Prepared for the CEPS/IISS European Security Forum, Brussels, 12 May 2003

Turkey's Strategic Future: A US Perspective

By Henri J. Barkey, Lehigh University

This paper will look at the change produced by the Iraq War on Washington's perceptions of Turkey's strategic future. The first section analyzes the pre-war stakes of Washington in Ankara. The failure to open up a second front in north against the Saddam's regime has surprised, if not shocked, US decision makers. US-Turkish relations are likely to experience a period of change and reevaluation. However, this paper will claim that this will not be because of the parliamentary vote but rather because of the change in the Iraqi regime. In recent years, Turkey was a pivotal state in Washington's containment strategy of Iraq. The US air operations over northern Iraq that protected the Kurds and constrained the Baghdad regime also created an uncomfortable dependence on Ankara. The change will enable the US to approach Turkey with a more realistic and, in the long run, tension-free manner.

Pre-War View: Washington's Stake in Turkey [1]

U.S. interests and objectives in Turkey have steadily expanded since the end of the Cold War. The Cold War's straightjacket has given way to many new considerations. The primary U.S. foreign policy vision after the Cold War was one based on preventing regional disputes from threatening its own and its allies' interests and on expanding market reforms and democratic principles and practices. With no serious Russian threat to European security, U.S. attention shifted to mid-level powers with ambitions to acquire non-conventional weaponry and the means to deliver them, such as Iran and Iraq. This policy vision lacked the simplicity of containment, but it would impact Turkey significantly. Turkey's proximity to many regions in flux or conflict together with Ankara's long standing adherence to NATO alliance helped Washington reinterpret this country's geo-strategic importance. The Iraq War, however, is likely to alter these calculations further.

Simply put, on the eve of the Iraq War Turkey's importance for the United States could be summarized along four dimensions.

Ankara's actual contribution to Washington's challenges went well beyond the Middle East. Turks collaborated with the allies in both Bosnia and Kosovo. It steadfastly improved relations with Bulgaria and Romania, took the lead in organizing Black Sea region institutions, and thus proved to be a source of stability in the Balkans. Successive US administrations in the early 1990s encouraged Turkey's efforts to reach out to the Turkic Central Asian countries and the Caucasus to provide them with technical and economic know how not to mention political leadership, all designed to counter growing Iranian and Russian influence in the region. Turkish forces at Washington's request also took part in the ill-fated Somalia operation. Similarly, in April 2002, Washington prevailed upon Ankara to take over the leadership of the Afghan peacekeeping force in Kabul, ISAF.

It was Prime Minister and later President Turgut O¨zal, after a decade of turbulence, who solidified Turkey's image in Washington. He made himself a valued interlocutor during the Iran-Iraq war and decisively maneuvered his country in support of U.S. and allied action against Iraq in 1990. While often drawing attention to his Muslim identity and Turkey's unique role in NATO, O¨zal nevertheless succeeded in convincing Washington of his deep commitment to the West and its values. Despite his traditional upbringing and religious roots, O¨zal was by far the most pro-American leader Turkey has ever had. He shared none of the suspicions of the United States of his left and right wing contemporaries. Having engineered the most far-reaching restructuring of the Turkish economy, he strongly believed in Turkey's ability to become an economic powerhouse of its own and also allied with the United States. With O¨zal Washington could envision in Turkey a more democratic, stable and prosperous ally and, as a result, also a better commercial partner

Turkey's growing strategic value made its internal stability an even more important concern for U.S. policymakers. Instability in Turkey can potentially lead to the ascendancy of anti-Western forces, be they Islamic or nationalist in orientation, which could lead to the denial of access to critical military facilities and change the whole environment in the Middle East. The emergence of the twin challenges to the regime in the last two decades of the 20th Century in the form Kurdish and Islamic political activism has deeply undermined Turkey's confidence in itself. Not only has the state gone out of its way to prosecute citizens for the most minor of infractions, but the civil war against the PKK-led insurgency and the rise of the Islamic movement have resulted in greater military interference in Turkish domestic political matters. The combination of domestic instability and the military's resurgence has worried Washington decision makers in part because the tactics used by the state could end up making matters worse. In addition, the mismanagement of the Turkish economy by successive governments had resulted in the worst economic crisis of the post World War II period leading to a US-initiated $31.5 billion IMF rescue package.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Turkey's EU aspirations have corresponded well with what the US wanted to see develop in Turkey. What the EU process provided Turkey was with a path to greater affluence and most importantly to greater democratization. In part, it was because of Turkey's inability to implement reforms on its own that made the European Union accession process such an attractive option. To be sure, Washington has genuinely seen Turkey as an integral part of the European security architecture and the European continent. In addition, EU candidacy also offered the prospect of resolving some of the thorniest problems such as Cyprus and the Aegean ones. Hence the EU membership process, even if it were to be realized a decade or more down the road, was more than just a device to improve domestic political conditions. In reality, as far as Washington could see, Turkey as a member of the EU would be fully integrated into the West as a democratic and prosperous country very much emulating Greece's path.

After Iraq: The Future of US-Turkish Relations

On March 1, 2003 the Turkish Parliament narrowly defeated a government motion that would have allowed up to 62,000 US soldiers to be based on Turkish soil for combat operations against Iraq. The loss of the northern front shocked Washington. No one in Washington had expected that Turkey would refuse the US request primarily because it was understood that Turkey would not let its primary ally in the cold. This was driven home all the more by recent US assistance to Ankara at critical junctures ranging from help against the PKK insurgency and the capture of its leader in Kenya which effectively put an end to it to the 2001 IMF rescue package. The new pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of Turkey mishandled the parliamentary vote. It had reluctantly come to the conclusion that its commitments to the US would take precedence over the overwhelming public opposition.

In reality, the negotiations over the basing of the troops lasted much too long which, in turn, allowed for opposition to build up. While the focus appeared to be on the economic compensation package that Turkey was going to be offered in exchange for its cooperation, what most observers failed to notice is the difficult nature of the negotiations relating to northern Iraq. The Turkish military was intent on not only entering northern Iraq to prevent the creation of a Kurdish state there, perhaps even preventing the evolution of a federal arrangement in Iraq that allowed the Kurds to win control of the oil-rich cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. As part of this strategy, the Turkish General Staff wanted to make sure that Turcomans, a Turkic-speaking ethnic minority in Iraq, would be able to have their own regional government preferably controlling these same cities. Hence the entry of Turkish troops potentially presented the US with a nightmare scenario because Iraqi Kurdish groups had promised to confront them, militarily if necessary. Moreover, Washington also understood that both the hard bargaining over northern Iraq and the lukewarm public support by the Turkish officer corps for the government's parliamentary motion was essentially designed to weaken the AKP government domestically and internationally, even at the expense of immediate US needs.

Ironically, the failure of the parliamentary vote meant that Ankara dealt itself out the northern Iraq game. Its warnings that it would enter northern Iraq irrespective of an arrangement with the US troops fell largely on death ears; both the United States and many European Union members warned Ankara of dire consequences. Ankara, therefore, has few good options left in northern Iraq. It has been reduced largely to the role of an interested observer. In some ways, as far as the US is concerned, this has been the silver lining in the failure of the second front. Had the war lasted longer and caused larger casualties the political picture would have been different. US Congressional unhappiness with Ankara would have manifested itself in many different forms. Should Ankara attempt to once again enter northern Iraq to support the Turcomans and against the wishes of the Kurdish groups there, then there is a likelihood that US-Turkish relations would terribly suffer.

Barring such an eventuality, Turkish-American relations will remain strong. Of the four dimensions outlined above, only the Iraq one has been removed. Yet the other issues still remain salient though not with the same sense of significance. With the US has shutting down its Operation Northern Watch that helped contain the regime in Baghdad, an important source of friction between the two countries will also have been eliminated. Moreover, Washington's disappointment with Turkey is different this time. Whereas in previous disputes, the US always had the Turkish military to fall back on, in this particular case the Turkish high command failed the US. To the extent that the Iraq War was driven by the US Department of Defense, the bastion of prop-Turkish sentiment in Washington, this is likely to have an enduring effect.[2] This will also have repercussions for the Incirlik air base, the mainstay of US forces in Turkey, which is now likely to be severely downgraded. Still, this does not mean that Turkey will not be important to Washington for the foreseeable future. Despite Washington's disappointment with Ankara over the second front, the Bush administration signaled its desire to harmonize relations by disbursing $1 billion dollars in aid and grants. The package was clearly aimed at making sure that Turkey does not fall off the economic recovery process. What it also means, however, is that the days of ample strategic rents are over.

One potential ramification of these developments and changes is the civilianization of the Turkish-American relationship. This, however, depends very much on the performance of the new AKP government and does not mean that Turkey's military significance within NATO will be diminished. The AKP administration came to power promising first and foremost to focus on improving Turkey's chances with Europe which, in turn, meant the furthering of the democratization process, improving the economy and dealing with Cyprus. Such a development-especially when compared with the Islamist Welfare Party's discourse after its first-place finish in 1995-was welcome news to Washington. Should the AKP succeed in pushing forward on these then the Turkish-American relationship would improve significantly. For Washington, Turkey's EU aspirations are important because they represent the shortest route to long-term stability based on a working democracy and economic prosperity. So far, however, the AKP government has allowed itself to be checkmated-temporarily albeit-on Cyprus by the hard liners in the country and has made little progress if any on the other issues. It has wasted its precious time in foreign and domestic policy.

In short, with the disappearance of Saddam Hussein, Ankara lost an important part of its leverage in Washington. Nothing of the same import is out there to replace it; Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Iran are important but Turkey's influence and abilities are not as vital as with Saddam's Iraq. Of course, if the US's Iraq experiment turns foul and a pluralistic regime does not succeed in rooting itself in Baghdad, Turkey will once again loom large in the American imagination. For the time being, however, the reevaluation of Turkey's contribution to the US will open new opportunities in the relationship. Perhaps what the US hopes from this new government is that it tries to emulate O¨zal's approach.

[1] This section draws on Henri J. Barkey, "The Endless Pursuit: Improving US-Turkish Relations," in Morton Abramowitz (ed.) The United State and Turkey: Allies in Need, (New York: Century Foundation, 2003).

[2] According to one reporter with excellent contacts, in the negotiations leading to the war on Iraq, US Joint Chief of Staff General Myers was reported to have thrown his telephone in anger and frustration after a discussion with his counterparts in Ankara, Yasemin C¸ongar, "Savasin Arka Cephesi," Milliyet March 31, 2003.