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Turkey's Generals in Retreat

Author: David L. Phillips, Executive Director, The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity
April 10, 2004


The support of Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was critical to the UN-brokered Cyprus settlement. Erdogan used his leverage after winning a showdown with Turkey’s generals, who invaded Cyprus in 1975. To counter continuing efforts by Turkey’s military establishment to undermine the agreement, Erdogan must seal the deal in Cyprus and then pursue reforms sought by the European Union as conditions for Turkey’s EU membership. Last week’s sweeping victory by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in local elections further strengthens his hand to take on Turkey’s guardians of the status quo.

The redistribution of power in Turkey started with Mr. Erdogan’s landslide election victory in February 2003. As the protector of Kemal Ataturk’s secular ideals, the military was deeply troubled by the rise of Mr. Erdogan’s Islamist movement. Though it had banned two previous parties with Islamic orientations, the National Security Council could not take on the AKP because of its huge popular mandate.

Instead, the military establishment tried to discredit Mr. Erdogan by engineering a falling out between his new government and the United States. Partly as a result of Mr. Erdogan’s inexperience, Turkey’s parliament broke ranks with the AKP leadership and rejected the transit of US troops through Turkey to Northern Iraq. By failing to provide guidance on an issue of such critical importance, Turkey’s military establishment helped set-up the debacle with the hope of both discrediting the government and proving its indispensable role.

The strategy backfired. The US went to war without Turkey. Erdogan won widespread praise from Turks for standing up to the Bush administration’s bullying. When US forces later got bogged down, Erdogan was heralded for keeping Turkey out of Iraq.

Turkey’s generals have always used their privileged position with the Pentagon to burnish their credentials and maintain a discreet yet ironclad grip on power. The National Security Council’s aura of infallibility was shattered when Paul Wolfowitz, US Deputy Secretary of Defense, publicly scolded the general staff and demanded an apology for its mishandling of the alliance. Last July, US-Turkish relations hit rock bottom when Turkish Special Forces, accused of plotting the assassination of Iraqi Kurdish leaders, were hooded and escorted from Iraq.

Instead of relying on the military, Erdogan has taken it on his shoulders to rebuild relations with the US. Both geographically and culturally, Turkey straddles the crossroads between east and west. Unlike his predecessor, Necmettin Erbekan, who traveled to Libya and Iran during the first days of his administration, Mr. Erdogan has firmly aligned himself with the west and made the pursuit of Turkey’s membership in the European Union the cornerstone of Turkish foreign policy. Ankara’s EU aspirations took on new urgency after the Istanbul terrorist bombings in November.

Though a Cyprus settlement was never a formal condition for starting accession talks with the EU, it was always a political reality. Many envoys failed to break the impasse because, buoyed by supporters in the military establishment, the Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, stood in the way.

Cyprus is the most important outpost of Turkey’s “deep state”. The deep state – a shadowy network involving the military and intelligence apparatus as well as the state bureaucracy -- is the ultimate arbiter of power. Though Ataturk rejected the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which sought to divide the defeated Ottoman Empire, the deep state maintains control by stirring fears that forces, both within and outside the country, want to weaken Turkey. Cyprus has little strategic value, but it is symbolically important as the only territory conquered by the Republic of Turkey since Ottoman times.

Mr. Erdogan could not have succeeded in changing Turkey’s approach towards Cyprus without support from the United States. Moreover, Turkey’s security establishment would never have tolerated concessions if it still enjoyed Washington’s unwavering support.

For the first time in Turkey’s history, the military has been subordinated to an elected government. Erdogan should use the upcoming Istanbul NATO summit to showcase Turkey’s strategic importance and critical role in the fight against terror. To this end, he can highlight Turkey’s command of the International Stabilization Force for Afghanistan and, by opening Turkey’s border with Armenia, reinforce its importance as a gateway to the Caucasus. Turkey’s EU prospects would be also enhanced by implementing promised cultural and political rights for Turkish Kurds.

Erdogan deserves credit for helping to deliver the Cyprus settlement. Even if the deal unravels because Greek Cypriots reject it, Erdogan deserves credit and reward. Europe should encourage Erdogan to press for further reforms accelerating Turkey’s integration into the European Union.

The writer is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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