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The Turkish refusal

Murat Belge
20 May 2003

The campaign to force regime change upon Iraq led by the United States found and then left Turkey in a new situation. The most interesting fact about it is the sudden, cool distance that developed between two countries who had been such close allies in so many earlier historical “episodes”. The difference between how it is seen from a certain distance and how it is viewed and evaluated from within may also be a point of interest.

Let us begin with this second point. The Turkish parliament rejected, albeit with a very small margin, a motion allowing US troops to attack Iraq from the north. Those who were against the military intervention in Iraq see Turkey as having thus played a very important part in trying to avoid war, even if its stance was in the event unable actually to stop the intervention.

This episode resulted in an abrupt, major shift in the previous image of Turkey – presented mainly in the American media – as bargaining for more and more money in return for granting its US ally a military advantage. Almost overnight, the role of the mercenary turned into that of the noble pacifist. Moreover, Turkey had dared to act in this way at the very time it was carrying out negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in order to maneouvre out of yet another economic crisis.

Many people who watched this process from afar admired Turkey for its heroic resistance to pressure from its powerful traditional ally, the United States.

And this is what indeed happened. But seen from inside, the whole thing is much more complex and far less heroic.

Turkey’s moment of decision

The best way to illustrate this is by looking at the way Turkey made the crucial decision not to support the United States.

The newly-governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power in the general election of November 2002, is mainly composed of moderate, progressive Islamists with an interest in social justice. It disclaims any tendency towards political Islam, even as it demonstrates its sympathy for its cultural and religious values.

Despite this restraint, the AKP has constantly been accused of “Islamist fundamentalism” by the more radical, relentlessly secular forces – loyal to the principles of the republic’s founder, Kemal Ataturk – who have ruled the state since its creation as a republic in 1923. This made the government’s decision to support an American invasion of its neighbour, a country with a largely Muslim population, even more difficult. Opinion polls and other evidence showed that the idea of chastising Saddam and attacking Iraq was not popular in Turkey. Indeed, among all the political tendencies in the country at present, the most pronounced anti-American posture belongs to the Islamists – which at least equals the anti-imperialism of the socialist left of the 1960s and 1970s.

Despite this popular pressure, the AKP leaders realised the importance of the US to Turkey and had no wish to give needless offence. Perhaps even more important in their calculations was their wish to play a part in Iraq’s post-war reconstruction. In the event, the latter contributed greatly to the length of the negotiations with the US over military passage of its forces, and then to the vote of rejection in the parliament.

The new government had to look constantly in another direction during the approach to war. Between it and the powerful armed forces there is, to put it mildly, considerable mutual distrust. In all likelihood, the Turkish army did not want openly to advocate taking part in the US-led intervention in Iraq, given how unpopular this was. The army probably thought that the govenment would decide actively to support the US anyway – and they were right, to the extent that the prime minister at the time (Abdullah Gül, now foreign minister) and his successor (Recep Tayyip Erdoðan) did want this course of action. By contrast, the republic’s president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, did not favour Turkish involvement and suggested waiting for the UN decision to make the intervention legitimate.

The dominant press outlets pressed for involvement, stressing the state’s “interests” and the necessity of acting alongside the “superpowers”. The government, wanting society to see that it was cooperating with the armed forces, called the National Security Council (MGK) to meet. The latter, however, failed to reach a clear decision – or at least to make a declaration; a surprise to many as the NSC pronounces on each and every question in the country. The next day, the chief of the general staff said that while the Council was an advisory body for the government, ultimate decision-making power rested with the parliament. This was hailed by the newspapers as a democratic “lesson” to everyone and proof of the loyalty of the military to parliament.

It was in this heightened atmosphere that the voting took place. The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) had decided to vote as one against involvement in Iraq. The governing party faced some dissension in an early round of voting, but the number of critics was nowhere near enough to jeopardise the real vote.

But in the crucial round, twice the number of parliamentarians voted against the motion to permit the Americans passage through Turkey. This was as much a shock for MPs themselves as for the general public.

The army chief came up with a new statement the following day, saying that there were no “good” courses available to Turkey – only “the better of the bad ones” – in this case, he implied, unfortunate involvement on the side of the “coalition”. This was presumably addressed to the government, since the parliament (as we have seen) is by definition beyond the “advisory range” of the army. However, the social democratic wing of the opposition then acted as if it was the recipient of the army’s advice, by rescinding the “party decision” if there were a repeat of the vote.

