F Stephen Larrabee. Foreign Affairs. Volume 86, Issue 4. July/August 2007.
Home, Sweet Home
While the recent wrangling in Turkey between the generals and the Islamists has drawn attention to Turkey’s domestic policies, a significant shift in the country’s foreign policy has gone largely unnoticed: after decades of passivity, Turkey is now emerging as an important diplomatic actor in the Middle East. Over the past few years, Ankara has established close ties with Iran and Syria, with which it had tense relations during the 1980s and 1990s; adopted a more active approach toward the Palestinians’ grievances; and improved relations with the Arab world more broadly.
This new activism is an important departure from recent Turkish foreign policy. One of the basic principles espoused by Mustafa Kemal (better known as Atatrk), the founder of the modern Turkish republic, was that Turkey should limit its involvement in Middle Eastern affairs, and except for a brief period in the 1950s, Ankara largely stuck to it.
Turkey’s recent focus on the Middle East, however, does not mean that Turkey is about to turn its back on the West. Nor is the shift evidence of the “creeping Islamization” of Turkish foreign policy, as some critics claim. Turkey’s new activism is a response to structural changes in its security environment since the end of the Cold War. And, if managed properly, it could be an opportunity for Washington and its Western allies to use Turkey as a bridge to the Middle East.
Casualties of War
During the Cold War, the main threats to Turkish security came almost exclusively from the Soviet Union. Today, Turkey faces a much more diverse set of challenges: growing Kurdish separatism, sectarian violence in Iraq that could spill over, the rise of Iran, and the fragmentation of Lebanon, partly at the hands of radical groups with close ties to Syria and Iran. Since most of these come from Turkey’s southern periphery and the wider Middle East, Turkey has understandably begun to focus more attention on the region.
At the same time, Turkey’s ties to the West have deteriorated. Its path to European Union membership has been blocked by disagreements with Brussels over Cyprus and over stalled political and economic reforms in Turkey, as well as by rising concern among Europeans about immigration, unemployment, and EU enlargement. In addition, Turkey’s relations with the United States have become increasingly strained, largely because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. According to a poll conducted by the German Marshall Fund in September 2006, 81 percent of Turks disapproved (and only seven percent approved) of President George W. Bush’s handling of international policies. Turkey is now in the unprecedented situation of having poor relations with the EU and the United States simultaneously.
These trends have coincided with—and to some extent been reinforced by—important domestic changes in Turkish society. The pro-Western elite that has shaped Turkish foreign policy since the end of World War II is gradually being replaced by a more conservative, more religious, and more nationalist elite that is suspicious of the West and has a more positive attitude toward Turkey’s Ottoman past. The ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (known as the AKP), headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has managed to tap into rising popular nationalism by fusing it with Islam.
The Gulf War in 1990-91 was a critical catalyst for Turkey’s reentry into the Middle East. Against the advice of many of his advisers and of the Turkish military, President Turgut Ozal threw Turkey’s full support behind the U.S. military campaign to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. He enforced United Nations sanctions by cutting off the flow of Iraq’s oil exports through Turkish pipelines, deployed 100,000 troops along the Iraqi-Turkish border, and allowed the United States to fly sorties into Iraq from Turkish bases. Ozal saw the war as an opportunity to demonstrate Turkey’s continued strategic importance and cement closer defense ties with the United States. He hoped that Turkey’s support would strengthen its “strategic partnership” with the United States and enhance its prospects of joining the European Community (as the EU was then called).
Ozal’s hopes proved illusory on both counts. The strategic partnership with the United States never materialized, and Turkey’s chances at membership in the European Community hardly improved. Economically, Turkey paid a high price for its support of the U.S. military campaign: it lost billions of dollars in pipeline fees and trade. Politically, it was left facing a major escalation of its Kurdish problem. The establishment of a de facto Kurdish state in northern Iraq under Western protection gave new impetus to Kurdish nationalism and provided a logistical base for attacks on Turkish territory by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the violent Kurdish separatist group known as the PKK. For many Turks, the war was, as the veteran Turkey watcher Ian Lesser has noted, “the place where the trouble started.”
