Five months after the Turkish government bowed to popular pressure to abstain from the US’s war against Iraq, it is continuing to face the consequences. Although the precise background and circumstances of the US’s arrest of a Turkish military unit in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyyah on July 4 remain unclear, the incident can be seen as both another part of the US’s continuing retribution for Turkey’s insolence in refusing to do as it was told, and a focal point in what has become an intense campaign against the government of Recep Tayob Erdogan co-ordinated by the Turkish military.
The arrest of the Turkish special unit, consisting of three officers and eight other soldiers, caused a storm of protest in Turkey, where they were reported to have been treated as harshly as al-Qa’ida suspects. It has been confirmed that they were handcuffed, blind-folded and taken to a special prison in Baghdad for interrogation. They were released three days later.
At the time, the US said only that they had been involved in "suspicious activities", but the American press was briefed to make sharper accusations. It was reported that the unit was arrested in possession of over $100,000 in cash, sniper equipment, 15kg of explosives and a map of Kirkuk. It was suggested that they had been planning to assassinate the local Kurdish governor. The house where they were arrested was reported to be the headquarters of a pro-Turkish Iraqi group, the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), reported to have links with Turkey’s far-right "Grey Wolves" group.
The Turkish government’s response was indignant, with officials insisting that the Americans are well aware of the presence and whereabouts of all Turkish troops in northern Iraq, their objectives and the equipment they are carrying. Ankara insisted that its only object was to establish stability in Iraq, where it has long been concerned about the rising power of the Kurds, especially as the two main Kurdish organizations, the PUK and the KDP, are now the US’s main allies in the country.
The Turkish and US militaries, which have long had a direct relationship by-passing Turkey’s elected government in Ankara, issued a joint statement on July 15 giving the findings of a commission established to investigate the incident. The statement said little more than that "both sides... regret that this incident occurred between allied troops."
Although that incident may have been declared closed, without being explained, the circumstances in which it occurred remain the object of speculation. Until the Turkish government voted to refuse the US’s request to allow its troops to use Turkish territory as a base for invading western Iraq, after massive public demonstrations indicating that well over 90 percent of Turks opposed the war, the US had agreed to the occupation of northern Iraq by Turkish troops. This was seen as serving both the US’s interests in stabilising the region, and Turkey’s interest in ensuring that it did not become a Kurdish powerbase.
It was only after Ankara refused to permit the US troops to operate from eastern Turkey, despite the promise of $30 billion dollars in aid, that the US decided to make the Kurdish groups its main allies in northern Iraq. Since then, with the utter failure of the Iraqi National Congress, which the US had expected to represent them in central Iraqi politics, the PK and the KDP have become the US’s closest allies, also representing it on Iraq’s interim governing council. They are, for example, the only Iraqi groups that have been allowed to keep their paramilitary forces and heavy armaments.
This growing Kurdish power in Iraq is a nightmare for Ankara, which fears that broad autonomy for the Kurds in northern Iraq could fuel Kurdish opposition movements inside Turkey itself. Instead of having the substantial military control over northern Iraq that the US had initially promised, Turkey is restricted to a relatively light military presence, little more than a continuation of the presence it had before the war, and the arrests last month were evidently a warning from the US against attempting to take any more assertive role.
This was only the latest of a series of steps that the US has taken to show its anger with Erdogan’s government since its decision to limit its support the Iraq war, despite the fact that Ankara did permit its airspace and airbases to be used, and provided logistical support.
Perhaps the strongest indication of the US’s anger came from deputy secretary of defence Paul Wolfowitz during a visit to Turkey in early May. During an interview with Turkish television, he openly scolded the Turkish government for bowing to public pressure, saying "Let’s have a Turkey that steps up and says we made a mistake. We should have known how bad things were in Iraq but we know now. Let’s figure out how we can be as helpful as possible to the Americans."
He also criticised the Turkish army for not forcing the government into line: "I think for whatever reason they did not play the strong leadership role on that issue that we would have expected."
Reminded that the Turkish military — which has overthrown four elected governments in the last 50 years — is usually criticized for interfering too much in politics, Wolfowitz responded: "I think it’s perfectly appropriate, especially in your system, for the military to say it was in Turkey’s interest to support the United States in that effort. My impression is they didn’t say it with the kind of strength that would have made a difference."
The US has also increased political and economic pressure on the Erdogan government, which was elected with unprecedented public support late last year, when the Party for Justice and Development (AKP) became the first Turkish party in living memory to win an overall majority in parliament. Late in June, for example, it become increasingly critical of the AKP’s economic policies, accusing it of failing to implement "structural reforms" demanded by the IMF. The press were briefed by "sources in the Bush administration" that the AKP was "deviating from the demands made in the IMF programme" and that "the populist policies of the AKP... [in] violation of the strict fiscal demands made by the IMF programme" were causing the US concern.
On the face of it, one would expect the Turkish military, the self-proclaimed guardian of Turkish national pride, to bristle as these attacks on Turkey’s independence of action, and to rally with the government against foreign interference. Instead, they have responded by blaming the AKP government for creating the situation in which Turkish troops have been humiliated by the US in Iraq, not permitted to play the role they expected in the war and in post-war Iraq, and publicly scolded by Wolfowitz, an official of the country which they most admire (and to which some might suggest they own their truest allegiance).
The explanation is that these are just the latest new factors in what has always been a strained relationship between the AKP and the military, and with it Turkey’s established secular elite. This strained relationship can ultimately be traced back to secular suspicions that the AKP is still tainted by the Islamist leanings of the banned political parties from which many of its members, including Erdogan, emerged. This suspicion resulted in the AKP being publicly snubbed by Turkish president Ahmed Necdet Sezer and the entire leadership of the military on April 23, the day of national sovereignty, when they refused to attend a parliamentary reception because Bulent Arinc, the president of parliament, would be with his wife who wears a headscarf.
The AKP is also suspected of being soft on Turkey’s Kurds, partly because of new laws recently passed which, if implemented, would relax the restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language, and abolish the notorious legal ban on the "propaganda against national unity", traditionally used as a catch-all law to punish Kurdish activists. These laws have been vetoed by Sezer, but he could be over-ruled by a second vote in parliament.
The army is also angry with other measures that the AKP is introducing which would limit the power of the military in domestic politics. The sixth EU harmonisation package, recently passed into law, states that in future no representatives of the military will be appointed into the state media supervisory authority. This too has been vetoed by Sezer, pending a second vote. Further reform packages are imminent, including even the reform of the National Security Council, through which the military acts in domestic politics. The defence budget would come under government control instead of military control, and the notorious State Security Courts abolished.
All this is, of course, utterly unacceptable to Turkey’s traditional political elite, which saw their power and standing severely shaken by the AKP’s overwhelming electoral victory in November.
The result is that the US’s anger with Turkey over the Iraq war has become the pretext for the launching of what appears to be a major secular-nationalist campaign, apparently aimed at the US, but actually targeting the AKP government. The campaign was opened by army chief of staff Milmi Ozkok, who proclaimed after the Sulaimaniyyah incident that "National pride and the honour of the armed forces are being threatened."
He immediately received support from a range of parties and media sources. The Hurriyetnewspaper made clear the real target of the campaign: "The US has been our ally for 50 years. For the first time, Washington treated Turkey in a hostile way by detaining 11 Turkish soldiers in northern Iraq. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been following an indecisive and wrong Iraq policy, is responsible for it. This is unfortunate for Turkey but unfortunately this was what the Turkish nation wanted.... Now Turkey is paying the price of its votes for the AKP" (July 7, 2003).
Although the AKP has been trying to improve relations with both the US and the EU, it appears that the US is determinedly offering its support not to Turkey’s elected government but to its military elite. Turkey’s traditional secular fundamentalists, backed by an aggressive US, may prove too great an obstacle for the AKP to overcome, despite its continuing popularity, and the continuing unpopularity of the US among Turkey’s ordinary people.