ISTANBUL – In 2003, Turkey barred U.S. forces from opening a northern front in the war against Iraq in a stunning rebuff to Washington that raised questions about whether the politically powerful Turkish military had undercut a civilian-led initiative to help the Americans. As Turkey and its allies mull possible intervention in Syria, the Turkish military, broken as a political force, is likely to move in step with the civilian commanders it once viewed with disdain.
Questions about the military of NATO member Turkey are critical to international debate about how to handle Syria, now locked in civil war, because any move by an allied coalition to impose a no-fly zone or a buffer zone to protect displaced Syrians from attack by regime forces would rely heavily on troops in Turkey, which shares a long border with Syria. Such intervention with a U.N. mandate does not appear imminent, but Turkey, which hosts about 80,000 Syrian refugees, says it is approaching the limit of its capacity to provide shelter on its side of the border.
Turkey is also concerned that Kurdish militants are taking advantage of the chaos in Syria to organize there, deepening a threat to national security for Turkish officials who blamed a deadly bombing near the Syrian border on Aug. 20 on the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. In such a fragile context, the Turkish government and the military, which once sparred openly over the direction of the country, need each other and have forged a means of cohabitation — with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the boss — amid the traditional mistrust.
"What's really exited the scene in terms of civilian-military relations is that sense of hostility," said Soner Cagaptay, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "That's really new."
He said the two sides listen to each other in a way that they did not before, and speculated that the military could be "putting mild breaks" on the government in terms of what may be militarily feasible if the moment for intervention comes. Turkey's decision to open its borders to refugees, while lauded on humanitarian grounds, has drawn some criticism from some opposition figures who say authorities can no longer thoroughly monitor whether militants are operating in the area.
Hundreds of active and retired military officers are in jail on charges of plotting to overthrow the democratically elected government, which is led by pious Muslims suspected by opponents of seeking to dilute secular ideals imposed by Turkey's national founder, former army officer Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The arrests raised concerns about morale in the mostly conscript force as well as its effectiveness as a fighting force, but the new military commander, Gen. Necdet Ozel, is regarded as a cooperative professional untainted by alleged links to military coups over the decades.
The relationship was tense in 2003, when Turkey's parliament rejected a resolution that would have allowed American forces to invade Iraq from Turkish land in the campaign against dictator Saddam Hussein. Newly elected Erdogan had backed the resolution despite its unpopularity, while the military — still a big factor in Turkish politics — did not robustly support it, a factor that some analysts cited as contributing to its failure.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was in Istanbul earlier this month as part of efforts to coordinate Syria policy with Turkey, which supports the Syrian opposition and acts as a conduit for supplies to anti-Assad groups. Senior diplomatic, military and intelligence officials from both sides met last week to go over detailed operational plans for "the full range of contingencies," according to the U.S. State Department.
Turkey and its allies are averse to intervening in Syria because of fears it could ignite a wider conflict, though Turkish government rhetoric against Syria has been among the harshest, notably after the deaths of two Turkish pilots whose jet was shot down when Syria claimed the plane was violating its airspace. Turkey disputes Syria's claims, and the Turkish military continues its investigation.
In the wake of that incident, Cagaptay said, Turkey may have "slowed down its rhetorical response" at the urging of the U.S., "realizing that it could be left alone in a conflict situation against the Assad regime."
Henri Barkey, a Turkey analyst at Lehigh University in the United States, said the Turkish military "would not mind doing something heroically and therefore cleanse their image," but he noted that it is already burdened by a low-level war with Kurdish rebels who seek self-rule. That conflict has dragged on since the 1980s without a clear result, and there are questions about whether Turkey can handle the threat from Syrian forces armed with jets and tanks, even if they are overstretched with their fight against the Syrian insurgency.
Additionally, there is no public clamor in Turkey for intervention in Syria, and a general aversion to casualties, particularly when it comes to the idea of Turkish soldiers dying to protect Syrian civilians. Turkey, Barkey said, has yet to find a strong enough justification to go into Syria without the participation of a multilateral or U.N.-sanctioned force, and its military, stripped of political clout, is on board with that cautious perspective.
"They are now subservient to the civilians and there's a very funny way in which Erdogan is now emerging as a protector of the military," he said. In this new scenario, according to Barkey, the prime minister views the military "no longer as a potential opponent but rather a child in his ward."
Against the backdrop of worries over intervention in Syria, the Istanbul funeral this month for Ozkan Atesli, a Turkish soldier killed by alleged Kurdish rebels in an attack on a military vehicle, reflected the national sense of exhaustion and bitterness at the seemingly open-ended conflict that has afflicted Turkey for so long.
Egeman Bagis, a government minister, arrived at a mosque to pay his respects at the ceremony. According to video posted by the Hurriyet Daily News newspaper, a distraught woman interrupts: "We are in great pain. We feel like revolting."
"This is a place to pray, not to revolt," Bagis says. "Ozkan needs our prayers now."