The Gulf War also reinforced Turkish sensitivities regarding national sovereignty. Generally speaking, the Turks have been wary of allowing the United States to use their facilities for non-NATO operations; Ozal’s decision to allow the United States to use Turkish military facilities to fly sorties into Iraq was the exception, not the rule. After the Gulf War, Turkey allowed the United States, the United Kingdom, and France to use its bases to monitor the no-fly zone over northern Iraq, but under significant constraints, including the requirement that the agreement to use the bases be renewed every six months. In recent years, the Turkish government has imposed increasing restrictions on U.S. operations out of the Incirlik air base, in southern Turkey. Although Ankara has allowed the Pentagon to use Incirlik to transport troops and materiel to Afghanistan and Iraq, it has refused to permit the United States to station combat aircraft at the base or use it to fly combat missions in the Middle East or the Persian Gulf.
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 drew Turkey more deeply into the vortex of Middle Eastern politics. From the outset, Turkish leaders had strong reservations about the invasion. They had no love for Saddam Hussein, but he provided stability on Turkey’s southern border—they worried that his overthrow might fragment Iraq while strengthening Kurdish nationalism, thereby jeopardizing Turkey’s security. Since the invasion, the Turkish leadership’s worst fears have been realized. Iraq has become a breeding ground for international terrorism, and it faces possible collapse. Iran’s influence has increased in Iraq and in the region more broadly. The Iraqi Kurds’ drive for autonomy—and, eventually, formal independence—has gained momentum. Turkish officials are concerned that the creation of a Kurdish state on Turkey’s southern border could exacerbate separatist pressures among Turkey’s own Kurdish population and pose a threat to the country’s territorial integrity.
This is a serious concern. Turkey has witnessed an upsurge of violence by the PKK over the past few years. For over two decades, the PKK has waged a guerrilla war in southeastern Turkey, killing more than 35,000 Turks and Kurds. After the capture of its leader, Abdullah calan, in 1999, the PKK declared a unilateral cease-fire, and the violence temporarily subsided. But the group took up arms again in June 2004. Since January 2006, it has launched repeated attacks on Turkish territory from sanctuaries in the Kandil Mountains, in northern Iraq, killing several hundred Turkish security forces.
The Erdogan government has repeatedly requested U.S. military assistance to help eliminate PKK training camps in northern Iraq. But Washington has been reluctant to take military action. With its forces already stretched thin, the Pentagon claims it cannot spare the troops, which it needs to combat the insurgency elsewhere in Iraq. Moreover, U.S. officials fear that intervening against the PKK could unsettle northern Iraq, which is more stable than the rest of the country. The Kurds have been the staunchest backers of U.S. policy in Iraq, and without their support, hope for keeping the country together is slim.
Washington’s diffidence has contributed to an alarming rise in anti-American sentiment throughout Turkey. (A poll conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts in June 2006 showed that only 12 percent of Turks viewed the United States positively.) Many Turks consider Washington’s position to be tacit support for the PKK and evidence of a double standard: as they see it, the United States has invaded two countries—Afghanistan and Iraq—to eliminate terrorist safe havens but now refuses to help Turkey do the same.
These problems are compounded by the potentially explosive situation concerning the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, which sits atop one of the world’s largest oil deposits and whose status is to be determined by a referendum before the end of the year. Over the past several years, hundreds of thousands of Kurds who were evicted during Saddam’s campaign to “Arabize” Kirkuk in the 1970s and 1980s have returned to reclaim their homes and property. Now, the Kurds of Iraq are seeking to make Kirkuk the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. But Turkish officials are concerned by the city’s increasing “Kurdization.” Ankara wants power to be shared by all ethnic groups in the city and the referendum to be postponed in the hope that the city’s status can be clarified another way. If the Iraqi Kurds try to force the issue, Ankara could be provoked to take military action, which would exacerbate instability in Iraq and the region as a whole.
The Enemy of My Enemy
Turkey’s greater activism in the Middle East has also been reflected in its effort to strengthen ties to Iran and Syria. Ankara’s relations with Tehran and Damascus were strained in the 1980s and 1990s, in part because Iran and Syria supported the PKK in their effort to destabilize Turkey. But relations have significantly improved in recent years, thanks to the three governments’ shared interest in containing Kurdish nationalism and preventing the emergence of an independent Kurdish state on their borders.
