The Cold War pushed Turkey back into a political role comparable to that the Ottoman Empire had played in the nineteenth century. The Turkish Republic inherited the Ottoman task of counterbalancing Russia’s power in the eastern Mediterranean, however, this time as a partner of U. S. containment policies against the USSR. In this sense, the Cold War facilitated both Turkey’s integration into Western institutions and the development of political rent seeking strategies among its political elite, whose bargaining chip became Western security interests. In the context of the Cold War, the alliance with the West served Turkey’s security interests certainly best. Yet the country’s increasing Western integration took place at the expense of its Middle Eastern relations which became subordinated to and restricted by Western interests. In this way, geostrategic constraints contributed to reinforce deeply entrenched stereotypes on both sides—Turkey and its Middle Eastern neighbors. While the Turks perpetuated Ottoman memories of being back-stabbed by the deceitful Arabs, the Arab narrative about the “terrible Turk” gradually shifted from the notion of Ottoman-Turkish suppression to Turkey as an instrument of imperialistic Western interests.
Against this background the present article puts forward the assertion that Turkey’s future political role depends on the question whether it will be able to overcome these historical legacies of Turkish Middle Eastern relations. In particular, whether its new political elite will be able to escape the impact of the political worldview of the Kemalist establishment. For Turkey’s republican elite modernization has been synonymous with westernization and the rejection of the country’s cultural and historical roots in the Middle East. The argument here is that the Kemalist worldview, which is grounded in the historical legacy of the security situation of the late Ottoman Empire and the early Turkish Republic, has heavily influenced the course of Turkey’s foreign policy. This anachronistic mind map obstructs the development of a clear vision about Turkey’s future role in the Middle East. In order to become a real bridge between Europe and the Middle East, Turkey has not only to meet the political and economic criteria for joining the European Union, but also to develop a new relationship with its southern neighbors.
For a better understanding of the persistence of this anachronistic worldview, the following section introduces as a conceptual frame of reference the ‘social habitus’ as developed by Pierre Bourdieu and Norbert Elias. It will show that the “Sèvres Syndrome,” i.e., the perception of being encircled by enemies attempting the destruction of the Turkish state, remains a feature of the social habitus of the Kemalist elite. In the third part, the social habitus of Turkey’s Kemalist establishment will be discussed in relation to its construction during the historical formation of the Turkish state. The equation of internal and external threat dimensions, as well as the persistence of conspiracy theories among Turkey’s elite, is related to this context of social history. The fourth section, then, presents a categorization of Turkey’s foreign policy in four phases. Based on the assumption of a durable social habitus confronted with a changing political and economic environment, these phases can be interpreted as steps in the direction of more activism in Turkish foreign policy and increasing involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. The fifth section deals with issues linking Turkey’s internal security interests to the Middle Eastern region, mainly to Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. The Kurdish question and political Islam are the two salient points at hand to examine further how regional and domestic conflicts are related to each other. Finally, the article concludes with some tentative policy options and their constraints.
II. Encircled by Enemies: Social Habitus and Turkish Foreign Policy Perceptions.
Both Realists and Institutionalists consider states as the principal actors in world politics. They explain state action by rational-choice models based on the category of utility maximization. From this perspective, foreign policies result from rational choices within constraints, either imposed by the particular choice situation (decision theories) or by the choices of others (game theories). Constructivists, however, emphasize the social structures that shape the identities and interests of actors. In particular, they focus on cognitive and ideological aspects behind foreign policy decisions, on their so-called “social episteme.” With reference to this dimension, the conception of the social habitus seems to be an appropriate heuristic tool to explain, firstly, the influence of these cognitive and ideological structures, which are historically rooted social constructions, on the action of concrete actors. Secondly, the conception of the social habitus helps to understand how social structures find their way into the mind-set of a specific group of actors.
