Turkey and the Middle East

Amikam Nachmani



Turkey in the Wake of the Gulf War: Recent History and its Implications Abridged version, with permission from Journal of Modern Hellenism, Vol. 15 (1999) (forthcoming)


The Remarkable Turkish-Israeli Tie

Available in hardcopy at the BESA Center office: besa@mail.biu.ac.il  






Turkey in the Wake of the Gulf War:

Recent History and its Implications


By Amikam Nachmani


Turkey and the West


For as long as the Cold War was simmering, Turkey was crucial to American strategic interests. The 1947 Truman Doctrine, while ostensibly relating to Greece and its preservation from Communist insurgency, was aimed primarily at foiling a Communist takeover of Turkey, which the United States saw as a far graver threat to its Middle Eastern interests. And ever since World War II, Turkey on its part had advocated the physical presence of British or American forces in the Middle East. It opposed the partition of Palestine because it entailed Britain's withdrawal from that country. It opposed Britain's evacuation of the Suez Canal Zone and, naturally, Greek demands for Enosis with Cyprus, which would have removed British units from the island. Turkey is the only country in the region to sanction the physical presence of US troops on its soil. For the same reason - the maintenance of a Western presence in the Middle East - Turkey also supported the continuation of French rule in Algeria.

In 1958, when the US Marines landed in Beirut, one of the objectives of the operation was to remove a pro-Soviet Syrian-Nasserist threat to Turkey's south. At the time, Turkey looked on in dread at the Soviet takeover of the Middle East: the Kassem coup in Iraq (July 1958); the Soviet penetration of Syria and Egypt by means of the Czech-Egyptian arms deal and Soviet financing of the Aswan Dam; the instability of pro-Western regimes in Jordan and Lebanon; the loss of British and French influence in the Middle East and North Africa. Only the dispatch of American and British forces to Jordan and Lebanon managed to reassure Turkey, which collaborated fully by providing bases on its territory (Adana) from which these forces could take off.[1]

Washington was always convinced that as long as Communism existed, Turkey was one of its most important assets. Its geo-political location as buffer between the Soviet Union and the Middle East ensured that Soviet influence in the region remained limited, without territorial expansion. (Places without such a geo-political buffer did experience Soviet interventions: Hungary, 1956; Czechoslovakia, 1968; Afghanistan, 1979).

Furthermore, since the early 1980s, Turkey had been an island of relative sanity in a hostile and unpredictable world where neutral Afghanistan became a Soviet satellite, where Papandreou's Greece was growing erratic, and where Iran, once the bulwark of Western defense in the Middle East, toppled the Shah and unleashed a torrent of hostility towards the West. These developments, when added to Turkey's oft-expressed commitment to Western values, something not linked to one political personality or another, underlined its enormous value to the United States and explained American eagerness to rally to its aid.[2]

In the past, whenever disagreements seemed to mar Turkey's relations with the United States, Ankara could resort to improving (or threatening to improve) its relations with Moscow. This was the ploy adopted during the various Cyprus crises, and in the 1960s and 1970s, when the United States campaigned extensively against what it perceived as Turkey's share in drug smuggling. But the end of the Cold War robbed Turkish foreign policy of this useful dodge.

The end of the Cold War brought about a sharp decline in the importance of countries and locations hitherto considered political and strategic assets. Consequently, and with a frequency worrisome from a Turkish viewpoint, issues and matters over which the West had refrained from exerting pressure began surfacing on the agenda of Ankara's dealings with Washington and the western European countries. Among the issues raised were the Turkish-Greek standoff over Cyprus; the Turkish army's frequent intervention in domestic politics; their infringement of human rights and freedom of expression, including Turkey's maltreatment of the Kurds; and longstanding allegations about Turkey's role in drug smuggling into the United States. The results of this period of Turkish discomfort were evident.

            The 1980s were unpleasant years in regards to Turkey's relations with western Europe. Turkey's pursuit of its European aspirations, i.e., membership in the EU, kept running into queries about the stability of Turkish democracy, the army's role in domestic politics, civic freedom and individual rights. Even when Turkey met up with the EU's membership terms -- reduction of subsidies and customs duties, restrictions on agriculture and emigration to EU countries, etc. -- Europe continued to fall back on a Greek veto to keep Turkey out. As will be seen below, Turkey seized upon the Gulf crisis as an opportunity for improving its standing in Europe and breaking out of its isolation.


