Thursday, June 07, 2007

Has Turkey Crossed the Rubicon?

Southeastern Turkey, Syria, and northern Iraq (Perry-Castaneda)

There is currently a media blackout on Turkey's military operation in the south of the country and in northern Iraq. The American as well as the European press have hardly covered it. Initial reports in the international media, which cited Turkish "security circles," spoke of several thousand Turkish soldiers having entered Iraq in a "very limited" operation. These reports, however, were later denied by the Turkish foreign ministry, Iraqi border officials, as well as by the White House.

At this point, we can only speculate about what is truly transpiring. Clearly, the Turkish military is engaging in a large-scale operation against the PKK within its own borders; most likely, it has also carried the fight into Iraq. The Kurdish separatist group has stepped up its terror campaign inside Turkey in the past few months, providing the Turks with plenty of reasons for a response in southern Turkey as well as against hide-outs and camps across the border.

Turkey has conducted many cross-border raids in the past, and aside from denying that Turkish troops are in Iraq, both the U.S. and the Turks are publicly playing down the scope of this operation. However, there are people in Turkey who are hoping and/or expecting this to be a far more significant move than that. Dr. Melih Can, an "international relations expert," has a long article in Today's Zaman, which I think expresses some of the foreign policy aspirations and grievances of members of the Turkish elite, as they have developed since the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

I previously encountered Can's name last August, when he published a piece on Russian policy in the Middle East. The article, "Did Russia have a hand in stopping Israel?" was a mixture of analysis and wishful (though not entirely unrealistic) thinking that resembles his more recent piece about Turkish ambitions in the region. Writing in the wake of the Lebanon war, Can seemed to me a bit too convinced that Israel had suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of Hizbullah:
The war Israel waged against the Hezbollah will go down in history for destroying the Israeli army’s image of invincibility as much as for the massacres of civilians (Zaman, August 17, 2006).
Can attributed special significance to Hizbullah's supposed successes against Israeli tanks:
Known as the source of Israeli military might and named the “mountain steel,” the Israeli-made Merkava tanks, destroyed one by one by the Hezbollah became a symbol for this crushing defeat.
This, of course, is nothing but hyperbole. Hizbullah actually did not destroy Israeli tanks "one by one." It is true that one older Merkava model was blown up by a massive mine in the initial pursuit across the border, after Hizbullah's kidnapping action. It is also correct that, after the war, Israel complained that Russia had armed Hizbullah with advanced anti-tank missiles (of the type Metis), and that a few of these put some older Merkava tanks out of commission. However, the main damage that Israeli troops incurred at the hand of this weaponry was not to
tanks but to soldiers sleeping in houses.

The main point that Can was trying to make in that piece, however, was about Russia's moves to thwart American and Israeli power in the region in order "to continue in its traditional role of selling arms, directly or indirectly, to Middle Eastern governments and organizations," and to "rectify[...] the role of Russian businessmen in the region’s energy sector" (Zaman). Interestingly enough, the article does not mention Turkey's role in these moves at all. In his latest contribution to the debate, Can lets the cat out of the bag.

While Can's more recent article is not explicitly pro-Russian, it brims with resentment about American limitations on Turkish ambitions in the region. The sense of wounded pride is especially palpable in the penultimate paragraph of the article, in which Can gives the US two choices:
either to pull new “canvas sacks” over Turkey’s head or to enter into a fresh compromise with Turkey in the near future (Zaman, June 7, 2007).
The "canvas sacks," I believe, are a reference to the "hood event" in July 2003, when U.S. troops arrested Turkish special forces operating in northern Iraq, and put hoods or canvas bags over their heads. That incident provoked an uproar in Turkey and was apparently the basis of a 2006 feature film based on the television show "Valley of the Wolves" (whose distribution was blocked in the US, in part due to accusations of antisemitism and anti-Americanism)

