Turkey's Nightmare Over Iraq

by Priye Torulagha

The word “Iraq” now seems to cause a severe political problem for a number of countries in the world. It is like a cancerous tumor in the belly of nation-states as the world contemplates whether to go to war against Iraq or not. If there is one country that is agonizing very painfully about supporting a war against Iraq, it is Turkey – a neighbor of Iraq and one of the closest U.S. allies.

Turkey is undergoing an excruciating cancerous political pain. Most of it caused by its own doing. Since it gained independence on October 29, 1923, Turkey has deliberately wanted to discard its past and reshape itself. In the process, it has tried to be what it is not. Turkey’s population is 99.8% Islamic. It was the home of the Ottoman Empire for five centuries, starting in the 14th century. When Fatih Sultan Mehmet 11 conquered the Byzantine capital in 1453, the Ottoman state became the most powerful state at the time in Eurasia. The Ottoman Empire, led by Sultan Suleyman (1520-1555), spread in the 16th century to embrace the Persian Gulf, North Africa, including Ethiopia, the Crimea, and extended to the vicinity of Vienna in Austria.

Although it is wholly an Islamic country, on November 1, 1922, its Grand National Assembly abolished the Sultanate. In the Law of March 3, 1924, Turkey abolished the Caliphate and decided to deport the Ottoman dynasty. Likewise, the Ministry for Religious Affairs was also abolished at the same time. On April 4, 1926, the Turkish Civil Code was passed. It granted women basic rights. With these legal efforts, Turkey shed its theocratic Islamic past and opted for a secularized Western political system. It also adopted the Christian calendar, instead of the Islamic or Orthodox Christian calendar.

Having shed its past, Turkey adopted a republican parliamentary democratic system. It joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1954. It has been working so hard to join the European Union. Today, it is arguable that Turkey is the most democratic Islamic country in the world. Nevertheless, it is a common saying that a leopard does not change its spots, so, Turkey, despite its onerous efforts to change its heritage, continues to be haunted by it. Basically, by trying so hard to reshape itself, Turkey actually creates political problems for itself by joining alliances and forming coalitions with nation-state whose interests are not directly compatible with Turkish and Islamic interests.

No where is the contradiction and the clash of interests so visible as in the ongoing universal debate regarding whether to go to war with Iraq or not. Although, geographically, Turkey is situated or located in Southeastern Europe and Southwestern Asia, Turkey has consciously attempted to ignore its Asiatic connection and has worked hard to enhance its European connection. To accomplish Europeanization, it has supported Western goals and objectives and made friends with Western countries. Being a member of NATO and wanting to join the European Union, it developed a strong relationship with the United States.

There was no problem with this strategy until “Iraq War Part 11” arrived on the scene on the third year of the 21st century. The United States is demanding that if Iraq does not disarm voluntarily, it must be forced to do so through a war. In addition, the U.S. feels that the Middle East would become more democratic and stable if Saddam Hussein, the current leader of Iraq, is removed or overthrown. Consequently, part of the American war effort is to overthrow Saddam Hussein and replace his dictatorial regime with a democratic system. As a member of NATO and an excellent friend of the United States, Turkey is almost obligated to join the war effort. In this regard, the U.S. wants to open a possible second war front in the country by stationing thousands of American troops.

As part of the compensatory package for wanting to station troops in the country and open a second front, the U.S. is willing to spend as much as $15 billion. In addition, the U.S. is willing to allow Turkish troops to be stationed in Northern Iraq as a way to prevent Kurdish fighters from threatening Turkey. Unfortunately, like most of the current coalition partners in the proposed second war against Iraq, while the governments are willing to comply with treaty and friendship obligations, the citizens of the countries do not want war. In other words, while Turkish government officials want to support the war effort, the citizens of the country do not want a war with Iraq. As a result, Turkish officials are caught between a rock and a hard place. The members of the Turkish Grand Parliament reacted to the mixed signals emanating from the government and the citizens by voting to allow U.S. forces to establish a base in the country and then revoking the approval when some parliamentarians either abstained or rescinded their votes.

Americans seemed surprised that Turkey is very edgy about supporting a war against Iraq. They believe that if Turkey considers itself to be a true friend of the U.S., it should cooperate fully and allow the U.S. to use its territory for a possible second front against Iraq.

