Turkey Stands Forward

Feb. 1, 2002

In the third month of Operation Enduring Freedom, some Hollywood stars decided they wanted to do their part in the war effort. George Clooney, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts let it be known that they were interested in visiting a US overseas military base involved in the war on terrorism.

The Pentagon agreed but did not direct them to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or Diego Garcia. Instead, they flew on a 757 chartered by Warner Bros. to a large Air Force installation on the dividing line between Europe and the Mideast–Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.

It was an entirely appropriate choice. For one thing, the trip reflected the importance of Incirlik and Turkey to the battles in Afghanistan. From Sept. 11 onward, Ankara had been staunchly in the US corner, offering Washington everything from overflight rights and moral support to special units trained for anti-terror operations and large numbers of troops for peacekeeping forces.

In a larger sense, the fight against al Qaeda has given Turkey the chance to demonstrate anew its strategic importance to the West. In the Cold War, it was the strong, largely silent NATO bulwark on the southern flank of the Soviet Union. Today, it is a predominantly Muslim nation openly offering help of the kind that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other Arab states are too fastidious or too nervous to provide.

When other Islamic nations hesitated in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, seeking further proof of Osama bin Laden’s involvement, Turkey did not blink. On Oct. 3, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit had this to say about the state of the case: “The fact that the US found [the evidence] persuasive, persuades us also.”

Ataturk’s Way

Modern Turkey was founded in 1923 upon the ruins of the once mighty Ottoman Empire. The empire, which had been sagging for decades, finally collapsed under the pressure of World War I, in which it chose the wrong side and was allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Out of the defeat and dismemberment of the empire arose Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a ruthless leader who was determined to turn Turkey into a secular state, oriented in most ways toward Europe and the West rather than Islam and the East. It is a path that has been followed more or less without interruption ever since.

A major development occurred in the late 1940s, when the pro-Western governments of both Turkey and its neighbor and arch rival Greece were threatened by the rise of the Soviet Union and the spread of its influence over Eastern Europe and the Balkan states. President Truman in 1947 extended guarantees of support and aid-an action viewed by most historians as the start of the Cold War.

Through coming decades, Turkey played a key role in the containment of Soviet power. It provided NATO’s second largest army and tied down some 24 Soviet divisions on its front. It offered the US key listening posts from which to monitor Warsaw Pact military activity and compliance with arms agreements. It also provided forward bases, including Incirlik, which since 1954 has served as a site for both forward deployed combat forces and surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft.

Today, some 3,500 US Air Force personnel are present at Incirlik. The host 39th Wing is dedicated to NATO and to general USAFE support. The 39th Air and Space Expeditionary Wing conducts Operation Northern Watch, the enforcement of a no-fly zone in Iraq north of the 36th parallel. Northern Watch is intended to protect Kurdish tribesmen from Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Operation Southern Watch similarly controls the skies in the southern part of the country, operating from bases in Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors, as well as carriers at sea.

The demand for Air Force assets since Sept. 11 has affected Northern Watch operations. Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command units are the bulwark of Northern Watch, and in the past, their deployments lasted about two weeks. Now they last more than 90 days.

Weeks before US air operations over Afghanistan began, Turkish authorities readily agreed to allow use of Incirlik as a transit point and logistics center for Operation Enduring Freedom. Its distance from Afghanistan precluded its use as a front-line combat base except on a limited basis.

A NATO operations center at Eskisehir was also considered as a command center for the bombing campaign in Afghanistan, when the Pentagon initially had problems using another facility in the region.

Did They Hunt

As to their own assets, Turkish authorities offered 90 special forces troops highly trained in anti-terrorist operations. In that particular field, Turkish units are counted among the best in the world, largely as a result of Ankara’s 17-year-long fight with Kurdish rebels in the country’s southeast region. It has long provided special forces training units in Uzbekistan, the Balkans, and Georgia.

Whether Turkish ground troops actually joined in the hunt for al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden is an open question. Islamic opposition elements of the Turkish parliament charged that they had indeed been deployed for that purpose, while both the US and the Turkish government denied it.

Unquestionably, Turkey has been eager to join in postwar Afghan policing and redevelopment, via both troop deployments and political support. Turkey was one of the first nations to re-establish a foreign mission in Kabul after the collapse of the Taliban. On Dec. 17, Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem became the first senior foreign diplomat to visit the Afghan capital following the Taliban’s ouster.