According to Can, an over-the-border military operation by Turkey would be about much more than a response to PKK terrorist attacks. Rather, he argues, it would be about "Turkey's new role within the Middle East," and whether the country is to follow a "
mission appropriate to its own history or a more independent set of policies" (Zaman). By "appropriate to its own history," Can seems to mean a policy in line with its Cold War pro-American alignment - not one that accords with Turkey's "historical destiny." The trans-border operation, in Can's mind, thus figures as a crucible for Turkey - it will clarify both the country's willingness to pursue its real interests, as well as America's stance vis-à-vis a more independent Turkey. In that sense, an "over-the-border operation" marks a crossing of the Rubicon, and seems very much bound up with Turkey's destiny in the region.

Kirkuk (Source: Perry-Castaneda)

Can's claim that "there is an extremely pressing need for a breaking point right now, with this need emerging as an over-the-border military operation," is full of expectation of some change, and the sense that aggressive action is necessary for Turkey to break free from the force containing it. That force, it becomes clear, is the U.S., which has pushed Turkey into a difficult predicament. Can distinguishes 7 sub-forces, almost all of which are closely linked to American involvement in the region:
1. the beginning of America's withdrawal, and its alleged "encouragement of various ethnic and sectarian clashes within the framework of its 'New Middle East Strategy.'"

2. increased awareness of threats to Turkey from northern Iraq, and the "provocation of Turkey by the PKK-Barzani relationship"

3. the danger facing Iraqi Turkmens and Kirkuk

4. "the irresponsible and one-sided stance of the US administration"

5. an "i
ncrease in activities aimed at shaking the prestige of Turkey and the Turkish Armed Forces"

6. the involvement of other countries in Iraq, most notably Iran

7. Turkey's domestic political situation
I may be misinterpreting Can, but it seems to me that he even accuses the U.S. of being behind #7. He argues that to prevent Turkey's entry into northern Iraq, "the US is using all possible tools and national dynamics possible in Turkey ... [and that] this is how the current domestic political crisis, blockages and lack of stability in Turkey need to be understood." I am not sure whether Can is implying that the U.S. is supporting Erdogan in his recent show-down with the military and secularists or the latter. It is also possible that he is alluding to U.S. support for the Kurds in Turkey (unlikely), or perhaps even the Armenian Genocide resolution in the American Congress (also unlikely).

Can argues that the Americans aim primarily to have Ankara coordinate its activities with Washington, according to the latter's interests. But Turkey's post-Cold War foreign policy has increasingly diverged from America's, and the U.S.
has become uncomfortable with Turkey's displays of a more independent stance, the attempts to define the agenda, moves to forge new alliances and, as a result, entrance into a new period in the "Turkish-Islamic" world through a venture involving Russia and Iran (Zaman).
Both Turkey's increasingly eastern orientation in the region - Can speaks of shifts in the Ankara-Damascus-Cairo-Riyadh-Tehran-Islamabad line - and its refusal to subordinate itself to America's stance on Russia (the Turks are not cooperating with the U.S. strategic aim of building a gas pipeline network that provides a viable alternative to Russia's Gazprom) testify to a clash of interests. Of particular concern to the U.S., is the possibility that Turkey will go for an even more independent policy vis-à-vis Iran.

Source: Wikipedia

On the other hand, in the Caucasus, American and Turkish interests seem so far to coincide, as both countries have invested a great deal in strengthening Georgia and Azerbaijan (see our post on some of the pipelines). Still, in the Middle East, or as Can says, "in the former Ottoman Empire areas," the Turks are clearly flexing their muscles. Turkey has emerged as a respected (by the Arabs) "mediator" in the region who might undermine American pre-eminence as a broker, and the
respect and esteem achieved by Turkey in the former Ottoman Empire areas following March 1, 2003 have only served to underscore its capacity for changing current regional balances in the future (Zaman).
March 1, 2003, of course, was the date on which the Turkish parliament ended up rejecting U.S. troop deployment in the country ahead of the invasion of Iraq. Turkey, in other words, Can says, is no longer content to play the "memorized roles" that it performed during the Cold War.

