Accessibility links

U.S.–Turkish Tensions

Turkey is in flames. A U.S. air attack has leveled Istanbul and Ankara, and now American tanks are rolling in to occupy the country. In desperation, the Turks call on Russia and the European Union for help, and these onetime enemies of Turkey stall the U.S. advance and end the war – but not before an enterprising Turkish agent has destroyed much of Washington with a nuclear device.

The stuff of fantasy, to be sure, in a best-selling Turkish novel titled “Metal Storm.” It has indeed taken the Turkish public by storm and politicians as well with an outrageous plot that somehow strikes a responsive chord. Readers seem to find its fiction uncomfortably close to fact. One of its two authors, Burak Turna, a former military affairs reporter, claims his book is not just another conspiracy theory but a “possibility theory.”

What is going on? How can two erstwhile allies, cooperative in so many areas, go to war? At the moment, there is certainly a war of words. A BBC survey indicates Turkey is now the most anti-American nation on earth. In this atmosphere, no monstrous act is considered beyond America or its Israeli partner in crime who are even compared to the German Nazis. Columnist Arnaud deBorchgrave says some Turks may be outvenoming Osama bin Laden.

Real life has contributed to this startling shift of opinion. Turks, like many others, strongly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and suspect U.S. plans for the region. They are particularly uneasy over the growing separatism of Kurds in northern Iraq. This, in turn, could enflame the already restive Kurds within Turkey. What, they ask, is the U.S. up to?

The Kurdish question is central, says Sabri Sayari, director of the Institute for Turkish Studies at Georgetown University. Turks believe the United States has failed to suppress the anti-Turkish rebels operating in northern Iraq.

Professor Sayari says, "I think Turkish sentiment has to be explained in the context of what is happening in Iraq. Obviously, the war in Iraq has not been popular in Turkey for a variety of reasons, especially the situation in northern Iraq with the growing power of the Kurds and the general instability that has engulfed a neighboring country."

Henri Barkey, professor of international relations at Lehigh University, says there is Turkish concern of spillover. A separate Kurdish entity in Iraq could revive the separatist movement in Turkey.

Professor Barkey notes, "There is an enormous fear in Turkey, a paranoia if you want, that events in Iraq will propel Kurds in Turkey to seek the same thing. I think this is overly exaggerated. The Turkish Kurds have had problems with the Turkish government and the Turkish elite, but they are part of a very vibrant economy and a very vibrant society, which is on its way to become a member of the European Union a decade and a half from now."

For this reason, says Professor Barkey, Turkish Kurds have little incentive to imitate Iraqi Kurds. But they understandably resent the condescending way they are often treated in Turkey. That needs to change, says Professor Barkey.

Underlying U.S.-Turkish tensions is the growing presence of Islam. When the current Islamist government took over in Turkey, Washington at first responded positively, says Professor Sayari.

Professor Sayari contends, "The U.S. has been pretty much in support of Turkey’s experiment with a party that originates from the Islamist movement. When it initially came to power in 2002, this party was viewed as something that would prove that Islam and democracy are compatible and there should be no clash of civilizations. So the US was upholding Turkey as a kind of model in a way."

But Washington cooled, particularly over Turkey’s refusal to let U.S. forces invade Iraq from its territory.

Even so, says Professor Barkey, U.S. actions hardly excuse the constant anti-American drumbeat of Turkish politicians and journalists. Nothing Washington says is believed.

Professor Barkey says, "When you have serious newspapers publishing articles about the United States having a secret weapon that makes earthguakes and that Istanbul is the next target. When you have newspapers that publish all kinds of scurrilous articles about the United States, that is more worrisome. The problem is that some Turkish politicians have joined the fray and have accused the United States of genocide and all kinds of other activities in Iraq."

It is time for dialogue, says Professor Barkey. U.S. and Turkish officials should sit down and map out the steps ahead to restore proper, if not amicable relations. The two countries are too important for each other to let the current rancor persist.