Turkey as a Regional Power
By George Friedman
Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) guerrillas based in northern Iraq ambushed Turkish troops near the border Oct. 21, killing 12 soldiers and suffering 23 casualties in the ensuing firefight, according to the Turkish government. For its part, the PKK said it captured eight Turkish troops, though Ankara has not confirmed the claim.
Based on prior PKK attacks, the Turkish parliament last week authorized the use of force in Iraq. This latest attack, therefore, was clearly designed to challenge that decision. Even before the dust had settled Oct. 21, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, rejected an earlier demand from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Baghdad shut down all PKK camps in Iraqi territory and hand over PKK leaders. Talabani said Iraq cannot solve Turkey's problem, given that PKK leaders hide out in rugged mountains and even the "mighty" Turkish military has failed to kill or capture them. Specifically, he said, "The handing over of PKK leaders to Turkey is a dream that will never be realized."
If that position holds, it is difficult to imagine that the Turks won't move into northern Iraq and re-establish the sphere of influence and security they had during the Saddam Hussein era. The United States is working furiously to satisfy Turkey by taking responsibility for controlling the PKK. It is not clear whether the United States can deliver, nor is it clear whether the Turks are prepared to rely on the United States. Some move into Iraq is likely, in our mind, but even if it doesn't happen in this particular case, tensions between Turkey and the United States will remain. More important, Turkey's willingness to play a secondary role in the region is declining.
This is not really new. The Turks refused to allow the United States to invade Iraq from Turkish territory, even though Washington offered them free room to maneuver in northern Iraq in exchange for their cooperation. The Turks, however, were not unhappy with the status quo in Iraq. They also were concerned about the consequences of an American invasion and were not eager to be seen as a tool of the United States in the Islamic world.
At the same time, the Turks did not want a rupture with the United States — given that the relationship has been the foundation of Turkish foreign policy since World War II. The refusal of the European Union to admit Turkey in particular made it necessary for Ankara to preserve its relationship with Washington. Therefore, although the invasion was problematic for the Turks, they have cooperated with the United States, allowing a large portion of the supplies for U.S. troops in Iraq to come through Turkey.
The Turkish balancing act on Iraq has pivoted on one fundamental national security consideration: that the autonomy given to Iraq's Kurds remains limited. The Kurdish nationality crosses existing borders — into Iraq, Turkey, Iran and, to a lesser extent, Syria — and represents a geographically coherent, self-aware nation without a state. Historically, the Kurds generally were compelled to be part of larger empires, including the Ottoman Empire. When that empire collapsed — leaving Turkey as its successor — these other countries contained Kurdish lands, with more than half of the Kurds living in Turkey. The Turks, dealing with the collapse of their empire and the building of a new nation-state, feared that Kurdish independence would lead to the disintegration of that nation-state. Therefore, they had — and continue to maintain — a fixed policy to suppress Kurdish nationalism.
From the Turkish point of view, the greatest danger is that an independent Kurdistan will be created in Iran or Iraq, and that the homeland will be used to base and support Kurds seeking independence from Turkey. In fact, each of these countries — and outside powers such as the United States, Soviet Union and United Kingdom — have used the Kurds as a tool to apply pressure on Turkey, Iran or Iraq at various times. They have used Kurdish separatism as a threat, and then normally double-crossed the Kurds, making a broader deal with the nation-state in question.
The evolution of events in Iraq is particularly alarming to the Turks. Hussein was not necessarily to the Turks' liking, but he did pursue one policy that was identical to that of the Turks: He opposed Kurdish independence. The U.S. policy after Desert Storm was to use the Iraqi Kurds against Hussein — and the United States helped carve out an area of Iraqi Kurdistan that he could not reach. The Turks, uneasy with this arrangement, entered Iraq in the 1990s to create a buffer zone against the Kurds. The United States did not object to this move because it increased the pressure on Hussein.
In looking at current U.S. strategy in Iraq, the Turks have drawn two conclusions. The first is that the United States, focused on Iraq's Sunni and Shiite areas, has little interest in controlling the Kurdish region — the one area that is fairly unambiguously pro-American. The second is that the Iranians and Shia want an Iraq divided into three regions — or even independent states — and that a U.S. policy designed to create a federal state with a strong central government will fail.
Therefore, Turkey's perception is that it already is dealing with the post-war world, one in which an increasingly bold Iraqi Kurdistan is pursuing a policy of expanding Kurdish autonomy by facilitating a guerrilla war in Turkey. The PKK's actions in recent weeks confirm this view in their mind. They also believe they cannot deal with the Kurdish challenge defensively, and therefore they must defend by attacking. Hence, the creation of a security zone in Iraq.
From the Kurds' point of view, if there ever was a moment to assert their national rights, this is it. However, their highly risky gamble is that the United States will not chance an anti-American uprising in Iraq's Kurdish areas and so will limit the extent to which Turkey can intervene. Moreover, with the United States at odds with Iran, it might support a Kurdish uprising there. Hence, though the stakes are high, the Kurdish gamble is not irrational.
