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US Easing Tensions with Turkey
by K. Gajendra Singh Bookmark and Share
 

Soon after the sudden collapse of Iraqi resistance at the gates of Baghdad, neo-conservatives embedded in Pentagon and elsewhere in the US administration came down heavily on Turkey for its refusal in March to allow US troops use of land bases in south east Turkey for opening a northern front against Iraq. US naval ships waiting to unload military hardware at the Turkish Mediterranean port of Iskendrun, had to be re-routed to the Red Sea and the Gulf, a delay which had then appeared most critical.

The first tongue lashing after the end of Iraq war came from Wolfowitz, who asked Turkey to admit its mistake and take remedial measures. Others in Washington conveyed the same message a bit politely. Still France remains the top recipient of US anger and candidate for punitive action, with France's foreign minister taking offence at the false campaign directed by the US media against it, and its ambassador making a written protest to Washington.

In a CNN-Turk television interview, Wolfowitz had said that turning a new page in relations depended on Turkey's close cooperation in Iraq and as well as towards Iran and Syria which USA accuses of sponsoring terrorism and with whom the Turkish government is improving relations. "Let's have a Turkey that steps up and says, 'We made a mistake, we should have known how bad things were in Iraq, but we know now. Let's figure out how we can be as helpful as possible to the Americans.' I'd like to see a different sort of attitude than I have yet detected," Wolfowitz said Turkish leaders rebuffed Wolfowitz's criticism. "Turkey, from the very beginning, never made any mistakes, and has taken all the necessary steps in all sincerity," said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The government spokesman Cemil Cicek said that USA should have admitted its mistakes, because Washington had not fully kept its promises to Turkey (which cost tens of billions in US $ ) in return for its cooperation in 1991 Gulf War. Deniz Baykal, leader of the sole opposition in the parliament, Republican People's Party (RPP), said that "Turkey is a democratic country and everybody that appreciates the functioning of the true democracy should respect this.'

Overcoming Iraqi armed forces was the easier part, as USA spends around $300 billion per year on defence compared to $1.5 billion or so by Iraq, whose armed forces had already been degraded in the 1991 war. Its air defences were constantly diminished under the pretext of no fly zones with a severe sanctions regime in place since 1990, whose devastating effects on Iraq's infrastructure are now becoming clear. Such a quick victory without surrender of men and arms may not be such a blessing. Without employment, a disgruntled de-mobbed soldiery with easy access to unused arms could take to guerilla warfare. It was the availability of arms and chaotic confusion in Kurdish north Iraq, during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980s and the 1991 Gulf war, which had helped Turkey's Kurds to wage a war against it since 1984, in which more than 35,000 persons including 5,000 soldiers, have been killed. It kept most of Turkey's half a million strong army tied up in south and east costing 6 to 8 billion US dollars a year.

It should be clear that establishing a secular and democratic Iraq would be almost a mission impossible except according to Rumsfeld's vision that Iraqis would figure out a way to manage their affairs in a manner that is consistent with the principles that we set out. Even bringing full security, stability and restoration of services, obligations under the Geneva conventions is going to be an uphill task, without the support of the international community and the United Nations. Delays in restoring normalcy would only fuel Iraqi resentment, anger and fury. And finally even a rebellion.

No one seriously believes that an attack on secular Iraq, with no weapons of mass destruction or proved connections to bin Laden's Al Qaida network has diminished the worldwide threats against US interests, Of its allies and its client states in the Arab and the Muslim world. If any thing the invasion of Iraq, destruction and suffering heaped on its people is likely to justify and intensify revenge terrorist attacks by Al Qaida and its copy cats. That has now been quickly brought home by extensive and coordinated terrorist attacks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the very heart of Islam and Morocco, the two kingdoms close to USA. In spite of the appointment of a new US approved prime minister in Palestine, the so called diluted road map on the Middle East has not been accepted by Israel and there is no let up in two way violence in Israel and the occupied territories.

Forget about ushering in US guided democracy in Iraq (as in Afghanistan!), in a region of Hama Rule where you "rule or die", there is a risk of splitting apart of the incongruous alliance of luxury-loving princes and Wahabis in Saudi Arabia, which enforces medieval punishments at home and promotes fanaticism abroad. The opening of the Pandora's box in the Middle East has now released bottled-up historical forces which will have unpredictable consequences like in Iran when Ayatollah Khomeini ousted the Shah of Iran, whose defence forces were armed to the teeth.

