready to accuse Turkey?s moderate Islamists for engaging in takkiya (dissimulation, deception), refuse to give the AKP the benefit of the doubt.
Deep-down the secular establishment is also troubled by the fact that the political party that will come closest to achieving the most important civilisation project of the Kemalist Republic—i.e. to make the country truly European—will be pro-Islamic. Instead of rejoicing in the fact that even Islamists have turned pro-Europe in Turkey, they see something culturally wrong with this picture. The AKP?s relations with Washington also troubles them because they are concerned that the United States will see in moderate Turkish Islam a more democratic model for the Muslim world than Kemalist secularism. Moreover, the AKP as a Muslim-Democrat party is more appealing to Washington because it is less dogmatic on the Kurdish issue. This is also why the AKP has a vested interest in being on the good side of America by delivering in Iraq.
But make no mistake; the current mood in Turkey is still very anti-American. It will be an uphill struggle for the AKP to convince the Turkish military, the Turkish public and even its own MPs that sending troops to Iraq under US command is the right decision. The present situation has all the makings of yet another major disappointment in Turco-American relations. As in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, it should come as no surprise if the Turkish Parliament once again says ?no? to cooperation with the US.
Is there a way out for AKP? The dream scenario would be a United Nations or NATO mandate that would provide a multilateral cover for Turkish troops in Iraq. This would provide the much-needed international legitimacy that countries such as Pakistan, India and Germany are also seeking before committing troops to Iraq. But this would still not solve the problem of unfavourable domestic public opinion in Turkey. This is why Turkey needs to think big. My humble proposition for Turkey is to play a much more prominent role in the resolution of the number one problem in the Middle East: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In exchange for committing substantial amount of troops to Iraq, Turkey should demand political support from the United States for hosting an international conference in Istanbul. Good relations with Israel and improving ties with the Arab world already provide Turkey a unique advantage for hosting such a conference. Turning the Istanbul Conference into an Istanbul Peace Process, based on the Middle East Roadmap should be next step.
This grand project would not only become the most ambitious and creative Turkish foreign policy initiative ever, but it would also convince Turkish public opinion that helping the United States in Iraq would help the peace process in the Middle East. As I said, it?s time for Turkey to think big.