Turkey’s cooperation with Iran has intensified considerably, particularly in the security field. During Prime Minister Erdogan’s visit to Tehran in July 2004, Turkey and Iran signed a security cooperation agreement that branded the PKK a terrorist organization. Since then, the two countries have stepped up cooperation to protect their borders. Like Turkey, Iran faces security problems in its Kurdish-populated areas: over the last year, an Iranian group affiliated with the PKK, the Party for a Free Life in Iranian Kurdistan, has launched attacks against Iranian security officials. Tehran has retaliated by shelling PKK bases in the Kandil Mountains.
Energy has been another major driver behind the warming of Iranian-Turkish relations. Iran is the second-largest supplier of natural gas to Turkey (after Russia). In July 1996, shortly after taking office, Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan concluded a $23 billion deal for the delivery of natural gas from Iran over 25 years. In February 2007, under Prime Minister Erdogan, Turkey and Iran agreed to seal two new energy deals: one allowing the Turkish Petroleum Corporation (known as TPAO) to explore oil and natural gas in Iran and another for the transfer of gas from Turkmenistan to Turkey (and on to Europe) through a pipeline in Iran. (Turkey’s pipeline deal with Iran is at odds with Washington’s preference for avoiding Iran by transporting the gas through the Caspian Sea, and, if finalized, it could add a new element of friction to U.S.-Turkish relations.)
Iran’s nuclear ambitions, however, are a source of serious concern in Ankara. A nuclear-armed Iran could have a destabilizing impact on the Persian Gulf region and force Turkey to take countermeasures for its own security. If Iran refuses to comply with the demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ankara will have essentially three options: expand its cooperation on missile defense with the United States and Israel; beef up its conventional military capabilities, especially medium-range missiles; or develop its own nuclear capability. Turkey would consider developing the nuclear option only as a last resort—if, say, its relations with the United States declined, Ankara no longer saw NATO’s guarantees as credible, and the EU rejected Turkey’s membership. A serious effort by Iran to develop a nuclear capability could undercut its rapprochement with Turkey and drive Ankara to strengthen its ties with the West, especially the United States.
Turkey’s relations with Syria have also considerably improved in the last decade. Strained in the 1980s and early 1990s, they reached a crisis point in October 1998, when Turkey threatened to invade Syria if Damascus did not cease supporting the PKK. In the face of Turkey’s overwhelming military superiority, Damascus backed down, expelling the PKK leader calan, to whom it had given safe haven, and closing PKK training camps. Damascus’ shift opened the way for a gradual improvement in relations, which has gained considerable momentum since then. This rapprochement was underscored by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Ankara in January 2005—the first trip by a Syrian president to Turkey since Syria’s independence in 1946.
This change in Syrian-Turkish relations has largely been driven by Damascus’ growing concern over the threat of Kurdish nationalism. The Kurdish minority in Syria, like those in Turkey and Iran, has become increasingly restless lately. Assad’s government has been concerned that the emergence of an economically robust Kurdish government in northern Iraq could stimulate pressures for economic and political improvements among Syria’s own Kurdish population.
Turkey’s closer ties to Syria have created strains with Washington. These tensions were not so strong under the Clinton administration, which maintained a dialogue with Damascus despite disapproving of many of its policies. However, they have intensified under the Bush administration, which has sought to isolate Syria. Strains were particularly visible in the spring of 2005, when U.S. officials failed to convince Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer to cancel his visit to Damascus. Sezer, with Erdogan’s backing, stood firm—a show of Turkish independence that caused considerable consternation in Washington. However, recent efforts by the United States to initiate a dialogue with Syria—a move long favored by Ankara—should help to reduce these strains and bring Washington’s and Ankara’s approaches to Syria into closer alignment.
A Delicate Balance
Ankara’s policy toward Israel and the Palestinians has also undergone a shift. Turkey had maintained a close relationship with Israel since 1996, especially in the defense and intelligence areas. Cooperation had benefits for both sides: it gave Israel a way of breaking out of its regional isolation and a means of putting pressure on Syria, and it gave Turkey new avenues for obtaining weapons and advanced technology at a time when it faced increasing restrictions on weapons procurement from the United States and Europe.
