Turkey: Re-Evaluating the U.S. Alliance
By: Stratfor.comOctober 16, 2007
A pending resolution before the U.S. Congress that calls the 1915 killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks genocide has brought to light a growing strain in U.S.-Turkish relations. This latest episode seriously threatens to complicate U.S. military logistics into Iraq should Turkey carry out threats to limit U.S. access to the air base in the southeastern Turkish city of Incirlik. The Armenian genocide issue, as well as U.S. protests over Turkish incursions into northern Iraq to crush Kurdish rebels, strike at the core of Turkish geopolitics, and will push Ankara into re-evaluating its long-standing alliance with the United States.

New U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen called up his Turkish counterpart, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, on Oct. 15 to discuss the repercussions to U.S.-Turkish relations from the proposed Armenian bill before the U.S. Congress. The bill labels the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks genocide. The big fear in the Pentagon is that if the resolution passes, Turkey will follow through with threats to further limit use of Incirlik Air Base in southeastern Turkey for support of operations in Iraq.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the current strain between Washington and Ankara with a Turkish idiom, saying recently, "Where the rope is worn thin, may it break off." Such big threats coming out of Ankara over a symbolic resolution on an event that occurred almost a century ago might seem odd at first glance. But they become clearer once it is understood that the Armenian issue, as well as Turkey's military push into northern Iraq against Kurdish rebels, are issues that cut at the heart of Turkish geopolitics-and thus carry significant implications for the future of U.S.-Turkish relations.

Prior to World War I, Turkey was a model multiethnic and multireligious empire that commanded the Mediterranean and Black Sea trade routes. The Ottoman Empire was the geopolitical pivot between Europe, Russia and Persia, allowing it to develop into a global economic and military power. The outcome of World War I, however, drastically altered the geopolitical landscape of the region as the West infected the empire with ethnic nationalism that broke the bonds of Ottoman control. Turkey then faced a choice: Try (and fail) to continue as a multiethnic empire as its minorities broke away, or jump on the bandwagon and consolidate its own emerging nationalism. It chose the latter. The geography of Turkey is not amenable to clearly defined borders, however, which meant the birth of the modern Turkish republic defined by nationality inevitably would entail ugly episodes such as the 1915 Armenian mass killings and repeated killing of Kurds in order to solidify a self-sufficient Turkish state.

This takes us back to a pivotal point in Turkish history: the 1920 Treaty of Sevres that sealed the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. At that time, the victorious European powers drew up a treaty to dismember the Ottoman Empire by ceding territory to Greece (including the key northern shore of the Dardanelles), giving Armenia more territory than it could manage and creating the conditions for an independent Kurdish state. The West, in essence, had abolished Turkish sovereignty.

These were, of course, unacceptable terms to the Turks who then spent the next three years regaining their territory from the Greeks, Armenians and Kurds and reversing the terms of the treaty to ensure the survival of the Turkish nation-state as opposed to the multiethnic Ottoman Empire. But the damage had still been done. To this day, Turkey is locked into a sort of Sevres syndrome, under which any Western interference in Turkey's ethnic minority issues must be confronted as long as Turkey defines itself by its nationality. So, if Turkey feels the need to set up a sold buffer zone along its border with northern Iraq to contain the Kurds and swoop in with troops when it sees fit, there is little the United States can do to stop it.

The same argument was taking place in Turkey following the 1991 Gulf War, when the Iraqi Kurds were granted autonomy. Soon enough, Turkey in 1995 sent in 35,000 troops into northern Iraq to crush Kurdish rebels and squash Iraqi Kurdish aspirations for independence. The same episode is repeating itself today, as Iraqi Kurdistan has made strides in attracting foreign investment and extending its autonomy since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Turkey opposed the invasion by refusing U.S. access to Turkish military bases, and now is threatening toset up roadblocks along the U.S. military's logistics chain into Iraq and upset Washington's relations with the Kurds.

And this probably is just the beginning. Since the end of the Cold War, Turkey's neighborhood-and its relationship with Washington-has drastically changed. Attempts to become a Central Asian or European power have failed, and the Turks are looking in different directions for opportunities. The Iraq war has proven that U.S. and Turkish security concerns are no longer in lockstep, leading Turkey to re-evaluate its alliance with the United States.

>From the Turks' viewpoint, the United States can no longer be viewed as a stabilizing force as it has since World War II. Moreover, Turkey no longer is a weak economic force and is not as reliant on the United States for its security. Turkey's rapid economic growth and its strong military tradition are creating the conditions for Ankara to pull itself out of its post-World War I insularity and extend itself in the region once again. As a result, Turkey's foreign policy no longer needs to tie itself to the United States, and Ankara can afford to make bold moves concerning issues-whether those issues relate to the Kurds, Armenians or Greeks-without losing too much sleep over any follow-on damage to its relationship with the United States. If the United States is going to act as the destabilizing force in the region through creating a major upheaval in Iraq, Turkey must at the very least attempt to take control of the situations within its old sphere of influence.

But this does not mean Turkey can make a clean break from the United States either, at least not any time in the near future. Turkey's growth is still fragile and needs more time to become consolidated. Turkey also faces resistance in every direction that it pushes, from Greece in the Balkans, Iran, Iraq and Syria in the Middle East and Russia in the Caucasus. Turkey's current position puts it into a geopolitical context where Iran is rising to Turkey's southeast and a resurgent Russia is bearing down on the Caucasus and even hinting at returning its naval fleet to the Mediterranean. In the near term, a major power is needed in Iraq to keep the Iranians at bay, and the Turks would prefer that the Americans do the heavy lifting on this since Iraq already is in disarray. Meanwhile, Turkey will move forward with its grand strategy of keeping Iraqi Kurdistan in check.

Stratfor is a private intelligence company delivering in-depth analysis, assessments and forecasts on global geopolitical, economic, security and public policy issues. A variety of subscription-based access, free intelligence reports and confidential consulting are available for individuals and corporations.

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