Turkey and the Arabs


Following the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Kemalism in Turkey after World War I, Turkey turned its back on the Arab world and set its sights on the West. Kemalism promoted secularity, the emulation of European values, and the ideas of democracy, freedom and human rights -- with varying degrees of success. Since the 1960s, however, Turkey has learned that its secularity, its identification with the West and its ideological distance from the Islamic states, are of no avail in moments of need. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 is a good example. It appeared to Ankara that the United States was ignoring Turkish security, even exposing Turkey to the Soviet threat when Washington, in an apparent quid pro quo deal with the Soviets, who removed their missiles from Cuba, removed its Jupiter missiles from its bases on Turkish territory.  When the Cyprus crisis erupted in 1964 and Turkey found itself stripped of US support -- gross ingratitude, in the eyes of a Turkey whose identification with the West at times of crisis was total -- Ankara hoped that rapprochement with the Arabs would pay off. The Arabs, instead, rushed en masse to support Greece, going so far as to supply the Greek Cypriots with arms for their campaign against the Turkish Cypriot minority (and the British). Turkey depicted this as a second Arab stab in the back -- Moslems abetting Christians in butchering Moslems. (The first was Arab aid to Britain against the Ottoman Empire during World War I.)[3]

            After the energy crisis in the 1970s, Turkey tried a cautious rapprochement with the Eastern bloc and increased intimacy with the Islamic and Arab states. But it was a limited turnabout: Turkey's commercial links with the Arab states -- though contributing to Turkish prosperity of the 1980s -- went into progressive decline, while trade with the United States and the European countries increased again. Prior to the first oil crisis, Turkey's commerce with the Arab states came to a mere 5 percent of its overall trade. From the 1973 Yom Kippur War up to 1981, that figure increased to 34 percent, mostly of Turkish imports of Arab oil. This imbalance exacerbated Turkey's indebtedness and raised its inflation rate to extraordinary levels, when compared to other Western oil consumers. After the mid-1980s, the Iran-Iraq War, declining oil prices and diminishing Arab purchasing power combined to reduce commerce with Middle Eastern states to 16 percent of Turkey's total foreign trade. The figure has since stabilized at less than 20 percent. Conversely, the trade has changed in character, with a growing component of Turkish exports and a reduction of Turkey's Middle Eastern imports. At the same time, the EU share of overall Turkish exports increased, reaching 45 percent in the late 1980s.[4]

            Turkey's efforts for a rapprochement with the Arab states never really succeeded. Both distant and recent history combined to render these relations resentful and hostile. Memories of the struggle of incipient Arab nationalism against the decaying Ottoman Empire linger. The Turkish Republic's support for the Western powers in the inter-bloc standoff was often prejudicial to Arab nationalism and its campaign for independence (Turkey supported Britain against Egypt, France against the Algerians, and maintained relations with Israel).


Turkey and Iraq -- Water, Oil and the Kurds


Turkish-Iraqi relations were notable for cooperation and correctness. Yet by the late 1980s the two countries were moving towards a collision. From an Iraqi viewpoint, Turkey represented a dangerous dependency vis-à-vis oil and water. About 96 percent of Iraq's income was from oil exports and when the Gulf route was closed to oil tankers during the Iran-Iraq War, almost 100 percent of Iraq's oil -- 80 million tons annually -- was exported by pipeline to Turkey's Mediterranean port of Yumurtalik (thus reducing transportation time from forty-five days to two). This dependency explains, for instance, Iraqi silence in the face of Turkey's damming of the Euphrates, which, although begun in the early 1980s, only drew Baghdad's protests in 1988, when its war with Iran was at an end. Furthermore, Turkey was a principal import gateway (almost the only one in emergencies) through which Iraq shipped in some 75 percent of its foodstuffs.[5]

            In 2020, when Turkey completes it GAP project -- harnessing the rivers Tigris and Euphrates to the development of Turkey's southeastern provinces -- the flow of water into Iraq will be cut by 80 percent. Tripartite Turkish-Iraqi-Syrian conventions during 1990 on this issue proved fruitless. Iraq and Syria demanded sharing arrangements for the waters of the Euphrates, which they claimed to be an international waterway. But Turkey argued that since the river was Turkish, its assets could not be shared. The amount of water it allots its neighbors was its own business and a purely technical issue. Furthermore, Turkey insisted on an end to irrigation by open channels and flooding in Iraq and Syria, a wasteful technique that increased loss of water through evaporation.[6] In private conversation, even harsher tones could be heard: "They have oil, we have water; let them drink their oil."

            As for their common Kurdish problem, for decades Turkey and Iraq worked hand in hand in imposing restrictions on the Kurds living within their borders (approximately 20 percent of the population in each country). During the 1980s, Iraqi Kurds rebelled against Baghdad while the army was tied down in the war with Iran. During this period (1980-1988), Iraq permitted the Turkish army to operate against the Kurds in northern Iraq. With the end of the war, Baghdad felt free to deal with the Kurdish rebellion, and its treatment was harsh, notably the Halabjah incident, in September 1988, in which chemical weapons were employed.