Turkey is in a quagmire. It is haunted by many political ghosts. (1) Even though it claims to be a secular democratic state, it is nevertheless very Islamic. This means that it identifies with the Islamic point of view concerning the waging of a war against another Moslem country. (2) Even though it has vigorously attempted to reshape its past, Turkey used to be a mighty Islamic empire. As result, it is psychologically painful for a former Islamic empire to lead the way toward the destruction of another Islamic entity. (4) It is psychologically devastating for Turkey to accept payments as a buyout to allow a military attack against its neighbor that has not done anything to threaten its national interest. The world is watching to see whether Turkey would take the money and cast itself as a political Judas. It could even threaten its membership in the European Union because some members of the E.U. can say mockingly that Turkey is not a country to be trusted since it could be bought by anybody to betray European security. (5) Taking money from the U.S. could also lead to Turkey being characterized as a nation without principles. (6) The Arabs could become very antagonistic to Turkey for taking money to allow the killing and destruction of Arabic and Islamic people in Iraq. (7) Likewise, it is unprincipled and immoral for Turkey to support a war against Iraq for violations of U.N resolutions when it had repeatedly violated U.N. resolutions in the past.

Apart from these considerations and worries, the plans for the war and post-Saddam Hussein, as put forward by the U.S., seem to be very threatening to the national security of Turkey. The U.S. intends to train, finance, and equip Kurdish freedom fighters in Iraq. The Kurdish forces are expected to join the war effort against Saddam Hussein. Thus, after Saddam Hussein is removed from power, the Iraqi Kurds would become active participants in the reshaping of the country. Turkey is greatly perturbed that as soon as the government is changed in Iraq, the Kurds would most probably pursue a Pan-Kurdish policy in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey with a view of establishing a Kurdish state. Turkey is also concerned that the U.S. effort to ensure the human and political rights of the Kurds could spill over into Turkey since the Turkish Kurds have been calling for the protection of their rights also. In other words, the momentum for democratization, following the ousting of Saddam Hussein, could spill over and put a moral spotlight on the Turkish treatment of the Kurds in the country.

Although the U.S. is trying to allay Turkish fears by promising to allow Turkish troops to be stationed in Northern Iraq, the Turks are not convinced that this plan would work. The reason being that Turkish military presence in Northern Iraq would arouse Kurdish military resistance against Turkey. If the Kurds in Iraq were to wage a war of resistance against Turkey in Northern Iraq, the Turkish Kurds would most probably join their brethren and thereby complicate the issue. If they collaborate, Turkey would be forced to fight on two fronts. Such a war could arouse some members of the United Nations to call for the creation of a Kurdish state in order to protect the rights of all Kurds. A situation like that could make it difficult for Turkey to gain entry as a full member of the European Union.

Apart from the Kurdish problem, the Armenians and the Greeks could also make life very difficult for Turkey. It should be remembered that the Armenians still believe that over a million of their people were massacred at the early part of the twentieth century by Turkey. They are also still angry that some of their lands were taken by the Turks. Turkey has consistently denied any involvement in the massacre of the Armenians. Likewise, Greece is still unhappy about the Turkish role in the splitting of Cyprus. Consequently, if Turkey gets itself trapped in Kurdistan, the other nationalities would seize the opportunity to inflict as much political damage on Turkey as possible. The Islamic world would not be sympathetic to Turkey in a scenario just described, especially, if it had taken money to join a war against Iraq. Turkey would be alone in the region to fend off threats to its national security.

Turkey is indeed a very worried country. A war in Iraq, especially, at a time when world opinion is divided, could seriously affect its own future. Likewise, Turkey is disturbed by the Belgian, French, German, and Russian opposition to a war against Iraq. If Turkey wholly supports the war effort against the opposition of Belgium, France, Russia, and China, its own future too could be jeopardized because the French, Russians, and Chinese can also call on the United Nations to enforce its resolutions against Turkey with a view of solving the Kurdish and Cypriot problems around Turkey.

There is also no doubt that a war against Iraq could threaten the democratic political system, not only in Turkey but also in many countries that support such a war. In almost every country that supports the use of force against Iraq if it does not disarm, the populations tend to oppose a war while the governments are in support of a war. This creates friction between the people and their leaders. A political backlash could take place if the war did not go as planned. In Turkey, Islamic fundamentalism could rise to challenge the secularization program that has been taking place for over 70 years. Similarly, countries like Bahrain, Qatar, Pakistan, Nigeria, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia etc., could face serious threats by Islamists.

Turkey has no easy way out of the “Iraqi” dilemma. The U.S. and the American people need to understand the complexity of the situation and not treat or regard Turkey as an enemy state. Turkey is threading on a very dangerous ground. Strategically speaking, it is much preferable for the U.S. to let Turkey off and not treat it like an uncooperative ally. Turkish-American cooperation can be positively reinforced in other matters, not on Iraq.

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