“Our message to the Afghan people is that they should know that we are with them and we are determined to bring our expertise to bear … in civilian and military restructuring,” said Cem.

Turkey is the only NATO nation with a majority Muslim population. It is also the only member of the Islamic Conference Organization that is a member of the Western alliance. Despite its heritage of autocratic and military rule, today it has a government that is a functioning democracy.

In many ways, Turkey is ideally positioned to act as the West’s interlocutor in Afghanistan. It has historic ties with the Turkic-speaking tribes of the Afghan north, as well as with Turkmenistan and much of the rest of the swath of nations that stretches from China’s border to the Caspian Sea. It has similarly had good relations with both civilian and military governments of Pakistan.

As such, Ankara could put continued pressure on Pakistan to pursue its opposition to remnants of al Qaeda elements within that country.

Afghanistan was the first nation to recognize the formation of the Turkish Republic. In turn, in following years Turkey sent teachers and other aid workers to help Afghanistan modernize.

These links did not extend to the Taliban, which considered the Turkish style of Islam to be heretical. In recent years, Turkey instead offered aid and comfort to some elements of the Northern Alliance rebels.

Turkey’s military, with its NATO background, would also offer the organization and firepower that might be needed to keep order in a nation still awash in rifles and the impulse for retribution. Other nations that have traditionally served in large numbers in UN peacekeeping efforts in recent years, such as Bangladesh, might not be able to offer the same capability.

The Rewards

What might Turkey gain from its support of US policy in the region? Quite a bit, from Ankara’s point of view.

First of all, it may now regain the position of strategic importance that it held at the height of Soviet power. It could become the geopolitical, political, and military pivot point for all of Central Asia-a position Turkish leaders have long considered their natural role.

Second, Turkey might want to use increased influence in Washington to smooth over troubles it is having with Europe. Membership in the European Union has long been a primary goal of Turkish foreign policy, but its application has to this point been blocked, in part because of European concerns about Turkish human rights policies and Turkey’s occupation, since 1974, of northern Cyprus.

Cyprus itself is now up for EU membership. Neither the US nor Europe recognizes the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, and it is therefore possible that Turkey could be put in the strange position of occupying part of a nation that has been admitted to an exclusive club it also wants to join.

In the past, Washington has said it would prefer the long-running Cyprus situation be resolved before the island becomes an EU member. If the US can’t lean on Europe to accept Turkey itself into the EU, it might at the very least be able to block the ascension of Cyprus, in Ankara’s view.

Third, as part of a new anti-al Qaeda coalition Turkey might gain more worldwide recognition for what it considers its own long struggle against terrorist violence. For nearly 20 years, the Marxist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has engaged in a bloody campaign to establish an independent Kurdish homeland in a corner of southeastern Turkey. Turkey’s apprehension and trial of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan has undercut the group, but it remains a real threat. To a lesser extent, Ankara is also concerned about radical Islam in Central Asia, which it sees not so much as a threat to the Turkish state as a threat to Turkish influence in the region.

Finally, Turkey might reasonably hope for economic help in return for aiding Washington’s overarching anti-terror campaign.

The Turkish economy has been in a deep slump since huge domestic debt led to a devastating currency devaluation in early 2001. A combination of US support and a Turkish promise of domestic reforms led the International Monetary Fund to rush in with $10 billion of loan guarantees earlier this year, in an effort to ease the crisis.

There was a perception that Ankara, faced with domestic opposition, was delaying implementation of some of the reforms. This was enough to cause the IMF to hold up additional help. Then, in mid-November, the IMF agreed in principle to a further $10 billion in guarantees–a sudden move that many in the world of international finance took as a sign that the US was leaning on the fund to help out its new anti-terrorist ally.

One possible obstacle to an activist Turkish role in the new war against terrorism is domestic opinion.

After the beginning of US military operations on Oct. 7, Turkish polls showed substantial majorities opposed to deployment of their own troops in the fight. While the political leadership seems to stand squarely with the US at the moment, it must pay attention to the public’s wishes. Prime Minister Ecevit’s ruling coalition is already somewhat unstable, as it combines ultranationalists with leftists and liberals in an uneasy political marriage.

The Down Side

Not all officials in Washington are happy about working closely with Turkey. Members of Congress, many of them pro-Greek, have complained about Turkish human rights abuses, which are said to include torture of political dissidents and common criminals. Treatment of suspected Kurdish separatists has been particularly harsh. Moreover, political corruption is a fact of life.

Thus the history of recent relations between the US and Turkey, pre-Sept. 11, did not always run smoothly. In 1996, for instance, Ankara canceled a purchase of 10 AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters after Congress held up delivery due to human rights concerns. More recently, similar legislative objections postponed Turkey’s purchase of three US frigates. Clinton Administration officials eventually won the frigates’ release.

Over the last decade, Turkey has become worried enough about access to modern weapons that it has turned to other countries, particularly its new friend Israel, for defense technology and support.

“Turkey and the United States must take great care to be sensitive to the pressures and constraints each confronts,” notes Brookings Institution fellow Steven A. Cook in a recent analysis of US-Turkish relations in the context of the war on terrorism.

Furthermore, it’s an open question whether Turkey’s support of post-Sept. 11 US policies will convince many other Muslim nations that Washington’s war is with terrorists, not Islam.

In the 1920s, Ataturk dealt with the Islamic legacy of the Ottoman Empire by dismantling it and imposing an aggressive political secularism in its place. Far earlier than Saudi Arabia or Egypt, Turkey saw fundamentalist Islam as a threat and took steps to try to make sure that it would never undermine the stability of the state.

Thus, many mainstream Saudis and Egyptians likely consider Turkey to be not particularly Islamic. To followers of the fundamentalist Islamic clerics, Turkey is as heretical as the West and might as well be Christian.

The Iraq Dimension

Iraq loomed as a problem. The Turkish government for months was careful not to rule out support of any US-led action to topple its troublesome neighbor, Saddam Hussein, but since the Gulf War, Ankara had warned the US that it believes a hasty ouster of Saddam might splinter Iraq and leave Turkey to deal with the shards. In particular, Turkey opposed any Kurd homeland that might combine the Kurdish areas of Iraq and Turkey into one.

Indeed, Turkish leaders opposed even formation of a smaller Kurdish state in Iraq that would leave the current border untouched, fearing that such a rump state would inevitably become a base of operations for Kurdish terror attacks against Turkey.

They also question whether the threat posed by Saddam Hussein has actually grown in recent years or whether the US actually wants to take advantage of its new war against terrorism to finish old Gulf War business. In January, Gen. Huseyin Kivrikoglu, chief of the Turkish general staff, asked reporters: “Is there any new mistake committed by Iraq? Or are accounts of 10 years ago being settled?”

Ankara has made clear its objections not only to Bush Administration officials but also to key US lawmakers. Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who went on a January fact-finding trip to Turkey came away convinced that Ankara’s objections were stronger than previously thought.

For similar reasons, Turkey was likely to look askance at any US raids into Iran or Syria in the name of terror eradication. In December, Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Ankara in part to assure Turkish leaders that President Bush had as yet made no decisions about any second phase of the war on terrorism. Ecevit’s planned trip to Washington was viewed as a chance to assess progress of the US-led campaign and then at least address Turkey’s concerns about where things go from here.

Despite the disclaimers, speculation about a US-led attack on Iraq was in late 2001 the uppermost concern in the minds of Turkish policy-makers and commentators, who fear a war on their southern border would have devastating economic consequences on their country.

“Since Sept. 11, the Turkish leadership has fashioned a policy that can only be characterized as guarded-receptive to Washington in some areas but clearly wary of others,” concludes Cook. But from the US point of view, the strategic importance of Turkey is likely to only increase in the years ahead. As access becomes constrained in the crucial Gulf region, Incirlik and other Turkish bases offer stability and shorter flight times to the northern Gulf than similar US facilities on the Arabian peninsula.

As the Air Force becomes increasingly expeditionary in character, a reliable, northern route for power projection into the Gulf, hopscotching through Turkey, Israel, and perhaps Jordan, could become the Pentagon’s best regional option. It’s possible that Turkey is in fact Europe’s new “front-line” state, insists former assistant secretary of state Richard C. Holbrooke.

Rand analyst Zalmay Khalilzad, in a recent study of the future of Turkish-Western relations, remarked, “Some have even argued that Turkey’s role in the new era could be as important as Germany’s during the Cold War.”

Peter Grier, a Washington, D.C., editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “The Winning Combination of Air and Space,” appeared in the January 2002 issue.