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Turkey's Strategic Position at the Crossroads of World Affairs

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank, Dr. William T. Johnsen, Dr. Stephen C. Pelletiere. | December 1993

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Turkey sits astride Europe, particularly the Balkans, the Middle East, and the former Soviet empire now known as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) . In addition, since 1980 Turkey has compiled an enviable record of economic growth and democratization in politics. For these reasons U.S. policymakers have assumed that Turkey, a steadfast U.S. ally, is especially well-poised to play a role as an anchor in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), as a positive pole of attraction for the Middle East and southern republics of the ex-USSR in Transcaucasia and Central Asia, and as a block against a resurgence of Russian power and/or Iranian fundamentalism.

This analysis of Turkey's policies and current geostrategic or geopolitical role in these regions is contained in three independent chapters that consider the extent to which Turkey can play those roles expected by its leaders and elites and by U.S. policymakers, as well. In his analysis, Lieutenant Colonel William T. Johnsen observes that Turkey's role in Europe has both magnified and declined since the fall of the Soviet empire. On the one hand, its importance for the Middle East, which could become an out-of-area threat to Europe, has visibly grown. On the other, Turkey's application to the European Union (EU) (formerly European Community [EC] ) and, by implication, the Western European Union (WEU), has been deflected and delayed, causing a great deal of concern in Turkey as to European suspicion of Turkey. In addition, NATO as a whole and Turkey's role in particular have come under question in the absence of a definable threat and Western Europe's visible disinclination to shoulder security burdens in the Balkans.

Nowhere is that disinclination and Turkish suspicion of European objectives more clear than in the Bosnian war where Turkey continues to see a Muslim state wiped out in Europe while nobody takes action against Serbia. There are fears that entry into Europe through integration with European security organizations, the fundamental priority of Turkish foreign policy, is in danger, and that Turkey runs a risk of being somehow marginalized in European calculations. Accordingly, Turkey will and has come closer to the United States to seek support for and understanding of its ultimate objectives. Turkey's integration into Europe is, Johnsen argues, in our interests, and should be supported by a series of U.S. initiatives in and out of NATO to strengthen its standing in Europe, win support for this integration, and bolster Turkey's self-confidence about its future prospects.

But, on the other hand, it is clear that, because of this disconnection between Europe and Turkey, it would be fallacious to expect that Turkey undertake a leading or even unilateral role in assuring Balkan security or the lead in the Eastern Mediterranean. Greco-Turkish rivalry has grown in the recent past, and while one cannot forecast what the new Papandreougovernment in Greece will do, the Bosnian war, Cyprus, and other issues have brought this rivalry into the center of regional security agendas and further complicated Turkey's efforts to win support for its European objectives. Much depends on U.S. support for Turkey, but it cannot be said that even then Turkey's problems will be sufficiently reduced for it to satisfy its objectives. But otherwise, there is hardly any prospect for successful Turkish integration into Europe in the near-to-medium term.

Dr. Stephen C. Pelletiere focuses on the complexities that Turkey's own unresolved domestic issues, in particular the Kurdish insurgency in its southeast, pose for Turkey's overall security relationship with its Near Eastern neighbors: Syria, Iran, and Iraq. From Dr. Pelletiere's analysis it is clear Iran and Syria are using the Kurdish issue to coerce Turkey. They fear Ankara's close ties with the United States which, they believe, is a vehicle for spreading the influence of the West into the region. Thus, support for Kurdish rebels has become an instrument of these states' policies, to be turned on and off in order to achieve their aims or to pressure Turkey.

Today, as Turkey assumes a clearer rivalry in the area with Iran, he argues that Iran has stepped up its support for the Kurdish insurgents and is using them to unhinge Turkey at home. At the same time Turkey appears to be playing a dangerously uncertain hand in its own policies towards the insurgents because it is relying almost exclusively on military repression of the movements involved and neglecting the socio-economic and political alternatives many Western observers believe must be employed to resolve the Kurdish issue. Indeed, the army has evidently threatened to impose martial law in the spring of 1994 if the insurgency is not crushed. But as long as this issue remains an increasingly vital and first-order military priority, Turkey will face an enormous task of domestic reconstruction, be at odds with its neighbors over their support for the insurgents, and find itself castigated in the United States and Europe for human rights violations. At the same time, if it continues to resort exclusively to military tactics of counterinsurgency, Turkey may risk the progress in democratization that it has achieved and undermine not only its domestic stability but also its ability to play a leading role in any international venue.

