A Monthly Journal of the IDSA
Turkey and the Middle East in the 1990s
By Farah Naaz *
After the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Kemalism in Turkey after World War I, Turkey set its sight on the West. Kemalism promoted secularism, adoption of European values, and the ideas of democracy, freedom and human rights. 1 The main rationale of Turkeys Western oriented foreign policy was its concern regarding security against the Soviet behaviour towards it. Stalin had put forward a set of demands, including joint control over the Turkish straits and the readjustments in the Turkish-Soviet border established by the treaty in 1921. 2 Hence, the main logic was to counter-balance the Soviet threat.
Turkeys Middle East policy was an extension of its pro-Western policy during this era. For example, Turkey was interested in the maintenance of the British presence in the Middle East: it voted along with the West in the establishment of a reconciliation commission on Palestine in December 1948, and also recognised Israel on March 28, 1949, particularly after the American backing of Israel. 3
During the Cold War period, Turkey, avoided involvement in inter-Arab disputes, Arab-Israeli conflict and other regional conflicts such as the Iran-Iraq War in which it maintained scrupulous neutrality. Also, the Turkish government sought to maintain cordial if not very close political and diplomatic ties with all the Arab regimes, Iran and Israel. 4
Turkeys pro-Western policy was bound to affect its relations with the Arabs, which began to deteriorate. The Baghdad Pact further alienated Turkey from the Middle East. 5 However, events since the 1960s led Turkey to realise that its secularism, its identification with the West and its ideological distance from the Islamic states did not help it in its time of need. For example, Washington in an apparent quid pro quo with the Soviets (who removed their missiles from Cuba), removed its Jupiter missiles from Turkey. It appeared to Ankara that the US was ignoring Turkish security and even exposing it to the Soviet threat. Secondly, when the Cyprus crisis erupted in 1964, Turkey found itself stripped of the US support due to President Lyndon Johnsons letter which expressed reluctance to support Turkey over Cyprus. 6 At that time, Ankara hoped that rapprochement with the Arabs would pay off.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the Turkish government continued its policy of neutrality despite the rapprochement with the Arab states. This rapprochement mainly stemmed from the deteriorating economic conditions of Turkey and the need for support in the Cyprus conflict. 7
The Middle East region was a crucial component of Turkeys economic relations given Turkeys heavy dependence on imported oil. This was underscored by Turkeys export boom throughout the 1980s. 8 Knowing that the economic relations with the Arab world would continue during the 1980s, Turkey attended the Casablanca Summit of the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Countries). These conditions also forced Turkey to conduct its policy towards Israel at a reduced level, though the relations were never cut off completely. Turkeys neutral attitude continued during the Lebanon War. 9
With the end of the Cold War, and particularly following the Gulf crisis, Turkey abandoned its low profile posture in the Middle East for a more activist regional role. 10 A number of new issuesthe Gulf crisis, Kurds, water, the peace process as well as rise of the Islamist Refah Partybecame part of Turkish foreign policy.
The Gulf crisis was the most important event that paved the way for Turkeys more active policy in the Middle East.
Turkish-Iraqi relations were notable for cooperation and correctness yet by the late 1980s, the two countries were moving towards a collision. About 96 per cent of Iraqs income was from oil exports and when the Gulf route was closed to oil tankers during the Iran-Iraq War, almost 100 per cent of Iraqs oil80 million tonnes annuallywas exported by pipeline to Turkeys Mediterranean port of Yurmurtalik. Furthermore, Turkey was a principal import gateway through which Iraq shipped in some 75 per cent of its foodstuff. 11
Saddam Husseins call for the removal of the US forces from the Gulf and his other threats indicated a possible attempt to impose Iraqi hegemony or anti-Western Arab nationalism throughout the region. 12 A powerful Iraq constituted a real threat to Turkey.
Turgut Ozal who became prime minister in 1983 and served as the president of Turkey for the 1989-93 period, made an effort to show that Turkey had a unique opportunity to improve its relations with the West and remove the Iraqi threat against it. Ozal was convinced that the Gulf War offered an opportunity to attain several important objectives. These included expanding Turkeys political role and influence in regional affairs, gaining political leverage with Washington regarding bilateral defence and trade issues and with Brussels regarding its goal of becoming a full member of the European Union (EU) and in increasing its trade and business opportunities in the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf. 13
Ozals policy rested on:
At the beginning of the Gulf crisis in August 1990, when Saddam Hussein refused to evacuate Kuwait, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 661 on August 6, 1990, which prescribed a complete economic embargo on Iraq. 15 On August 8, Turkey announced the closure of the Kirkuk-Yurmurtalik pipeline and suspended all commercial links with Iraq and occupied Kuwait. 16 Turkish cooperation was important to make this embargo successful.
