If America is, as some say, the indispensable
country, then Turkey is the really indispensable country. Forget about
Iraq, Afghanistan, or Iran. Considering Turkey's unique status as the only Muslim
country in NATO and its European Union ambitions, not to mention its location
right on Europe's periphery, any potential instability there becomes of greater
immediate relevance to the West than in the other three states. The ironic thing,
therefore, is that the West seems to be provoking Turkey toward instability
through its own ostensibly good intentions.
Several turbulent events occurring over the past few months indicate troubles
in the land Mustafa Kemal Ataturk built out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire
after the First World War. Now, more than 80 years later, there seems to be
no alternative to Turkey's "European course"; however, staying the
course also means challenging a status quo that has for almost a century proven
a guarantor of the country's stability. However, the status quo is not only
being challenged by Europe, but by Islamic influences and more.
To some extent, "Kemalism" – the idea of a European, secular yet
Islamic state defended by the constitution and military, created by a charismatic
leader with a strong cult of personality – is a relic of another time, in the
same league with Tito's Yugoslavia of Socialist brotherhood, the Communist regimes,
and so on. While one could make many arguments about why Turkey's political
experiment has outlasted the latter ones, it is more productive to consider
the real implications of what meddling with the status quo will mean for the
country, the region and the world.
It is very interesting to note that the interested parties in Turkey today
– the European Union, the Islamists, the military, the U.S., and others – are
playing with inherent paradoxes and self-contradictions of the Turkish state,
a singular creation that cannot evolve predictably while still remaining the
same country, in the same way that the post-Communist countries have. At the
same time, various parties are doing their best to ensure that Turkey undergoes
"reforms" and other changes, the long-term perils of which they continue
The Return of Kurdish Separatism
The recent conjunction of dangerous events in
and around Turkey has restored fears that troubles thought to have been retired
are instead being restored. It hasn't just come out of nowhere, of course. The
American invasion of Iraq in 2003 began on a sour note, with Ankara's "shocking"
(to the neocons, anyway) parliamentary decision forbidding a U.S. attack from
southeastern Turkey. From then on, latent suspicions of American designs on
the region have turned into overt misgivings, as the popularity of books such
as Metal Storm
and movies like Valley
of the Wolves attest.
The Turks have been proven right about one thing: that the U.S. invasion would
embolden the Kurds, first by "liberating" them in a northern Iraq
bubble even more comfortable than the one protected by the prewar "no-fly
zone" scheme. A relatively peaceful autonomy in the north has given the
Kurdish warlords time to develop their own resources and their forces for a
potential independence drive, should the rest of Iraq collapse in a civil war.
As the Turks feared, the Iraqi example has revived hopes among extremists in
the sizable Kurdish population of southeastern Turkey. The 15-year conflict
that was halted in 1998, at a death toll of over 30,000 is back on: as the LA
Times reported on May 25, "violence has been steadily escalating
in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern region since June 2004. That is when
the PKK ended a five-year unilateral truce it had declared after the capture
of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in February 1999. The PKK said it was taking
up arms again because of what it termed the government's failure to negotiate
a lasting peace."
The most recent Kurdish terrorist act may have been the spectacular
fire, broadcast on television stations worldwide, that engulfed a section
of Istanbul's busy airport on May 24. At first, the government declared it had
been caused by an electrical mishap; soon, however, a group calling itself the
Kurdish Freedom Falcons claimed
responsibility. Whatever or whoever may have caused the fire, any perceived
terrorist link can only increase the public's desire to see the army hold on
to its powerful position as defenders of the state's territorial integrity.
However, the Turkish security forces have suffered some rough treatment recently,
of corruption and "black ops" (an alleged surreptitious role in
the bombing of a Kurdish bookshop in the southeast last November) now bringing
unprecedented scrutiny on the military as an institution. While the army habitually
and perhaps naturally bristles at the civilian government's attempts to control
it, the pressure is irritating especially now that it is coming from the Islamic-leaning
government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party.
With the Kurdish provocations looking to continue for the foreseeable future,
the future of Iran (which has its own Kurdish minority right on Turkey's doorstep)
currently unclear, it is likely that the Turkish military will play up its traditionally
assertive presence – as worrying recent events in Greece have shown.