This prospect is particularly troubling because the Kurdish areas of Turkey are the only ones in which U.S. forces are directly engaged through our participation in OPERATION PROVIDE COMFORT. U.S. forces, using this area for that relief operation and for overflights and monitoring of Iraqi compliance with U.N. resolutions, could be drawn into future hostilities over the Kurdish issue. Since there are grounds for believing that Iran and Iraq, as well as possibly Syria, see that U.S. engagement as a potential base for a long-term U.S. military presence that is directly aimed at them, there are real possibilities for an anti-American coalition, either political or even military, employing terrorism, low-intensity conflict operations, and the like that could involve the United States as well as offer serious problems for Turkey.

As numerous analysts have noted, Turkey cannot play a role of a model and commercial entrepot for the new former Soviet republics if it cannot solve its own extensive domestic problems. In his chapter, detailing Turkey's relations with the new states in Central Asia and the Transcaucasus and Russia, Dr. Stephen J. Blank assesses the prospect for Turkey to play this role and finds it substantially overdrawn. Both the United States and Turkey in 1991-92 believed that Turkey ought to take a leading role in the stabilization of the Black Sea, Transcaucasia, and Central Asia, against revived Russian imperialism and, in particular, Iranian-type fundamentalism. Regardless of the fact that these new societies of largely Muslim persuasion are very unlike Iran, it appears that Turkey's domestic problems and the economic crisis of enormous magnitude afflicting those areas precludes Turkey from successfully playing the role hoped for by the United States.

Turkey's main concrete objectives have been to dominate these new states' energy economy and thus enrich itself and tie them into a Turkish-led economic system, and to prevent the return of Russian military pressure to and on its borders. In both objectives it is failing or has demonstratively failed. In the Black Sea, efforts at security collaboration with Ukraine and larger regional coordination through the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Zone (BSECZ) have failed to give Turkey what it wants. In Ukraine, failure to reform has led Ukraine to sell its Black Sea Fleet and nuclear arms to Russia, although it denies doing so, in return for debt relief. In the BSECZ, Greece and Russia are combining to block any Turkish leadership role.

In the Transcaucasus, during 1993 it became clear that Turkey was deterred effectively from acting against Armenian expansion and threats to dismember Azerbaijan that have developed in the course of the long war over Nagorno- Karabakh. Turkish helplessness to aid even a pro-Ankara government and Russia's ability to unseat that government, and replace it with a pro-Moscow one that now has rejoined the CIS and is accepting long-term Russian bases there denotes the breakdown of Turkey's defense strategy. As a result of Russian overt and covert operations throughout this region, Russian troops will be stationed in all three states, Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, and Russia alone will probably play the role of "peacemaker" in the region's numerous ethnic conflicts. Turkey has also failed to monopolize or gain a commanding role in the energy economy ofTranscaucasia. Instead it is locked in a bruising economic rivalry with Russia over transshipment routes and pipelines. The outcome remains undecided, but it cannot end better than in a compromise where Russia gains the most.

Although Turkey has invested heavily in Central Asia, it is still unable to provide what the pro-Moscow rulers of the region most need, military security and control over energy and transportation, and food trade. Central Asian rulers, whatever their private inclinations, have been obliged to rejoin the Russian economic sphere by quite brutal Muscovite policies and have also evinced growing suspicion of Turkey's activities. Moreover, other states, not just Iran, Russia, and Pakistan, are competing for influence in the region, allowing local leaders to pick and choose among them. Turkey's own limitations emerge in this context as the most serious factor inhibiting it from playing the leadership role in Central Asia that was previously expected.

Finally, there are strains growing in the relationship with Washington. U.S. aid is being cut and converted into loans. Turkey's efforts to reverse that trend and get stable guarantees has led to growing resort to mutual blackmail over aid and bases, and a threat to condition aid on solution of the Kurdish problem. That would mean making Turkey's entire international position hostage to its ability to satisfy Washington and/or Europe on this problem at a time when neither one of them appears fully committed to helping Turkey achieve its and their interests. Thus the report concludes with suggestions for improving the relationship and calls for a clear U.S. strategy and concept of U.S. and Turkish interests in the regions of mutual engagement so that the United States can help Ankara overcome its problems.

Conclusions and Recommendations

As of autumn 1993, there is no doubt that Turkey stands at a crossroads as it attempts to formulate a strategy appropriate to its position. Turkey's international position today is not what its elites or the United States confidently expected in 1991. Therefore Turkey needs to rethink its strategy. Several of the objectives and policies it eagerly embraced in the wake of the Soviet collapse and Operation DESERT STORM have been revealed to be incompatible with Turkish interests or beyond Turkish capacities. The effort to propel Turkey into a leading regional position has stimulated an assertive Russian response that Turkey cannot and will not resist. We also, like the Turkish government, believe that Iran is using Turkey's internal unrest due to the Kurdish problem to destabilize it in Iran's rivalry with Turkey for position and influence in Azerbaijan and Central Asia.

The problem of the Kurds complicates both Turkey's domestic sources of strength abroad and Turkey's international position vis-a-vis Iraq, Iran, and potentially, Armenia. Perhaps for those reasons Prime Minister Ciller was evidently pondering emphasizing economics over military instruments to deal with the domestic Kurdish problem.1 This emphasis on enhancing Turkey's economic strength and position and on recovering Turkey's position in the international energy market has also led Ankara to support lifting the ban on Iraqi export of oil, in particular, opening the pipeline from Iraq through Turkey. Those specific policies towards Iraq directly clash with the U.S. policy of treating Iraq as an enemy and imposing punitive restraints upon it.2

In Transcaucasia, however, we find the most pressing and urgent need for a rethinking of Turkish security strategy. Turkey has apparently lost or is losing out to Russian policy in the Armeno-Azeri war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Continuing Armenian offensives, if unchecked, could lead to war involving Turkey and even Russia and Iran against Erevan, which would be a disaster for Turkey as its leaders recognize. On the other hand, it appears that Russia is successfully employing the full range of both overt and covert political and military operations against the fighters in this war and in the Georgian-Abkhazian one to reassert its position as the sole arbiter and protector of the Caucasus and Transcaucasus.3 The attainment of that goal would deprive Turkey of the chance to achieve that coveted objective which had influenced policy after 1991. Russia's actions take on a decidedly sinister light when the general climate of military insubordination and independence of the Russian armed forces is factored into the equation, because it is unclear whether or not the Yeltsin government knows and is controlling these covert as well as overt operations. As we have seen, the overt policy is to restore Russian regional primacy. But if local or central military actors are undertaking their own actions with a view towards restoring a "Pax Russica" in the area, the consequences of their actions could lead to intensification or spread of the fighting in and around Azerbaijan. Neither answer is comforting to those who count either on stability in the CIS or on the permanent end of the Russian empire.4

At the same time, the United States is apparently willing to back the Turkish demand, constraining maritime oil shipments through the Straits, thus ranging the United States against an important Russian interest in that part of the world.5 Because the Clinton administration has not announced a public posture on the war in Transcaucasia, it cannot be known whether this support on oil transport signifies a U.S. move towards an overall policy position on the Transcaucasus and the entire region. However, because the Bush and Clinton administrations have supported Turkey's efforts to upgrade its influence in the old Soviet empire until now, the U.S. Government evidently will have to articulate its position and interests in this region. By the same token, a reformulation of U.S. policy towards Iraq may become necessary if the combined weight of the Kurdish problem in Turkey and Turkey's need for oil and trade revenues from Iraq leads it out of the embargo and support for Iraq's international isolation. The concatenation of events in Central Asia, the Kurdish problem, and Transcaucasia all point, therefore, to the urgent necessity of rethinking the entire range of U.S and Turkish interests, both singly and in tandem, with regard to those regions.

Turkey's European policies will also have to be reassessed. Turkey's priority still remains its European connection.6 The sons of Ataturk still look to the West. And their turn to Central Asia has the object of appearing as Europeans to Central Asia and of using the promise of stabilizing that region as a lever with which to enter the EU, WEU, and the new Europe. But here, too, Turkey has found Greco-Russian resistance to its efforts in the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Zone and those states' resistance to its policies or potential policies in Yugoslavia's wars. Similarly Turkey is dismayed at the West's refusal, through its various security organizations, to take an active role in terminating the aggression it perceives directed against the Bosnian Muslims and potentially threatening Muslims in Kossovo.

