Our fraying alliance with Turkey
Turkish-American relations are in crisis. But the House resolution declaring the World War I-era killings of Armenians a genocide is only one cause -- and that’s just a sideshow. Turkish-American relations have been deteriorating for years, and the root explanation is simple and harsh: Washington’s policies are broadly and fundamentally incompatible with Turkish foreign policy interests in multiple arenas. No amount of diplomat-speak can conceal or change that reality. Count the ways:
* Kurds. U.S. policies toward Iraq over the last 16 years have been a disaster for Turkey. Since the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraqi Kurds have gained ever-greater autonomy and are now on the brink of de facto independence. Such a Kurdish entity in Iraq stimulates Kurdish separatism inside Turkey. Furthermore, Washington supports Kurdish terrorists against Iran.
* Terrorism: Turkey has fought domestic political violence and terrorism for more than 30 years -- Marxist, socialist, right-wing nationalist, Kurdish, Islamist. U.S. policies in the Middle East have greatly stimulated violence and radicalism across the region and brought Al Qaeda to Turkey’s doorstep.
* Iran: Iran is Turkey’s most powerful neighbor and a vital source of oil and gas -- second only to Russia -- in meeting Turkey’s energy needs. Washington heavy-handedly pressures Turkey to end its extensive and deepening relations with Iran in order to press a U.S. sanctions regime there. Though there is little affection between Turkey and Iran, there has been virtually no serious armed conflict between the two nations for centuries. Ankara sees U.S. policies as radicalizing and isolating Tehran further, which is undesirable for Turkey.
* Syria: Ankara’s relations with Syria have done a 180-degree turn in the last decade, and relations are flourishing. Syrians -- as well as many other Arabs -- are impressed with Turkey’s ability to simultaneously be a member of NATO, seek entry into the European Union, say no to Washington on using Turkish soil to invade Iraq, restore respect for its own Islamic heritage, develop new relations with the Arab world and adopt a genuinely balanced position on the Palestinian conflict. Ankara resists Washington’s pressures to marginalize and stifle Damascus.
* Armenia: Ankara and Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, are actually in productive unofficial contact with one another, such as via “gray” trade and air links, and both would like to effect a reconciliation. It is the Armenian diaspora, with its intense nationalist rhetoric, that is one of the key factors in inflaming the atmosphere against potential rapprochement.
* Russia: There has been a revolution in Ankara’s relations with Moscow after 500 years of hostility. Moscow is today the second-largest importer of Turkish goods after Germany, and Turkey has invested up to $12 billion in Russia in the construction field. Russia is Turkey’s primary source of energy, and Ankara increasingly looks to Eurasia as a key part of its economic future.
Turkish generals, angry with Washington, even mutter about a Russian strategic “alternative” if it is stiff-armed by the West. Although there is some rivalry over the routing of Central Asian energy pipelines to the West -- whether via Russia or Iran and Turkey -- Ankara values its ties with Moscow and opposes U.S. efforts to bait the Russian bear in the Caucasus and Eastern Europe on NATO expansion and missile issues.
* Palestine: Turks care a lot about Palestine -- which they had jurisdiction over in Ottoman times. They sympathize with Palestinian suffering under 40 years of Israeli occupation. Ankara views Hamas as a legitimate and important element on the Palestinian political spectrum and seeks to mediate with it. Washington says no. Ankara has good working ties with Israel but does not shrink from sharp public criticism of what it perceives as Israeli excesses.
Overall, a “new Turkey” actively seeks good-neighbor relations with all regional states and players. It seeks to be a major player and mediator in the Middle East -- to bring radicals into the mainstream via patient diplomacy against what it perceives as Washington’s complicating belligerence.
Turkey has deep interests in Central Asia. If the Chinese-Russian-sponsored Shanghai Cooperation Organization bids to be the dominant geopolitical grouping in Eurasia, then Turkey, like Afghanistan, Iran and India, would like an association with it. Washington opposes that.
One may quarrel with the specifics of Turkish policies, but there is broad belief across the Turkish political spectrum that these policies serve the country’s core needs. While the State Department may soothingly speak of “vital shared interests” in democracy, stability and counter-terrorism, all of that is mere motherhood and apple pie -- empty phrases -- when compared with conflicting concrete policies in so many key spheres. We had better get used to the fact that Turkey, strengthened by its popular democracy, is going to pursue its own national interests, regardless of Washington’s pressure. Few Turks want it any other way.
Graham E. Fuller is a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA. His latest book, “The New Turkish Republic,” is forthcoming in December.
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