By Harry Dinella and John Sitilides
By the time Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul concluded his meetings with senior Bush administration officials and congressional leaders last week, in an urgent and appropriately-timed effort to repair frayed U.S.-Turkey relations, he realized the old saying that “Turkey has no friends” is not true.
The United States has long been Turkey’s best friend, dating back to the beginning of the Cold War. It still is, but the friendship has been severely tested in recent months by Ankara, highlighted by Turkey’s failure to support Operation Iraqi Freedom and Turkish fury over the arrest and detention by U.S. forces of Turkish commandos planning to assassinate a Kurdish leader in northern Iraq.
Since the early 1950s, U.S. policymakers have held Turkey in high esteem as a secular democratic Muslim nation confronting Soviet forces on its border and anchoring NATO’s southeastern flank with a standing army second in size only to that of the United States. After the Cold War, official Washington touted Turkey’s significance as a strategic partner that facilitated U.S. efforts to stabilize the former Yugoslavia and Somalia while also combating terrorism and potential threats from rogue regimes in Iraq, Iran, and Syria on its southern and eastern borders.
For more than a decade, Incirlik Air Base became the focal point for U.S. and British aircraft protecting Kurds within the “no-fly” zone in northern Iraq. By the mid-1990s, Turkey had cemented a security and economic relationship with Israel. After the U.S. defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan, Turkey successfully completed a six-month rotating command of the international security force in Kabul.
For its part, the U.S. provided economic and military assistance to Turkey when Josef Stalin threatened it after World War II, supported Turkey’s entry into NATO in 1952, encouraged the country’s expanding democracy over the decades, and generally supported or tolerated Turkish foreign policy and security objectives, sometimes at the expense of relations with other allies and friends.
The Bush and Clinton administrations have strongly supported Ankara’s aspirations to become a member of the European Union. President Bush endorsed a $16 billion IMF loan package that was essential to shoring up Turkey’s failing economy and averting economic meltdown. The U.S. backed construction of the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which could make Turkey a key transport node for bringing Caspian Sea oil to international markets. In addition, it assisted Turkey in resolving disputes with the EU over the deployment of the bloc’s Rapid Reaction Force.
Washington has worked to gently nudge a reluctant Turkey toward a Cyprus settlement that would dramatically increase living standards for Turkish Cypriots and enhance Ankara’s diplomatic stature with the EU and the international community. The U.S. has long encouraged dialogue between Greece and Turkey to resolve their bilateral differences, and it was Washington’s intervention, while Europe slept, that prevented war between the two countries in 1996.
However, starting in late 2002 and culminating on March 1, 2003, Turkey’s image in Washington as a staunch ally and friend steadily and radically diminished. U.S. military planners once considered Turkish cooperation necessary to wage a quick and decisive two-front war against Iraq. Months prior to the war, Washington embarked on exhausting negotiations with Ankara to gain access to Turkish territory for the deployment of 62,000 U.S. troops and equipment that included the 4th Infantry Division as the spearhead that would secure northern Iraq and lead the southward offensive toward Baghdad.
In December, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz returned from Ankara assured by the Turkish General Staff that Turkey was on board, save for details. Negotiations culminated in a proposed U.S. grant and loan credit package exceeding $30 billion. But, on March 1, the Turkish parliament rejected America’s request for territorial access for a second front against Saddam Hussein.
After that stunning defeat, Turkish leaders pressed for further negotiations in hopes that accommodation might be reached, but those talks led nowhere. The failure to reach an agreement prevented the world’s most modern and lethal army division from attacking Saddam’s forces from the north, compelling U.S. planners to essentially wage a one-front war.
Turkey then refused to permit combat air operations to originate from its territory, negating the use of the once-strategic Incirlik Air Base by coalition warplanes for the duration of the war. Turkey did permit flights carrying humanitarian supplies to transit its air space, in return for a Washington pledge of $1 billion in aid.
Since the coalition’s Iraq victory in late April, Turkey has had the opportunity to be helpful by not interfering in U.S.-led efforts to secure Iraq and establish institutions that will lead to a federal state of Kurds, Turkomen, and Assyrians in the north, Sunnis in central Iraq, and Shi’ites in the south.
But Turkey has continued to express its longstanding concern that a semi-autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Iraq, governed by elected representatives of 3 million Kurds, would inspire a separatist fervor among Turkey’s 12 million ethnic Kurds, many of whom bore the brunt of a 15-year war that killed 35,000 people. There have been reports of recurring Kurdish attacks inside Turkey, and Ankara faults Washington for permitting Kurdish groups to control the oil-rich regions of Mosul and Kirkuk.
U.S. officials reject Turkish mistrust of American motives, especially since Washington stood alone among Western capitals for many years in its condemnation of Kurdish separatists as terrorists, in line with Turkish policy.
The Turkish commandos’ attempt to assassinate a Kurdish politician, thwarted only by their timely capture by American troops, was viewed by Washington as gross interference in the achievement of U.S. objectives, threatening to trigger violent turmoil across northern Iraq and delaying establishment of a governing system for all of postwar Iraq.
Turkey had the opportunity to participate significantly in this successful war, as well as in the shaping of postwar Iraq, and its parliament opted on March 1 not to do so. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has stated frequently, actions have consequences.
Hopefully, Mr. Gul is returning to Ankara convinced that Turkish policymakers must come to terms with the U.S. and British triumph in Iraq, achieved with no political, financial, or logistical support from Ankara. The Bush administration is not about to let Turkey’s unfounded fears over the future of Iraq’s Kurds ruin all that the U.S. and its coalition partners have accomplished through loss of life and limb.
Ankara should reassess its policies in northern Iraq and accept U.S. assurances that coalition forces will strive to create a democratic federal state in Iraq. American forces will be stationed in Iraq for many years to come. Ideally, Turkish troops will be stationed there as well, alongside troops from other NATO members and nations seeking to help reform and democratize the Middle East and broader Muslim world.
But the Pentagon will not beg for Turkish troops, and Mr. Gul smartly avoided insisting on unrealistic conditions for such deployment. It is in Turkey’s interest to participate in the reconstruction of Iraq, and it is in America’s interest to have a constructive Turkish partner that respects American sacrifices and shares its vision for the future of the region.
As Mr. Gul was clearly told again last week, Washington has no intention of abandoning Iraq to civil war, anarchy, and dismemberment. Instead, Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi’ites are each expected to govern autonomously in Iraq – and protect the rights of smaller minorities such as the Turkomen – in a system somewhat akin to Texans, Virginians and Alaskans in the U.S. federal system. This eventuality can be constructive for Turkey, which cannot destabilize northern Iraq and expect to progress in its European Union accession program or its partnership with the United States.
Foreign Minister Gul came to Washington with a singular opportunity to repair the fissure in relations with the Bush administration. Ankara and Washington can – and must – put the latest incidents behind them and work together toward the stabilization of Iraq and the establishment of an Iraqi democracy.
Further degradation of Turkish-American relations, through activities such as other covert operations, would be the quickest way to ruin Turkey’s long-term friendship with its best friend, the United States. That might make, for the first time in a half-century, that old Turkish saying come true.
* **Lt. Col. Harry Dinella (U.S. Army retired) is adjunct professor of international relations at George Mason University, and John Sitilides is executive director of the Western Policy Center in Washington, D.C.. It was published at the Washington Times, July 27, 2003