BACKGROUND: The military operation against the terrorist PKK organization began with air strikes, but morphed into a ground operation in heavy weather conditions. Controversies over the incursion and especially the pullout followed. Following the achievement of some military objectives, the military offensive was terminated just a day before the visit to Ankara of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. This led critics to charge that the government was pulling out on orders from Washington, and harsh words on the issue were exchanged between the General Staff and the opposition – something novel in itself.
The combination of intersecting internal and external turmoil has created a political crisis in Turkey that appears likely to become protracted. It is already clear that this is affecting the country’s foreign policy. During its first term, the AKP followed a policy of reforms for EU membership passionately, and managed to initiate the formal membership negotiation process, something all previous governments had failed to achieve. However, following its re-election in Summer 2007, the AKP has not exhibited a similar eagerness for negotiations and reforms. Some EU actions undoubtedly contributed to this. In particular, the efforts led by France and Germany to halt Turkey’s possible membership created a substantial backlash in society and elites alike, and fed long-standing allegations of European double standards. Moreover, as far as the AKP is concerned, the 2004 decision by the European Court of Human Rights to allow the prohibition of the Islamic headscarf in universities led many party stalwarts to cool attitudes toward European institutions in general.
Instead, in the latter part of its first period in government, the AKP – whose roots are in the Islamist “National View” (Milli Görüs) line of thinking – attached considerable importance to improving relations with Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East. The AKP had gained sympathies in the Middle East in 2003 by not allowing the U.S. to use Turkish soil for the Iraq War. This boosted the party’s established relations with the Middle Eastern countries’ intelligentsia. Closer relations were established especially with Iran, Syria, Sudan and Hamas, all of which are blacklisted by the U.S.. This approach attracted a reaction both from the U.S. and Israel. In the case of Israel, this led the very good relations that had been painstakingly established before the AKP came to power to deteriorate. Ties were not broken, but growing tensions were apparent, especially as leading Turkish government officials repeatedly labeled Israel’s tactics as terrorist.
However, its focus shifting toward the Middle East, the AKP appeared simply to ignore the states of the Caucasus and Central Asia, which received considerable attention during the leadership of Turgut Özal and Süleyman Demirel. In this sense, the AKP’s foreign policy to some extent drifted in the direction of that espoused by the Islamist-led government of Necmettin Erbakan in 1996, which focused on Islamic countries, neglecting Europe and the secular states of Central Asia and the Caucasus. The major difference is the AKP’s continued commitment to a European vocation, in stark contrast to Erbakan’s anti-European stance.
Turkish-U.S. relations remained stressed after the invasion of Iraq, but have recently entered a period of relaxation, particularly given substantial intelligence exchange during the Turkish incursion into northern Iraq. America’s approval of the Turkish military offensive helped calm anti-American sentiments in the country somewhat, which had grown rapidly in recent years. Following on this gradual improvement, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney visited Ankara in late March. His thick agenda included the possible deployment of additional Turkish forces in Afghanistan; America’s regional missile shield system; Iraq; Iran; as well as energy security issues – particularly the transfer of the natural gas and oil from the Caspian Basin to Europe via Turkey.
IMPLICATIONS: The court case lunched recently by the chief prosecutor to close down the AKP is certain to affect not only Turkey’s internal balances, but also its external politics. It will take over six months for the case to reach a conclusion, but its impact is already deep.
No doubt, this protracted crisis will decrease the government’s ability to act. For example, while the legal procedure is in place, the AKP will find it hard to improve Turkey’s position in negotiations with the EU. It seems unlikely that the AKP could concentrate and effectively channel the energy of the bureaucracy, which is already showing signals of being dysfunctional, something that would be necessary for the EU process to move forward. The AKP faces a continued challenge in persuading a recalcitrant military leadership on concessions on Cyprus. The military staunchly opposes the opening of air and naval ports to Greek Cyprus – the main proximate cause of the breakdown in negotiations with the EU. Though the recent meeting between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders did indicate some positive signals, establishing a strong political will in Ankara for a durable solution in Cyprus under these conditions is unlikely. Indeed, as the government is increasingly exposed and under fire, it is unlikely to allow itself to be outflanked on the right in the Cyprus issue, something the nationalist opposition would be sure to capitalize upon.
