A short four months after Turkey’s pre-war refusal to allow the US permission to open a ‘northern front’ in Iraq from Turkish territory, relations between the two NATO allies reached a new low this month. This followed the July 4 detention of 11 members of Turkey’s special forces by US soldiers in the Northern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah. The detentions were the result of US intelligence reports that the Turkish soldiers were planning to assassinate the governor of Kirkuk. Most Turks, however, saw the raid as a retaliatory snub for Turkey’s position during the Iraq crisis - and as a move designed to undermine Turkey’s presence and influence in Northern Iraq.
In a conversation shortly after the raid with US Secretary of State Colin Powell, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul was reported to have described US intelligence referring to the plans for an assassination as “nonsense”.
But whatever the real reasons, the incident has led to plenty of discussion in Turkey about the state of relations with Ankara’s most important ally.
A fact-finding team, led by Turkey’s Army Chief of Staff, General Hilmi Ozkok, and the US Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General James Jones, met in Ankara mid-July to look into the incident. After lengthy discussions, the team issued a joint statement on July 16 in which the US noted “Turkish concerns related to the kind of treatment its military personnel were subjected to during the unfortunate incident”. At the same time, however, Turkey noted “US expressions of concern about reported activities of Turkish personnel in northern Iraq”.
The expressions of mutual regret angered many in Ankara, who pointed out that the US had planned and carried out a military operation against an ally without any warning or discussion. The statement makes no mention of the intelligence that led to the raid, or of its veracity.
Deniz Baykal, leader of the opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP), had argued that nothing short of an American apology would suffice. None was forthcoming.
A few hours after the raid occurred, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul were in contact with US Vice President Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, demanding the soldiers’ release.
That demand was heeded, but only 60 hours later. Claims by the soldiers that they were mistreated by their captors caused widespread resentment in Turkey, where the military enjoys much vaunted status.
On the Monday following the incident, Ozkok, Turkey’s top military commander, referred to the incident as “the biggest crisis of trust between Turkish and US forces”. Turkey’s civilian leaders were more reserved in their description, with Gul openly questioning what it meant to argue, as many had, that “Turkey’s honour was damaged”.
Nevertheless, the wound runs deep, and appears unlikely to respond to superficial treatment or mere expressions of regret. The root cause of the incident -- disagreement between Ankara and Washington over Turkey’s presence in northern Iraq -- remains.
Turkey’s press described the events as the biggest crisis in US-Turkish relations since the “Johnson letter” of June1964, in which US President Lyndon Johnson admonished Turkey for landing its troops on Cyprus. The letter undermined confidence amongst Turks in the dependability of its ally and led to a major shift in Turkish foreign policy, including attempts to forge a closer relationship with the Soviet Union.
Many believe this latest incident could have similarly wide-ranging effects, especially given rising Turkish concern about developments in Iraq.
Ankara backed Washington in the first Gulf War in 1991, but as the decade progressed, Turkish concern grew about the de facto independence enjoyed by Iraq’s Kurdish population, which it claimed fanned separatist sentiment amongst Turkey’s own Kurdish minority. Washington’s failure to compensate Turkey for the economic losses due to the US enforced embargo on Iraq didn’t help.
The Turkish soldiers were detained while present in the Sulaymaniyah headquarters compound of the Iraqi Turkomen Front (ITF), the explicit target of the US raid. The ITF has long enjoyed the support of Ankara and has repeatedly warned against Kurdish control of the region, fearing that this will lead to action against the Turkomen population.
Ankara has also long seen its role in Northern Iraq as one of protecting its ethnic brethren - the Turkomens - via the ITF. The raid showed that the US does not have the same perspective, or liking for the ITF, which was subsequently excluded from the Iraqi Governing Council appointed by the US July 13.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council also passed a resolution granting the American-led coalition forces responsibility for the security of Iraq. In other words, Turkey must now defer to the US when conducting military activities in northern Iraq, regardless of how essential it deems those activities to its own security.
Turkey’s position during the Iraq crisis earlier this year has led many hawks in Washington to openly question Ankara’s commitment to the US’ more proactive foreign policy agenda in the wider Middle East. The neo-conservative leanings in the Pentagon and White House leave little room for allies not prepared to toe the US line. Even prior to the incident, US Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz, had made it clear that he and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were disappointed by the Turkish military.
Resentment towards US control of northern Iraq is growing in Turkey. After all, the US listed security concerns as its primary reason for entering Iraq. Given years of violence between Turkish and separatist Kurdish forces, many of which were based in Iraq, most Turks feel their concerns are legitimate. The Pentagon, however, appears unsympathetic. That Turkish and US interests in northern Iraq threaten to diverge is nothing new. What has concerned Ankara is that Washington now appears willing to apply force in pushing its agenda.
When Foreign Minister Gul took off for the US capital July 22 to meet US Secretary of State Colin Powell, he therefore had a considerable amount of fence mending to do. One of the formulas Ankara suggested for this was an offer to send more Turkish troops to Iraq – though this time, to act as a peacekeeping force in the volatile ‘Sunni triangle’ near Baghdad. Meanwhile, US officials also began to suggest the importance of trade and economic co-operation between Turkey and Northern Iraq as a means of achieving regional stability. Time will no doubt tell if these measures may help the two disgruntled strategic partners to truly bury the hatchet.