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The Unrepentant Traditionalist
September 9, 2009

Turkey: A Strategic Ally at the Crossroads
by Frank Creel

ARLINGTON, VA — When I first went to Turkey in 1963, 40 years after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the secular republic, it was still a relatively poor nation of 30 million souls. Today its population is more than 73 million — with one-fourth younger than 15 years of age — and it has the world’s 17th largest economy.

Turkey, which joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952, has the alliance’s second largest military. Heirs to the Ottoman legacy of sustained military supremacy in the Mediterranean basin, Turks pride themselves on the discipline and courage of their troops, whom none of their neighbors is anxious to engage. Even Hitler’s Germany feared provoking the neutral Turks into active hostility.

Apart from its military prowess and rising economic heft, Turkey’s strategic importance lies chiefly in its geography. Its control of the Straits connecting the Mediterranean and Black Seas makes supplicants both of Russia (needing free passage from its warm-water ports) and the United States (desiring a Black Sea naval presence to buttress potential client states like Georgia). Turkey’s geography also makes it a natural portal for Russian natural gas and central Asian oil deposits making their way west to Mediterranean and European consumers. Russian President Putin came to Turkey in early August to nail down important commercial and energy agreements with the Turks.

With Turkey’s massive army and command of the heights over the Bosphorus, neither Russia nor the United States can force the Straits — as Winston Churchill learned to his grief in 1915.

That U.S.-Turkish relations remain as cordial as they are is no tribute to American diplomacy. We have repeatedly poked Turkey in the eye. In 1963, President Johnson rudely threatened to interpose the Sixth Fleet if the Turks dared to attempt landing troops in Cyprus. In 1974, after the Turks did invade Cyprus, Congress imposed an arms embargo lasting for years. For the last two decades, Congress has repeatedly toyed with labeling the internecine strife among Turks, Kurds, and Armenians in World War I as “genocide”; and George Bush and his neo-cons tried to stiff-arm past the Turks into Northern Iraq in 2003.

These developments certainly soured Turkish public opinion toward America, but the Republic’s succeeding governments and diplomats maintained their sang-froid throughout, as befits a diplomatic corps with almost five centuries of experience on the world stage.

I recently visited Turkey for three weeks. During my stay, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an announced its aç?l?m (opening) toward its fractious Kurdish population in an effort to end the intercommunal strife that has taken upward of 40,000 lives.

Of Turkey’s 73 million people, an estimated 15 to 20 million are Kurdish. They are concentrated in the mountainous southeastern part of the country. Millions more live in contiguous portions of Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Most of those living in Turkey are Sunni Muslims with, however, a sizable minority of Alevis, a Shiite branch of Islam.

The Kurdish language is an Indo-European language, closer to Persian than to Turkish. There is significant dialectical differentiation, so much so that sometimes Kurds need to speak Turkish as their lingua franca.

Erdo?an’s government has not revealed the details of its initiative, preferring to rely on expressions of a willingness to put past hostility behind and to work out the nuts and bolts behind closed doors. Based on the vigorous debate that arose following the announcement, however, it can be concluded that a final agreement will include the following:

1. A de facto cease fire with a commitment by the Turkish military to suspend its pursuit of Kurdish rebels and a corresponding halt of Kurdish guerrilla activity.
2. Tolerance and recognition of Kurdish language and culture, including even the reversion of city and village names to Kurdish.
3. Greater self-rule and social and economic autonomy in Kurdish regions.
4. A general amnesty permitting Kurdish rebels to “come down from the mountains” into their villages with no fear of legal or criminal charges. Cadres implicated in some of the worst acts of terrorism or in the top ranks of leadership might have to enjoy their amnesty in exile.

Although the sincerity of Erdo?an’s government cannot be doubted, it will not be easy to bring an end to the hostilities, which have continued for more than three decades. The Kurdish Workers’ Party (known as the PKK from the Kurdish initials) had its roots in Marxist revolutionary ideology and enjoyed Soviet and Syrian support in its armed efforts to destabilize Turkish control over “Kurdistan.” Nationalist parties have refused to join the reconciliation process and are banking politically on its failure.

Kurds greatly outnumber Palestinians and Israelis combined, and for that reason alone they are entitled to an autonomous region, if not independent homeland, which they can call their own. I have believed for more than a quarter of a century that lasting peace would come rapidly if the Turkish-Syrian-Iraqi-Iranian quartet could only agree on such an autonomous Kurdish region among themselves — but that possibility is probably unrealistic in the sea of vigorous and competing nationalisms in which the Kurds are forced to swim.

In the Turkish press coverage I saw, there was no hint of reconciliation or of marginalizing the godless PKK in the name of Islamic solidarity. This surprised me; most of the Erdo?an government’s support comes from pious Turkish Muslims, and the vast majority of Kurds in the villages are just as pious. The PKK, which has caused most of the trouble and almost all of the deaths, has toned down its Marxist roots but would still undoubtedly prefer a socialist commune to a regime of Shari’a.

As it is, both politicians and press — the entire Turkish intelligentsia, in fact — appear to be pinning their hopes on the openness and fairness of their democratic institutions. Those hopes may ultimately prove just as unrealistic as my favored solution. If the aç?l?m fails, peace can be the fruit only of a shared fatigue, no longer bearable by either side.

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The Unrepentant Traditionalist is copyright © 2009 by Frank Creel and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved.

Frank Creel, Ph.D., a columnist and author, was an English teacher in the Peace Corps in Turkey. He is fluent in the Turkish language and in Arabic script.

See a complete biographical sketch.

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