Turkish-American relations and the war on terror

Turkey is a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member with a Muslim population of 70 million that has coped successfully with ethno-religious terror since the 1980s. Turkey is also a democracy with an industrializing free market economy.

These credentials have contributed to Turkey’s emergence as a strategic ally of the United States in the "war on terror." First and foremost, getting Turkish support for the fight against terror helps to paint an image of the US as fighting terror, not Muslims. Secondly, Turkey can be presented as a "model" to Muslim societies. Turkey also hopes to benefit from the enhanced emphasis on terrorism in US foreign policy: the company of the sole superpower of the world has been welcomed as a major boon in Turkey’s own struggle against terror.

Only one Turkish citizen died in the tragic events of September 11, 2001. However, as a country that has suffered dearly from terror, Turkey showed great sympathy to the US. There was no major protest against the idea of sending Turkish troops to Afghanistan, as the Turkish government wholeheartedly supported the US struggle there. Consequently, once the Karzai government was established, Turkey dispatched troops to keep the peace that had been established by the US-led forces, in an operation that turned out to be quite a success.

However, when the US started to organize a military campaign against Iraq, Turkish-US relations became severely strained. First of all, Turkish intelligence sources reported that Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime in Iraq was failing to muster much military power. Second, Turkey assumed that if the Ba’athists were removed from power, two dire developments would follow. Iraq lacks a "state-idea" that fosters national integration; thus Iraq is no more than a collection of tribes and religious communities united under a flag by British imperial policies and oil interests of the 1920s. Hence, once the Ba’athists were removed from power, Iraq might fragment to pieces. Consequently, the northern Kurdish tribes would try to establish their independence, and the majority Shi’ites would try to control the new Iraqi government and eventually forge an alliance with Shi’ite Iran.

Thus Turkey feared that new political entities would emerge to threaten the security of the Middle East and Turkey. In turn, the US was callous toward Turkish sensitivities regarding Iraq. It seemed as if the Bush administration planned to treat the Kurdish tribes as their "allies" in Iraq (just as they had treated the northern tribes of Afghanistan).

Turkey’s worst fears now seem to be materializing. US authorities have proven incapable of preventing Iraq from turning into a shooting gallery for those who have been itching to attack them. The Kurds seem to have earned de facto autonomy. The Shi’ites have been thrown into a state of turbulence. As the Kurds were permitted to keep their weapons, the Shi’ite and Sunni Arabs, the Turkmen and other communities have also started to arm themselves. No central authority with effective power, no national legislature, and no national army seem to have emerged from the mess created so far.

Finally, the PKK/KADEK (the principal Turkish Kurdish terrorist group; KADEK is a recent designation for the PKK), which is still perceived as a threat by the Turkish government, seems to enjoy immunity from the measures imposed upon some terror groups, such as Ansar al Islam or the Iranian opposition. Under the circumstances, Turkey is getting the impression that the US has started to apply a double standard in its war against terror. Differentiating between America’s terrorists (al Qaeda), and Turkey’s terrorists (PKK/KADEK) bodes ill for the US declaration of war on global terror. The US loses credibility in the eyes of the Turkish elites and masses alike. US policy dangerously approaches combating only "political Islam" as terrorism; if ill managed, this campaign could easily be perceived as a "crusade" against pious Muslims. The US war on Iraq is also perceived as more of a personal vendetta by President George W. Bush, and as the unfolding of neo-conservative plans for empire building. The Turkish public does not appear to agree to sending troops to Iraq, except perhaps to northern Iraq.

Finally, pious Sunni Muslims in Turkey appear to perceive the US as united with Israel in attacking Muslim Arabs, and further believe that eventually the US will attack other Muslims, including the Turks. In the eyes of others, the US appears to have become an unreliable global power, set upon redesigning the Middle East according to its own neo-conservative image, without heeding the egregious consequences that may emanate from such an image for its own allies in the region.

It is ironic that now Turks seem to perceive the US as being part of the problem rather than the solution in the Middle East. For up until now, the US was considered the sole provider of solutions for conflicts in the Balkans, Central Asia, and elsewhere.