The various wars from Yugoslavia to Tadzhikistan that have broken out since 1991 have all acted to reduce Turkey's regional prospects in both Europe and Asia. The crisis in the Balkans aggravates Greco-Turkish rivalries, and triggers European alarm about Muslim influence in Europe. The wars in Georgia and Transcaucasia preclude the very stabilization needed there by Turkey to make its economic-political presence felt. Similarly the economic collapse of Ukraine that forced it into a deal with Russia over its nuclear weapons and the Black Sea Fleet precludes both stabilization of Ukraine and too overt a connection with Turkey. And the ongoing war in Tadzhikistan that has led to the further introduction of Russian troops along with Russia's blunt efforts at regional economic coercion of that area have also deflected Central Asian states from Turkey.

Thus, in all the areas of concern that we have analyzed, Turkish objectives are receding further from attainment and are increasingly seen as beyond Turkey's foreseeable capabilities. To attain its priority goals in Europe and Asia, Turkey probably will have to obtain increasing support from the United States. However, Turkish interests could, as in the Iraqi case, introduce frictions with the United States. Turkish official opinion apparently was also disturbed by President Clinton's U.N. speech because it apparently implied to Ankara that the U.N. and the United States could not or would not address the Transcaucasian and/or Bosnian wars, an approach that called U.N. credibility into question and effectively left Turkey as a lone `front-line' state confronting a resurgent Russia, and defiant Serbia and Armenia.7 And, on Iraq, Turkey is apparently reversing the threat made by the Clinton administration that it might further cut back aid to Turkey if it continues to demand guaranteed security subsidies irrespective of its Kurdish policy. Prime Minister Ciller hinted that if the United States does not arrange to recompense Turkey for its losses due to the Iraqi embargo, it might not extend its agreement to allow its airfield and roads to be used to supply Iraqi Kurds in Operation PROVIDE COMFORT.8 Thus a tone of mutual blackmail is creeping into U.S.-Turkish relations even as we proclaim Turkey a model against Iranian backed fundamentalism and a bulwark against Russia.

The problem here is that at the same time as the United States has encouraged Turkey to expand its objectives, its means for doing so are shrinking. In Russia, the government fully believes that the West and the U.N. have implicitly recognized Moscow's mandate, under the guise of peacekeeping, to restore its hegemony in Transcaucasia. Both that hegemony and Western support for it are fundamental objectives of the Yeltsin government.9 And Russia's demand for revising the CFE Treaty in Transcaucasia is widely, and rightly we would argue, seen in Ankara an intending "to obstruct the possibility of any direct or indirect intervention in the region by other countries, as was the case when the former Soviet Union existed."10 Yet apart from inviting Prime Minister Shevarnadze of Georgia to Washington, supporting Georgia's independence, covertly attempting as we did to strengthen its security services, and offering small amounts of aid to it, the United States has yet to outline a policy for the Transcaucasus or a strategy to stop Russian imperial restoration there. Although our special ambassador to the area, John Maresca, has stated U.S. opposition to exclusive Russian peacekeeping and favored a role for Turkey, more than this is needed. 11

Thus Turkey is essentially forced to confront the Russians with only intangible means of support from the United States. Turkish friction with key states like Russia, or with the Kurds, or other Muslim or European states may contribute to the decline of U.S. support which apparently is ebbing due to international retrenchment. Or alternatively, such frictions might force Washington into a position of having to choose between Turkish and other states' or actors' key interests which are more important to it, e.g. Russia. Presumably that is the reason why Prime Minister Ciller told the press before her trip to Washington that she hoped to persuade the United States to view the Middle East and Transcaucasia "through Turkish lenses."12

At the same time Turkey clearly needs the United States to smooth her way into Europe. But the Kurdish insurgency has become a threat to all of Turkey's vital international objectives. Turkey believes that Iran and Armenia are behind PKK attacks and that some of these attacks by the Kurds in Turkey and the Armenians in Azerbaijan are directed against Turkish oil pipelines to dissuade Western investment and disrupt its vital energy programs. Moreover Armenia and Iran each are evidently assisting the PKK in its attacks.13 By the fall of 1993 it had also become clear that there was no end in sight to the Kurdish insurgency and it was reaching a new level of ferocity, to the extent that the Turkish military, which was running the counter-insurgency program, has promised to crush the insurgency by spring 1994 or institute martial law.14

American and Western observers in Turkey concur that this primarily military approach is doomed to fail with incalculable consequences, and our analysis agrees with that conclusion. But evidently, mindful of Turkey's role in NATO, and agreeing with Ankara's depiction of the insurgents as terrorists, they have held back from speaking out.15 Yet, at the same time, this spreading insurgency makes it impossible for Turkey to play its expected role elsewhere and leads to friction over aid with the United States. Most importantly, it has become apparent to Ciller and her government that the Kurdish problem is the greatest present obstacle to membership in the EU, inasmuch as the European Parliament is now demanding fundamental changes in Turkish policy towards the Kurds.16 So, in Europe as well, Turkey's domestic and security problems, as Sezer noted above, are inextricably enmeshed.

