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Tend to Turkey

Author: Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Alliance Relations (on leave)
Fall 2007
Democracy: A Journal of Ideas


In the wake of the Iraq debacle, the United States will occupy a position of greatly diminished stature and leverage among the many allies that stepped forward to offer unqualified support immediately after September 11, 2001. No relationship has been more badly damaged in this relatively short period of time, or is in greater need of repair, than the alliance between the United States and Turkey. Although America's standing has declined precipitously across Europe, Turkey is the one NATO country at risk of becoming strategically unmoored.

The war has had a profound and disorienting effect on Turkey—the only Muslim nation anchored in the West through bilateral ties with the United States and membership in NATO. In some polls, Turks are reported to have the least favorable public opinion of the United States among countries surveyed. The Bush Administration’s actions have ominously alienated a generation of young people unfamiliar with the positive legacy of American global leadership. Across the population, a slow process of disenchantment and disengagement has taken place. If this negative trajectory is not reversed,Turkey could seek alternative affiliations—most likely with its Islamic neighbors or with Russia—at the expense of its connections to the United States and Europe.

How could such a dramatic rupture with Turkey have occurred? In short, American policymakers ignored or misread Turkish politics, disregarded legitimate Turkish concerns, and launched an invasion of nearby Iraq with substantial negative consequences for Turkish interests. In preparing to go to war, the United States aggressively sought Turkish permission for the Fourth Infantry Division to cross Turkey in order to enter Iraq from the north. The pressure Washington put on Ankara—and the perception in some Turkish circles that the United States sought to bribe the country to secure its agreement—rebounded negatively in the domestic debate, resulting in the Turkish Grand National Assembly’s failure on March 1, 2003 to approve a resolution permitting U.S. troop transit into Iraq. In reaction, the Pentagon severely curtailed contacts with the Turkish military, essentially freezing it out of the action precisely at the moment that its leaders felt Turkey’s vital interests were being imperiled. On the policy side, high-level visits were postponed or canceled, and regular consultations between the Department of Defense and the Turkish military’s General Staff were suspended. Further, Turkish offers to send troops to Iraq were repeatedly rebuffed, reinforcing the impression that Turkeywas being excluded from shaping events that would have serious implications for its security. At the time of the invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Americans rejected a proposed Turkish deployment of 20,000 troops in the north on the grounds that it could lead to conflict between Turks and Kurds; later in 2003, when the U.S. sought support for peacekeeping and reconstruction, Turkey’s proposal to send 10,000 soldiers was rejected by Iraq’s Governing Council.

In Turkish eyes, the American war effort has substantially destabilized their neighborhood and severely exacerbated their most important security challenge: the continuing terrorist violence perpetrated by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). An unintended consequence of U.S. policy since the first Gulf War has been the emergence of a safe haven for the PKK in northern Iraq. This territory, largely controlled by Iraqi Kurds, has been the only relatively stable region of the country. As a result, American policymakers have resisted appeals to expand the U.S.presence there, concentrating forces on more volatile areas. Concomitantly, the Kurdish leadership of northern Iraq has failed to use its influence to effectively rein in PKK violence.

Finally, a separate but profoundly exacerbating factor in Turkish domestic opinion has been the reaction to the protracted process of negotiating accession to the European Union. As prominent European leaders—including the recently elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy—make xenophobic statements about how Turkey does not belong in Europe, Turkish popular feelings of alienation from the West are being stoked and nationalist and/or Islamist alternatives are becoming more attractive. Unfortunately, because the Bush Administration has squandered American credibility with it allies, Washington ’s ability to influence European thinking and decision-making on this matter is at an all-time low. Looking to the future, the EU members’ failure to effectively respond to Turkey s desire for inclusion may result in an irreparable breach with the Muslim world at a time when many European states face significant internal problems with integrating their own Muslim populations. The schism that could result from excluding the leading example of a Western-oriented, secular democracy from the European club will only reinforce those who believe that co-existence between Western and Muslim civilization is impossible.

All plausible scenarios for Iraq’s future are viewed with suspicion by Ankara, particularly the growing prospect of an independent Kurdistan. The Turkish military views Kurdish statehood as an existential threat to Turkey’s security. Sudden Kurdish autonomy could trigger a war pitting the Kurdish peshmerga—which have strong ties to the United States—against the Turkish army, to whom the United States and its NATO partners have Article V mutual-defense obligations. Although there is legitimate concern about instability onIraq ’s other porous borders, particularly the one it shares with Iran, American policymakers should not allow these preoccupations to distract them from the explosive potential of the Iraqi-Turkish frontier.

As the United States seeks to disentangle itself from Iraq, it needs to do all that it can to avoid a worst-case scenario between Turkey and the Kurds. It should work intensively with the Turks and legitimate representatives of the Kurds of northern Iraq to develop solutions to complex problems in which each has a stake. Some efforts have been made: Over the past two years, the United States has tried to establish a “trilateral” mechanism bringing Americans, Turks, and Kurds together, but this has been difficult to achieve for a variety of reasons, including Turkish reluctance to give greater legitimacy to Kurds representing the governing structures of the north. The United States needs to impress upon its Turkish allies and its Kurdish friends how important this process is to avoiding escalation and to building a more secure future for the region. In the near term, these discussions should focus on reducing tensions and severely constraining PKK activities; in the longer term, they should address trade, transit, and other means of promoting prosperity on both sides of the border.

This article appears in full on by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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