It is true, of course, that the PKK's terrorism in Turkish cities is also an important motivating factor for action in northern Iraq. Turkey's patience with U.S. declarations about the problem of attacks carried out from bases in Iraqi Kurdistan has run out. Furthermore, according to Can, the Turkish Army does not take seriously "veiled threats" against the Kurds as well as against Turkish incursions (on the latter, see my January post on former Pentagon Undersecretary Dov Zakheim's op-ed). Turkey's Chief of Staff, General Yaşar Buyukanit has apparently not ruled out a confrontation with American troops, and there is a pro-Russian tendency in the military.

Can's hope - and hence the sense of expectation - is that an "over-the-border operation" will finally address a complicated set of policy problems that require resolution. In particular, he believes that it could clarify
1.Turkish-Western relations (Turkey-US as well as Turkey-EU)

2. Turkish-Russian, Turkish-Iranians, and Turkish-Iranian-Russian relations

3. the future of Iraq and a Kurdish state, and thereby, "the partnership and friendship of Turkey-Syria-Iran"

4. role of the Kurds in the region, especially Kurdish nationalism around the PKK and Barzani

5. Turkey's new regional and global position, especially the question of whether Turkey will be a global player

6. the terror problem in Turkey and "theoretical 'civil war scenarios'"

7. leadership processes in Turkey.
This seems to me a very tall order that will probably be disappointed and thus lead to further frustration. But very much will depend on the American response. It is possible that the U.S. has been denying that anything unusual is taking place precisely because it does not want the "over-the-border operation" to extend beyond the immediate problem of the PKK. News of a large Turkish invasion, with designs on Kirkuk, would be an untenable provocation and force the U.S.'s hand. However, in the meantime, it appears that the Americans have left the Kurds to confront the threat by themselves (a May 30 agreement handed security in three provinces over to the Kurdistan Northern Regional Government), and are waiting things out on the sidelines.


Nobody said...

what do you know about the military capabilities of Iraqi Kurds ??? I would believe that they did not waste these years for nothing ... do you think they have been preparing themselves for a possible invasion from Turkey or Iran and Syria???

Amos said...


Are you wondering whether this is Kurdistan's 1948?

I really don't know if they can confront the Turkish army head-on. But they've been buying up arms like crazy, and apparently they've been getting training from certain third parties.

Nobody said...

Are you wondering whether this is Kurdistan's 1948?

it's a very good way to put it

Nobody said...

the problem is that they should better not even try to win this war ... they have to find a compromise with Turkey ... it may become their only way to the outside world ... and very soon

Jeha said...

This an eye opener, and any invasion would indeed a big move by the Turks. But this time, if the Turks push too far, the Kurds can draw on a wider support base.

ariel said...

As I recall, a while ago you were talking about three separate states for Iraq's Kurds, Shias and Sunnis as the most reasonable solution for that mess. Do you still think that's the case, and what do Turkey's ambitions/actions mean in that regard?

Amos said...


I am not sure I said it was the most reasonable solution, but I did say that such a partition is inevitable in this post on the "Disintegration of the Middle East."

All of Iraq's neighbors fear a partition of Iraq, for different reasons. Turkey, Iran, and Syria are especially worried about the creation of an independent Kurdish state. The truth is, however, that the Kurds were already approaching de facto independence in northern Iraq, at least before these troubles, as Nobody points out.

While Turkey wants to prevent the declaration of an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq, the Turks would at some point have been rendered powerless to stop it. Much will depend on how the Kurds maneuver themselves out of this situation, and, more importantly, on the position adopted by the U.S. in response to Kurdish and Turkish moves.

One of the big problems is the status of Kirkuk - a city which the Kurds claim as their own but which the Turks see as a red line. I had a post on it a while ago that might still be of interest.

Lirun said...

curious.. do u find delving in this stuff enlightening or depressing..

Anonymous said...