Ozal gave the coalition forces all possible military aid. 17 Allowing the United States and other air forces to use Incirlic for operations against Iraq required specific authorisation from Parliament. After many parliamentary battles that indicated large scale opposition to direct involvement in the Gulf, a Bill was passed in September 1990, allowing the government to send troops abroad and receive foreign troops on Turkish soil (though not to declare war). However, it was only on January 18, 1991, that the first allied air raids from Incirlik were permitted. 18
The main concern of the Turks was that if Iraq did decide to attack in the north, they would have insufficient defences to hold off the far superior Iraqi Air Force. For that, Turkey had to secure a pledge from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) that if Iraq attacked Turkey, the other allies would come to its assistance under the NATO Treaty. 19 This was the most powerful deterrent to Saddam Hussein, and illustrated the value of Turkeys membership in NATO.
Turkey had to suffer high economic losses due to the Gulf War. The closure of the pipeline and the ending of all regular trade with Iraq imposed severe economic constraints on its economy. Turkey lost its exports to Iraq and Kuwait and also invisible export and pipelines royalties. The direct costs to Turkeys balance of payments were at the rate of around $2.0 to 2.5 billion per year. 20
Inflation in Turkey rose to 71.1 per cent in 1991, compared to 60.3 per cent in the year preceding the Gulf War. As a result, Turkey had a direct interest in the cancellation of the economic sanctions against Iraq or at least in their reduction. Turkey also promoted UN Resolution 986 which called for oil for food and allowed Iraq (since December 1996) to export $2 billion worth of oil every six months in return for the import of food and medicines. The oil for food agreement is estimated to bring Turkey about $500 million a year. 21
It was feared in Turkey that the anti-Saddam rhetoric would ultimately set off a war with Iraq, in which the Turkish Army would not be able stand up to the Iraqi combat experience and modern weaponry.
Turkeys support to the anti-Iraq coalition was in great part given with an eye to improving its relations with the European Union and, thus, boosting its chances of admission into the organisation. However, it did not succeed in this and is still not a member, although in March 1995, it reached agreement with the EU on a Customs Union. 22 Ozals expectation to become a EU member was based on the assumption that as Turkeys participation in the Korean War gained it admission into NATO, its policy in the Gulf crisis would earn it admission into the EU. 23
After the Gulf War, Turkey gained in terms of security. The Iraqi Army was weakened, significant parts of it were annihilated and the country was subjected to extensive intelligence surveillance while Turkey was inundated with modern weapon systems.
The Gulf War threw up problems for Turkey of which the most important was the Kurdish one.
Before that, during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, Iraq permitted Turkey to pursue PKK (Partiya Karkaren Kurdistan/Kurdistan Workers Party) guerillas into its territory on a number of occasions. Such cooperation served the purpose of both states at that time, as Baghdad was preoccupied with Iran and, thus, had difficulty in controlling its northern provinces where the Iraqi Kurds were permitting the PKK to enjoy safe havens.
The understanding between Turkey and Iraq against both the PKK and the Iraqi Kurds began to unravel at the end of the war in 1988, when Iraq chased some 60,000 Iraqi Kurds over the border into Turkey, where they are reluctantly received as refugees. Later, at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, Turkey was faced with the incredibly difficult situation of some half a million Iraqi-Kurdish refugees on its border fleeing from Saddam. 24 Their plight was desperate and most of them were cooped up in remote valleys and mountainsides, where the transport and distribution of supplies was an almost impossible task.
The flood of Kurdish refugees resulted in Turkey being faced with acute dilemmas. On the one hand, it could not ignore a heart-rending humanitarian problem. On the other, the government was most reluctant to allow the refugees to move to more accessible sites within Turkish territories. Doing so meant taking on the responsibility for their care and accommodation.
The only solution seemed to be to move the refugees back to northern Iraq. As a result, Ozal suggested that the United Nations should take over territory in northern Iraq to provide a haven for the refugees. This idea was taken up by Britain and eventually by the United States. 25 At the end of April, around 17,000 coalition troops in and around northern Iraq began Operation Provide Comfort (OPC) by establishing a security zone to which the refugees could return. 26 This operation was highly successful and by the end of May, virtually all the refugees had returned to Iraq.
Later, this operation was succeeded by Operation Poised Hammer in which coalition troops were withdrawn from Iraqi territory but replaced by a coalition duty force of 2,000 men from five different countries, including 800 Turkish troops. In addition, extra coalition air forces were installed at Incirlik. Though Operation Poised Hammer was withdrawn, the special air detachment at Incirlik was retained. 27
The Turkish Parliament voted in favour of renewing the OPC whenever it came up for frequent renewals until the end of 1996, although it always added the proviso that the territorial integrity of Iraq had to be respected. It clearly signified that Turkey opposed the creation of the Kurdish state in northern Iraq.
The OPC continued until the end of 1996 in the form of 80 combat and support aircraft stationed at the Incirlik air base in Turkeys southern Adana province; these aircraft made daily patrol flights over Iraqi Kurdistan to deter incursions from Baghdad. Turkish permission was, thus, a since qua non for the OPCs continuance. The continuance of the OPC had also resulted in a vacuum of authority in northern Iraq that enabled the PKK to establish sanctuaries there.
In 1996, the OPC was renamed as the Surveillance Force or the Northern Watch. The renamed operation continued to enforce the no-fly-zone over northern Iraq but the French no longer participated in it and the relief role in northern Iraq was terminated. 28
Turkish policies towards the Kurds were also affected by continuing discontent among Turkeys own Kurdish minority and a renewed campaign of attacks by the PKK. The PKK exploited the collapse of Saddams power in northern Iraq. In retaliation, the Turkish Army and Air Force launched a large scale raid against the PKK units in northern Iraq. The Kurds, Turkey and the coalition powers all seemed to be stuck in an impasse and the solution of the problem seemed to have been postponed indefinitely.
The sanctions against Iraq had cost Turkey up to $5 billion by the summer of 1993 in direct and indirect losses. Three years, this figure rose to almost $30 billion. 29 Turkey began to encourage the Iraqi Kurds to reach an understanding with Saddam so that trade could be resumed. It wanted to re-open the lucrative oil pipeline to bring crude oil from Kirkuk in Iraq to Yumurtalik on Turkeys Mediterranean coast. This effort succeeded in the summer of 1996 when the United Nations Security Council Resolution 986 permitted Iraq to sell up to $2 billion in oil every six months to pay for humanitarian supplies. 30
The PKK threat exacted a heavy toll on Syrian-Turkish relations. Ankara viewed Damascus as the PKKs principal source of external logistic support and training. 31 But it was only in the 1990s, with the escalation of the PKKs activities, that Turkish politicians and media began to denounce Syria openly and urged the government to take more forceful measures to stop Syrias support to the Kurds. 32 Although the Turkish government sought Syrias support on the issue, it remained apprehensive of Syrian policies.
Turkish-Syrian relations have deteriorated over the issue of water also. In recent years, Turkey has been in the process of initiating the massive South-East Anatolian project, the Guney Dogu Anadolu Projesi (GAP), 33 which had led to conflict with Syria and Iraq. The project comprises a complex of 22 dams, with a series of projects to irrigate over 1.7 million hectares of land (1.1 million in the Euphrates basin and o.6 million in the Tigris basin) and 19 hydro-electric installations to generate over 27 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, constituting 40 per cent of Turkeys hydro-electric capacity and equivalent to the countrys entire power output in 1983. The central objective of the project is to boost agricultural production and economic activity in the south-east region with the ultimate goal of fully integrating the Kurdish minority in Turkeya high percentage of whom reside in the regioninto the national economy. It also presages a 12 per cent growth in national income. 34
Turkey broadly observes Turkish-Syrian Accords regarding the Euphrates but conflicts on water are continually in evidence. For example, although Turkey is bound by a 1987 agreement with Syria to ensure a steady riverbed current of 500 cubic metres per second at the joint Syrian-Turkish border, in January 1990, Turkey effectively halted the flow of Euphrates water into Syria for a month while filling up the Ataturk Dam, the lynchpin of the GAP project. Again, during the Muslim feast of the sacrifice in June 1993, Turkey, eager to replenish its own reservoirs, cut the flow to 170 cubic metres per second. 35 Even prior to this episode, Damascus had launched an anti-Turkish campaign throughout the Arab world charging Ankara with theft of Arab water. Syria and Iraq demand 22 per cent and 43 per cent of the Euphrates water respectively and hold that Ankaras sole aim was to make the Arabs dependent upon Turkey, and supply Israel with Arab water. 36
In 2020, when Turkey completes its GAP project, harnessing the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for development of Turkeys south-eastern provinces, the flow of water into Iraq will be cut by 80 per cent. Tripartite Turkish-Iraqi-Syrian conventions during 1990 on this issue proved fruitless. Iraq and Syria demanded sharing arrangements for the water of the Euphrates which they claimed to be an international waterway. But Turkey argued that since the river was Turkish, its assets could not be shared. The amount of water it allotted to its neighbours was its own business and a purely technical issue. 37
In the early years of the Jewish state, when Israel was subjected to economic boycott and political ostracism by the neighbouring Arab states, Israel sought to break the ring of hostility by establishing relations with important non-Arab states on the periphery of the Arab world, including Turkey. While Israel was eager to develop official and public contact with Turkey to demonstrate its international recognition, Turkey was reluctant to offend the Arab states. 38
During the Sinai campaign in 1956, Turkey succumbed to intense Arab pressure and downgraded its diplomatic representation in Israel. Eventually, Turkey joined the United States at the UN in calling for the withdrawal of the Israeli forces. 39 However, there had been quiet cooperation on intelligence and issues of mutual strategic concerns between these two pro-Western, non-Arab Middle Eastern states besides the commercial relations.
