Turkey – USA :: A misunderstanding or a malaise? ::

It is impossible not to feel the malaise in the US-Turkish relationship, in respect of the question of Iraq. The fact that there are still doubts about sending Turkish troops to this country, – after agreeing on it – is likely the manifestation of a growing unease that has so far been hidden, by both sides. Or is it a kind of hypocritical negotiation, whose object and substance are still undisclosed? The quick evolution of the Turkish stance is as surprising as was the summit meeting of Ankara (August 12, 2003), which produced an agreement “in principle” to send Turkish “peacekeeping soldiers” to Iraq. Such a decision appeared hard to reaching after the period of “strategic pause” between Washington and Ankara, which was settled by the refusal of the Turkish parliament –” on March 1- to open up a northern front for US troops invading Iraq. If the decision was unexpected, we can imagine how much relieving it was to the American officials, as the meeting involved members of the justice and Development Party (AKP), the Turkish General Staff, the Turkish Foreign Ministry, and the Turkish National Intelligence Organization.

But if Washington as late as October 20, announced that it was still engaged in talks with Turkey over the potential deployment of Turkish troops in Iraq, Saturday 18, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had declared that Turkey would give up plans to send peacekeeping troops to Iraq if they were not wanted! Thereupon, rumours grew up about a possible American dismissal of the whole question.

So, what happened?

Beyond the apparent weirdness of the present situation, lies a crisis of confidence following the unsuccessful March 1 “motion” to permit US forces to invade Iraq through Turkey. The vote (of the Turkish parliament) was a watershed in terms of the way Turks and Americans look at one another. It had every reason to be so because of the nature of the US-Turkish relationship that President Clinton named a “strategic partnership” in 1999. This was based on mutual interests: as superpower, America took care of Turkey’s global interests (for example, protecting Turkey against communism during the Cold War; or making Turkey a partner on the energy corridor leading out of the Caspian basin and supporting Ankara’s EU candidacy in the 1999s). And as a regional power, Turkey provided America with support in its neighbourhood, from the Balkans, to the Caucasus and the Middle East.

Now, if the partnership –” once based on the concept of containment of the Soviet Union- was enough clear during the Cold War, and for another decade after its collapse (: containing Saddam), this is much less the case since both regimes (Soviet Union and Baathist Iraq) disappeared. We may even wonder whether the policymakers redefined really the US-Turkish relations in this light.

Furthermore, two other factors complicate the analysis: the first is the ambiguity concerning the Turkish-EU relations, and the second is the ambiguity concerning the objectives of the AKP.

1- It has been observed that Turkey’s reluctance over the past winter to support northern front in the Iraq war was at least in part a product of Ankara’s desire to align itself with European foreign policy. Yet, if this attitude is viewed as prevalent among the foreign policy elite in Ankara, and as especially rezoning with Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) considered as an Islamist party, there are reasons to think that Ankara has never been more hesitating and ambiguous as regards this issue. Maybe the malaise- if any- ought to be fetched there. In effect, although the AKP government did not open up a northern front in the Iraq war, American airplanes flew more than 4000 sorties over Turkey into Iraq, and Ankara granted permission for US airplanes in distress to use Turkish bases such as Batman, Diyarbakir, and Incirlik. There was also much unreported assistance. For example, on March 27, Turkey allowed the transit of 204 vehicles into northern Iraq to support US forces as they launched the northern front…etc.

If such paradoxal behaviour is to mean anything, it may be well the scepticism prevalent in Ankara as regards its acceptance anytime soon as a member of the European Union.

2- Whatever its pedigree, the AKP inherited a heavy burden concerning the Kurds. Many in Ankara believe that even if the USA is not trying to set up a Kurdish state in northern Iraq, its bungling and fumbling out there would end up by creating one. At the same time, some in Washington are convinced that even if Turkey is not deliberately aiming at complicating things there for the United States, its obsession with the Kurdish question would end up by complicating the issue. Let’s not forget that the PKK (Kurdistan workers party) –” with 4000 to 5000 militants in northern Iraq- has caused over 35,000 deaths, and that on September 2, the organization renounced its February 2000 ceasefire.

Finally, Ankara’s reluctance for sending 10,000 troops, – even after it has been approved by the Turkish parliament on October 7, – as a response to Iraqi opposition may be analysed either as an AKP sensitivity to those who in Iraq request the retreat of the US troops, and the end of the occupation, or merely as a sensitivity to its own basis, in the light of the upcoming nation-wide local elections in April 2004: If Turkish troops suffer casualties in Iraq, the success of the AKP in the elections may be compromised.