Only Iraq and the PKK

Politicians and journalists in the United States have been pointing to the eroding image of the US and emerging anti-Americanism in Turkey, which threaten to undermine relations between the two NATO allies. US authorities have started to pressure the Turkish government to cope with rising xenophobia in Turkey, or otherwise risk losing the financial and political support of the US.

In fact, since 1995 Turkish voters have sharply shifted their allegiances from the center of the left-right ideological spectrum to the right. Chauvinism, Islamism, and xenophobia have increased in Turkey ever since. Consequently the champion of Islamism, the Welfare Party, and its offshoot Justice and Development Party (AKP), ascended to power through popular elections. Meanwhile, US governments did their best to promote the idea of a "Turkish model of moderate Islam". So it is bewildering to observe the US government develop a concern over xenophobia and Islamism in Turkey now.

One obvious reason seems to be the recalcitrance of the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA) to go along with US policy toward Iraq. It is a well-known fact in Turkey that the Turkish government was the first to alert the US against Saddam Hussein’s ill intentions in 1989. Turkey immediately imposed an embargo on Iraq upon its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, causing the economy of eastern Turkey, which had experienced a boom in the Iran-Iraq War of the1980s, to experience a sudden downturn.

Small wonder that this economic downturn generated a wave of anti-establishment and anti-Turkish feelings among the Kurdish citizens of the region. It also contributed to the rising popularity of the Maoist PKK, which championed Kurdish nationalist separatism and anti-Turkish propaganda. The PKK instigated a wave of terror that caused 30,000 deaths in the 1990s; Turkey paid a heavy economic and political toll, and received no benefits. Under the circumstances, Turks blamed US governments as having acted with callousness and disdain toward Turkey. When the second Gulf War became imminent, the Turkish public had a feeling of deja vu, and reacted sharply to avoid repetition of the same costly involvement in Iraq.

In the meantime, the freshly elected and inexperienced AKP leaders wanted to show the US that their previous record of Islamism and anti-Americanism would not stand in the way of cooperation with America. The Turkish government and military seemed to have signaled the US government that Turkey would cooperate in the northern offensive into Iraq. However, a large faction in the AKP parliamentary group consisted of a pro-Arab and anti-Jewish lobby. Their Arab connection and Islamism influenced their reactions, and they acted with a vengeance toward the US offer for joint military action in northern Iraq. Hence, on March 1, 2003 about 90 deputies of the AKP jumped the whip and voted with the opposition against sending Turkish and US troops into Iraq. Consequently, the US government had the impression that it had been deceived by the Turkish establishment.

Turkey permitted the US to use its airspace, and US troops were eventually parachuted into northern Iraq to coalesce with Kurdish tribal forces in their northern offensive in Iraq. The subsequent Kurdish-US alliance spared the anti-Turkish PKK stationed in the north of Iraq the wrath of the US army, while US troops moved against other terror organizations in Iraq. This provided a biased image of the US in the Turkish media: a double standard that tolerated the PKK while attacking "Muslim" radicals with a vengeance. Such incidents as arresting the members of the Turkish military in northern Iraq in 2003, and the brutal murders of the five Turkish police on their way to the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad in the American zone in 2004, further reinforced the dismal image of US forces in Iraq in Turkish eyes.

The destruction of the population and land registration files by the Kurds in Kirkuk gave the impression in Turkey that the Kurds of Iraq were doing their best to cleanse that city of its Turkmen and Arab culture. US indifference to such moves further increased fears in Turkey that the US was providing the Kurds of northern Iraq with support in their potentially irredentist initiatives. Consequently there developed in Turkey an image of the US government that is poised against "Muslims" and "Turks" and follows a pro-Kurdish foreign policy.

Yet here a caution is in order: it is impossible to extend this picture over the entire gamut of Turkish-American relations. For example, regarding Afghanistan, Georgia, and Caspian oil, Turkish-US relations could not be more cooperative. Consequently, I am inclined to conclude that Turkish-American relations are strained only over the specific issues of Iraq and the PKK. While these are not entirely the fault of the Bush administration, the style of its policy toward Iraq seems to have a lot to do with the problems of Turkish-American relations today.

The Turkish government also could have managed the situation better, though paradoxically it is the same factors that paved the way for AKP to ascend to power that are also responsible for the erosion of the image of the US government in Turkey.