Drawing on the works of Bourdieu and Elias, the social habitus can be defined as a system of historically and socially constructed generative principles, granting a symbolic frame in which individuality unfolds. The worldview, which is rooted in the social habitus, provides a general reservoir of cognitive and normative resources to which individual strategies of action correspond. As a “generative grammar” of patterns of action, the habitus forms the intersection between society and the individual, between structure and action (Bourdieu1992: 33; Elias 1988: 244). These generative principles are the means for social groups to shape their particular ways of action in pursuing their interests. Rationally calculated interests are, therefore, transformed into action in the light of this set of ideas. Whereas the historical and social construction of the social habitus stress its liability to change, it remains also to be a relatively stable disposition of groups and individuals, acquired by socialization. It is an important point for this study that social change and the change of the social habitus do not necessarily go in parallel lines. Thus, in times of accelerated social change the structures of the social habitus might become anachronistic to a changing environment.
In order to assess Turkish foreign policy behavior in the Middle Eastern region, it is therefore necessary to examine first, how Turkey’s political establishment perceives the region. One general view about the geographical location of the country is that Turkey is “encircled by enemies.” Hikmet Sami Turk, a former Turkish Minister of defense, for example, stated in 1999:
Even more pronounced was the senior diplomat Sükrü Elekdag who considered “Turkey as besieged by a veritable ring of evil” (Mufti 1998: 34). Against this general background of being besieged it comes as no surprise that many of Turkey’s recent political problems have been explained by conspiracy theories. Former President Süleyman Demirel, for instance, reacted to European instructions to settle the Kurdish question peacefully with the accusation that the West wants “to involve the Sèvres Treaty to set up a Kurdish state in the region, (…) and that this was what they meant by political solution.” (Gözen 1997: 119). A standpoint that was also strongly supported by Necmettin Erabkan, the former leader of the later defunct Islamist Welfare Party. In an interview with the German weekly Die Zeit, the then Interim Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit from the Democratic Left Party stressed that there is no Kurdish problem in the country, but only PKK terrorism that is supported from outside in order to divide Turkey.
Many representatives of Turkey’s state elite associate liken the Kurdish insurgency, the rise of political Islam in Turkey, to a conspiracy from outside. General Fevzi Türkeri, a former chief of military intelligence, for example, was pointing out that “political Islam is working closely with Iran and some other Islamic countries to pull Turkey into an endless darkness” (Meyer 1999: 496). In a remark on Merve Kavakic, the Islamic Virtue Party’ s (Fazilet) Deputy from Istanbul who appeared in the Turkish Parliament wearing a headscarf, the then Prime Minister Ecevit said in May 1999: “Even though Turkey does not meddle in Iranian affairs, Iran is continually trying to export its regime to Turkey.” Large parts of the Turkish establishment consider Islam as an irrational force. Ali Karaosmanoglu, for instance, is criticizing Arab foreign policy as lacking the notion of realpolitik. He explains this deficiency as a result of the merger between nationalism and religion in the Arab world, where Islam infuses an irrational element in national politics (Karaosmanoglu 1985: 68).
The above-described perceptions are best summarized in an article of General Cevik Bir, a former deputy chief of Turkey’s General Staff. In criticizing the position of the European Union towards Turkey, Bir accused the EU of excluding Turkey from the new map of Europe. He pointed out that Turkish soldiers and members of the U. S. army were always comrades-in-arms sharing the same visions and a common destiny. Located at the epicenter of regions fraught with crises, Turkey, as a front state, has to be considered as a center of power that can affect delicate balances of power in the region. While Turkey wants to enhance regional security and stability, some neighboring states would still lay claim to Turkish territory and some of them support terrorism. Moreover, some states are even trying to export their regime contrary to Turkey’s constitutional order and the moral values of the modern world.
Generally speaking, Turkey’s elite perceives the country to be in a situation in which its neighbors are permanently threatening the country’s security and stability. Furthermore, many of Turkey’s domestic problems are put down to the interference of neighboring states, and the distinction between internal and external conflicts becomes blurred. As in the late Ottoman Empire and the early Turkish Republic, issues of internal and external security are confused and the army considers itself as the essential institution to safeguard the Turkish state, a standpoint clearly expressed in a statement of Turkey’s former general chief of staff, Hüseyin Kivrikoglu. In spring 1998, as the then commander of the land forces, Kivrikoglu was criticizing Prime Minister Yilmaz for not implementing the security measures suggested by the generals in the National Security Council. Kivrikoglu assured “that the Turkish Armed Forces are prepared to fight against all kinds of terrorism and fundamentalism as well as against internal and external threats regardless what it costs.”
