US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has got into the spotlight by her visits to Greece, Turkey and Iraq on her way to Sofia for the April 28-29 informal NATO FM summit. Turkish media called Rice’s visit “a new page in the history of bilateral relations.” Turkish officials said it was very fruitful. In fact, Rice’s 16-hour visit was a good chance for Turkey to further improve its cooperation with the US, particularly, over Iran and the Kurdish rebels.
When in March 2003 the Turkish parliament refused to provide US troops a land corridor for attacking Iraq from the north, the Americans grew cold towards Turkey. They put all blame on Turkish generals and said that, henceforth, they would cooperate with politicians, namely, with the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), an Islamist force that has been in power since 2002. This was in line with the US’ Big Middle East project, where Turkey was supposed to assume leadership as an 'Islamic moderate'.
But the crisis over Iran has made Turkey’s generals relevant again. Since December 2005 the US military officials have been frequent guests in Turkey, and the Turkish generals have gradually restored their status in the country’s internal politics. Even though PJD will be the only ruling party in Turkey, at least, till the autumn 2007 parliamentary elections, and the acting Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has excellent chances to win the spring 2007 presidential race, the Bush administration is improving its relations exactly with the Turkish military.
In March 2006 Chairman of the US Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace visited Turkey and met with Chief of Turkey’s General Staff, General Hilmi Ozkok and Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. The sides discussed the problems of Iran, PKK, the internal political situation in Iraq, the visit of a HAMAS delegation to Ankara.
This was exactly the agenda of Rice’s meetings with the Turkish top officials. Rice met with President Ahmed Necet Sezer, Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. The sides agreed to draft a Common Strategic Vision. In Ankara Rice said that Turkey is the US’ key partner. The brief few-page Common Strategic Vision will consist of three main chapters: (1) fight with terrorism, (2) relations with the EU, (3) Big Middle East project and addenda concerning Cyprus, PKK, Iran, Iraq, the Middle East peace process and relations with Russia. To date, the US has a similar document only with India.
The Turkish public had been well prepared for Rice’s visit. On the eve of the visit, all Turkish media reported that during the last few years the US has been providing the Turkish armed forces with information support, particularly, through the Echelon global surveillance system. Even though most of this information was about PKK (it was this very source that enabled the Turkish armed forces to hold a series of successful operations in Turkey’s south-eastern regions in March-April), Rice did not give a specific yes to Turkey’s request to stifle PKK’s positions in Northern Iraq or to let it do it itself. At the same time, she hinted that the US may close its eyes on this, i.e. on a forthcoming Turkish military operation in Northern Iraq. It’s noteworthy that Turkey launched this operation while Rice was still in its territory. So, we can say that the US has, in fact, given a sanction to it.
One more interesting point of fact is that before coming to Ankara Rice had signaled that she supports Turkey’s position on Cyprus, thereby, creating a favourable climate for her talks in Ankara. Particularly, in Athens she said that Turkey is already a European country and that the Republic of Cyprus should do its best to make Turkey’s EU membership a reality. Ankara made a reciprocal gesture: it turned down Iran’s request for National Security Secretary Ali Larijani’s visit to Turkey. The Turks advised Larijani to put off his visit for early May, i.e. after Rice’s visit. They may well act as a go-between at the talks with Larijani by telling him what the US has said. This is quite typical of Ankara: to get most of the tensions between two allies and to act as a negotiator between them.
Yet one more interesting point of fact is that Turkey had launched its all-time big anti-Kurdish military campaign exactly by the time of Rice’s Ankara visit. Fearing Europe’s anger, Turkey had, thereby, tried to “legitimize” its action. Turkey’s goal is to curb the activity of Kurds in its south-eastern regions, to provoke them into counter-action and, with US acquiescence, to track the fighters down to Northern Iraq and to put an end to them there. This is, in fact, a repetition of campaigns it used to hold in Saddam times.
The events of the last week have confirmed this conclusion. Turkey was holding its military campaign while Rice was talking with Turkish leaders in Ankara and had crossed the Iraqi border when Rice was still in the Turkish capital. During the night of Apr 26-27, after being informed that fighters from the PKK training camps in Khaftanin and Metina (Northern Iraq) were planning to infiltrate into the Turkish territory, the Turkish army launched a preventive attack, threw back the enemy and pursued it into the Northern Iraqi territory. Armed with night vision cameras, the Turkish soldiers liquidated the covers of the Kurds.