The Kurds in Iraq are correct in their view that the United States does not want conflict in the one area in Iraq that is not anti-American. They also are correct that this is a unique moment for them. But they are betting that the Turks don't recognize the danger and thus will place their interests second to those of the United States — which is more concerned with stability in Iraqi Kurdistan than with suppressing attacks in Turkey's Kurdish areas. Although this might have been true of Turkey 10 years ago, it no longer is true today. The U.S.-Turkish relationship has flipped. The United States needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the United States — for reasons beyond getting supplies to Iraq.
Al Qaeda's geopolitical threat has subsided, no uprising capable of effecting regime change has occurred in the Islamic world and the threat of a unified Islamic world has vastly decreased. Meanwhile, the grand strategy of the United States has remained the same. It played Hitler against Stalin, Mao against Brezhnev and is now playing Sunni against Shi'i. The Sunni threat having subsided, the Shiite and Iranian threats remain. The current U.S. task is to build an anti-Iranian coalition. Regardless of whether the Europeans approve sanctions against Iran, its neighbors are important — and one of the most important is Turkey. However, given that Turkey and Iran have a common interest in preventing an independent Kurdish nation anywhere, the more the United States supports the Iraqi Kurds, the greater the danger of an Iranian-Turkish alliance. At the moment, that is the last thing the United States wants to see, which is why the resolution on Turkish responsibility for Armenian genocide in the U.S. Congress could not possibly have come at a worse moment.
But that is atmospherics. When we look beyond al Qaeda and beyond Iran — a country that has been unable to create substantial spheres of influence for many centuries — we see a single country that is likely to begin bringing order to the region: Turkey. Turkey is the heir to the Ottoman Empire, which at various points dominated the eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Caucasus and deep into Russia. Its collapse after World War I created an oddity — an inward-looking state in Asia Minor. Cautious in World War II and strictly aligned with the United States during the Cold War, Turkey played a passive role: It either sat things out or allowed its strategic territory to be used.
The situation has changed dramatically. In 2006, Turkey had the 18th largest economy in the world — larger than that of any other Muslim country, including Saudi Arabia — and the economy has been growing at a rate of between 5 percent and 7 percent a year for five years. Most important, Turkey is not a purely export-oriented country. It has developed a substantial middle class that buys the products it produces. It has a substantial and competent military and is handling the stresses between institutions and ideologies well.
It also is surrounded by chaos. Apart from Iraq to the south, there is profound instability in the Caucasus to the north and the Balkans to the northwest. The southern region from the Levant to the Persian Gulf is tremendously tense. The stability of Egypt — and therefore the eastern Mediterranean — after President Hosni Mubarak departs is in question. Turkey's longtime rival, Greece, no longer presents the challenge it once did. Moreover, the European Union's effective rejection of Turkey has freed the country from many of the constraints that its membership hopes might have imposed.
Turkey has a vested interest in stabilizing the region. It no longer regards the United States as a stabilizing force, and it sees Europe as a collective entity and individual nations as both hostile and impotent. It views the Russians as a long-term threat to its interests and sees Russia's potential return to Turkey's frontier as a long-term challenge. As did the Ottomans, it views Iran as a self-enclosed backwater. It is far more interested in the future of Syria and Iraq, its relationship with its ally, Israel, and ultimately the future of the Arabian Peninsula.
In other words, Turkey should be viewed as a rapidly emerging regional power — or, in the broadest sense, as beginning the process of recreating a regional hegemon of enormous strategic power, based in Asia Minor but projecting political, economic and military forces in a full circle. Its willingness to rely on the United States to guarantee its national security ended in 2003. It is prepared to cooperate with the United States on issues of mutual interest, but not as a subordinate power.
This emergence, in our view, is in the very early stages. Just as Turkey's economy and its internal politics have undergone dramatic changes in the past five years, so have its foreign policies. The Turks are cautiously reaching out and influencing events throughout the region. In one sense, the intervention in Iraq would simply be a continuation of policies followed in the 1990s. But in the current context, it would represent more: a direct assertiveness of its natural interests independent of the United States.
Looked at broadly, three things have happened. First, the collapse of Yugoslavia drew Turkey into a region where it had traditional interest. Second, the collapse and resurrection of Russian power has made Turkey look northward to the Caucasus. Finally, the chaos in the Arab world has drawn Turkey southward. Limits on Turkish behavior from Europe and the United States have been dramatically reduced as a result of Western strategy. Turkey believes it needs to bring order to regions where the United States and Europe have proven either ineffective or hostile to Turkish interests.
Considering the future of the region, the only power in a position to assert its consistent presence is Turkey. Iran, its nearest competitor, is neither in competition with Turkey, nor does it have a fraction of its power — nuclear weapons or not. Turkey has historically dominated the region, though not always to the delight of others there. Nevertheless, its historical role has been to pick up the pieces left by regional chaos. In our view, it is beginning to move down that road.
Its current stance on the Kurdish issue is merely a first step. What makes that position important is that Turkey is pursuing its interests indifferent to European or American views. Additionally, the reversal of dependency between the United States and Turkey is ultimately more important than whether Turkey goes into Iraq. The U.S. invasion of Iraq kicked off many processes in the world and created many windows of opportunity. Watching Turkey make its moves, we wonder less about the direction it is going than about the limits of its ambition.