By Jay Holmes
The basic relationship between Turkey and the US was founded on post-WWII Cold War realities. Since then, there has been a tug of war between Western-leaning Turkish political factions and pro-Islamist contingents. To understand current US-Turkey relations, we need to also understand the fundamental internal shifts that Turkish politics and society have undergone over time.
Traditionally, Turkey and Russia have been imperial rivals since the 1700s. Conflicts between Turkish kingdoms and Russian kingdoms date back to ancient times and were originally a product of the location and size of these two empires.
In 1952, Turkey faced a hostile, nuclear-armed USSR, and it quickly made the decision to join NATO.
From the point of view of Europe, Turkey was the crossroads between Eastern and Western civilization. From NATO’s perspective, Turkey was vulnerable to attack by the numerically and technically superior forces of the USSR. Nonetheless, Turkey was a valuable ally for two critical reasons. First, because it allowed NATO to station air forces and nuclear missiles on the USSR’s southern border. Second, because Turkey sits astride the narrow Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits that separate the Black and Mediterranean Seas, respectively. This gave NATO forces a strong double “bottle cork” for containing Soviet naval forces in the Black Sea if war were to break out between the USSR and NATO.
NATO membership also played a practical role in preventing Turkey and Greece from descending into armed conflict over their various territorial disagreements.
In 1974, Turkey invaded Cypress on the premise that it was protecting Turkish Cypriots from Greek oppression. That conflict stretched US-Turkey relations thin, but in the end, the larger issue of the Soviet military threat forced the Greeks and Turks to localize and limit their conflict.
In November of 1979, the Iranian Shia Islamic coup, followed by the invasion of the US Embassy in Tehran, had the side effect of forcing Sunni Muslim Turkey and the US to improve their relations. Then, when the Kurdish separatist PKK launched attacks in southeastern Turkey in 1984, it was an easy decision for the US to condemn the PKK as a terrorist group.
In 1987, Turkey took a major step toward the West by applying for European Economic Community membership. This was a clear and significant financial alignment with the West, and the minority Islamists in Turkey were solidly against the move.
Also in the late 1980s, concerns grew over Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran and against its own citizens. The US and other Western nations became interested in the Kurdish minority in northern Iraq. The fact that NATO member Turkey was simultaneously fighting an internal war with the Kurdish PKK complicated US decisions to establish a relationship with Iraqi Kurds. The Iraqi Kurds had been some of the primary victims of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons. However, from the Turkish point of view, chemical weapons in Iraq were worrisome, but not quite as worrisome as the PKK.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia in August of 1990, Turkey again took on greater importance to the US and NATO.
Turkey allowed the US-led coalition to use Turkish airbases to launch air strikes against Saddam Hussein’s military. The US and other coalition members had hoped for Turkey to take a more significant role in the war against Iraq, but internal politics in Turkey were unstable, and the Turkish government declined to become more involved.
By January of 1991, the US and its allies accepted that the UN would not take meaningful action against Iraq. In January and February of that year, the coalition attacked Iraq and liberated Kuwait. Coalition forces dealt a decisive and one-sided blow to the Iraqi military, but did not invade central or northern Iraq.
Against the wishes of the US and NATO, Turkey sent 20,000 heavily armed troops into the Kurdish region of Iraq in 1992, supposedly to strike PKK terror bases.
Many observers speculated that large, untapped oil reserves in Kurdish Iraq were a stronger motivator for the Turkish invasion. Under Western pressure, Turkey withdrew most of its forces within a week. With permission from Saddam Hussein, smaller Turkish incursions into the Kurdish Iraq continued until 2003, when a US-led coalition invaded Iraq and toppled the Hussein regime.
In 1993, Tansu Çiller became the first female Prime Minister of Turkey.
She formed a fragile coalition government with centrist and right wing parties against the opposition of Sunni Islamic fundamentalists. Two years later, Turkey again invaded Kurdish Iraq with 35,000 troops. Again, under heavy pressure from the West, the troops were withdrawn. Tansu Çiller’s coalition government collapsed.
In the political vacuum, a united front of pro-Islamist groups under the Welfare Party banner won elections, but they lacked a majority to form a government. Instead, moderate and right-wing political groups formed an anti-Islamist coalition government. Amidst the political turmoil, Turkey took a strong pro-Western step by entering the European Customs Union.
In 1996, Turkey reversed directions.
The center-right coalition collapsed, and the pro-Islamist Welfare Party formed the first Islamic government in Turkey since 1923. The Welfare Party’s rise to power signaled a shift away from the West and the US. Under pressure from the Turkish military, this Islamist coalition government resigned in 1997, and a center-right coalition took power once more.
The following year, the Turkish government banned the Welfare Party on the grounds that it was plotting an anti-constitutional/anti-secular takeover. The pro-Islamic members of the Welfare Party stepped back and reorganized as the Virtue Party.
In 1999, a devastating earthquake killed 17,000 people in northwest Turkey. In response, the UK pledged £50,000 pounds sterling, and the US pledged US$1 Billion dollars for disaster relief.
In June 2001, the Turkish Constitutional Court banned the opposition pro-Islamic Virtue Party due to its anti-secular/anti-constitutional activities. Apparently the Virtue Party’s principal “virtue” was the destruction of freedom and progress in Turkey.
The following month, the members of the banned Virtue Party formed the pro-Islamist Saadet party.
Saadet morphed into the Justice and Development Party when it realized it could bring in a larger following by pretending to emphasize justice and development. This pro-Islamist party won elections in 2002.
Current Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was a principal founder of the Justice and Development Party. The continued rise to power of Erdoğan and his pro-Islamist party quickly caused serious complications to US-Turkey relations. Next week, we will look at those complications and the current state of US-Turkey relations.