The Turkish Strategic Challenge After The July Elections

Ariel Cohen

Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Israel
Aug 9 2007

Turkey’s secular system will continue to be challenged as the Islamic
Justice and Development Party (the AKP) gradually pulls Islamic values
further into public life.

The AKP leadership has done wonders for the Turkish economy, but
that is only part of the story. AKP critics state that the party is
seeking to subvert Turkey’s institutions.

Anti-Americanism has become rampant. Anti-Israel feelings are also
pervasive, and after terrorist attacks against two Istanbul synagogues
and anti-Semitic articles in the media, many Turkish Jews live in fear.

Washington and Jerusalem should do everything they can to put
U.S.-Turkish and Turkish-Israeli relations back on track, including
restoring the U.S.-Turkish-Israeli strategic partnership.

American, European and Israeli policy-makers are attempting to
figure out what the future of Turkey will look like and how to
build relationships with this strategically important but difficult
country. This will not be an easy task.

On July 22, Turkey’s AKP scored an impressive victory in parliamentary
elections, winning an unprecedented 47 percent of the vote, up from
34 percent in 2002. Turkey’s secular system will continue to be
challenged as the AKP introduces its Islamic agenda and challenges
the military, the presidency, the court system and the universities,
all of which are still staunchly secular.

The AKP is not the steadfast U.S. ally that its predecessors often
were. Nor is it a true friend of Israel. AKP leaders threaten to
reorient Turkish foreign policy away from the U.S. and the West,
and toward Islamic countries. The negative implications of such a
development on the chances for a successful resolution of the Iraq
imbroglio, and for preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,
are clear.

Turkey is critical to U.S. relations with the Muslim world; it is a
bridge to the Middle East, a successful democracy, and an important
energy transit country. Washington must work harder to engage Turkey,
ensuring that the country continues to look toward the West in its
politics and policies.

Economic Success vs. Islamization

The U.S. State Department and the media have praised the Turkish
elections as a vindication of democracy and a guarantee of another
five years of a stable investment climate. It is true that the
AKP leadership has done wonders for the Turkish economy. Foreign
investment rose from $9.6 billion in 2005 to $19.8 billion in 2006;
inflation has declined to 4 percent after years of double digit
rates; and per-capita income has jumped from $2,598 in 2002 to $5,477
today. These metrics are routinely praised by bullish Wall Street
and Turkish investors alike.

But the economic numbers tell only a part of the story. While the
economy has surged, the AKP has masterfully exploited divisions
between the secular and the religious sectors of Turkish society
to expand its grip on power, with potentially dire implications for
Turkey’s foreign policy orientation.

The AKP’s pre-election propaganda stated that Foreign Minister
Abdullah Gul’s nomination to the presidency (which triggered the early
elections) was blocked because he is Muslim and that this "injustice"
could be "undone" by voting for the AKP.1 The message was effective:
The 12 percent increase in AKP votes coincided with a 10 percent
increase in the number of Turks who identify themselves as Muslim
first and Turkish second.2

This divide is likely to exacerbate current tensions among political,
religious, and ethnic political groups, especially the large Kurdish
minority, and lead to greater instability. These brewing conflicts
threaten Turkey’s secular model, its attractiveness to foreign
investment, and the current wave of domestic prosperity. The AKP
victory raises questions about the increasing role of religion in
this previously secular state and possible reactions from secular
quarters, including Turkey’s powerful military. The prospects for
Turkey achieving EU membership (a development which had already been
stalled by French and German opposition) will now be even dimmer for
the foreseeable future. The AKP victory also has major implications
for Turkish relations with the West in general and with the U.S. and
Israel in particular.

The End of Secularism?

AKP critics state that the party is seeking to subvert Turkey’s
institutions. The bulwark of the secular system, the presidency, is a
critical political office and has several significant powers, including
a legislative veto and the power to make key state appointments.

The AKP landslide, coupled with the new and growing divide between
Muslims and the secular, raises the specter of an AKP "secret agenda"
that could haunt the country. Specifically, critics fear the creeping
Islamization of Turkey, especially if an AKP president is put into
office this coming fall.

The AKP has already attempted to criminalize alcohol and adultery,
while allowing the formerly banned turban (an Islamist women’s
headdress) into the public sphere. The AKP also tried to allow
graduates of imam khatibs (Islamic religious schools) to be allowed
into universities, something that Turkish law and the country’s
universities currently oppose.

The AKP’s renewed mandate and a future AKP presidency may allow Prime
Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to push the envelope further. Despite
the AKP’s major win, it has not achieved the absolute majority in
parliament necessary to nominate its president. The party emerged
27 votes short, with 340 seats out of 550 total, and will need the
support of the opposition or independent members to elect the next
head of state. If it can gain that support, it may score another
significant victory.

The Turkish president nominates justices to the Supreme Court and
approves appointments of general officers and university presidents.

Undermining secularism through weakening the military, the court
system, and academia could pave the way for further Islamization.

In the meantime, the appointment of Islamists to the lower rungs of the
state and provincial bureaucracy is continuing apace.3 For example,
many were surprised when the AKP passed a law in 2004 lowering the
compulsory retirement age for civil servants. This act swept out
many older secularists and brought in young AKP party faithful, many
graduates of Islamic schools. The ruling AKP is also increasingly
putting pressure on the media. Freedom House expressed concerns about
the AKP’s intimidation of the media in the run-up to the elections.4

Erdogan has rejected charges that the AKP harbors a hidden agenda
to undermine Turkish secularism and made a graceful and conciliatory
acceptance speech. However, many secularists believe that the distance
between AKP’s moderates and its radicals is tactical: In the long run,
they share similar strategic goals.

A Foreign Policy Challenge

Strong pillars supported the U.S.-Turkish bilateral relationship
during the Cold War and throughout the 1990s, as the Soviet Union
collapsed and Turkey sought its place in Eurasia. During the Cold
War, Turkey’s pro-Western secular elites championed unpopular causes:
Turkey supported U.S. operations during the 1991 Gulf War and provided
operational and intelligence support over the next ten years during
Operation Northern Watch in Iraq’s Kurdistan. Turkey also played
vital roles in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, and Afghanistan.

Likewise, the U.S. supported Turkey by cracking down on the Kurdish
terrorist organization PKK, culminating in the 1999 capture of its
leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Successive U.S. administrations supported
Turkey’s European Union membership and opposed a slew of Armenian
genocide resolutions in Congress. These relations produced goodwill
and major projects, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.

Turkey’s military cooperation with Israel thrived.

But recent domestic developments are affecting U.S.-Turkish relations
and Turkish foreign policy. Turkey’s new conservative religious elite
is formulating a new foreign policy. This group, more suspicious of
the West, has already signaled that Turkey is no longer a staunch
U.S. ally. The AKP failed to deliver a crucial parliamentary vote
authorizing the transit of the U.S. 4th Armored Division through
Turkey to northern Iraq on the eve of the Iraq War. The AKP has also
not explained to Turkish citizens why a strong U.S.-Turkish bilateral
relationship is still important.

At the same time, AKP leaders and members, as well as many Turkish
secular nationalists, have engaged in blatantly anti-American
rhetoric. Members of the AKP claimed that U.S. troops are committing
atrocities in Iraq. Specifically, in 2006, the AKP speaker of the
parliament endorsed the notorious film "Valley of the Wolves," which
libelously depicts the U.S. military and "greedy Jews" engaged in
harvesting organs from prisoners and spraying crowds of civilians
with machine gun fire. The effect of these diatribes, accompanied by a
flurry of anti-American media publications, is that public approval of
the U.S., once high, is now in the single digits-the lowest level of
any country in the entire region.5 Anti-Israel feelings are rampant,
and after terrorist attacks against two Istanbul synagogues, many
Turkish Jews live in fear. With anti-American statements coming from
the AKP’s highest levels and the mass media, anti-Americanism has
become rampant in Turkey.

Anti-Americanism on the Rise

Anti-Americanism is not solely a function of U.S. policy toward Iraq.

Turks are also angry about U.S. policy toward the PKK and northern
Iraq, which they view as pro-Kurdish. The Turkish media have also
insinuated that the Israeli intelligence services support the Kurdish

The PKK has resumed suicide bombings in large cities in Turkey,
while quartering itself in havens in Iraqi Kurdistan. The United
States has worked to shut down the PKK’s financial networks in Europe
and appointed retired General Ralston as special envoy to cooperate
with Turkey and counter the PKK. According to experts, the success
of financial measures against the PKK has not been matched on the
ground. The U.S. has failed to deliver tangible results-military
action or arrests. Turkish officials claim that this status quo is
severely harming the bilateral relationship.

While adeptly engaging the U.S. executive branch, the AKP also appears
to be reorienting Turkey away from the West and towards the Muslim
world. This includes labeling Israel as a "terrorist state" in 2004
and scaling down military cooperation with Jerusalem. In 2006 Turkey
assigned its soldiers to the UN force in southern Lebanon as part of
a predominantly Western peacekeeping force.6 Prime Minister Erdogan
did so despite the opposition of radical Islamists and of the secular
president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer.7

At the same time, there is a growing rapprochement with Syria,
culminating in President Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Ankara in 2005
and Turkey’s "secret" mediator role, aimed at transferring the Golan
Heights to Syria. Turkey also played host in Ankara to a high-ranking
delegation of Hamas terrorists led by Khaled Mashal.

A major factor drawing Turkey closer to Syria and Iran is a shared
interest in maintaining stability in the face of Kurdish separatism.

Аnother factor in the Turkish-Iranian rapprochement is energy.

Turkey has recently concluded a multi-billion dollar gas deal with
Iran. Turkey’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has also strengthened of
late. Relations with Egypt are growing apace, with ongoing dialogues
on energy and security cooperation. However, it is the U.S.

and Israel which will pay the price for this shift in Turkish foreign

Crafting a New Policy for a New Turkey

Turkey always was and will remain a pivotal power in the region,
especially as long as Iran and Iraq remain major challenges for U.S.

foreign policy and as long as the regime in Teheran represents an
existential threat to Israel. As Russia becomes a source of increasing
concern, Turkey will also play a major role in keeping it in check,
or will ally itself with the Russian bear.

It is in the strategic interests of both the United States and Israel
to have Turkey pursuing democracy and economic growth and engaged in
cooperative relationships with Washington and Jerusalem. The U.S.

needs to make Ankara understand that it is an important partner but
that it must play by the rules and respect U.S. national security
interests in the region.

In order to improve U.S.-Turkish relations, the U.S. should place
Turkey at the forefront of its regional diplomacy. Specifically,
the U.S. needs to use every tool to address PKK terrorist attacks on
Turkey from northern Iraq. The U.S. should also put more pressure on
President Masoud Barazani of the Kurdish regional government in Erbil
to crack down on PKK strongholds and deny PKK fighters a safe haven.

In addition, the U.S. should emphasize to the AKP leadership that it is
in Turkey’s long-term interests to keep facing the West. This includes
cooperation in the war on terror, respect for the territorial integrity
of Iraq, cooperation on sanctions against Iran, and maintaining good
relations with Israel. Also important is the cessation of anti-American
incitement and anti-Israel proclamations by government officials in
the Turkish mass media.

The Bush Administration should expand cooperation with Turkey in the
energy realm-especially on projects to boost oil and gas exports from
Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan. Turkey can be an important
partner in developing a Trans-Caspian natural gas Pipeline (TCP)
and should be encouraged to build bridges to the new administration
in Turkmenistan. At the same time, Washington should warn Ankara that
excessive dependence on either Russian or Iranian gas will jeopardize
Turkey’s sovereignty and security in the long term.


If domestic politics and the AKP’s anti-Americanism are any guide,
Turkey’s apparent shift toward the Middle East and the Muslim world
could be more than a matter of passing expediency. Nevertheless,
Washington and Jerusalem should do everything they can to put
U.S.-Turkish and Turkish-Israeli relations back on track. The U.S.

and Israel should reach out to pro-Western elements in the Turkish
foreign and security elite and work with them to restore the
U.S.-Turkish-Israeli strategic partnership.

* * *


1 Soner Cagaptay, "Upcoming Turkish Elections: Issues
and Winners," PolicyWatch, , No. 1257, The Washington
Institute for Near East Policy, July 6, 2007. See:

2 Soner Cagaptay, "Turkish Election Results: More or Less Stability?"

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, July 23, 2007, at
php?CID=358. Accessed
July 29, 2007.

3 I am indebted to Kemal Koprulu of Bilgi University (Istanbul)
for this insight.

4 Freedom House, "Freedom House Calls on the Turkish Government to
Respect Media Freedom Prior to Forthcoming Elections," February 27,
2007, at mp;release=467.

5 "Pew Global Project Attitudes Survey," June 27, 2007, p. 13, at
Accessed July 30, 2007.

6 Gal Luft and Ariel Cohen, "Turkey: The Best Choice to Lead a
Lebanon Force," International Herald Tribune, August 10, 2006,

7 Soner Cagaptay, "Turkey’s Dangerous Lebanon
Intentions," Daily Star (Lebanon), August 25, 2006. See:

* * *

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian
Studies and International Energy Security at The Heritage Foundation.

He is a member of the Board of Advisers of the Institute for
Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress

Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS