The Middle East

Turkey Table of Contents

Turkey shares borders with three major Middle Eastern countries: Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Turkey ruled much of the region during the Ottoman Empire, but between 1945 and 1990 Turkish leaders consciously avoided involvement in various Middle Eastern conflicts. President Özal broke with that tradition in 1990 when he sided with the United States-led coalition confronting Iraq following its invasion and annexation of Kuwait. To comply with the economic sanctions that the UN imposed on Iraq, Özal closed down the two pipelines used to transport Iraqi oil through Turkey to the Mediterranean Sea. Although Turkey did not formally join the military coalition that fought against Iraq, it deployed about 150,000 troops along its border with Iraq, which caused Baghdad to divert an equivalent number of forces from the south to the north of the country. Furthermore, Turkey authorized United States aircraft to use the military air base at Incirlik for raids over Iraq. A likely motive for Turkish support of the war against Iraq was a desire to strengthen ties with the United States and other NATO allies at a time of considerable uncertainty--at least in Turkey--about post-Cold War strategic relations.

The Persian Gulf War's main consequence for Turkey was the internationalization of the Kurdish issue. Following Iraq's defeat by the United States-led coalition at the end of February 1991, Iraq's Kurdish minority, which constituted approximately 15 percent of the approximately 19 million population, rebelled against the government of Saddam Husayn. Government forces repressed the rebellion within three weeks, precipitating a mass exodus of almost the entire Kurdish population of northern Iraq toward the Iranian and Turkish borders. Unable to deal with the refugee flood, Turkey closed its borders in April after more than 400,000 Kurds had fled into Hakkâri and Mardin provinces. Turkish soldiers prevented about 500,000 more Kurdish refugees on the Iraqi side of the border from crossing over to Turkey, forcing them to remain in makeshift camps; an additional 1 million other Kurds fled into Iran. The humanitarian crisis and the international publicity surrounding it posed a major dilemma for Turkey, which was reluctant to absorb hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees. Furthermore, Turkey opposed the creation of permanent refugee camps, believing such camps would become breeding grounds for militant nationalism, as had happened in the Palestinian refugee camps established during the war that followed Israel's creation in 1948.

Turkey's preferred solution to the Kurdish refugee crisis has been for the Kurds to return to their homes in Iraq with guarantees for their safety within a political environment that would encourage their integration into a united Iraq. Negotiations with Britain, France, and the United States produced an agreement in June 1991 to establish an interim protected zone in northern Iraq in which all Iraqi military activities would be prohibited. Turkey would permit its allies to use the Incirlik Air Base for armed reconnaissance flights over the protected zone. The interim period originally was intended to last for six months but could be extended for an additional six months at the discretion of the National Assembly. Although the agreement created a de facto safe haven in Iraq's three northern provinces and prompted a majority of the Kurdish refugees to return home, it did not resolve the political problem between the refugees and the Iraqi government. On the contrary, Baghdad responded by imposing a blockade on the north, effectively making the Kurds economically dependent on Iran and Turkey. The Western powers saw Iraq's attitude as justifying prolongation of the safe-haven agreement; as of January 1995, it was still in force.

Turkey has opposed the creation of an autonomous Kurdish government in northern Iraq. However, Iraq's intransigence toward the UN after the Persian Gulf War and the determination of the United States to limit its involvement in the safe-haven zone to air patrols made the formation of a local administration inevitable. Turkey reluctantly acquiesced after Iraqi Kurdish leaders reassured Ankara that an autonomous government would not pursue independence for the Kurds but would cooperate with all Iraqi opposition groups to create a democratic alternative to Saddam Husayn's regime. Following elections for a representative regional assembly in May 1992, an autonomous government claiming to operate in keeping with the Iraqi constitution was established at Irbil. Turkey has accepted this government as the de facto authority in northern Iraq, but has not recognized it as a de jure provincial government. Turkey has made its continued cooperation with this autonomous government contingent on the Kurds' support of Iraq's territorial integrity and their assistance in controlling PKK camps in northern Iraq.

The Kurdish issue also assumed an important role in Turkey's relations with both Iran and Syria beginning in 1991. Ankara was concerned that Damascus and Tehran might exploit the Kurdish issue to put pressure on Turkey to compromise on other issues over which there were deep disagreements. For example, although Turkey had enjoyed relatively close political and diplomatic relations with Iran for more than fifty years following the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, these ties were strained after 1979 when the Iranian Revolution brought to power an Islamic theocratic regime that frequently cites secular governments such as Turkey's as an evil that Muslims should resist. Although bilateral trade remained important to both countries throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, their economic ties have not prevented the regular eruption of tension. One source of intermittent friction has been the presence in Turkey of thousands of Iranians who fled their country during the 1980s because they opposed the religious government, preferred not to live under its puritanical legal codes, or wanted to evade military service during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Tehran has periodically protested that Ankara allows "terrorists" (i.e., members of various Iranian opposition groups) to reside in Turkey. Turkish security officials in turn suspect that Iranian diplomats in Turkey have been involved in assassinations of Iranian opposition leaders and also have assisted some of the militant Turkish Islamists who began resorting to violence in the late 1980s. With respect to international concerns, Turkey resents Iran's criticism of its membership in NATO, distrusts Iran's alliance with Syria and its cooperation with Armenia, and perceives Iran as a competitor for influence in Azerbaijan and Central Asia. Above all, Turkish leaders believe that Iran supports the PKK and even provides sanctuary and bases for it in the area of northwest Iran that borders Kars, Agri, Van, and Hakkâri provinces.