Misdirected Aggression Against Greece
fighter-plane collision over the Aegean on May 23 threatened to re-ignite
hostilities between Greece and Turkey, but the two governments were quick to
downplay the mishap. Nevertheless, the crash near the island of Karpathos, which
left the Greek pilot dead, was interpreted by Greeks as a brazen act of aggression.
Considering how far the Turkish plane was from the Turkish mainland, it's hard
to see it in any other way.
Some in Greece viewed the collision as collateral damage from the ongoing clash
within civilizations that Turkey is facing. Pointing to Turkey's "persistent
military activity along its western border," Kathimerini
trenchantly summed it up thus:
"[O]ur country has proved itself to be a good neighbor. It uses every
opportunity to promote Turkey's bid to join the European Union. In contrast,
Turkey makes it clear on a daily basis that it is a dangerous neighbor. Irrespective
of the language it may use, the virtually constant sorties by Turkish jets (often
armed) are throwing bilateral relations into turmoil. It may be true that these
tactics are the product of Turkey's domestic crisis but this cannot serve as
a permanent pretext for Turkey exporting its problems."
At the same time, the newspaper also questioned the Turkish claim that it had
been flying a "routine" military training mission in "international
to Kathimerini's Costas Iordanidis, "the composition of the Turkish
flight – a reconnaissance RF-4, accompanied by two F-16s – its flight path,
and the fact that the Turkish pilot was armed create the clear impression that
this was an operational mission to take aerial photographs of Greek military
installations on Crete."
Given the relative proximity of Karpathos and Crete, the hypothesis would seem
to have some plausibility. Considering also that some argue for Turkish involvement
in the Vodafone
wiretapping scandal that erupted this spring in Athens, could a
new EU installation such as this one on Crete have also perhaps aroused
The tragic collision had knock-on effects a few days later when the Greek coast
guard had to come to the rescue of a Greek fishing boat, "after it was
ordered by a Turkish military ship to leave an area near a small disputed islet
in the Aegean Sea," reported Deutsche Presse-Agentur on May 30, citing
the Athens News Agency. Arguments over this uninhabited islet, Imia, caused
a standoff 10 years ago that almost led to open conflict. Five days later, in
a non-related and not very helpful accident, a Greek
and a Turkish tanker collided near the island of Hydra. The captain of the
latter vessel was accused of failing to yield right-of-way to the Greek ship,
as the war of words continued.
Greece has warned that it will stop supporting Turkish EU accession if Ankara
keeps up its belligerence. The EU, looking on, is taking note of the scenario
envisioned by Athens; that is, if Turkey is provoking military action against
an EU neighbor now, before even having the leverage of membership, what could
it be expected to do after joining?
This is the message the Greeks have been trying to get across for a long time.
For the EU, however, the security concern is also influenced by the Islamic
factor – Turkey's "other" identity and how it might become an issue
should Turkey gain the clout of equal membership, thereby obliging both the
EU and Turkey to honor the bloc's religiously liberal mores – not to mention
extending the borders of the union to Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
The Role of Islam and EU Negotiations in the Coming Months
The role of Islam in Turkish society is both complex
and contradictory, ranging from the liberal and irreligious population seen
in large cities to the conservatism of rural areas, and even to terrorists.
Foundation reported that in April "six suspected al-Qaeda militants
were arrested; according to security officials, the suspects were planning attacks
in Turkey," concluding that "these arrests seem to indicate al-Qaeda's
continued interest in Turkey – a development that significantly aggravates the
already tense security situation caused by the activity of Kurdish militants."
Various bomb attacks in recent years have indicated a terrorist presence, though
assigning the blame to Kurds or Islamists has in some cases been difficult.
Now, all of the problems are in danger of being exacerbated – not alleviated
– in the country's attempts to please the European Union through reforms. It
sometime seems that the EU wants Turkey to be more liberal than Europe, which
itself makes frequent criticisms of Turkey's alleged lack of religious freedom.