But more recently, under the AKP’s leadership, Turkey’s outlook toward Israel has begun to change, and Ankara has begun to adopt a more active pro-Palestinian policy. Erdogan has been openly critical of Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza, calling it an act of “state terror.” At the same time, he has sought to establish closer ties to the Palestinian leadership. A few weeks after the elections in the Palestinian territories in January 2006, he hosted in Ankara a high-ranking Hamas delegation led by Khaled Mashaal. Erdogan was hoping that the visit would highlight Turkey’s ability to play a larger diplomatic role in the Middle East. But it was arranged it without consulting Washington and Jerusalem and irritated both governments, which wanted to isolate Hamas until it met a series of specific conditions, including acceptance of Israel’s right to exist.
Likewise, Turkey adopted an independent position at odds with Israeli policy during last summer’s crisis in Lebanon. Erdogan sharply condemned the Israeli attacks, and in several major Turkish cities there were large-scale protests and burnings of the Israeli flag. Turkish nongovernmental organizations also condemned Israel’s policies in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
At the same time, Erdogan decided to send 1,000 troops to participate in the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon—one of the largest contributions of any European state. The move was sharply criticized by mainstream parties and some members of Erdogan’s own party, who feared Turkey would be drawn into a military confrontation with Hezbollah, and provoked an open split between President Sezer and Erdogan. Sezer opposed Turkish participation on the grounds that it was “not Turkey’s responsibility to protect others’ national interests.” Erdogan maintained that Turkey could not protect its own national interests by being a “mere bystander” and had to participate in the peace process.
Although not without risks, Erdogan’s decision to contribute troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon had a number of important benefits. It both underscored Turkey’s European credentials and showed that Ankara is an important regional player. It earned Erdogan accolades in Washington, which helped reduce strains with the United States. And along with Erdogan’s criticism of Israel’s military action, it allowed Turkey to demonstrate its solidarity with key Arab governments in the region, which supported the peacekeeping mission.
Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia, in particular, have been strengthened recently, as was highlighted by King Abdullah’s trip to Turkey in August 2006—the first visit of its kind in 40 years. The two countries have worked together to invigorate the Arab-Israeli peace process as well as to contain Iran’s rising power. Turkey’s ties to Egypt, another regional power, have also been enhanced. During a visit to Ankara in March 2007, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Turkish leadership decided to establish a new strategic dialogue and partnership focusing on energy cooperation and regional security.
Making It Work
Turkey’s new activism in the Middle East—particularly its closer ties to Iran and Syria—has caused concern in some quarters in Washington. Some U.S. officials fear that it could weaken Turkey’s ties to the West or lead to the “Islamization” of Ankara’s foreign policy. But these concerns are misplaced. Turkey’s greater engagement in the Middle East is part of the gradual diversification of Turkish foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. In effect, Turkey is rediscovering the region of which it has historically been an integral part. Especially under the Ottomans, Turkey was the dominant power in the Middle East; its republican period—with its emphasis on noninvolvement in Middle Eastern affairs—was an anomaly. Turkey’s current activism is a return to a more traditional pattern.
U.S. policymakers will, however, have to get used to dealing with a more independent-minded and assertive Turkey. As a result of its growing interests in the Middle East, Turkey is likely, for example, to be extremely wary of allowing the United States to use its military facilities for operations in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf when they do not clearly serve its interests or NATO’s.
At the same time, the United States needs to build a stronger strategic partnership with Turkey. The much-heralded “Shared Vision” document released in July 2006 by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, which identifies concrete areas where cooperation could be enhanced, provides a useful framework for building such a new strategic partnership. But the United States and Turkey will need to make important adjustments in its current policies if the plan’s lofty goals are to be realized.
Both Ankara and Washington need to accept that the war in Iraq has created new realities and unleashed new forces that must be accommodated. However much they may wish for this, the clock cannot be turned back. Two new realities in particular must be accepted. First, the chances that a strong central government will emerge in Iraq—the outcome favored by both Ankara and Washington—are almost nil. The differences between the various Iraqi political forces are too strong, and the Iraqi Kurds would not accept a strong central authority anyway. At best, a weak central government will emerge; at worst, Iraq will break up into several entities. Second, northern Iraq is already a de facto quasi state. It has a functioning government perceived as legitimate by the population, its own army and national flag, and a strong sense of national identity.