That second vote never came up. Turkey stayed out of the war. US troops and ships that had arrived in the country to prepare for action left after a while.

The European dimension

What had happened in Turkey, and how?

Here, it is essential to refer to events in the European Union shortly before the outbreak of this crisis. At the Copenhagen summit in December 2002, Germany and France had played a prominent role in deciding on a date when Turkey was to start negotiations for membership. But Turkey considered the resulting agreement, with a date of autumn 2004, too late. The government, which had adopted a sincerely pro-EU attitude was seriously disappointed, and took strong offense at this appearance of perceived lack of support from those it considered friends.

The Iraqi crisis followed not long after. There, Germany and France were the most prominent objectors to the “American way” of solving the case. Beyond regarding Turkey as a country closer to the US than the EU, these two countries’ attitude towards Turkey during Copenhagen and then during the build-up to war were probably not directly connected. They were more concerned at the fact that, apart from existing members like Spain and Britain, the EU candidate members turned out to be the warmest supporters of US intervention.

Yet it is somewhat surprising that, on the eve of war, the Turkish refusal received no noticeable response from France and Germany. Some Europeans account for this by the lack of cohesion within Turkey, as described above. This is true to a certain extent; the political party leaders were genuinely shocked by the parliamentary result and promised it would not be repeated. The armed forces and a significant part of the press obviously were in favour of intervention. But, still, the motion was rejected in parliament, which many people felt deserved a warmer acknowledgement from the two great European powers.

Many Turkish columnists were alarmed by this situation. Relations with the US were strained while those with the EU were not improved; does this mean further isolation? Supporters of military involvement in Iraq were obviously angered by the parliamentary vote; but those against were hardly enthused, because the vote was more the effect of a series of mistakes and misunderstandings than of a principled action against war and invasion.

Iraq and the US: a military-political faultline

Why was there not a second parliamentary vote? This may be the crux of the whole issue. The sore point in the long bargaining process between Turkey and the US was probably not money, but the Turkish military position vis-a-vis northern Iraq. Turkey had more or less explicitly stated that anything resembling an independent Kurdish state in the region would be considered a reason for war with the Kurds. The heart of the debate with the US may thus have been Turkey’s demand to ensure a security presence in northern Iraq in accordance with its strategic objectives, which obviously did not conform to American plans on this occasion.

The details of these international negotiations are not completely clear. But it is possible to surmise that George W. Bush decided to assist the Kurds in preserving their autonomy in northern Iraq. (His father had followed a different course at the time of the first Gulf war in 1991, in ignoring the advice of the then Turkish president, Turgut Özal, that US forces should march on to Baghdad).

Once the war started, the retired Turkish army officers invited to comment on the fighting by all of the numerous TV channels made very disparaging remarks about American military prowess. They criticised the US plan as insufficient (unsupported as it was by operations from the north) and feeble. These officers’ perception was hardly confirmed by the unexpectedly sudden surrender of Iraq. But in the war’s aftermath, one of them spoke of the possibility of a clash between Turkish and US troops – and added that no one could guess the outcome. Such comments, and many other signals, indicated that there could be serious disagreement between Turkish and American opinion about what should be done in northern Iraq.

In one incident, Turkish special troops were arrested by American soldiers in the act of smuggling arms into Iraq to hand over to Turcoman tribesmen. This has hardly contributed to an improvement of strained relations. In the Turkish press, the US was severely censured for broadcasting an event which would normally have been kept secret.

This continuing strain between Turkey and its closest strategic ally are paralleled by those within the country between the government and the armed forces. Recently, another semi-farcical link was added to a string of portentous events, with a rumour that the wife of the parliamentary speaker would appear at an official reception on a national holiday – wearing a headscarf. As a result, the generals did not attend the reception. The media gleefully expected high tension at the next MGK meeting at the end of April, though apparently this was not fulfilled.

Thus, whether by mistake or not, Turkey finds itself standing on quite unfamiliar ground after regime change in Iraq. The most important novelty of the situation is the resentment between Turkey and the US, tangible in the statements of some American officials and ministers. The Turkish government is doing its best to restore friendly relations. The army is silent about the US, and about events in northern Iraq in general (retired army officers however are vociferously hostile). The press is divided on every point.

On the European front, it is time to wait and see. In the short run, European attitudes towards Turkey will probably be even more affected by the recent dramatic events in Cyprus. One crisis follows another. The legacy of these unforgettable months will be with the Turkish republic for many years to come.

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