No wonder there is some rethinking in US administration and conciliatory statements to soothe the ruffled Turkish feelings have been made. Most of the conciliatory statements from the Turkish side had come from foreign minister Abdullah Gul, a moderate and some vanquished secular political parties, establishment and media, but not the proud Turkish armed forces. It was thoughtless to rub them on the wrong side by saying that they should have pressurized the government.

The latest conciliatory statement has come from US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice who said that notwithstanding recent difficulties, the United States was still very much aware of its joint strategic interests with Ankara [Turkey] is a long time ally, Rice told reporters in Washington on 14 May It is an alliance that is based on friendship and interest, and I expect that it will be well into the future. We have a lot of work to do. Turkey has a very strong interest in the establishment of a stable and unified Iraq. The United States has a strong interest in the establishment of a stable and unified Iraq. This is an area in which we can work together. We actually have worked together pretty effectively at the end of the conflict, and I expect that we will in the future. Turkey, I would hope, would be involved in the reconstruction effort in Iraq, lending support to that, because a stable Iraq will be a good neighbor for Turkey, and I am sure that that is what Turkey wants. She added that Turkey was important as a model to the world that democracy and Islam can exist side-by-side. Yes, we went through some difficult periods of time, but this is a strong relationship, It's going to remain a strong relationship and we look forward to continuing to work with it, said Ms Rice who is close to President George W. Bush.

Simmering Tensions building up in Turkish polity

At the same time tensions have been building up between Turkey's secular elite led by its powerful armed forces and the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), which has Islamic roots, ever since the latter's electoral triumph last November. It had remained under check because of Turkey's preoccupation with more important matters e.g. admission date into Europe Union (EU) at the Copenhagen summit in December, a UN led attempt to resolve the Cyprus problem and differences with US in the latter's efforts to persuade Turkey to join in the war against Iraq.

Since that is now in the past or in limbo, the first battle lines between the two sides were drawn on 23 April when President Ahmet Sezer, a former head of the Constitutional Court and the top military brass led by CGS Gen Hilmi Ozkok, refused to attend a reception at the Parliament house by its Speaker, Bulent Arinc of AKP, to mark the National Sovereignty and Children's Day, as hostess Munnever Arinc would wear a turban, a Muslim headgear. The opposition, left of the centre RPP also boycotted the reception. A last minute announcement that Mrs. Arinc would not attend the reception came too late. Since the establishment of the secular republic in 1923, Ottoman and Islamic dresses have been forbidden in public places. Many an Islamist woman has lost her job or place in the university and some women their seats in parliament, for defying this provision.

On 30th April, a statement issued after a meeting of Turkey's National Security Council (NSC) underlined secularism as one of the basic pillars of the Turkish Republic. Reiterating that its vigilant protection cannot be over-emphasized it urged the AKP government to protect the secular state. NSC is Turkey's highest policy making body and is composed of Chief of General Staff (CGS) of the Armed Forces and top military commanders, Prime Minister and his senior colleagues and is chaired by the President of the republic. CGS is next in the protocol after the prime minister and forms one of the three centers of power along with the president.

In 1997, Turkey's first ever Islamist Prime Minister Najemettin Erbakan, then heading a coalition government with a secular party, was made to resign by the armed forces for his failure to curb growing Islamic fundamentalism. In 1971, the military members of the NSC had forced Prime Minister Suleiman Demirel to resign for his failure to implement land and other radical reforms and curb left right strife. The military had intervened directly in 1960 and 1980, when the politicians had brought the country to an impasse. But after cleaning up the mess created by the politicians and getting a new Constitution in place, the armed forces, self-styled custodians of Kemal Ataturk's legacy of secularism, as usual, returned to the barracks. Ataturk had forged the secular republic from the ashes of the Ottoman empire after its defeat in the first World War.

Arinc, a maverick politician, had blotted the copy book earlier when in a defiant gesture, soon after the elections, his wife wearing a head scarf, had accompanied him to see off the Turkish president. It was taken adverse note off by the Pashas (as the military brass is called in Turkey) and the secularist elite. Recently another minister's turbaned wife went out to receive the Iranian Vice- President and his delegation. Then the men and ladies went to different reception rooms, a practice frowned upon by the westernized secular elite. Wives of AKP leaders like prime minister Recep Tayep Erdogan ( even when he was the mayor of Istanbul ), Foreign minister Abdullah Gul and others avoid attending state functions. Daughter of Erdogan and a few others study in USA where they can wear scarves. The AKP leadership believes that women are flowers and must find fulfillment at home.