Ankara also needs to accept that a durable solution cannot be imposed by external forces; it can only come about as a result of an accommodation between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds. This does not mean Ankara must recognize or accept an independent Kurdish state in Iraq, but it will need to open a dialogue with the Iraqi Kurdish leadership.
The Erdogan government seems to recognize this. Over the last year, it has taken several small steps in the right direction. It has authorized charter flights to two Kurdish cities and reopened the Turkish consulate in Mosul. There is vigorous cross-border trade with the Kurds in northern Iraq, particularly in crude oil and gasoline—a vital source of economic support for the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq.
The Turkish military, however, opposes such a dialogue: it claims that the two leading Kurdish groups in Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, headed by Massoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, headed by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, are supporting the PKK militarily and materially. Given the importance of the military in Turkish politics, especially on sensitive issues of national security, the government will need its support—or at least its acquiescence—if any dialogue with the Iraqi Kurds is to succeed.
While the Turkish military may exaggerate the degree of support the PKK receives from the Iraqi Kurdish leaders, the latter have not been sufficiently aggressive in cracking down on the PKK. Whether this is because Iraqi Kurds see the PKK as a bargaining chip to be traded later for concessions on Kirkuk or because they fear opposition from younger, more radical Kurdish leaders is unclear. What is clear is that a tougher policy toward the PKK is a sine qua non for easing tensions between the Iraqi Kurdish leadership and Turkey.
The United States needs to play a more active role in helping defuse tensions between Ankara and the Iraqi Kurdish leadership. The appointment last September of Joseph Ralston, a retired air force general and former NATO supreme allied commander for Europe, as the special envoy responsible for coordinating efforts against the PKK was a step in the right direction. But his mission has produced few concrete results. As a consequence, the Erdogan government has come under growing pressure from the Turkish military to take unilateral military action against the PKK—a move that would be highly destabilizing and could lead to a broadening of the conflict in Iraq.
At the same time, recent tensions between the Erdogan government and the Turkish military over the selection of a new Turkish president have threatened the country’s own stability and made it all the more urgent for the United States to get involved. Washington needs to press the Iraqi Kurdish leadership harder, particularly the regional government of Kurdistan, to crack down on PKK activities and close down PKK training camps. It should insist that the Iraqi Kurdish authorities arrest PKK leaders—many of whom roam freely in northern Iraq and even appear on government-controlled television stations—and turn them over to the Turkish government. Such a move would have an enormous impact on public opinion in Turkey and significantly reduce the growing anti-American sentiment there.
The United States should also encourage the Turkish government to address more forthrightly the grievances of the Kurds in Turkey. Ankara’s actions should include a comprehensive effort to promote the economic development of southeastern Turkey, one of the poorest and least developed parts of the country and a prime source of recruitment for the PKK, especially among younger Kurds. One useful measure would be to open up the Turkish political system to greater participation by Kurdish groups in parliament. Most Turkish Kurds do not agree with the PKK’s goals or methods, but they feel it is the only group that stands up for their interests. If Kurdish groups were given a greater opportunity to openly represent these interests in parliament, sympathy for the PKK among Kurds in Turkey would drop.
Finally, U.S. policymakers need to pay more attention to Turkey’s other security concerns, including the strategic implications of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The prospect that Iran may obtain nuclear weapons is likely to heighten Turkey’s interest in missile defense. Yet, current plans for deploying elements of a U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic are designed to provide protection against only long-range missile threats from Iran and North Korea, and they exclude southern Europe and Turkey, effectively dividing Europe into two unequal zones of security. This is bound to reinforce Turkey’s sense of insecurity and its disenchantment with its Western allies since it already faces a threat from Iran’s short- and medium-range systems, some of which can reach parts of eastern Turkey. The United States needs to develop a short- and medium-range missile defense system—perhaps through the deployment of Patriot systems—that can protect Turkey and the rest of southern Europe. Otherwise, current plans could exacerbate Turkey’s security concerns and create new strains in Washington’s relations with Ankara.
Taken together, these steps would demonstrate that the United States is serious about addressing Turkey’s key security concerns, and they could provide the building blocks for developing a meaningful strategic partnership with Ankara. Time is running out, however. Unless Washington quickly takes more resolute steps to address these issues, U.S.-Turkish relations are likely to deteriorate further, and the United States will lose a significant opportunity to enhance stability in a region that is becoming vital to its own security.