Turkish suspicions of Iranian support for the PKK probably originated in 1987, when Iran strongly protested Turkey's bombing of Iraqi Kurdish villages that Ankara claimed were bases for PKK guerrillas. At the time Iran condemned this violation of Iraqi sovereignty, Iran and Iraq were at war, with Iranian forces occupying parts of southern Iraq. Iran's protest may have been prompted by the fact that the area Turkey bombed was controlled by an Iraqi Kurdish opposition group to which Iran was allied. This group not only helped Iran by fighting against Saddam Husayn's regime but also cooperated with Iran to suppress Iranian Kurdish opposition. From Turkey's perspective, however, this same Kurdish group was too friendly toward the PKK.

This complex intertwining of domestic and international Kurdish politics continued to cause misunderstanding between Turkey and Iran for more than five years. However, beginning in 1992, Turkish and Iranian views on the Kurdish issue gradually converged as Iranian Kurdish opposition groups initiated operations in Iran from bases in territory controlled by the Kurdish autonomous authority in northern Iraq. Iran not only ceased protesting Turkish actions in Iraq, but it even followed Turkey's example in bombing opposition bases in Iraq. During 1993 Iran also responded favorably to Turkish proposals pertaining to security cooperation in the region along their common border and joined Turkey in affirming opposition to an independent Kurdish state being carved out of Iraq.

Syria joined Iran and Turkey in declaring support for the territorial integrity of Iraq, and representatives of the three states met periodically after 1991 to discuss mutual concerns about developments in northern Iraq. Nevertheless, Turkey has had serious reservations about Syria's motives; some Turkish officials believe that if an appropriate opportunity presented itself, Syria would use the Kurdish issue to create a Kurdish state in parts of both Iraq and Turkey. Such pessimistic views stem from Syria's long support of the PKK. Turks believe that Syria permits the PKK to maintain a training base in Lebanon--where Syrian troops have been stationed since 1976--and allows PKK leaders to live freely in Damascus. Tensions between Turkey and Syria actually had been accumulating long before the eruption of the PKK "dispute" in 1984. Like Iraq, Syria was an Ottoman province until 1918. Subsequently, it was governed by France as a League of Nations mandate. In 1939 France detached Hatay (formerly Alexandretta) province from Syria and ceded it to Turkey, an action bitterly opposed by Arab nationalists. Syria thus became independent in 1946 with an irredentist claim against Turkey. The Arab-Israeli conflict soon developed as another source of Syrian antagonism toward Turkey, which extended diplomatic recognition to Israel in 1948. Syria's staunch Arab nationalists also condemned Turkey's participation in NATO and other Western defense arrangements during the 1950s and 1960s.

Turkey's adoption in 1974 of a more evenhanded policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict failed to impress Syria. Much to Turkey's disappointment, Syria supported the Greeks in the conflict between the Greek and Turkish communities on the island of Cyprus. By the mid-1970s, Turkey was convinced that Syria was facilitating Armenian terrorist operations against Turkish diplomats abroad. Given the coolness and mutual suspicions that have characterized their relations, neither Syria nor Turkey was prepared to be sensitive to the other's interests. One reflection of this attitude was Turkey's decision to proceed with plans for a major dam project on the Euphrates River, apparently without adequate consultation with Syria. The Euphrates rises in the mountains of northern Anatolia, and Syria's territory is bisected by the river before it enters Iraq on its way to the Persian Gulf. Upon completion of the project, Turkey demonstrated the way control of the flow of water to downstream users in Syria could be used for political purposes, provoking a minicrisis in already tense relations. Thus the dam became yet another source of tension between the two countries.

Turkey's relations with other Arab countries, including Iraq prior to 1990, have been more positive than those with Syria. In early 1995, trade seemed to be the most important aspect of overall relations. Ankara had hoped that its support of the United States-led coalition in the Persian Gulf War would produce economic rewards. In fact, some Turkish business interests won contracts for construction projects in the Persian Gulf region, albeit not to the extent anticipated. Turkey's regional exports prior to 1990 had gone primarily to Iraq and secondarily to Iran. The loss of the Iraqi market because of Turkish compliance with sanctions initially represented a severe blow to export-dependent businesses and probably contributed to an economic recession in 1991. Beginning in 1992, however, Turkey gradually increased the level of its exports--particularly processed food and manufactured goods--to Kuwait and other Persian Gulf states. Although the prospects for expanding trade with Egypt and Israel appear limited because Turkey and these countries export similar products that compete in international markets, Turkey, nevertheless, has consolidated its political ties to both countries. Since 1992, for example, Israeli and Turkish investors have undertaken several joint-venture development projects in Central Asia. Turkey also imports most of its oil from Middle Eastern countries, particularly Libya.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress