Edition 28 Volume 2 - July 22, 2024

Turkey and the Middle East

Continuity - by  Meliha Benli Altunisik

The crux of the policy is Iraq, as it has been since the Gulf war of 1991.

The view from Kurdistan - by  Hiwa Osman

Turkey needs to treat the Iraqi Kurds as partners and not adversaries.

Ottoman days in modern times - by  Abdel Monem Said Aly

The Turkish foreign policy objective of joining the EU cannot be achieved without stability in Iraq and, indeed, the Middle East.

Regional systemic change - by  Asher Susser

For Israel, its friendship with Turkey is immeasurably more important than any additional weakening of Iraq.

by Meliha Benli Altunisik

Recently there has been a debate both inside and outside Turkey as to whether its Middle East policy is changing, and if so in what direction. Turkey is developing its ties with Syria, its foe for the last two decades, while its relations with its strategic ally Israel seem to be souring amidst the Turkish prime minister’s criticisms of Israeli government policies toward the Palestinians. Turkey has also been intensifying its security cooperation with Iran, another country that it frequently accused of supporting the separatist Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) in the 1990s.

All these developments have led some to argue that Turkey’s Middle East policy is changing, and that this is largely due to the ascent to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has roots in Turkey’s traditional Islamist political movement. I would argue that both of these factors are inadequate to explain what is happening; the main tenet of Turkey’s policy toward the region remains the same.

The Kurdish issue has been the key to understanding Turkey’s Middle East policy since the Gulf war of 1991. The war with the separatist PKK intensified largely as a result of developments in northern Iraq and due to direct and indirect support provided to the PKK by Turkey’s Middle Eastern neighbors. In response, a traditional power politics approach dominated Turkey’s relations with the region. The "referent object" of security became Turkey’s territorial integrity. Ankara redefined its strategy and identified the Middle East as the number one source of threat to Turkey.

This portrayal of the issue as an existential threat called for extraordinary measures beyond traditional policy means, especially with Syria. Syrian support for the PKK culminated in a crisis in October 1998. Turkey's sense of increasing vulnerability and insecurity led to the forging of security relations with Israel.

As to Iraq, Turkey adopted a multifaceted policy. On the one hand it tried to end the PKK presence there through the use of military force. During those years the Turkish armed forces staged regular incursions into northern Iraq. Eventually Turkey even established a permanent special forces presence there in the mid-1990s. Turkey also cultivated relations with the Kurdish groups in northern Iraq, both to enlist their support against the PKK and to have leverage over developments there. Turkey provided diplomatic passports to Iraqi Kurdish leaders Mustafa Barazani and Jalal Talabani and became their link to the outside world. In addition to allowing border trade, Ankara even provided economic aid to them. Most importantly, however, by allowing United States and United Kingdom forces to use Incirlik airbase, Turkey enabled the continuation of the north’s de facto independence from Baghdad. Finally, Turkey hoped to increase its cards in future developments in Iraq by actively supporting the cause of the Turkomans there.

Similar concerns continue to drive Turkey’s foreign policy toward the region and affect its relations there in the aftermath of the Iraq war of 2024. The potential for disintegration of Iraq, and particularly but not solely the emergence of an irredentist Kurdish state, is considered a major threat to Turkey. Turkey’s policy is thus geared toward preventing this development, including a change in the status of oil-rich, multi-ethnic Kirkuk in the new political landscape of Iraq.

As it did in the 1990s, Turkey today to a large extent judges its bilateral relations through the Iraq issue. The difference is that unlike its posture in the 1990s, Turkey now finds Iran and Syria cooperative, as these two countries feel pressure coming largely from the United States and are similarly concerned about the establishment of a Kurdish state.

When it comes to Israel, the relationship is strained. The two countries shared a similar strategic vision of the region and thus cooperated in the 1990s, although even then it was clear that their interests differed to a large extent in Iraq. The tension in this matrix became more apparent after the Iraq war. Turkey became more concerned about reported Israeli activities, particularly in northern Iraq, and became suspicious of Israeli support for the establishment of a Kurdish state there.

There are of course other factors that affect the overall policy and/or position of particular foreign policy actors. These may include: domestic policy concerns of the AKP, genuine interest and concern about the Palestinians, Turkey’s interest in emerging as a soft power in the region and particularly as a model for political and economic transformation in the Middle East, and the effects of harmonization with the EU--not necessarily in this order. Yet the crux of the policy is Iraq, as it has been since the Gulf war of 1991. Once again Ankara seems to be judging its bilateral relations and defining its interests through this lens.-Published 22/7/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Meliha Benli Altunisik is professor of international relations at the Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey.

The view from Kurdistan
by Hiwa Osman

For the past decade, the relationship between the Kurds in Iraq and the Turkish government has been characterized by mistrust on the Kurdish side and paranoia on the Turkish side. Now that could change, especially with the new interim government in Baghdad.

Since 1992, Turkey has had a Kurdish self-governing enclave on its border that it can neither live with nor live without. On the surface, the political situation today does not seem to have changed. But there are indications that the ebb and flow of Turkey’s relationship with the Kurds could settle into a more livable, stable relationship with increased economic interdependence.

There are, however, a few hurdles that could hamper the opening of a new chapter in relations between the two sides. The average Iraqi Kurd feels that Turkey’s "Kurdophobia" blocks any step that could create a strong and stable Kurdish element in Iraq. Popular Kurdish resentment toward Turkey today is mainly caused by Turkey’s deplorable treatment of its own 20 million-strong Kurdish population, and its stance on Kirkuk and the Turkomans who live there. But the Iraqi Kurdish leadership is convinced that the only way forward is to have a stable relationship with Ankara based on a solid foundation of mutual trust and economic interests.

Turkey’s large Kurdish minority, which has been stripped of all cultural and political rights, is a cause of great concern for Ankara. Iraqi Kurds have carved out an autonomous place for themselves in Iraq, and Turkey fears "its" Kurds will demand the same for themselves.

Over the past 12 years, the ruling Iraqi Kurdish political parties--the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan--have been mindful of these concerns and have even gone to the extreme of fighting their fellow Kurds from Turkey to prevent them from using Iraqi territory to launch attacks against the Turkish army.

On the other hand, the sizeable Turkoman (ethnic Turk) population in Iraq, mainly in Kurdish-governed Arbil and in Kirkuk, describes its situation there as the "golden age of the Turkomans." They have Turkoman-language schools, newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio; cultural and political associations; and a minister in the Arbil-based cabinet.

The Kurdish public, which juxtaposes the situation of the Kurds in Turkey with that of the Turkomans under Iraqi Kurdish rule, says that Turkey has no right to scream-- as it has been doing in the regional press--about the rights of the Turkomans in Iraq. Iraqi Kurds often say that when the Kurds of Turkey enjoy a fraction of the freedoms and rights that the Turkomans of Iraq enjoy under Kurdish rule, the Turkish government can voice concern for the Turkomans of Iraq.

Turkey has been expressing its opposition to "changing the demographic structure" of Kirkuk with the return of thousands of ethnically cleansed Kurds. Many expelled Kurds--and Turkomans--point out that when Saddam Hussein was changing the demographic composition of Kirkuk through the expulsion of both ethnic groups, Turkey was silent. But now when Kurds and Turkomans are trying to return to their homes, Turkey considers it a change in the demography of the city.

Kirkuk's Kurds and Turkomans also feel that Turkey is not really concerned about Iraq's Turkoman population (as it professes) but rather about the Turkoman Front, a political party referred to by many in Iraq as the "Turkish Front." Former members of the Turkoman Front who resigned in protest, and Iraqi Turkoman parties and associations without ties to the Turkish government, say that Turkey has pressured them to accept its policies. Remarks in the local press, along with Turkey’s history of continued military interventions in Iraqi Kurdistan, have created a strong feeling of resentment on the Kurdish street.

Many Kurds, however, believe that the new era in Iraq should be signaled by a change in Turkey’s policy toward the Kurds--and they say they are seeing hints of it. Abdullah Gul, the Turkish foreign minister, was the first phone caller to congratulate the new deputy prime minister of Iraq, Dr. Barham Salih, who was the prime minister of the Sulaymaniyah-based Kurdistan Regional Government. Many Turkish companies and businesses have set up shop in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds welcome them and see their presence as a catalyst for more stable and sustainable ties with Turkey. While hints of Turkish soldiers on Iraqi Kurdish streets sent shockwaves through the Kurdish population last year, the sight of Turkish businessmen in the same cities today is welcomed.

Turkey needs to treat the Iraqi Kurds as partners and not adversaries. The Iraqi Kurds' attempts to keep good neighborly relations with Turkey should be acknowledged, and their efforts to build a secular democracy should be supported, not hampered. Turkey should not meddle in Kirkuk, which is a purely Iraqi internal affair. It could be very explosive, and the outcome might not be what Turkey wants. Turkey is much better off with a secular, prosperous, and stable neighbor than a Fallujah-type situation on its border.-Published 22/7/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Hiwa Osman is Iraq country director at the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, Baghdad.

Ottoman days in modern times
by Abdel Monem Said Aly

Two opposing factors have influenced Turkish foreign policy in the post-Ottoman period: the wish of Turkish elites to integrate their country into the imperial reach of Europe and the West; and a continued fear of disintegration. These two factors are highlighted now by the planned December meeting of European Union heads of state that will decide the possibility of Turkish accession to the EU one day. After the American war, Iraq's security is in shambles, and the possibility of its disintegration threatens every country from Iraq to Turkey.

The moderate Islamist government of Turkey has dealt with the desire for integration with Europe and the West by enhancing the secular traditions of Turkey; reducing the influence of the military establishment over domestic, foreign, and security policy; and taking daring steps to modernize the Turkish state. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also moved closer to Europe by improving Turkey’s relationship with Greece and taking a moderate position on the Cyprus problem.

However, the fear of disintegration cannot be laid to rest until there is stability in Turkey's immediate neighborhood. In fact, stability in Iraq is a precondition for preventing the possibility of a Kurdish state there that would spread chaos to the region in general and to Turkey in particular. The March Kurdish uprising in Qamishli, Syria has shown to what extent the Kurdish question is influenced by developments in Iraq. The ascent of Kurds in Iraqi politics inspired the Kurds in Syria to rise up, even though the Syrian Kurds are smaller in number and more integrated into Syrian life. What, then, might be the case for Turkish Kurds, who are much larger in number and have already had a bloody history with different Turkish governments?

In fact, the Turkish foreign policy objective of joining the EU cannot be achieved without stability in Iraq and, indeed, the Middle East. One of the main points of European opposition to Turkish accession to the EU has been always that Turkey will take the Union into the troubled waters of the Middle East. But the opposite point can also be made: Turkey hopes to bring to the European neighborhood an expanded area of stability and, possibly, prosperity in the Middle East.

In historical terms, Turkey will be playing the Ottoman days again at the beginning of the 21st century but in a completely different way. For four centuries (the 16th to the 20th), the Ottoman Empire was the military and strategic bridge between Europe and the Middle East. Now Turkey can be the socio-economic and cultural bridge between Europe and the Middle East. With secular, democratic, moderate Islamic credentials, Turkey can play constructively a role it played destructively in the past. The idea of a Turkish model to inspire the Middle East toward reformist salvation is widespread, thanks to the United States, in the circles of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party.

Risks in the Middle East can turn into opportunities in the eyes of the new Turkish elite. For them Israel is a risk, not an opportunity as the traditional Turkish military elite saw it in the past. Israel is a cause of instability not only on the Palestinian-Israeli front, but also in the Islamic world, where its actions and arrogance are fomenting anger, fundamentalism, and terror. Israel's harsh treatment of the Palestinians under its occupation makes it an embarrassment to Turkey's moderate Islamic government vis-a-vis its constituency.

More importantly, Turkey shares the suspicions of many Arabs over Israel's role in the American invasion of Iraq and the subsequent strengthening of the Kurdish factor in Iraqi politics. Turkey's fundamental objectives cannot be achieved through Israel. They can be achieved by standing closer to the EU on Arab-Israel conflict issues and by intensifying cooperation with regional powers to achieve stability in the region, especially in Iraq. Therefore Turkey is cooling its relationship with Israel in different ways and calling Israeli actions in Gaza a symptom of “state terrorism.” At the same time, Turkey is warming its relationship with Arab countries, particularly Syria. The results of the Iraq War on the geopolitics of the Middle East continue to surprise all the experts!-Published 22/7/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Abdel Monem Said Aly is director of Al Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies in Cairo.

Regional systemic change
by Asher Susser

Israeli-Turkish relations have gone through a difficult period recently. A longer-term historical view of regional systemic change may serve to place the present-day relationship in perspective and explain much of its content.

In the last quarter of a century, the Arab states have for the most part entered a prolonged period of socio-economic stagnation and concomitant political lethargy and disarray. In the Middle East of today, it is the non-Arab states of Turkey, Iran, and Israel and external players like the United States that set the regional agenda more than the Arabs do. The US is the sole superpower, while Israel, Turkey, and Iran all project extraordinary regional, military, economic, or geopolitical might that the Arabs at present cannot match. In circumstances such as these, with Iran on the rise and the Arabs in decline, relations between Israel and Turkey are absolutely critical for both states and for Middle Eastern stability.

During this same period Israel has made peace with Egypt and Jordan. It has withdrawn unilaterally from Lebanon, and the Syrian-Israeli frontier is governed by a stable disengagement agreement signed 30 years ago. If one adds the US occupation of Iraq to this strategic equation, Israel, for the first time ever, has no serious concern of an activated eastern front. Armed engagement is presently restricted almost solely to the Israeli-Palestinian domain, which has little chance of provoking a wider regional conflagration. These developments have vitally important strategic ramifications for the Israeli-Turkish relationship.

Israel no longer has any self-interest in the promotion of Kurdish independence. Thirty or 40 years ago, when the interstate Arab-Israel conflict was at its height and Israel feared an eastern front that could couple with Egypt for a major Arab offensive, Israel also had a vested interest in the undermining of Iraqi integrity. In the Middle East of today, the opposite is true. For Israel, its friendship with Turkey is immeasurably more important than any additional weakening of Iraq.

Furthermore, a Balkanized Iraq with a weak Shi'ite statelet dominated by Iran could extend Iranian influence deep into the Fertile Crescent, up to Jordan’s eastern border, hardly a welcome thought for Israel. It is therefore extremely hard to believe that Israel is presently engaged in the revival of a Kurdish policy that makes no strategic sense, in a completely different regional environment. Israel has flatly denied all the reports in this vein, but Turkish sensitivities have been aroused nonetheless.

The Kurdish question aggravates the sensibilities of Turks of all political persuasions, from the religio-conservatives to the ultra-secular Kemalist republicans. But while Israel developed a remarkable intimacy with the guardians of the secular order in the Turkish military, security establishment, and intelligentsia, it has yet to develop a similar rapport with the new religio-conservative elite of the Justice and Development Party that came to power in November 2024.

The successors of the Kemalist and Zionist revolutions were ideological birds of a feather that naturally flocked together. These historical movements that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to secularize, modernize, and westernize two traditional peoples, the Turks and the Jews, produced secular intellectual and political elites that had an unusually profound meeting of minds. This level of intimacy does not exist with the new ruling elite in Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political roots are in the Islamist Welfare Party, rather than in the Kemalist republican core. Erdogan, for whom Turkey’s Islamic hinterland is more important culturally, emotionally, and politically than it was for his predecessors in government, has been exceptionally critical of Israel and the conduct of its military in the war with Palestinians. So have the media and the public at large, especially the constituencies of Erdogan’s popular support.

Suspicion of Israel on the Kurdish issue and criticism of its military are a function of eroded mutual trust. It is imperative in these new circumstances for Israel to clear the air with Turkey and to establish channels of communication with the new elite, not instead of the existing web of connections with the secular elite, but in addition. This is especially so as Turkey edges closer to the European Union.

As Turkey seeks accession to the EU, the accelerated liberalization of its political system is further reducing the role of the military and the security establishment in Turkish politics--a trend that will no doubt continue if and when negotiations begin in earnest for Turkey’s accession. The elite with whom Israel’s ties were so secure may decline further in political stature. This is all the more reason for Israel to invest an extra effort in creating a relationship of mutual trust and understanding with the new ruling elite as well. Since it is in Israel’s own self interest to see Turkey join the EU, Israel will continue to support the Turkish bid for membership.

In so many ways, Israel and Turkey are in the same boat. They are non-Arab Middle Eastern powers and relatively powerful non-Christian neighbors of the EU, with a complicated network of troubled historical, cultural, and political ties to the peoples of Europe. Long persecuted by Europeans, the Jews were always well received by the Turks, who were never party to European Judeo-phobia. Turkey’s accession to the EU would be the dilution of the Christian club of Europe, and may just set the stage for Israel’s accession at some time in the future.

The key to Israel’s relations with Turkey today is trust and new channels of communication. One may hope that the recent visit to Ankara by Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will be the first of many such steps, in both directions, to pave the way for a routine of political coordination at the highest level.-Published 22/7/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Professor Asher Susser is a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University.

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