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More Strains in Already Tense US-Turkey Relations - 2003-07-22

Aside from Israel, the United States has had no better friend in the Middle East than Turkey, a staunch Cold War ally and a Muslim democracy that can serve as a model for its non-democratic neighbors.

Then came the war against Saddam Hussein and a dramatic change. To the anger and surprise of the US government, Turkey refused to allow US forces to attack Iraq from its territory, forcing a last-minute shift in US strategy. US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said Turkey should apologize for this lapse and its military should show more leadership.

Turkey was angry in turn. There was muttering that Americans might be encouraging a military coup. Tensions were heightened when US troops arrested eleven Turkish soldiers said to be plotting against Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq. They were eventually released and tempers have cooled, but US-Turkish relations have not thawed.

The differences are quite deep says, Bulent Aliriza, Director of the Turkish Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. “What we now have is a situation in which the Cold War certainties have disappeared. The relationship which was sustained by cooperation on Iraq during and after the last Gulf War has essentially also evaporated. And after the first of March failure of the Turkish National Assembly to sanction US-Turkish cooperation in the war against Iraq, we had a situation in which the relationship clearly needs to be redefined by both sides.”

Turkey, above all, is concerned with postwar Iraq, says Mr. Aliriza. It fears that if the Kurds in northern Iraq achieve considerable autonomy or even independence, they could re-ignite the Kurdish rebellion in southeastern Turkey. “For a long time, Turkish fear was that any war to overthrow Saddam Hussein would lead inevitably to the break-up of Iraq and this would lead inevitably to the emergence of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq and that would inevitably threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey because of its Kurdish minority.”

Mr. Aliriza says Washington is trying to reassure Turkey that no break-up of Iraq is contemplated. But that depends on establishing a viable central government in Iraq that will hold it together. Should that fail, a Kurdish state might emerge by default.

Even so, Turkey has been barred from a role in postwar planning in Iraq, says Graham Fuller, a former top CIA analyst, who has recently returned from a trip to Turkey. “Turkey, in Washington's view has no place at the table, and furthermore, there is no table. The United States is presiding entirely on its own over the future disposition of Iraq. So from Washington's point of view, Turkey is nothing except a nuisance factor and potentially even more risky than that. Washington at this point finds the Kurdish region to be the least problematic of any region in the country.”

Mr. Fuller notes Americans are having much more trouble with the Sunnis in central Iraq and the Shiites in the south.

He says the Turkish military is especially upset with its exclusion because of its previous close relations with the United States. “I think the Turkish military really was far more ambitious," says Mr. Fuller. "It hoped perhaps to have some broader occupation role in the north once the war was over. It hoped that the Kurds would be disarmed and conceivably that Turkey might be able to help in that whole disarming process. None of that is happening and none of it is going to happen. So I think Turkey feels very upset and cut out of the picture.”

But if Turkey needs the United States, the reverse is also true, says Mr. Fuller. In fact, Washington is now asking for Turkish troops to help in Iraq. Turkey, he says, has too much geopolitical importance to be alienated.

Mr. Fuller adds that when Turkey decided to stay out of the Iraq war, it was acting, as nations do, in its own interest. Turkish public opinion was overwhelmingly against the war. The nation also seeks to enter the European Union. “Saying no to America slightly strengthens Turkey's case for admission to the European Union because the European Union was always concerned that Turkey was nothing more than a stalking horse for the United States and its influence," says Mr. Fuller. "I think that argument now is somewhat put to rest. As in Europe, we see in Turkey, too, a growing sense of independence but uncertainty as to where they stand between the United States and the European Union in the future.”

Mr. Fuller says Turkey's leaders understand the continuing importance of the United States, but membership in the European Union is key to shaping Turkey's internal politics. “Yes, they definitely want to have ties with the United States,” he says. “They would like those ties to be good. But they also now know that this has to be balanced with a future that at least economically will be tied to Western Europe. And as those ties to Western Europe strengthen, the role of the military in Turkish politics has to diminish because that is one of Europe's key demands.”

Mr. Fuller says Washington also wants civilian government to prevail in Turkey. At present, the military is grumbling about the Islamist government, but not overtly threatening it or considering yet another coup. “This government has more public support than any Turkish government has had for many, many years. Unless the Islamist government does something truly outrageous from a military point of view, I do not think the military can or will intervene.”

Bulent Aliriza of CSIS says Turkey's military and civilian government are now blaming each other for strained relations with Washington. But both acknowledge repairs must be made. The civilian government in particular know they need US backing. “Their relationship with the United States and the US administration is clearly an important factor in their ability to persuade the Turkish body politic, including the Turkish military, that civilian supremacy is something that is desirable and practical in the current international political establishment," says Mr. Aliriza.

Analysts say there must be give on both sides. It is rather arrogant, they note, for Washington to admonish Turkey for its friendly relations with neighboring Iran and Syria. And it does Turkey little good to harbor resentment against the US detention of its soldiers, an unusual event not likely to reoccur.