Observations of a common idiot (in the old Greek sense).
Turkry Israel. The relations of Tu & Is changed about 40 years ago because of observable and imagined change in the military position of Is. in the ME. Also because of the tradtional Tu. attitude to the Arabs - Muslims after the big betrayal at 1914-1918 and the "drag" toward Europe + a mytical concept of the Jewish power. If Tu. believe, rightly or wrongly, that Is. lost its military power the relations of the two countries will change. The exact numbers of Merkava hits-destructions which was not worse than in previous wars, the Ben Israel report appeared in the net, has nothing to do with what people belive, which is based on the TV and popular press. Add to this the intense hatered of Is. broadcasted by the world media. No body like a weak Jew.
OIl. If and when Turkey will obtain a measure of control of the oil of North Iraq the Turkish position in the world will change. I belive as most Tu. that this oil was stolen from Tu. after WW I.
USA Tu, since the begining of the 20th century The USA supported Tu. in the International arena constantly and faifully(see the next point). It will be most stupid and irresponsible to exchange this for "good" relations with Russia and even less so with relations with Iran. Did some body mentioned Syria?
In the modern holy trinity "ethnic cleaning", "occupation" "resistance". Turkey has very weak stand, North Cyprus was occupied and 100% ethnically cleaned. Comparing Cyprus to Palestine will teach an interesting course in international law, morality and hypocracy and the power of the USA and other friends of Tu. in the "world opinion" arena. The accounts of Greece and Tu. are not settled and finished but are now dormants. They can be activated any time. Is Tu. ready to start playing this game in order to form a Tu. Iran Syria axis with the blessing of Russia.
Tu. friends.
The article you cite means that Tu. is (for now?) leaving the hard and disappointing efforts to join Europe ? Is Tu. going to be a polity like Spain-Portugal or like Iran-Pakistan-Egypt ? Once you start going on this slippery slope where will it end? at one time, not very long time ago, Alexandia (Egyp.) was more like a Europen port and Istambul was more like Teheran, this is not the situation now. Does Tu. want to change the trend?
The martyrs square in Beiruth is named after people hung by the Tu. All history text books in Leb. tell a sad tale of pracical slavery under Tu. (again the facts matter little, it is what people think). In a political System Tu.-Iran-Syria what will be the fate of Lebanon?
Tu.-Iran+ invasion of Kurdistan. Will this mythical thing the Arab masses accept a Tu. invsion of Iraq+ an axis Tu-iran?. If so the Arab masses are realy nothing.
More can be said if any body care enough to point all that is wrong in the above.

Amos said...


Some small things.

US and Turkey: I would not say that America has supported Turkey since the beginning of the 20th century. The U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during WWI, Henry Morgenthau, was a one-man campaign against that state's genocide of its Armenian population as well as of its measures against other Christian groups in the empire.He was not as interested in the Jews, although, of course, they were not targeted for extermination. Consistent U.S. support for Turkey dates to the Cold War era.

As for the hierarchy of victimization that you describe - Turks believe themselves to be the foremost victim of the early 20th century. Hundreds of thousands of "Turks" (Muslims) were expelled from the Balkans and North Caucasus beginning in the second half of the 19th century; many were killed or died as a result. The conspiracies of the imperialist Great Powers to dismember the Ottoman Empire figures greatly in their narrative of victimhood. I think the American constraints on Turkey's actions are seen as a sort of repeat of that history.

On the oil - how do you think Turkey might gain control of this oil in a manner satisfactory to it? If they pursued a quieter policy, something along the lines of the Chinese today, they would simply use the market and profit enormously. But they would have to compete with American, British, and Iranian oil companies.

On the tanks - can you send us a link to the report?

As always, thanks for your comments.

Eamonn said...

With regard to the Merkava's performance last year:

"Of the nearly 400 IDF tanks deployed during the conflict, fewer than five were destroyed by underbelly charges, while dozens were damaged by anti-tank munitions, officials said. But only 22 tanks were actually penetrated by Kornet-E and Methis-M and other missiles, and in half of those instances, no IDF troops were killed. In the other half, fatalities were minimized by armor and other means of survivability designed specifically for the Merkava tank."