Apart from the clash on the wearing of head scarves and long body covering dresses, other differences which have cropped up between the two sides are ; appointment of AK party's cadre with Islamic leanings to official positions, a plan to amend the Higher Education Board Law and proposed radical changes in the Constitution, even making it presidential. Recently the Foreign Ministry sent a circular to its Embassies abroad to 'support the National View Organizations and the Fethullah Gulen schools' which have Islamist agendas. The AKP also wants to consolidate and expand its vote. Its backers are upwardly mobile conservative trading and industrial classes from central Anatolian towns such as Kayseri, Konya and beyond, who want a share in the economic cake. It will clash with the interests of the established supporters of the secular establishment.

Some AKP leaders have also publicly criticized the armed forces annual dismissal of officers with Islamic proclivities and connections, a practice which has been in place since the establishment of the secular republic. The armed forces have enjoyed autonomy in its internal matters and are very sensitive about it. Many a times Abdullah Gul, a moderate, has tried to smooth the differences but AKP' s attempts to strengthen its position in the establishment, help its supporters and challenge the established secular norms have been carried on stealthily. All these matters were discussed vigorously at the 30 April NSC meeting, which lasted seven and half hours. Prime minister Erdogan, who spoke most of the time on behalf of the civilians and president Sezer had frank discussions on the question of appointments and other matters, the latter having returned many of the government approved decrees. The exchanges between the two sides have continued through statements or media leaks by the two sides.

However one subject on which both the AKP government (if not the party and the people ) and the armed forces had agreed was to allow USA to use bases for its troops in south east Turkey. But the motion with even the full support of the government, but with 90% Turks opposing a war on Muslim Iraq and huge crowds protesting outside the parliament building and elsewhere, failed to pass muster in the parliament. Nearly 100 AKP deputies voted with the opposition. Not sure of support for a second vote and even afraid that the party might split, prime minister Erdogan did not dare take up the motion again to the parliament in spite of relentless US pressure and an attractive economic package worth over $ 30 billion. Turkey finally agreed to grant USA use of its airspace only, that too with some conditions.

After the quick end of the Iraq war many in Turkey specially the secular establishment now rue the decision not to have gone along fully with USA. They would have had around 40,000 thousand troops in north Iraq, with a say in the future shape of Iraq, specially about its fears of Kurdish autonomy. The Turkish armed forces, with half century long association with US defence establishment, had left the decision to the politicians at the time of the vote, but later publicly extended its full support to the government motion.

Turkey's November 3 election results had shocked many in the West after its electoral system had delivered a quixotic two-thirds majority (365 out of 550 seats ) to AKP which had got only a third (34%) of the total votes cast. The only other party to cross the 10 percent threshold and enter the parliament was left of the centre RPP, which won nearly a third of the seats for 20 percent of its votes. Thus parties polling 45 percent of the votes remain unrepresented, but independents polling only 1 % votes, won 8 parliamentary seats. Although the AKP was the front runner in pre-election polls, even its leadership was surprised by the magnitude of the windfall. A large number of new and inexperienced AKP deputies have entered the parliament, many friends and officials when Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul.

In 1995, Erbakan's Islamic Welfare party had won 158 seats only for 21.3% of the votes it had polled. With great difficulty he could only form a coalition government in 1996, which was made to resign the following year. It was veteran Erbakan who had established the first "Islamist" party in Turkey in 1969. It was called the National Order Party, hinting at Islamic order. When it was closed in 1971 after the military intervention, he named its successor the National Salvation Party ( like the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria) When it was banned too along with other parties after the 1980 military takeover, Erbakan named the next one the Welfare Party (zakat for welfare). After it was closed by law, Erbakan founded the Virtue Party. When that was too closed and a ban put on Erbakan himself from politics in 2001, Erdogan, Gul and other younger and moderate leaders of the Welfare party formed the conservative AKP. They have repeatedly proclaimed that it is not a religious party. Erbakan's rightist followers had formed the Saadet Party led by Recai Kutan, a proxy for Erbakan ( it won 2.5 percent of the votes). With the ban on Erbakan lifted, he has taken over from Kutan. He could create rift and a division in AKP. The outgoing ruling coalition parties were decimated each getting much less than 10%. They were entirely responsible for the result with their mis-governance which saw a record 10 percent fall in Turkey's GDP in the preceding year, adding millions more to the ranks of the unemployed.

