Turkey is risking ties to the U.S. and Europe for a simple reason: its eyes are on the eastern front.
Iraqi law stops at a small checkpoint at the base of the Qandil Mountains, 40 kilometers short of the Turkish border. The little post is manned by a handful of Iraqi Kurdish fighters loyal—officially, at least—to the government in Baghdad. Beyond, up an unpaved track, is a no-man’s land controlled by outlaw groups of Kurdish guerrillas who have used the rugged tangle of peaks to launch attacks inside Turkey, which have left more than 95 Turkish troops dead this year alone.
But if Turkey has its way, Qandil won’t be bandit country for much longer. While Washington has been promising to clean up Qandil for years, it has done nothing. So Ankara has taken matters into its own hands, sending nearly 100,000 Turkish troops to the border area. Already, according to Turkish military sources not authorized to speak on the record, 11 Turkish battalions have been deployed on the Cudi, Kato, Gabar, Kupeli and Namaz mountains, surrounding Qandil in a ring of steel. Turkish F-16 jets have been flying bombing sorties up to 50 kilometers inside Iraq, and special mountain-fighting commandos have launched 300-strong raids at least 10 kilometers into Iraq. Turkey, it seems, is finally taking control of its eastern front.
But it’s not just in Iraq. Along its eastern borders, Turkey is forging closer ties with its neighbors—reinventing relationships that date back to when Ottoman Turkey was the colonial master of much of the Middle East. And small wonder, considering what is happening on Turkey’s western flank. In Brussels, Turkey has found its hopes of joining the European Union snubbed by Turko-skeptics like France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany’s Angela Merkel, who have talked of a kind of second-rank “associate” membership instead.
At the same time, Ankara’s old NATO ally the United States has—in Turkish eyes—not only destabilized its neighborhood with a reckless war in Iraq, but also failed to clean up the mess it has made by refusing to crack down on Kurdish guerrillas in Qandil. And while dozens of Turkish soldiers have died in Kurdish rebel ambushes, the U.S. Congress has been spending its time considering a resolution that would label the massacres of Ottoman Armenians a “genocide,” one of the most controversial episodes in modern Turkish history. “Turkey will not move away from the West by its choice,” says Ahmet Davutoglu, chief foreign-policy adviser to Turkey’s prime minister. “But if Western countries continue to make the same mistakes, Turkey has other alternatives.”
Given these wobbling relations with the West, it is perfectly logical for Ankara to start looking east. While the United States may view Iran and Syria as rogue states run by tin-pot dictators, to the Turks they’re major regional players with established governments and, indeed, civilizations they have been doing business with for centuries.
For evidence of this strengthened bond, look how far Ankara has moved on Syria. Ten years ago, Turkey, with the wholehearted support of the United States, was threatening to invade Syria for providing shelter to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Now, the Turks have built a soccer stadium and multimillion-dollar shopping mall in Syria. The new Damascus Stock Exchange, due to open next year, is modeled on its Istanbul counterpart. Officials in Ankara also backed Syria in its protest of last month’s Israeli raid—and have backed Syrian claims that Israel must return the Golan Heights as part of any peace deal with the Palestinians.
Indeed, Turkey has gone out of its way to position itself as a talking shop and power broker, equally at home talking to Bashar Assad as George Bush. This week, as part of a major diplomatic effort, Turkey will host a conference of all of Iraq’s neighbors. And the feeling between Turkey and Syria appears to be mutual. Assad has just visited Ankara as an honored ally and, as if to underscore the tightening bond, Syria’s ambassador to Washington proudly told an audience of Syrian expats in the United States two weeks ago that “our closest ally is not Iran, it’s Turkey,” according to one attendee.
The same week, Assad expressed support for Turkey’s right to act in “self-defense” against north Iraq. Although Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari dismisses Assad’s support as a ploy to “appease the Turks” and ease Syria’s “isolation,” key figures in Turkey’s Justice and Development (AK) Party government say creating regional ties is a key part of its national strategy. Egemen Bagis, a top adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, says that since the U.S. attempt “to promote democracy by military means has failed,” it is time to try “Turkish democracy promotion.” His formula: trade, open dialogue and attempting to defuse threats wherever they may come from.