            Iraq's debt to Turkey was yet a further cause for conflict, albeit insufficient in itself to draw the two states into confrontation. But when compounded with other elements it helped further exacerbate bilateral relations. After its war with Iran, Iraq was left with debts of 80 billion dollars (approximately 40 billion to Arab creditors). Iraq owed Turkey some 2.5 billion dollars, of which it had paid off some 600 million by August 1990, when it ceased payments. It made their resumption contingent upon the resolution of the conflict between Turkey, Iraq and Syria over the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates.[7]

            Turkey responded to the events enumerated here, and to the profusion of Iraqi-Turkish conflicts, actual and potential, by increasing its defense budget. In 1989, the allotment stood at 1.7 billion dollars. In 1990, even before the Gulf crisis erupted, it was doubled to 3.4 billion, rising in 1991 to 4.8 billion, or 12.5 percent of the overall national budget. The figures show that Turkey was continually strengthening its army in preparation for a possible showdown with Baghdad. (Compare this to the fact that the estimated defense budget for 1995 was only 3.9 billion. Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf war is the reason for this Turkish defense budget reduction.)[8]  

            In the region, Turkey ranks third after Israel and Russia in its allocation of funds for defense. While 21 percent of its military needs are met by domestic sources, foreign firms supply the rest. Turkey is the sixth largest importer of arms in the world. As of 1994, Turkey had the fourth largest security budget among NATO members in relation to its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), following Greece, Great Britain and the United States.[9]


The Gulf Crisis Erupts


Iraq's aspirations to regional hegemony became obvious when it demobilized only a small part of its enormous army, following its apparent victory over Iran in 1988.[10] As president of a regional power with undisguised aspirations to hegemony, Saddam's words and deeds had to be taken seriously. He called for the reinforcement of Arab nationalism and an Arab takeover of the Gulf by the removal of the United States forces (stationed there in the course of the Iran-Iraq war). He made a verbal onslaught upon the United States -- a paper tiger that had withdrawn from Vietnam, and had pulled out of Lebanon when a few Marines were killed there. He threatened to burn half of Israel (April 1990) and he ordered the execution of the British journalist Farzad Bazoft, despite international appeals for clemency. Saddam went on to offer protection to the entire Arab world (a role he claimed to have already discharged, when his country took on Iran) and called for a holy war against all Crusader heretics and their lackeys.[11]

            Iraq's economy had suffered grievously in the war with Iran, which inflicted damages estimated at 30 billion dollars. With a national income of 14 billion dollars, Iraq had to repay foreign creditors (40 billion to non-Arab creditors alone) at an annual rate of 5 billion. The Iraqi army, with its modern weapons, long-range missiles and non-conventional weaponry seemed an obvious threat to stability in the Gulf region, and, in time, to the entire Middle East. Like Turkey, Iraq could no longer resort to the traditional tactic of playing on East-West rivalries for its own benefit. Having lost Soviet support, Baghdad began to entertain growing fears of the United States. As sole super-power, along with its Middle Eastern allies (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey), the United States could step in and prevent Iraq from achieving its aspirations to regional hegemony. The economic resources required for that hegemony and for its own reconstruction were to be found in Kuwait.[12]

            Iraq's occupation of Kuwait in the summer of 1990 struck at a basic tenet of Turkey's Middle East policy: support for the present division of the states in the region. Ankara regards any unification as a threat of overbearing Arab nationalism, foreshadowing an expansionist policy by the unified state. A super-Iraq, enjoying the economic and geo-political assets acquired through the conquest of Kuwait would be intolerable to Turkey, especially considering its military muscle. Baghdad's effective control of the Arabian peninsula (perhaps including parts of Greater Syria, i.e., Jordan), with its human and strategic assets, would certainly menace Turkey's integrity and weaken it in its disputes with Iraq and the rest of the Arab world. Horrified, Ankara watched the equilibrium of the entire Middle East being upset by a Greater Iraq: Israel was perceived as capable of nothing beyond surgical strikes; Syria was tied down in Lebanon and its border with Israel; Iran was licking its wounds after eight years of war with Iraq.[13]

            Circumstances both justified Turkish anxiety and explained the unequivocal resolve President Ozal displayed throughout the Gulf crisis, calling for Saddam's overthrow, even for his personal elimination, and insisting on an exclusively military resolution of the crisis. (Even after the Gulf War, Ozal called for Saddam's removal, saying it would be hard to imagine a leader surviving after dragging his people through nine years of war in the course of twelve years in power.) [14]

            The United States' involvement in the Gulf crisis and the subsequent war was designed, first, to free Kuwait and foil an Iraqi takeover of Saudi oilfields. Secondly, perhaps, it aimed to prevent an economically reinforced and violent Iraq from attacking Turkey. As noted above, the two countries were on a collision course, because of Iraq's total dependency upon Turkey for its water and the export of its oil. (Consequently, Baghdad has no anti-Turkish policy in its arsenal.)


Turkey's Response


Saddam's call for the removal of US forces from the Gulf, and his other threats -- combined with the genocide he had perpetrated against the Kurds -- all indicated a possible attempt to impose Iraqi hegemony or anti-Western Arab nationalism throughout the region. In such a conception, aliens (i.e., non-Arabs like the Turks) would have no place. The implications were not lost upon the Turks. A powerful and violent Iraq, in control of most Arab oil, constituted a real threat to Turkey.