The last elections also saw the exit of last of the dinosaurs, outgoing prime minister Ecevit, who along with Suleiman Demirel, Necmettin Erbakan and Turgut Ozal, all nearly 80 years had dominated Turkish political life over the past 40 years. The quirky election results are an excellent demonstration of the maxim that errors tend to add up in the same direction. Turkey's d'Hont electoral system, based on the German pattern with a very high threshold, was selected to provide stability to governments in a highly fragmented polity. Apart from the fond wish that each party leader has of seeing others not crossing the 10 percent threshold, there appears a tacit understanding not to lower it to 5 percent as Kurdish parties, on the basis of their strength in the southeast, who consistently manage to cross the 5 percent mark, can be kept out. Kurds form over 20 percent of the population with many supporting left of centre parties. The Pashas were clearly unhappy with the election results. After waiting for some time, they declared, "We will continue to protect the republic against any threat, particularly the fundamentalist and separatist [one i.e. Kurdish ]."

Erdogan had been banned from contesting the November elections because of a 1999 conviction for reciting a poem at a political rally which said that, "Minarets are our bayonets, domes are our helmets, mosques are our barracks, believers are our soldiers." To begin with both President Sezer and the Pashas had expressed opposition to amending the constitution to enable Erdogan to stand for bye-elections and take over as prime minister from Abdullah Gul but later they relented.

To soothe the anxiety felt in the West over AK party's massive victory, Erdogan and other AKP leaders, went on a charm offensive reiterating that the AK party was a conservative and not an Islamic party. Its leadership had no connection with the banned Islamic Welfare party of which once they were members. They did not even meet Erbakan now, they said. No changes were planned in Turkey's secular dispensation. They redoubled their efforts to take Turkey into the European Union and stood by the International Monetary Fund program to sort out Turkey's dire economic problems. West and USA were relieved to see AKP's English speaking leadership in western suits (having seen the rise of Islamic parties in Pakistan with its fierce looking bearded mullahs in last years elections while AKP ministers are highly educated, many with a background in economics and management.) It helped AKP establish its credentials as a conservative party with which Europe and USA could do business. Further legal reforms which have to be carried out in Turkey to meet EU norms would usher in greater freedom of expression, specially for the Kurds and improve human rights record. It would make it difficult for the secular establishment to ban the AKP and other parties with Islamic inclinations or those promoting the Kurdish cause. EU leaders have openly said that the military's role in Turkish politics must be reduced to qualify it for its membership.

The tussle between the armed forces and religious political parties is nothing new in the Islamic world. In 1992 the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, on the verge of electoral victory and bringing in Sharia law and doing away with elections, was banned leading to violence which is still smouldering. There is a constant tussle between Islamist parties and the armed forces in Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan, where the armed forces have often encouraged Islamist groups.

Turkey, situated at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa, was ruled in the past by Achaemenid Persians, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines and then by Muslims and Ottoman Turks. The inhabitants of Anatolia have tough identity problems. There is a spiritual and psychological dichotomy between the Europe-oriented elite in the west at the head and a conservative Oriental majority forming the body politic. In 1995, when it signed a Customs agreement with EU, it also gave the largest number of seats to Islamist Welfare party in parliamentary elections. Since 1923 Turkey has a laic (secular) constitution, which, according to many, is more Jacobin than genuinely secular. It is a member of Council of Europe, NATO, OECD, and has a customs agreement with the EU. But with its 67 million Muslims, Turkey is unlikely to be admitted into EU, which is basically a Christian Club. At the Copenhagen EU summit last year, France's former president Valery Giscard deEstaing had said that admitting Turkey 'would be the end of the European Union' because Turkey has 'a different culture, a different approach, a different way of life -- it is not a European country.

Preceded by modernizing and westernizing reforms during the last century of the Ottoman rule and nearly 80 years after Ataturk's sweeping reforms, Turkey's experiment in democracy goes wobbly from time to time. Ironically it is brought back to the rails by its armed forces. Evolution of Islam in Turkey's political life is vitally important for the region and the Islamic world. A Muslim majority state (99%) it is closest to a modern secular democracy. Its half a million strong armed forces are a stabilizing factor in a turbulent region. But Turkey is also now tending to look more to the east after the runaway success of AKP. For stronger economic and political linkages with the east, AKP leaders have visited Turkic speaking states in Central Asia and also Iran, Syria ( in spite of US frowns ) and other neighbours recently.   
  

18-May-2003
More by :  K. Gajendra Singh
 
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