WASHINGTON – The United States and its staunchest Muslim ally have been suffering from a cold snap in their relationship since the start of the war in Iraq, and analysts say it's too soon to tell if the election of a Kurd as president of Iraq will further strain U.S.-Turkey relations.
On Wednesday, Iraq's interim National Assembly elected Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani (search) as president of the country. Ankara has had tensions with ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq and in its own country for decades.
While Talabani has stressed that Kurds have no designs on Turkish territory, where an estimated 15 million ethnic Kurds live, Turkey's suspicions about Talabani's sympathies for Kurdish terrorists in Turkey means future relations between Turkey and the new Iraqi government could be unsteady. And the more unsteady the relationship with its southern neighbor, the more difficult Turkey's relationship becomes with the United States.
"The Turks are trying to look at it from a positive point of view," said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (search) of Talabani's election and the formation of the Iraqi leadership. "It's going to be a very complicated process and frankly, the U.S. is looking at what's happening in Iraq only on Iraqi terms, which is understandable."
Turkish and American policy experts agree the relationship between the two countries has been strained as a result of divergent agendas, growing anti-American sentiment within Turkey and a set of diplomatic missteps and misunderstandings.
“My sense is it is too early to call it a crisis or something really urgent, but overall there has been a deterioration in bilateral relations,” said Omer Taspinar, a Turkish native and director of the Turkey program at the Brookings Institution (search) in Washington, D.C.
“I think it’s a major problem that this rift developed between what had been two close NATO allies,” said Steven Cook, a Turkey expert at the Council on Foreign Relations (search). “In the last few years, we have been unable to get beyond the issues relating to the war in Iraq that have continued to inject tension into the relationship.”
That tension resurfaced recently when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld indirectly blamed Turkey for the strength of the insurgency in Iraq during an interview on FOX News Sunday. The remarks came two days after the March 18 resignation of U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman.
“Given the level of the insurgency today, two years later, clearly if we had been able to get the 4th Infantry Division in from the north through Turkey, more of the Iraqi Saddam Hussein Baathist regime would have been captured or killed,” Rumsfeld said, referring to the Turkish parliament’s refusal to allow coalition troops to enter Iraq from Turkey.
Had Turkey cooperated, Rumsfeld added, “The insurgency today would have been less.”
Ties are Tested
Certainly, Rumsfeld's comments were not the first made by American policymakers voicing disappointment with Turkey’s initial resistance to help out the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq — a policy that continues to be supported by a majority in Turkey, according to polls.
But in October 2003, when Turkey later offered to send in 10,000 troops for the effort, the United States turned Ankara down, seeing the potential conflict between the Turks and the Kurds, the coalition’s strongest supporters in Iraq.
“People couldn’t understand why the United States was asking for help and then refusing it,” Taspinar said. “Overall, that contributed to the bad feelings.”
On July 4, 2003, American forces briefly detained members of the Turkish special forces, who frequently enter northern Iraq to pursue Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terrorists escaping pursuit on Turkish territory. The PKK is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in Turkey since the early 1980s.
U.S. troops put Turkish special forces in the same restraints and hoods as Iraqi prisoners. The image still evokes anger among Turks, Taspinar said.
More recently, Turkey last month announced it was turning down a $1 billion loan from the United States that was conditioned on the promise that Turkey withdraw a small band of Turkish special forces from Iraq.
The Kurdish and Islamic Factors
Whether unnerved by the swift invasion of its neighbor to the southeast or fearing an independent Kurdish state just over the border, Turkish public opinion has forced its government to strike a hard balance between diplomacy and security.
Also in Turkey, the government and military remain secular, but Turks are 99 percent Muslim and Islamists make up the leading plurality in the Turkish parliament. With that comes sensitivities to Turkey's Muslim neighbors.
“This [Turkish] administration has more responsibility to the Islamic currency in the Turkish constituency, so they have to be -- as the Iraq war has shown -- more careful, because it has domestic consequences,” said Gordon Adams, director of Strategic Policy Studies at George Washington University and former foreign affairs official in the Clinton administration.
Adams said Turks today are antagonistic toward the United States mostly because of the northern Iraqi Kurds, who were among the most persecuted citizens during the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
For more than a decade, Turkey let the United States protect the northern no-fly zone where Kurds reside. But today Kurds are fighting to reclaim the land and oil rights taken from them during Hussein's era, particularly in the city of Kirkuk and often at the expense of ethnic Turks or Turkmen in the region, Taspinar said.
Talabani's election as Iraqi president adds another layer of uncertainty for Turks, Aliriza said. The official message from the Turkish leadership on Talabani's election, Aliriza said, is that "Kirkuk now belongs to the whole of the Iraqi people ... that we very much expect them now as part of Iraq to acknowledge that Kirkuk belongs to all of them."
Aliriza added that despite past assurances by Talabani to Turkish officials that he does not support a separatist movement in northern Iraq, evidence shows that Turkish Kurds are already moving into that area in hopes of asserting authority there. Non-ethnic Kurds in Turkey are also becoming more antagonistic toward their Kurdish fellow citizens. "I'm afraid Talabani is going to have a negative spillover effect in Turkey," he said.
Nonetheless, Burak Akcapar, first counselor at the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C., said Turkish leaders on Wednesday sent "warm and frank" messages of congratulations to Talabani, who is a well-recognized figure in the Turkish capital.
"They were wishing him well in every success as well as confirming our continued support," Akcapar said, adding "that this is the next phase in the process of building lasting regional peace and prosperity through a just and transparent democracy" in Iraq.
Searching for a Warm Front
A survey of the Turkish people released in March by the International Strategic Research Organization found that 91 percent of the Turkish public does not agree with Bush administration policies. Seventy-four percent believes the biggest strain on the relationship is the continued existence of the PKK in northern Iraq, which Turks say is a terrorist group that the United States has ignored while it also opposes Turkish efforts to stamp it out.
The majority surveyed sees former President Bill Clinton as the more successful leader for “global peace and security.”
“There is a sense that Turkey is being punished for not helping the U.S. in its invasion of Iraq,” Taspinar said.
But some Turkish officials and experts in the United States question the accuracy of the anti-American poll responses.
“I don’t think the rise of anti-Americanism is any higher or different than in the rest of the world,” said Narguiz Abbaszade, executive director of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations (search) in Washington, D.C.
“The majority of people in Turkey are Muslim, and to the extent that the war in Iraq has been portrayed to them as a war against Muslims, I’m sure there are people who are upset,” she said. “But I do not think that is true for all Turkish people.”
Tuluy Tanc, a spokesman for the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C, said the rift between the two nations “is very artificial and temporary."
“I believe an effort is being made now to show that between two friends and allies, differences can occur, but it cannot affect their shared basic approach to problems,” he said.
The State Department agrees. “Bottom line, first and foremost, our relationship with Turkey as a longtime friend and ally remains strong,” spokesman Edgar Vasquez said.
Despite the chill, Turkey remains Israel's only Muslim ally in the region and is on track to becoming a member of the European Union within the decade.
“Turkey is in a strategically important position in the southeast portion of Europe and in the Middle East,” said Cook, who said this is why the United States will continue to reach out to its NATO ally.
“Turkey can play a constructive role in Iraq and Israel … given what our foreign policy emphasis in the region around Turkey is — democracy in the Arab world. Turkey can often be pointed to as a successful Muslim democracy.”