            Turkey's unease was further inflamed when the general staff conducted its war games. It appeared that the Iraqi army's modern weaponry and combat experience were likely to take a heavy toll of the Turkish army before the latter could stabilize its line of defense in the east of the country.[15] In the years prior to the Gulf crisis there was widespread discontent in the ranks of the Turkish army. Acquisition of new weaponry had come to a complete halt and, lacking funds for spare parts, military equipment was rendered idle. The cannibalization of weapons systems and vehicles was commonly adopted as a solution. Sophisticated weapons, like the "Patriot" anti-missile missile, delivered to other NATO members, did not reach the Turkish army. The modern weapons that poured into Turkey during the Gulf War and afterwards showed the Turks just how antiquated their weapons systems actually were. Earlier, with the eruption of the Iraq-Kuwait crisis and facing an uncertain military balance with Iraq, Turkey's senior officers had queried President Ozal's aggressive policy towards Iraq, doubtful as to whether it was backed by the necessary military muscle.

            Turgut Ozal, an electrical engineer by profession, became Prime Minister in 1983 and served as President of Turkey for the 1989-93 period. He is given credit for his country's prosperity during the 1980s. Ozal appears to have been the first Turkish politician to grasp the importance of television, making great use of it to enhance his influence. It was particularly noticeable during the Gulf crisis when Ozal resorted to frequent television appearances in an effort to show that Turkey had a unique opportunity to improve its relations with the West, and remove the Iraqi threat against it. His policy throughout the crisis rested upon the following elements:


1.                  Concentration of Turkish troops near the Iraqi border.

2.                  Permission to the coalition forces to use Turkish territory for its operations.

3.         Strict observance of the international sanctions imposed on Iraq.

4.         Extracting economic and political concessions from the West and Japan, in return for Turkey's aid during the crisis.

5.         Weakening Iraq without a single Turkish soldier actually taking part in the fighting or crossing into Iraq.


            Turgut Ozal, after years in office as Turkish prime minister and president had no superior to overshadow him or confine his grandiose ambitions. Those who disagreed with his policies in the Gulf crisis were offered a single option: they could resign. That indeed was the fate of Turkey's commander-in-chief, Minister of Defense and Foreign Minister, Necip Torumtay, Safa Giray, and Ali Bozer, respectively. Ozal's policies during the crisis were prudent, but his rhetoric was belligerent. Without preempting UN Security Council decisions relating to Iraq, Ozal complied with them to the letter throughout the Gulf crisis. Dismissing diplomacy or economic sanctions as means of inducing Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, Ozal fervently advocated the military option. He gave the coalition forces all possible military aid, short of engaging Turkish troops in the fighting.[16]

            The fiercest opposition to Ozal's policies came from within his own camp. The generals in his entourage feared that his violently anti-Saddam rhetoric would ultimately set off a war with Iraq, where the Turkish army would not stand up to the Iraqis' combat experience and modern weaponry. His foreign ministry complained that when the crisis came to an end, coalition forces would vacate the region, leaving Turkey alone to confront Iraq. Opposition also came from conservative circles within his Motherland Party who sought to restrict his power. In quarters more remote from the President, Islamic circles claimed that as Moslems, Turkey should support Saddam against the crusade of the Christian West. Indeed, Saddam Hussein did gain some sympathy among sections of the Turkish people, in contrast to the hostility of the country's decision-makers (a pattern repeated in other Arab and Islamic countries that joined the anti-Iraqi coalition).  

            Ozal could rely on his army. To be precise, the president could be sure that the army would refrain from intervening by either removing him from office or seizing power. 1990 marked the end of the pattern of the "ten-year cycle" of 1960, 1971 and 1980, when the Turkish army intervened in domestic politics, changing the composition of the government, taking over the reins of power and dispersing parliament. It was plain to all, the army included, that further intervention on its part would prompt fierce criticism from Europe. Military intervention in domestic politics would have offered effective ammunition to those who did not want Turkey as a member of the EU. And Turkey's unrelenting support of the anti-Iraq coalition was in great part given with an eye to improving Turkey's relations with the European Union.

            There is yet one other matter to which Ozal gave his attention. In January 1991, only days before the outbreak of the Gulf War, Turkey proclaimed a seemingly dramatic switch in policy towards its Kurdish citizens. For the first time, Kurds were permitted to use their language, names and literature, and pursue their heritage and history. For the first time, the Kurdish issue was opened up for discussion, with first-ever proposals for a response not exclusively forceful and military. On the eve of the Gulf War, with Turkey manifestly adhering to the anti-Iraq coalition, Ozal may have thought his country's pro-Western image would be enhanced by a saner and more moderate domestic policy. But Ankara's moderation appears to have been directed at the Iraqi Kurds, rather than at their Turkish brethren. Ozal was hoping that the Iraqi Kurds would subsequently help him foster his links with other elements in Iraq, in the event of Iraq's disintegration in the wake of hostilities. (Iran acted similarly in relation to the Shi'ites of southern Iraq.)


Aftermath of the War: Economic Losses


Turkey's war losses were heavy, somewhere between the conservative estimate of nine billion dollars and a long-range estimate of over thirty billion. The losses stemmed from the decline in tourist revenues, the absence of Iraqi oil royalties (an annual loss of 400 million dollars), the loss of markets and the cessation of services and construction in Iraq and Kuwait. At the same time Turkey found itself saddled with somewhere between half a million to 700,000 Kurdish refugees from Iraq, concentrated at sixteen points on either side of the Iraq-Turkey border.[17] Unlike Egypt, for example, whose debts were mainly to Western governments, and could therefore be written off in return for its adherence to the anti-Iraq coalition, most of Turkey's debts (some 43 billion dollars) were due to private creditors, making it harder for Ankara to get them rescheduled.