And with regard to an issue raised by Hazbani...

The idea that the war last year represented a turning of the tide of military dominance against Israel can only be sustained by those who think it was omnipotent before. And the facts do not bear this out. The IDF did very badly in border clashes on a number of occasions in the immediate post-1948 period, Sharon nearly came unstuck at the Mitla pass in 1956, then there was Karameh in 1968, the war of Attrition didn’t exactly go all Israel’s way and what happened last year was a walk in the park by comparison to the Yom Kippur War.

The IDF hasn’t always been invincible and won every conflict without breaking sweat and Israel’s Arab enemies have often fought well. The Six Day War was an exceptional event and even that cost 700 or so Israeli lives.

I doubt if the Turkish General Staff - and Turkey being the country it is, it's their opinion that counts - is stupid enough to buy into the notion that “the Jew” has suddenly become weak.

Anonymous said...

Thank you eamonn.
I agree and stand corected, in what I have erred. Thank you for the statistics concerning the IDF armor casualties.
Yes, in many past occasions the IDF did not do well. Generally wars are like that, and any body who underestimates the opposition pay. However many of these underachievements for some reason(s) are considered victories of some kind, even if not total. There is no possibility of a total Israeli victory in any case. In the Arab world and in many places in the World generally (I do not read Turkish) the results of last war are touted, by many not by all, as great victories for few Hizb. fighters. In any case clearly it was not an Israeli victory. More over, now, after the war, one have in Lebanon a major Iranian military base. With an investment of very many millions (billion?) Iran have restablished there a missiles base with a fire power that can be maintained by very few nations, these missiles can reach Turkey. Israel have done nothing about it, or rather failed in this aspect. Moving a missile base of 300 km range 50 km away is not a very great victory. The plain fact is that if once the Turkish Army had to consider NATO and USSR missiles now they have to think, not much and not every day, about Iranian ones, from the east and from the south. If they do not they are fools and they are not. A Syrian-Iranian military agreement, of any kind, with this missiles base in Leb. and others in Iran can not make the Turkish army jump with joy. I fail to see how this poor military result of last summer war, and there were others, will not affect the Israeli Turkish relations.

Anonymous said...

I have some place an internal USN paper dealing with USN relations with Turkey 1914-1940. which told a very interested tale. I do not remember the details but here is what I remember.
A question, Armenians or not, when? if ever, did the USA legally get into war against Turkey in WW I ? did the USA conducted real acts of war against Turkey in WW I ? 1) Very late if ever.2) little is any.
What was the USA position during the Greek Turkish war after WW I ?
( you dealt with this war in your note). Not as greedy and mean and anti Turkish as all the others
What was the USA position on the borders of Turkey after WW I and the whole complex of treaties that shaped the present ME borders.?
See the answer above.
If Turkey considers it self a victim in the period post 1918 what was the role and position of the USA among these who wronged Turkey? in relation to the Arabs, UK, France, Italy, Greece, and even Germany and the USSR.?
Much better than the first five and complicated in relation to the other two.
If it was not done already this can make a very nice paper in a graduate seminar and later in a learned periodical.

Eamonn said...

Hazbani says:

"I fail to see how this poor military result of last summer war, and there were others, will not affect the Israeli Turkish relations. "

I agree.

I was just objecting to simplistic notions - which I am sure you don´t hold - along the lines of "israel was strong before last summer, now it is weak."

There are simply too many variables in play in any country's national security for that to make sense.

Israel is certainly perceived as being weaker, which in itself causes it to be, to a certain degree, weaker. You are also right about that.

Nobody said...

i think you exaggerate the importance of israel for turkey .. they are probably much more preoccupied with the kurds and a possible (inevitable??) collapse of iraq ...

also i suspect this government to harbor a certain anti american feeling just because they are an islamic party ... of course they are extremely moderate by the standards of the region but still they are probably much less moderate than they want to appear ... a lot of their moderation is probably just an attempt to to thread very lightly on issues that can upset the military and secular sectors ...