Even during the Six-Day War of June 1967, Turkey supported the UN Security Council Resolution 242 calling for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the occupied territories. Due to the prospects of expanded economic ties with the Arab world, Turkey limited its relations with Israel but did not sever them.
The progress of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians encouraged Turkey to rapidly improve relations with Israel. The signing of the Declaration of Principles and the Cairo Accords between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1993-94, lent a far higher degree of legitimacy to Turkish contacts with Israel. 39
The 1990s saw prompt progress in Turkish-Israeli relations. In December 1991, the Turkish government announced that it had decided to raise the level of representation in Ankara of both Palestine and Israel to embassy status. In June 1992, a Tourism Cooperation Agreement was signed between Turkey and Israel; at the beginning of 1994, Turkey, Israel and Egypt established an Eastern Mediterranean Tourist Authority; Turkeys Foreign Minister Hikmet Cetin visited Israel in November 1993, and a framework agreement outlining the general scope of bilateral relations and a cultural agreement were signed. In June 1994, the Israeli minister of economics and planning led a delegation to explore investment opportunities. 41
A new Military Training and Education Agreement was signed between Turkey and Israel in February 1996. 42 The main objective of the accord was to facilitate cooperation between the two countries in military education through a series of measures, including joint air force training, naval visits, military personnel exchanges and joint training in military academics. A separate agreement signed in December 1996 called for Israels aid in upgrading Turkeys fleet of F-4Phantom jets at an estimated cost of $650 million. 43 It is clear that Turkey expected to accomplish several strategic objectives as a result of its increased military cooperation with Israel. Another objective was to find alternative sources for weapon systems and military equipment.
The Israel-Turkish agreement of February 1996 was perceived as a pragmatic move and it was widely perceived that Israeli-Turkish security cooperation would help Turkey in its fight against the PKK. It is a clear sign of mutual understanding on this subject.
The period of the 1990s also witnessed a set of peace initiatives and proposals put forward for the solution of the question of Palestine. The Madrid process started in 1991, which culminated in the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993, had a deep impact on Turkish foreign policy. Turkey had always been in favour of such peace between Arabs and Israel and regarded it as an important step towards regional stability and regional economic cooperation, providing new opportunities for trade and investment.
Since December 1991, Turkey upgraded its relations with both the PLO and Israel to ambassadorial level. Since 1992, Turkey has participated in the multilateral working groups related to the peace process, especially those dealing with economic development, water and arms control issues. At the same time, Turkey has lent its support to the new Palestinian government. Turkey sought to establish closer economic and political ties with the Palestinians and also offered to help them with housing and other infrastructure projects. Turkey and the Palestinian Authority have also hosted high ranking visiting Palestinian and Turkish delegations. 44
The peace prospects have created new opportunities to improve Turkish-Israeli relations. From the Israeli perspective, cooperation with Turkey may accelerate its geo-cultural integration in the region. Additionally, it may help Israel to penetrate into the markets of the ex-Soviet republics. From the Turkish perspective, close relations with Israel may provide easier access to Israeli technology and knowhow. The peace process has already had a positive impact on the security environment in the Middle East from Turkeys perspective.
The Israeli-Palestinian agreement released Turkey from the difficulty of balancing between its commitments to maintain diplomatic and political ties with Israel and show solidarity with the Arab world in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Domestic Constraints on Turkeys Middle East Policy
The rise of the Refah Party to power and the growing strength of political Islam represented a new major development in Turkish politics. Internally, it poses a significant challenge to the countrys secular form of government and highlighted the problem of Turkeys identity. Since the founding of the republic in 1924, the Turkish ruling elite sought to identify the country more with the West than with the Middle East and the Islamic world.
Necmettin Erbakans Refah Party (Welfare Party) maintains that Turkey should identify itself as part of the Islamic community rather than as a member of the Western camp. Perceptions of negative European attitudes towards Turkey have contributed to the shifting moods. The Refah Party denounced Turkeys pro-Western foreign policy orientation, its membership in NATO, its efforts to join the EU, and its bilateral security and political relations with the United States. At the same time, it called for closer ties with all the Islamic countries and for the improvement of Turkeys relations with its Arab neighbours and Iran. 45
Although Turkey has experienced a gradual re-assertion of Islam since 1950, Ataturks principles had not been challenged seriously till recently. The Refah Party, campaigning essentially on an Islamic radicalist platform, won over 16 per cent of the national vote in the general elections of 1991 and claimed nearly 60 seats in the Parliament. In the municipal elections of March 1994, the Refah Party, no longer in a coalition of extreme nationalists, claimed 18 per cent of the national votes. In 1996, Erbakan became the first Islamist prime minister. 46
The sole area of Turkish foreign policy significantly revised by the Refah Patry-led coalition in 1996, has been relations with the Islamic world. 47 During their first six months in power, Erbakan and his principal foreign policy staff travelled only to the Islamic countries or countries with significant Muslim populations. His Islamic initiatives consisted of two dimensions: bilateral, in order to improve relations with selected Islamic countries; and multilateral, in order to bring together prominent middle powers from the Islamic world to form a bloc of developing countries through the D-8 initiative. 48
Despite his rhetoric, the reality of Erbakan in power has been rather different. His Islamic initiative has not been undertaken as part of a broader aim to undermine Turkeys relations with its traditional friends. Rather, it was complementary to the existing orientation of Turkish foreign policy. After coming to power, the Islamists dropped their opposition to Turkeys membership in NATO and the Customs Union agreement that Turkey signed with the EU in 1995. 49 Refahs vociferous criticism of the United States and Europe toned down considerably and party officials declared their willingness to pursue friendly relations with the Western allies. Erbakan had denounced the 1996 Israeli Turkish Military Education and Training Agreement and vowed to abrogate it when the Refah Party came to power. But faced with the possibility of a major confrontation with the Turkish military, the new government ratified the accord despite considerable opposition from the Islamist groups. 50
The striking improvement in the electoral fortunes of the Refah Party during the first half of the 1990s showed that it is a considerable force and its overall impact may increase.
Thus, during the 1990s, Turkeys policies marked a radical departure from the established ones regarding non-involvement in regional conflicts and wars. By supporting the allied coalition and closing the pipelines of Kirkuk-Yurmurtalik, that carried Iraqs oil exports, and permitting the US to use the Incirlik base, Turkey managed to align firmly with the coalition, and its strategic importance was underscored. But Turkeys policy to align only with the West and ignore the Middle East did not prove to be a success. Certain issues tie Turkey irreversibly to the region of the Middle East and compel it to seek cooperation with the countries of this region. The events of the post-Cold War years have helped Turkey to expand its geo-strategic and economic importance. And it is crucial for Turkey to take advantage of these opportunities.
Note 6: Nachmani, n. 1, p. 3; Aras, n. 2, p. 54; Eric J. Zurcher, Turkey: A Modern History (New York: St. Martins Press, 1994), pp. 288-289. In 1964, President Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus made moves to change the islands Constitution, limiting the autonomy of the Turkish minority. Turkey responded by having the air force make demonstration runs over Cyprus and threatening an invasion if Makarios did not back down. This was prevented by American reaction in the form of a letter from US President Lyndon Johnson to Prime Minister Inonu of Turkey, in which he warned that a Turkish invasion might bring the Soviet Union into the conflict and that NATO countries would not automatically side with it if that were to happen. The letter was leaked to the Press and caused a wave of anti-Americanism and it seemed that NATO did not see fit to protect Turkish interests. Back.
Note 8: Middle East and North African markets were instrumental in Turkeys export boom in the early 1980s, at a time when the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries were experiencing a major recession. Back.
Note 34: Ibid., See also, Amikam Nachmani, Water Jitters in the Middle East, Middle East Security and Policy Studies, no. 32, (Israel: Begin and Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies, Bar Ilan University), p. 82. Back.