The chief of Turkey’s general staff, Gen. Hilmi Ozkok refused to answer any questions. Instead, Ms Rice “calmed down” the Iraqi authorities by saying that Turkey was not going to cause damage to Iraq but was only trying to destroy PKK bases. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the same. This means that when in Ankara Rice gave her consent to Turkey’s operation in Northern Iraq. We can’t yet give all the reasons of this consent but, undoubtedly, it was the result of 'horse trading' .
The next day Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul confirmed that Turkish troops had violated the Turkish-Iraqi border but said that the Iraqi authorities' protests were uncalled for (the note of protest handed by Iraqi Ambassador to Turkey Umran Sabah) as “the destruction of PKK fighters in the territory of Northern Iraq is good for Baghdad too.” “For as long as Iraq is unable to guard its own borders, we’ll do it ourselves,” Gul said. This statement shows how confident Turkey is in this matter. It undertakes to 'protect' the border of a neighbor country without its consent and, in the meantime occupies, part of its territory. Obviously, Washington has not only agreed to but also guaranteed Turkey’s actions.
In his turn, the leader of the Iraqi Democratic Party of Kurdistan Masud Barzani attempted to refute the fact of the Turkish invasion into Iraq. This shows that, sacrificed by the US once again, the leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan are trying to save their faces. Meanwhile, the Turkish troops are reported to have gained control over 20-km area in Northern Iraq and to be holding a large-scale operation to destroy PKK fighters. They have already destroyed the Zap training camp near Ahmediye – 30 km deep into Iraq. During the operations Turkish planes heavily bombed the PKK bases. Availing itself of the opportunity, Turkey’s general staff has hurried to deploy a 110,000-strong corps on the border with Iran and to say that this border is fully controlled. This may be part of Turkey’s preparations for the anti-Iranian campaign.
Summing up the results of Rice’s visit to Ankara, we can say that the US is pressing hard on Turkey so as to prevent the recurrence of the Mar 2003 events, but, at the same time, it is catering for some of Ankara’s major interests. According to confidential information, Rice has demanded a straightforward answer from Turkey – “who is it with: with the US or Iran?” The Turkish officials are pretending they have given no specific promises to Washington yet and will act in line with the UN Security Council’s resolution. But there are facts that prove that during its secret talks with the DS and Pentagon and earlier this year with Tel Aviv, Turkey showed that it might well join the US and Israel.
Turkey’s key argument is the fear of its generals that a nuclear bomb in the hands of Iran may break the balance of forces between Ankara and Tehran. Turkish military analysts say that the decades-long peace between Turkey and Iran is fragile and is based on the parity of their armed forces. At the same time, the political rulers of Turkey, namely, the pro-Islamist PJD, fear that strong Iran may be a strong enemy in the struggle for sway in the Muslim world and want to weaken it.
But given the growing anti-American moods and upcoming elections in the country, PJD would still like to get the UN SC’s sanctions for the military campaign against Iran: PJD is careful in its policies and is not going to say yes to whatever the US wants. Meanwhile, Turkey’s General Staff, on the contrary, hopes that joint actions with the US will help it to strengthen its position in own country and to curb the further rise of Islamism there, particularly, to prevent PJD leader Erdogan from becoming president.
This is proved by the following circumstances: (1) a number of scandalous differences between PJD and US officials, particularly, the premier’s advisor Zapsu’s appeal to Washington not to give up PJD and Erdogan; and (2) the frequent visits of US representatives to Turkey. So, we can assume that Rice’s promise of a new strategic partnership treaty soon may well come from an agreement between Pentagon and Turkey’s General Staff. And so, we can accept the view of Turkish analysts about “a new stage” in Turkish-American relations with one proviso: just like several years ago, the US and Turkey will build their relations on the basis of military cooperation. Ankara has two problems the US can help it to solve: Cyprus and PKK. Rice’s Athens statement that Cyprus should do its best for Turkey to become an EU member, the entry of Turkish troops in Northern Iraq (something Ankara has been demanding for three years already) and the US’ connivance in the matter show that Ankara and Washington have, in principle, agreed on their cooperation over several important directions, including over Iran.