            Inflation in Turkey rose to 71.1 percent in 1991, compared to 60.3 percent in the year preceding the Gulf War. Interest went sky-high that year, reaching an annual 105 percent. The growth of the national product (GNP) decreased, as did the growth of agricultural and industrial production, the latter from 9.1 percent in 1990 to a mere 3.2 percent in 1991. The service sector expanded by 1.1 percent in 1991 compared with 9.4 percent in 1990. Increase in overall GDP, which had rocketed by 9.2 percent in 1990, declined to 1.5 percent the following year.

            Turkey, consequently, has a direct interest in the cancellation of the economic sanctions against Iraq or, at least, in their reduction. Turkey expended enormous diplomatic activity in promoting UN Resolution 986, which calls for "Oil for Food," and allows Iraq (since December 1996) to export 2 billion dollars worth of oil, every six months in return for the import of food and medicines. Its passage has reduced the economic pressures on Turkey since both the oil and the foods pass in and out of Turkey.  The "Oil for Food" agreement is estimated to bring Turkey about 500 million dollars a year.  (Between 1985 and 1990, Turkish exports to Iraq were 780 million dollars a year. The entire annual volume of trade between the two countries during those years - including Turkey's fuel imports - reached $4 billion.)[18] Furthermore, Ankara conditioned its agreement to the extension of the "Operation Northern Watch" mandate - which forbids Iraqi flights over northern Iraq past latitude 36' in order to provide a safe haven for the Kurds - on America's agreement to the renewal of Turkish-Iraqi trade. And America agreed to limited trade within the "Oil for Food" agreement. (More than 45 American and British planes and some 1400 soldiers take part in "Operation Northern Watch" [previously known as "Operation Provide Comfort"], whose headquarters are located at the base in Incirlik in southern Turkey.)[19]


Additional Cost: the Kurdish Problem


The principal harm sustained by Turkey from the Gulf War was in relation to the Kurdish issue. Following the war, some 700,000 Kurds fled the Iraqi army to Turkey. Turkey alleged that Saddam chased the Kurds into its territory in revenge for Turkish aid to coalition forces in the Gulf fighting. Bearing in mind Saddam’s human rights record he could have easily   annihilated the Kurds instead of dumping them on Turkish territory, they claimed.

            Baghdad's loss of authority in northern Iraq did not leave a vacuum for long. The underground Workers' Party of Kurdistan (Partiya Karkeran Kurdistan, the PKK), took root in northern Iraq, where it conducted a campaign of terror against Turkey. The Turkish army's almost yearly harsh reprisals in northern Iraq drew condemnation from western Europe. The Gulf War elevated the Kurdish rebellion to a new phase, with up to 60 casualties daily on both sides.

It should be recalled that in 1987, as a result of guerrilla and killing campaigns which had been launched in 1984 by the PKK against the Turkish authorities and Turkish civilians, the government of the former Prime Minister Turgut Ozal proclaimed a state of emergency in the largely Kurdish southeastern provinces. Even though power had been restored to civil bodies and institutions in 1983 -- after it had been rescinded in the 1980 coup d'état of General Kenan Evren -- policy towards the Kurds continued (and continues) to be determined by the army.

            The Turkish right wing regards any concession to the Kurds -- even if merely social or cultural -- as capitulation to terrorism and a recipe for Turkey's territorial disintegration. Since the army dictates policy towards the Kurdish rebellion, non-military options are removed from the range of means available to Turkey in dealing with the uprising. Beyond the bloodshed, the status thus granted to the army is unhealthy for Turkish democracy. The Kurdish problem confronts Turkey with a complex challenge that threatens its territorial integrity and overshadows its external relations.

            The PKK indeed made efforts to gain control over areas of eastern Turkey, functioning in various domains as a fully-fledged government (and thereby undermining the authority of Ankara). The government controlled enclaves of military bases, defended by armor and artillery and yet was powerless to protect people still collaborating with them. At nightfall, virtually all semblance of Turkish rule vanishes: the PKK rules the roost. Inhabitants are required to pay taxes to the PKK, on pain of death. They dare not serve in government-sponsored paramilitary organizations (like the Village Guards) or other state posts for fear of being marked as "revolutionary targets". Local inhabitants are forbidden to join any Turkish political party. Legal matters are entrusted exclusively to "people's courts". The distribution or sale of papers published in Istanbul is banned in Kurdish areas as is watching television. Inhabitants are required to remove television antennas "so that justice is not merely done; it is seen to be done". Schools, regarded by the PKK as emblems of "Turkish imperialism," belong to the "colonial assimilation system," and are closed down; teachers who refuse to resign risk their lives: 47 teachers were murdered in the course of 1993; 500 schools were torched and 3060 closed down. In some places, the PKK enforced a total ban on the sale of alcohol. Candidates for local elections must have prior clearance by the PKK.[20]

