9 November 2003

 Clever Man in Ankara

By Gwynne Dyer

“If wanted, we’ll go; if not, we won’t,” said Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month, as the discussions about sending the Turkish army into Iraq descended into farce. Now it has all fallen apart, and he is looking very hurt in public, but is he really unhappy about it? Certainly not.

The same goes for the reminder Ankara got from Brussels last week that Turkey’s bid to join the European Union will face “a serious obstacle” if Cyprus is not reunited before next May, when it becomes a EU member. In public, Erdogan had to look worried, but in private he was grateful to the European Commission for tightening the screws on Turkey. It’s just what he needs to bring the army into line.

A lot of Turkey’s conflicts revolve around relations between the army and the government, and at the moment they are very strained. The military distrust any deal with the Greeks that reunites Cyprus and removes Turkish troops from the northern, Turkish-inhabited part of the island. They put a very high value on the US alliance, so they wanted to answer America’s call to send troops to Iraq even though not only the government but Turkish public opinion fiercely opposed it.

To make matters worse, the army is deeply suspicious of Erdogan because of his Islamic radical past, though he swears that he has changed his ways and is now a ‘Muslim Democrat’ who supports the secular state. And Erdogan can’t just ignore the army, because it has intervened in Turkish politics four times in the past forty years to remove governments it didn’t like — mostly on the grounds that they were too closely tied to religion.

The civil-military conflict was bad enough before the US invasion of Iraq, when Erdogan publicly advocated granting the US request to use Turkish bases in the war (because he had to), but a large majority in parliament, including many members of his own party, voted to refuse it. It was after that clash, in May, that General Hilmi Ozkok, chief of the Turkish general staff, was asked if there could ever be a repeat of the 1997 military intervention that eased out an openly Islamist government in Ankara. “That was cause and effect,” the general replied, “and if the cause is still there then the effect will be there also.”

So Erdogan did not object when the United States, facing rising casualties in its post-war occupation of Iraq, came to Ankara looking for 10,000 troops to serve in the Sunni Triangle’ north and west of Baghdad, the very heart of the resistance war. He doubtless thought it was crazy, but he went along with it in public: no point in fighting the Turkish army head-on. Besides, there was the promise of an $8.5 billion US bribe — sorry, loan — for the troubled Turkish economy.

It was similar to Erdogan’s tactics last winter when UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan tabled a proposal for the reunification of the Greek and Turkish enclaves in Cyprus that would allow for some return of refugees while preserving the autonomy of both communities. Erdogan approved of it, and clearly so did a majority of Turkish-Cypriots, who demonstrated in favour of a referendum on the plan.

It was less attractive to Rauf Denktash, ruler of the illegal breakaway Turkish-Cypriot republic since its birth almost thirty years ago. He refused to allow a referendum, saying that “asking for a ‘yes’or ‘no’ on…(the UN) plan is very deceptive and wrong. Instead of offering results, it will fool people.” The Turkish army backed him, and Erdogan ducked a fight on the issue. But in both cases, Iraq and Cyprus, he was just letting time do his fighting for him.

As the date of Cyprus’s admission to the EU draws near, the Turkish army has been left to contemplate just how much it wants to go on occupying northern Cyprus when that is just as much a part of the EU’s territory as Bavaria or Burgundy. The army wants to get Turkey inside the EU just as much as Erdogan does, and the sharp warning from Brussels last week was just what was needed. So the army will now probably decide to stop backing Denktash — which means he will almost certainly lose next month’s election in northern Cyprus, leaving time for a referendum and reunification before the May deadline.

As for Iraq, all Erdogan had to do was say yes to the US request for troops and wait for the Iraqis to refuse. The Ottoman empire ruled Iraq for 350 years until less than a century ago, and the Turkish army was not exactly popular by the time it left. Even the tame ‘Iraqi Governing Council’ in Baghdad protested against the planned Turkish deployment, and America’s allies in Iraqi Kurdistan practically had apoplexy, so now the whole idea has been quietly dropped.

Oh, but Turkey gets to keep the $8.5 billion, since everybody was piously insisting that there was no connection between troops in Iraq and the Turkish loan. Erdogan is turning out to be a very clever man.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5. (“The civil..also”)