No doubt, other foreign policy priorities will be affected by current developments. While it is not yet known what promises Cheney got from his meetings with high officials, it is unclear that either the government or the military were persuaded by his requests. Here, foreign and domestic policies intersect: leading military circles, as do many neo-nationalists – continue to see the U.S. as a backer of the AKP, in fact holding the view that America helped it to come to power in the first place. This leads leading military and civilian officials that are opposed to the AKP to instinctively respond negatively – or directly to reject – proposals brought by the government concerning broadened cooperation with the U.S., or responses to requests from Washington.
In a sense, this policy can be deciphered as a message by secularist and military circles to the U.S. to give up its support for the AKP. In other words, these circles seek to indicate that they – not the AKP – is America’s main interlocutor in security issues, and that they will obstruct such cooperation as long as America keeps backing the AKP. This state of affairs has been the case for some time, and is one of the main reasons behind the complicated relations between Ankara and Washington in the past five years.
Another element limiting the level of relations is the Islamist roots and base of the AKP. The perception of the U.S. as an invader in the Islamic world is widely held among the AKP rank and file, and among party functionaries. As a result, not least in order to satisfy public opinion among its own base, the AKP has promoted relations with states and organizations blacklisted by the U.S. and done little to quell anti-Americanism in society, in fact often abetting it.
The U.S. request for more Turkish troops to be deployed in Afghanistan is also affected by these two factors. The General Staff, which should normally be bound to the political leadership, is nevertheless in reality in a position to declare its unwillingness to send more troops. The government, influenced both by this stance and by the domestic political risks in having Turkish soldiers involved in direct combat operations against fellow Muslim Afghans, insists that Turkey can only send a few hundred non-combatant soldiers in the framework of ISAF, and only after the closure case against the party is finalized.
However, this reluctance to take a role in Afghanistan is detrimental to Turkey’s broader role in the European security architecture. At a time when Europeans a unwilling to step up to NATO’s challenge in Afghanistan, it is natural that American eyes turn to Turkey. Indeed, Turkey has been a key ally for half a century, and has NATO’s second-largest military force, Moreover, its expertise and experience in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism widely surpasses that of any European power, something that was proven not least in the recent Iraq incursion.
Turkey would hence be in a position to benefit considerably from contributing to the Afghanistan effort. It would gain significant international prestige and an important strategic advantage as a responsible European and regional power. Moreover, Turkey would gain a substantially stronger position with regard to its ability to continue to undermine the PKK both in Iraq and internationally. Indeed, a grateful America would find it much more difficult to resist Turkish efforts to again fight the PKK in Iraq, providing Ankara with more leeway in its operations there; moreover, Turkey would be likely to count on increased American assistance in combating PKK financing internationally, not least in putting pressure on recalcitrant European states in doing more in this regard. (For more detail see article in Jane’s Intelligence Review on PKK Financing)
However, in Ankara, the two main forces that are to decide on these issues – the government and the general staff – appear more concerned with their mutual ideological struggle; arguments concerning Turkey’s national interests do not appear to be the guiding force in deliberations. Indeed, the growing tensions in Turkish politics appear to cloud the possibility of rational evaluation of the pros cons of such crucial foreign policy decisions.
CONCLUSIONS: The following months are likely to see a growing political struggle in Turkish domestic politics, which is unlikely to settle down in the foreseeable future. The lack of an alternative to the AKP in the Turkish political system makes the outcome of this struggle all the more murky. And as long as the political crisis deepens, Turkey will not be likely to have the capacity to enter into any long-term foreign policy engagements. However, it is also conceivable that the AKP could in fact show itself more open to requests from the U.S. and the EU in order to compensate for the internal pressures on it.