            Awareness of the aims and character of the conflict and the changes it has undergone are vital for an understanding of the Turkish-Kurdish problem, and of the role of the "safe zone" in the conflict. Abdullah Ocalan founded the PKK. After the September 1980 coup, Ocalan (the name means "revenge") fled to Lebanon; from there, and from Syrian territory, he has directed the Kurdish uprising since August 15, 1985, until his expulsion from Damascus (October 1998) and his subsequent capture by Turkey (February 1999). The PKK now appears to be the world's most vicious terrorist underground. Some -- not exclusively Turks -- compare its brutality with that of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, or Peru's "Shining Path" underground. The PKK is held responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent Turkish Kurds. To Ocalan at least, the objective has been to reduce Turkey to a prolonged state of chaos and disorder. Such a state of affairs will ultimately provoke another military coup, putting an end to democracy and isolating Turkey in the international community, a situation that will smooth the path toward the fulfillment of PKK aspirations: Kurdish self-determination.[21]

            The "safe zone" in northern Iraq represents a turning-point in the Kurdish-Turkish conflict. In the PKK view, Kurdish soil is, for the first time, under Kurdish rule; for the first time, Kurds are enjoying the trappings of statehood and sovereignty over territory. Ostensibly, the PKK's use of this territory as a base for anti-Turkish forays improved the Kurds positions in their campaign for an independent Kurdistan. But unlike the PKK, the Kurds of northern Iraq -- grasping the dependency of the "safe zone" upon Turkey (see below) -- interpret their control thereof as something less than a state. Moreover, the Kurds of northern Iraq go so far as to collaborate with the Turkish government against the PKK. Their dependency upon Turkey is total with regard to supplies, as well as to defense against Iraqi attacks. Since October 1991, Turkish territory has hosted an air force (composed largely of American planes and troops, but also including crews and planes from France, Britain and Turkey) under Turkish and American command. Their mission is the defense of the "safe zone". Turkey has a veto with regard to operations over Iraqi territory. Furthermore, there is a decades-old understanding between Baghdad and Ankara regarding the need to restrict -- or crush -- any expression of Kurdish national aspirations. A classical expression of this understanding is the protest from Baghdad -- invariably belated and lukewarm -- against the Turkish army's forays into Iraqi territory in its operations against the Kurdish rebels. For its part, Turkey cannot help perceiving the qualitative benefits the "safe zone" offers the PKK in its anti-Turkish operations. Moreover, these benefits also project upon the Kurds in Turkey. A de facto Kurdish entity has emerged in northern Iraq, and it would be foolish to assume that it has no effect upon the feelings of discrimination of Turkey's Kurds or on their national aspirations.

            However, the gravest outcome is the conclusion drawn by the Ankara authorities. From Ankara's viewpoint, experience with the "safe zone" and the qualitative changes it has introduced into the conflict merely demonstrate that if this is how matters evolve from Kurdish autonomy outside Turkey's borders, they can only get worse should any kind of Kurdish entity be established on Turkish soil itself. Moreover, the aggravation of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict caused many Turkish army circles to believe that perhaps it would be in Ankara's interest to have the Iraqi army back in northern Iraq.[22]


Turkey's Gains


There are various ways of measuring Turkey's Gulf War gains. One, no doubt, is the fact that the fighting was left to others. Turkey's greatest success is the fact that for more than 70 years there has not been a war on Turkish territory. There are not many countries in the world that can match this record, especially not the countries of the Middle East. (Quincy Wright discovered that between 1450 and 1900 the Ottoman Empire spent an average of 61 years per century fighting.)[23] Leaving war to others and concentrating on bringing Turkey into the twentieth century has been Ankara's international policy since the establishment of the republic in 1923.

            But more important is that Turkey gained security. The Iraqi army was weakened, significant parts of it were annihilated and the country was subjected to extensive intelligence surveillance. Turkey was inundated with modern weapons systems (600 M60 tanks, 400 Leopard tanks, 700 armored troop carriers, and an assortment of helicopters, missiles and planes). The "Patriot" missiles stationed in Turkey in the course of the fighting were ultimately left in place. Turkey's air force gained over 40 US combat planes, while its aircraft industry (T.A.I.) has been licensed to construct 46 F-16s and, moreover, sell them (in this instance, to Egypt). Turkey is now in second place among all the countries receiving surplus American weaponry. Turkey has since received billions of dollars in export contracts, oil deliveries, customs concessions, grants, canceled debts and access to markets which have more than made up for its initial losses.

            Turkey's political gains vis-à-vis Washington are also impressive, especially on issues pertaining to Turkish-Greek relations and Cyprus. From 1980 up to the Gulf War, the United States granted Turkey and Greece military and economic aid in a 7:10 ratio, Turkey receiving the larger share. US military aid to the two countries served to deter them from attacking one another on Cyprus and on matters relating to sovereignty and territorial waters in the Aegean Sea. With the growth of tensions in the Middle East, however, the bolstering of Turkish power was considered more pressing than the preservation of the Greco-Turkish balance of forces.[24] An opportunity for breaking out of the 7:10 straitjacket was offered by the Gulf crisis, the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the eruption of violence in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Washington's policy position -- in apparent discharge of a pledge to President Ozal given in return for Turkey's aid to the coalition forces during the Gulf campaign -- put an end to the 7:10 ratio in US relations with Turkey and Greece. (In 1996 the United States reverted once more to the 7:10 ratio.)

            Ankara's gains left Greece in a position of inferiority. The Greek budget is overburdened with a high military allotment (7 percent goes to defense -- one of the highest ratios in NATO). Since the late 1980s, Greece has placed its trust in the international bodies of which it is a member -- NATO, the EU, and the UN -- to offer comfort and protection in its conflicts with Ankara. Greece supplies a mere 20 percent of its own military needs. It must rely for the rest on aid and imports from the West.[25]  

            Turkey's profit-loss balance will not be complete without taking into account the post-Gulf War relations between Turkey and the EU. President Ozal's support for the anti-Iraqi coalition stemmed, inter alia, from an eagerness to gain the sympathy of the Union, thus perhaps boosting Turkey's chances of admission. But Turkey is still not a member although in March 1995 it reached agreement with the EU on a customs union -- the highest affiliation stage short of membership.  Then Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller regarded the agreement as virtual membership of the EU, perceiving its outcome as irrevocably rooting Turkey in the West.[26]  But opposition to Turkey lives on.

            In retrospect, it appears that President Ozal overreached himself.  He claimed that just as Turkey's participation in the Korean War gained it admission into NATO, its policy in the Gulf crisis would earn its admission into the EU. A customs union is not EU membership, and it is questionable whether one will lead to the other. (The initial result of the customs union was a 5 billion dollar increase in the trade deficit with the EU, bringing the total deficit to 10 billion dollars. Yet the wave of bankruptcies predicted by many never came to pass.)[27]




The Gulf War and the period following it produced some results that will make things easier for Turkey in the future.  The Iraqi army and its strategic power received an enormous blow and Iraq remains under close intelligence surveillance (the trauma which preceded the war indicated how little relevant intelligence on Iraq was available). Furthermore, the Soviet Union was dismembered. These elements improve Turkey's situation and leave it with the largest army in the Middle East -- 800,000 soldiers.

            Turkey's army demonstrated considerable restraint during the Gulf War and it was the army brass who demanded restraint from President Ozal. The resignation of the chief-of-staff, Necip Torumtay, because of differences with President Ozal, constituted a very positive development in civil-military relations. Previously, it had been the government that gave in when differences with the army arose.[28] Still, the continuation of the war against the PKK and the danger of instability are liable to cause the army to try and force its opinions on the government. Those who take pleasure in Turkey's trials and tribulations most certainly enjoy occurrences like the army's intervention in politics.

            To some extent, Turkey's relations with Europe have improved. The customs union between Turkey and the EU is a qualitative leap forward for Turkey. But it will probably be the last step for a long time to come: the Union will not make any overtures to Turkey in the foreseeable future, as shown by its December 1997 Luxemburg decision. 

            We can sum up on a positive note by pointing to the improvement in Turkish-American relations. Turkey's pluck in dealing with the various conflicts, influences and dangers that surround it is important to the West and to the United States. If, in the past, Turkey was at the southern margins of NATO, it is now in the eye of the ethnic, religious, and energy storm  (i.e., Caspian Sea resources), which is sweeping over what was formerly the Soviet Union (from the Balkans to Central Asia). Turkey still receives generous aid from America and is in third place, after Israel and Egypt, of those countries enjoying such aid.

Turkey is as important to the West now as it was during the Cold War. Its geo-political value has not declined -- perhaps it has even increased. Conversely, the threats from Turkey's neighbors make it consider any possible option except that of turning its back on the West.



[1]              Philip Robins, Turkey and the Middle East (London: The Royal Institute of International Affairs and Pinter Publishers, 1991), pp. 26-27.


[2]              Dankwart A. Rustow, Turkey - America's Forgotten Ally (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1987), pp. vii-x (Introduction by Bernard Lewis), p. 110.


[3]              Alon Liel, Turkey in the Middle East. Oil, Islam and Politics (Hebrew) (Tel Aviv:  University of Tel Aviv and Dayan Center, 1994), pp. 45, 179; Barry Rubin, "The Gulf Crisis: Origins and Course of Events," in Ami Ayalon (ed.), Middle East Contemporary Survey, 1990, Vol. XIV (Boulder: San Francisco and Oxford: Westview Press, 1992), p. 85.


[4]              Hurriyet (Turkish), 28 June 1990; Gunash (Turkish), 26 September 1990; Mideast Mirror, 8 October 1991. On the Middle East water shortage see Amikam Nachmani, "Water Jitters in the Middle East," Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 20, No. 1 (January-March 1997), pp. 67-93.


[5]              Ismail Soysal, "Seventy Years of Turkish-Arab Relations and an Analysis of Turkish-Iraqi Relations (1920-1990)," Studies on Turkish-Arab Relations. Special Issue on Turkey and the Gulf Crisis, Annual 6 (Istanbul: Foundation for the Study of Turkish-Arab Relations [TAIV], 1991), p. 70; Philip Robins, Turkey and the Middle East, pp. 110-111.