However, the Kemalist policy of upholding secularism by banning headscarves
in schools, for example, sounds an awful lot like what they do in France: the
difference being (for now) that
judges can be killed for upholding the law only in Turkey.
However, even here, with that (apparently) religiously motivated courthouse
killing, the situation is foggy. The Turkish commentator in the above-linked
article cites an organized crime link and decries the "disinformation pumped
into the domestic and international media" regarding the shooting: "even
BBC news, has broadcasted the incident globally as an attack by an Islamic militant
who chants 'God is Great,' just after the incident. Still none of this has been
confirmed and there is no evidence to prove [the gunman's] relation with any
radical Islamic movement."
The EU has also consistently told the Turkish government to show more respect
for minority religious freedoms, the prime example being the still-closed Greek
theological seminary of Chalki. What the Euro-parliamentarians don't say
when criticizing the government's inaction is that by giving the green light
to the Greeks, numerous much more substantial Islamic groups would demand the
same rights – something unpalatable for a government always wary of the Islamists'
desire to steer Ataturk's country away from its secularist course. Yet religious
freedom is a European value, isn't it?
When a Turkish government such as the present one is popularly identified with
Islamic interests, suspicion among the military grows, leading to displays of
muscle meant to show who is really in charge. And when a government such as
the present one takes measures to rein in the military through the courts, the
latter's shows of strength intensify. And so we have "incidents" like
the bookstore bombing, the military over-flights in Greece, resurgent arguments
over rocks jutting out of undefined territorial waters, and a hardening of attitudes
on Cyprus – another problem
the EU deferred for the future when it allowed the southern, Greek part of the
island to join without having first reached a settlement with Turkey over the
northern sector of Cyprus it has occupied since the 1974 invasion.
Now that that mess was created, the EU's call for Turkey to open its
ports to Cypriot vessels (backed strongly by Greece) thus becomes both a precondition
for EU membership, and an obstacle, provoking as it does Turkish nationalism.
Given the misgivings many EU countries feel about letting Turkey into the club,
it could be argued that some of their objections over areas in need of "reform"
are more or less just stalling tactics, the imposition of impossible demands
meant to buy time and keep Turkey out indefinitely.
Reuters reported on May 29, the looming problem now is in fact "Turkey's
refusal to open its ports and airports to traffic from Cyprus, as required under
a customs union with the 25-nation bloc, extended to cover the 10 new EU members
in the so-called Ankara protocol last year."
The Reuters piece goes on to quote a senior EU ambassador in Brussels, who
says, "[W]e will have some crisis with Turkey in the second half of the
year because they haven't solved the Ankara agreement and Cyprus." And
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn is said to be "working to avoid a
'train crash' over Cyprus." These are not exactly encouraging signs.
When Turkish and EU foreign ministers meet on June 12 to begin negotiations
"in earnest," the agency reports, the EU will revert to its worn old
strategy of citing "persistent problems with freedom of expression, religious
and minority rights, and the role of the military in political life despite
It is easy enough for the West to lament that Turkey has deviated from its
proper course by its alleged sluggishness. The country can be blamed for "reform
fatigue" or, as Reuters claims, "electoral politics [that have taken]
precedence over EU-driven reforms." When the situation calls for blame,
the government and/or the military can always be scapegoated for their "persistent
However, few in the Western media or the EU (at least as it reveals itself
to the public) seem interested in considering these issues in their proper and
detailed context. This is very unhelpful for any proper comprehension of the
situation – an understanding that is necessary for preventing future conflict.
Turkey's apparently paralytic state, which the West claims it must snap out
of, cannot be changed without certain perils.
After all, the country has been at peace for over 80 years because of a strict
adherence to a singular political theology, one that might not survive the European
transformation deemed so necessary for Turkey's future. More than any other
country in Europe, Turkey is unique, and it has taken unique compromises for
it to even exist.
However, as latent centrifugal forces continue to be accelerated by misguided
foreign interference, the future composition, outlook, and even territory of
the Turkish state become less and less clear. The character of Europe's constant
ultimatums – eerily reminiscent of the situation exactly
100 years ago – raises the possibility that now as then, things might become
very exciting indeed.