Thus there is a need for a rethinking of American policy vis-a-vis Turkey's European objectives, the Kurds, Iraq, and for clear U.S. and Turkish objectives in Transcaucasia and Central Asia. Although both sides are in constant communication, they need to rethink and harmonize their perspectives to achieve more meaningful cooperation and to integrate Turkey more fully with Europe so that it can play the larger role to which it aspires. The most fundamental task for the United States is to clarify its own objectives with regard to the areas and issues in question: Balkans, Central Asia, Transcaucasus, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Russian imperial longings, and Turkish integration in Europe. It must undertake that clarification with Turkey which must likewise clarify its interests and capabilities. Then together the two states must devise a program to strengthen their mutual capability to achieve those interests that are vital to both and which can be attainable over time, even in a worst case scenario.

Turkey cannot be made to do for the United States what Ankara cannot do for itself or what Washington will not or cannot do either. If the Russian empire is to be stopped in the South then the United States and Ankara must provide the resources necessary to achieve that overriding geopolitical goal. If neither side is willing, and Turkey will not act unilaterally, then we should forget about pushing Turkey into the breach against both Teheran and Moscow as we undercut it because of displeasure with its domestic politics. Therefore, the authors have outlined specific suggestions as to how U.S.-Turkish relations may be further consolidated and how a coherent Turkish policy that positively contributes to regional security may be jointly devised. We recommend the following specific U.S. actions apart from the need to outline general regional objectives in cooperation with Ankara.


1. "Ciller Interviewed on Policy," FBIS-WEU-93-123, June 29, 1993, pp. 71-73; "Ciller Addresses Grand National Assembly," FBIS-WEU-93-128, July 7, 1993, pp. 67-81.

2. See the reports beginning with "Initiative Launched to Lift Embargo on Iraq," FBIS-WEU-93-171, September 7, 1993, pp. 53-54.

3. See the very disturbing findings in Thomas Goltz, "The Hidden Russian Hand," Foreign Policy, No. 92, Fall 1993, pp. 92-116; and Catherine Dale, "Turmoil in Abkhazia: Russian Responses," RFE/RL Research Report, II, No. 34, August 27, 1993, pp. 48-57.

4.Ibid., and Goltz, pp. 92-116.

5. "U.S. Officials View Traffic Through Straits of Bosporous," FBIS- WEU, 93-171, September 7, 1993, pp. 55-56.

6. Fouad Ajami, "The Summoning," Foreign Affairs, Vol. LXXII, No. 4, September/October, 1993, p. 5.

7. "Clinton's UN Address Fails To Reassure Turkey," FBIS-WEU- 93-194, October 8, 1993, p. 69.

8. William Safire, "Ally for Sale," The New York Times, October 28, 1993, p. A27.

9. "Deputy Foreign Minister on UN Support for Peacekeeping," FBIS-SOV-93-179, September 17, 1993, pp. 6-7; Alexander Iskandaryan, "Diplomacy as the Continuation of War," New Times, No. 40, 1993, pp. 16-17.

10. "Yeltsin Letter to Demirel on Military Presence Causes Stir: Officials React," FBIS-WEU-93-186, September 28, 1993, p. 54.

11. "Azerbaijani Envoy on Oil Iran; U.S. Envoy's Remarks Cited," Ibid., p. 55.

12. "Ciller Comments on Goal of U.S. Visit, Somalia, Iraq,"FBIS-WEU-93-198, October 15, 1993, p. 71.

13. "Armenian, PKK Military Moves Linked To Azerbaijani Oil Deal," FBIS-WEU-93-167, August 31, 1993, pp. 56-57.

14. Safire, p. A27; Alan Cowell, "Turks' War With Kurds Reaches a New Ferocity," The New York Times, October 18, 1993, p. A3; "Ocalan, Officials View Army, PKK Actions," FBIS-WEU-93-192, October 6, 1993, p. 81.

15. Ibid.

16. "Ciller Interviewed on Conflicts in Bosnia, Caucasus," FBIS-WEU-93-183, September 23, 1993, p. 53.