[6]              Bruce A. Kuniholm, "Turkey and the West," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 70, No. 2 (Spring 1991), pp. 43-44; Author's Correspondence with the Ministry of National Defense, Republic of Turkey, 22 December 1995.


[7]              Kemal Kirisci, "Post Cold War Turkish Security and the Middle East," paper submitted at a conference on "Israel and Turkey – Current Politics and Foreign Policy," Bar-Ilan University, Israel, 14-15 January 1997, p. 16.


[8]              An excellent discussion of the difficult relations between Turkey and the Arab world can be found in Oya Akgonenc Mughisuddin, "Perceptions and Misperceptions in the Making of Foreign Diplomacy: A Study of Turkish-Arab Attitudes Until the End of the 1970s," Turkish Review of Middle East Studies, Annual 7 (Istanbul: Foundation for Middle East and Balkan Studies [OBIV], 1993), pp. 147-169.


[9]              For discussion of Turkey's trade relations with the Arab world and the energy component in them, see Ekavi Athanassopoulou, "Turkey and the Black Sea Initiative," in Theodore A. Couloumbis, Thanos M. Veremis and Thanos Dokos (eds), The Southeast European Yearbook, 1993 (Athens, Greece: The Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy [ELIAMEP], 1994), pp. 38, 42; Philip Robins, Turkey and the Middle East, p. 109; Ismail Soysal, "Seventy Years of Turkish-Arab Relations," pp. 64-65; Alon Liel, Turkey in the Middle East, pp. 14-16.


[10]             Barry Rubin, "The Gulf Crisis: Origins and Course of Events," p. 79.


[11]             Ibid., pp. 76-77; 80-81.


[12]             Ibid., p. 79.


[13]             Philip Robins, Turkey and the Middle East, pp. 67-68.


[14]             President Turgut Ozal's address to the Global Panel (sponsored by the European Studies Centre in Amsterdam), "The Middle East After the War," Ankara, 9 April 1991, Studies on Turkish-Arab Relations. Special Issue on Turkey and the Gulf Crisis, Annual 6, 1991, p. 207.


[15]             Information from the Turkish Embassy, Tel-Aviv.


[16]             The Economist, 18 March 1989, 23 February 1991; Time, 4 November 1991; William Hale, "Turkey, the Middle East and the Gulf Crisis," International Affairs, Vol. 68, No. 4 (October 1992), p. 683; Yoav Karni, Ha'aretz Supplement (Hebrew), 9 August 1991.  For biographical details on Ozal, see Sabri Sayari, "Turgut Ozal," in Bernard Reich (ed.), Political Leaders of the Contemporary Middle East and North Africa. A Biographical Dictionary (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990), pp. 395-401.


[17]             The Economist, 20 October 1990; The Middle East and North Africa 1994 (London: Europa Publications Ltd., 1993), pp. 874, 877; Foreign Policy Bulletin (formerly: Dept. of State Bulletin), Vol. 1, No. 6 (May-June 1991), pp. 23-24; Zvi Barel, Ha'aretz, 15 July 1994.


[18]             Ha'aretz, 12 December 1996; 13 May 1997.


[19]             Ibid.,1 July 1998.


[20]             Turkish Daily News, 7 October 1993; Time, 6 December 1993; Ha'aretz , 17 December 1993.


[21]             Turkish Daily News, 7 October 1993; Time, 6 December 1993; Hila Shlomberger, Ha'aretz (reprinted from Die Zeit), 8 March 1991.


[22]             Ha'aretz, (reprinted from Wall Street Journal), 19 April 1993; Thomas Friedman, Ha'aretz (reprinted from New York Times), 23 May 1995; William Safire, New York Times, 30 March 1995.


[23]             Quincy Wright, A Study of War (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1965; 2nd ed.),  p. 653.


[24]             Constantine Arvanitopoulos, "American Aid to Greece and Turkey Before and After the Cold War," in Proceedings of the Conference on USA, Greece, Turkey in the Emerging International System, Athens, 17-20 June 1993.


[25]             Argyrios K. Pisiotis, "French and German, Greek and Turk: Hereditary Enmity, U.S. Hegemony, and the Limits of Integration," Research Paper No. 9 (Athens: The Research Institute for European Studies, January 1995), pp. 21-23, 41; The Economist, 2 March 1991.


[26]             Ha'aretz, 22 December 1994; Thomas Friedman, Ha'aretz (reprinted from New York Times), 23 May 1995; Sabri Sayari, "Turkey: The Changing European Security Environment and the Gulf Crisis," Contents, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Winter 1992), p. 12.


[27]             The Economist, 20 October 1990; Muharrem Kayhan, Chairman of the Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association (TUSIAA), Washington, DC, The Washington Institute's Policy Forum, 19 November 1997.


[28]             As Prime Minister, Ozal had demonstrated unusual determination against the army when, in 1987, he insisted on the appointment of Torumtay and not the army's candidate, Necdet Oztorun, a step which was dubbed in Turkey as "a civilian coup". See Feroz Ahmad, The Making of Modern Turkey (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 215-216.

Last Update:February 07, 2001