To this end, Turkey has also found common ground with Iran. It will soon finalize a $3.5 billion deal to develop gas deposits there and finish the construction of a gas pipeline from Iran to Turkey—in defiance of strong opposition by the United States. Tellingly, Turkey also refused to take a hostile attitude toward Tehran’s nuclear program, preferring to use what Turkish President Abdullah Gul calls “very constructive” relations to try to persuade Tehran to comply with the United Nations. For its part, Tehran is helping out Turkey in its fight against the Kurds in Qandil, according to Turkish officials, by passing on intelligence information about the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan, or PJAK, a PKK affiliate, as well as by shelling PKK and PJAK positions.
At base, Turkey’s eastward turn stems from the nation’s deep disappointment with old friends in the West. Over the last five years, Turkey’s elite has spent enormous political capital in an ambitious reform program, closely guided by the EU, with the hope of one day obtaining full membership into the club of European nations. But in the Turkish view, the EU has reneged on its earlier promises. “As the Sarkozys and other [Turko-skeptics] make it quite clear that Turkey isn’t getting into the EU in any near-time scenario, Turkey has begun consolidating its relationships,” says Joshua Landis, an expert on the region at the University of Oklahoma.
Adding to the pressure to look east for partners is the sentiment on the Turkish Street, which increasingly dismisses the benefits of entry into the EU. Between 2004 and 2006, the percentage of Turks who viewed membership in the EU as a “good thing” fell by 19 points to 54 percent, according to the German Marshall Fund. Anti-U.S. sentiment is rising, too. A Pew Foundation poll last month found that 66 percent of Turks agree that “Western countries want to divide and break Turkey like they divided and broke the Ottoman Empire in the past.” More worryingly, an increasingly large number of Turks are also critical of American culture and values. More than 80 percent of Turks now say they “dislike American ideas about democracy,” up 31 points since 2002, and 68 percent dislike “American music, movies and television,” up 22 points. Even Prime Minister Erdogan is alarmed at the shift. He warned earlier this year that until recently, Turks who disliked the U.S. government still appreciated American people and their culture—but now he sees an “emerging antipathy toward the Americans and the U.S. lifestyle.”
To a certain extent, Washington is in an impossible position. The Turks and the Kurds are two of its closest allies in the region. Even the PKK, though nominally Marxist, are pro-American, like their Iraqi Kurdish protectors. PKK chief of daily operations Murat Karayilan spoke glowingly to NEWSWEEK about democracy, human rights and “Mr. Bush’s new Middle East project” in September. He claimed his fighters could be a valuable ally for the U.S. against Islamic fundamentalism. And PJAK’s Germany-based leader, Rahman Haji Ahmadi, made a trip to Washington last July to ask for support to foment regime change inside Iran—though he claims he was snubbed and had only “limited contact” with American officials. “If someday our common interests [the United States’ and PJAK’s] are on the same line, we’re ready, we can negotiate,” says Beryar Gabare, a top PJAK commander in Iraq.
Still, it is “shortsighted” for Washington to believe that cooperation with Kurd leaders is more valuable than a strategic alliance with Turkey, says Morton Abramowitz, the former U.S. ambassador to Turkey. “We are in a defining moment,” he says. But now, and only belatedly, is Washington coming to realize that if it does nothing to mend its ties with Turkey, it risks losing the relationship altogether. Last week the White House fought successfully to stall Congress’ Armenian resolution. Washington then offered to share information about the whereabouts of PKK bases with Turkish military intelligence. Helping the Turks to clean house in Qandil could, if handled right, even mark a turning point in a relationship that is surely damaged, but not yet beyond repair.
Which way Turkey ends up leaning remains a matter of enormous debate within the Turkish government—one which has stood many traditional affiliations on their head. Turkey’s AK Party has Islamist roots, for instance, yet favors sticking to a program of joining the EU and maintaining friendly relations with the United States, despite all the setbacks. The Army, by contrast, has traditionally been close to the United States—yet is pushing hard to go into Iraq, in defiance of Washington. In fact, it seems that ideology is not much of a factor in Ankara’s shift eastward. Rather, says RAND Corporation analyst Stephen Larrabee, pragmatism drives policy. “This isn’t all about Turkey turning its back on the West,” he says. “It’s simply a matter of Turkish national interests.” In other words, which hemisphere can offer Ankara a better return on its diplomatic investments? At the moment, a Turkish backlash against the West remains a serious danger—and not just for the narrow reasons of Mideast diplomacy. If the West can’t manage to engage with the Islamic world’s most democratic and liberal member, there is little hope it can find common ground with the rest.
With Sami Kohen in Istanbul, Kevin Peraino and Michael Hastings in Qandil and Babak Dehghanpisheh in BaghdadWith in Istanbul and in Qandil and in Baghdad