The approval of Turkey’s entry into Iraq may also imply that the sides have agreed on Kirkuk. Particularly, the Turkish prime minister and foreign minister told Rice that this town is very important in both internal political and regional terms and one can’t leave it under the control of one ethnic group. By “ethnic group” they obviously meant the Kurds.
There is a strong possibility that Washington is playing a situational game with several players at once. Getting strong support in Iraq in 2003, the US realized once again how important it is to cooperate with the Kurdish Peshmarga. But, obviously, Washington is not hurrying to give the Kurds official independence so as to have something to offer the next time the Kurds may become useful. In case of a campaign in Iran, the US will need not only Turkey, but also Kurds: who will help it to keep up stability in Iraq and to break stability in Iran through local Kurds. There is a strong possibility that Kurds may be used by Iran. And so, by letting Turkey into Northern Iraq, i.e. Kurdistan, Washington has, on the one hand, dealt a card to Ankara but, on the other, secured a card for itself – for promising at later meetings with Kurds that it will urge Turkey to withdraw from Kurdistan if they promise to cooperate over Iran. Ankara perfectly knows that the US’ approval of its campaign in Northern Iraq does not yet mean approval of its deployment in that territory.
So, obviously, in the next 10-15 years the US’ foreign policy will be focused on Middle East, Caspian Basin, Caucasus, Central Asia, South-Eastern Asia. Apparently, the US still needs Turkey as a military and political partner. Besides, Turkey is still the only partner of Israel despite the recent tensions over the PJD’s Islamist policies.
Turkey also needs the US. If Iran gets stronger, and the balance of forces in the region is changed, Turkey will find it hard to keep its positions alone. Turkey is obviously conceding in its relations with the US so as not to face Islamism tête-à-tête. Today it wants Washington just to curb Iran but not to war with it. If a war starts Turkey will find it hard to avoid being involved. But for the time being, it is just trying to capitalize on the regional crisis.
At its regular monthly conference on April 27, Turkey’s National Security Council focused on Turkey’s military campaign against PKK, Rice’s contacts in Ankara and the new government and nuclear program crises in Iraq and Iran, respectively. Particularly discussed was the strategy of Turkish military operations on the other side of the border. It’s noteworthy that after the 5.5-hour conference the Turkish premier had a tête-à-tête meeting with Transport Minister Yildirim, who had just come back from Iran. The council also discussed internal political problems, particularly, the strengthening of the Islamist policy.
Naturally, for us the dynamics of Turkish-American relations are interesting mostly in terms of Turkey’s relations with Russia and its role in the Caucasus. Having decisive rapprochement plans with Turkey, the US, at the same time, demands that Ankara stop its big plans with Moscow. Particularly, when in Ankara, Rice demanded that Gazprom be removed from the 600 mln EUR project to connect the gas networks of Turkey and Greece. She had earlier demanded the same in Athens. Some sources say that Rice proposed replacing the Russian gas by the Azeri one to be imported to Turkey via the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipeline. This demand has upset Turkey’s plans to become a mediator between Russia and Europe and to, thereby, show its importance for the EU. But Turkey’s tighter relations with the US may lead to its stronger positions in the Caucasus, particularly, in the South Caucasus.
So, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipelines, to be launched in 2007, will link Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey even tighter. In Ankara the US and Turkey might also discuss the building of a railroad Kars (Turkey)-Tbilisi-Baku, particularly, the possibility of US support in the project. If we add to this the talk that Turkey may be allowed to have a greater say over the South Caucasus, we may well assume that very soon the Russian military bases in Georgia will be replaced by Turkish troops under the NATO aegis. Then, by forcing Georgia to populate the Turkish-Georgian borderline regions with ethnic Turks (Meskhetins), the EU and the US will chain it up to the West, with Ankara gaining bigger influence over Tbilisi’s policy.
Ankara has repeatedly said that it is ready to become a mediator in the Karabakh peace process. This would give Turkey the authority of big regional power. Despite Armenia’s resistance, the US may well involve Turkey in the process, though, initially, just as an observer. In summary, we should note that the unpredictability of the developments over Iran and the further deepening of Turkish-American relations are very negative factors for Russia’s positions in the South Caucasus.