Amos said...


I disagree. I think Turkey's perceptions of Israel's strength matter a great deal in determining its alliances in the rest of the region. The more "eastward" shift of Turkish foreign policy will surely accelerate if Turkey believes that the ability of Israel, as well as the U.S., to project force in the region are declining.

Furthermore, it is a fallacy to ascribe the anti-Americanism in Turkey to the Islamists. There is a lot of discontent precisely in the military with American policy, and the (secular) nationalists in society are the ones who are turning more anti-European and anti-American.

Hazbani - I am going to respond to your very interesting comments later.

Eamonn - thanks for the data.

Nobody said...

Furthermore, it is a fallacy to ascribe the anti-Americanism in Turkey to the Islamists. There is a lot of discontent precisely in the military with American policy, and the (secular) nationalists in society are the ones who are turning more anti-European and anti-American.

it's a fallacy to ascribe only to the islamists or to ascribe it to them at all ???

if i remember it right when the government refused passage to the US forces into iraq via Turkey the standard commentary was that it had upset the military ... over years the US treatment of the kurdish issue may have produced a deep resentment of the US in other sectors too, but my impression was that from the beginning the islamists wanted to gradually distance themselves from the US

Amos said...


Only to them.

I think that antipathy, in Turkey, toward Israel (and Jews) as well as the U.S. cuts across the secular-religious divide. Maybe the Turks are not all that different from most of the world in this respect though.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to take your place and time.
In WW I Turkey tried the Arab-Islamic card which failed miserably. When compared to the present this should tell us things about the arrow of time, the role of religion in the Muslim world (funny word combination) progress, secularization, old time, the war between religion and science, some body said "one way progress" "end of history?", and much more. To the people who brought Turkey out of the ashes it was clear that absolutly nothing but nothing can be built on Arabs and Islam. They even tried to create "Pan Turkism" as if to take the place of the no good two. The story is too long for the net. Any how, human memory being what it is and when the leadership of the Sunna ideology have passed from the like of Egypt El Azhar to more fanatical others (who is paying for the Turkish Islamic revival? I realy have no idea)Again Islam and the Arabs are charming the elite of Turkey, which is realy economically and ethnically a waking giant. This can be "bad" but also very "good". In Islam the rulling elite always took good care to also control religion, Sultan=Khalif. If and when the new Turkish elite + Europe will spent several millions in creating a Turkish Islam, which is absolutly possible, some thing good may come of it. It will be also a good investment looking at the over all price of security in air ports. Henry the VIII did it and then Elizabeth I and we are writting English. But for this one need to produce leadership and I have written about that miserable quality control of this production line. Sorry to have taken your place and time.

JB said...

Interesting that Hazbani and you and are writing about Turkey getting closer to the Arabs. Al Jazeera was running this big series on Turkey, as well, where they interviewed prominent Turks and how the viewed the Turkey-US relationship. Some of these Turks were Islamists or were from the previous banned Islamist party and spoke really good Arabic. One Islamist party guy was really dumb in my opinion - just gave this really simplistic diatribe against British and American colonialism and America wanting to establish colonies in the Middle East (it involved Israel of course).

Amos said...


Still reading up on your questions about US-Turkey. You are obviously right; I am just trying to work out a few more details. I don't know anything about the US Navy specifically though.

On relations between Turkey and Russia, look at this recent provocative declaration by a Russian think-tanker:

Two big players in the region, Russia and Turkey have a key role to play, said Yevgeniy Kajokin, head of the Russian Strategic Studies Institute, in an interview on Friday. The cooperation by the two countries on Iranian and Iraqi issues is of crucial importance, he added. Kajokin also noted that the countries should first fill the gap by fostering ties in the political and economic areas and then extend it to the military sphere as well.