Behind the perceptions expressed in these quotations—being besieged, facing multiple fronts, i.e., being encircled by forces aiming at the destruction of the Turkish state—one can easily detect the historical legacy of the security context in which the Turkish Republic was founded. A radicalization of the security context that was also the driving force behind the Ottoman reforms in the nineteenth century. Both the Ottoman and Kemalist reforms were initiated and sustained by the military-bureaucratic elite aiming at securing the state against external and internal threats. Furthermore, they were an attempt to stabilize the power positions of the military and the bureaucracy, both representing core institutions of the authoritarian Ottoman-Turkish state tradition. The social relations and historical experiences of this state elite can still be discerned as the “Sèvres Syndrome” in the social habitus of Turkey’s Kemalist elite. The historical and social background for the construction of this habitus will be addressed now.
III. Ottoman and Kemalist Legacies
With regard to external threats, the decline of the Ottoman Empire began in the second half of the seventeenth century. The Ottoman defeat at Vienna (1683), the formation of the so-called “Holy Alliance” against the Ottomans in (1684), and the advance of Hapsburgian troops in Serbia 1687 all are cases in point. After the 1774 peace treaty of Kücük Kaynarca, ending the Ottoman-Russian war (1768-1774), the empire not only lost its sovereignty over the Crimea, but was increasingly dragged into the ongoing power struggle among the European pentarchy, namely Russia, Hapsburg, Prussia, Britain, and France. In shifting alliances and confrontations with the European powers, in the nineteenth century the former challenger of Europe turned into “the sick man at the Bosphorus.” At this point in time, the previously powerful empire was at the mercy of European states.
Parallel to this involvement in the European power struggle, the empire also had to face armed resistance from domestic forces. In its Arab territories, the expansion of the Saudi kingdom, the de facto independence of Egypt under Muhammad Ali (1805-1848), the search for autonomy by the Lebanese Emir Bashir Shihab II, and the establishment of a modern, independent Tunisia under Ahmad Bey (1837-1855) are examples of this dissolution of the Ottoman state from within. Even more dramatic events were happening in the European provinces of the Empire. The Serbian revolts (1804-1806 and 1815-1817), the Greek war of independence (1821-1830) or the rebellions in Bosnia and the Hercegovina (1857) highlighted the precarious security situation of the Ottoman Empire. Moreover, in their struggle with the Ottoman state internal and external forces were joining sides and the Ottoman elite in Istanbul saw itself in an atmosphere of outside conspiracy and inside betrayal.
Against this background it comes as no surprise that the Ottoman reform efforts were not guided by a long-term strategy to modernize society, but rather determined by the political events of the day. Confronted with a deteriorating security situation and with the integrity and sovereignty of the state at stake, the Ottoman reforms are a classical example of an imposed modernization from above. Although the reforms could not stop the decline, they caused remarkable changes in the social structures of the empire. As a result of the military reforms, as well as of the introduction of modern bureaucratic and educational institutions, new social groups emerged. This emerging modern stratum of Ottoman society played a major role in the foundation of the Turkish Republic; many of the structural changes and political debates of the Tanzimat became the platform from which the modern Turkish nation-state evolved. In terms of its worldview and social background, the republican Turkish elite was a clear continuation of the reformist military-bureaucratic elite of the late Ottoman Empire. In an even more radical version, these lines of continuity apply to the security context in which the Turkish Republic was founded.
After heavy territorial losses in the Balkan wars (1912/13) and the subsequent First World War, a delegation of the Ottoman Sultan signed the Treaty of Sèvres in August 1920. This treaty provided for a partition of the Ottoman Empire, leaving only minor parts of Anatolia with Istanbul as capital for the Turks. At the same time troops under the leadership of the Turkish Nationalist Movement were fighting against Greek occupation forces that had landed in May 1919 in Izmir. Due to the territorial claims of Russia, Britain, France, Italy, Armenia, and Greece, Turkey was about to disappear from the political landscape. This situation changed with the victory of the republican forces in the Turco-Greek war, following which the allies accepted Turkish demands for self-determination. In July 1923, the treaty of Lausanne abolished the never implemented clauses of Sèvres and the sovereignty of the Turkish Republic was acknowledged. However, the Sèvres experience was not forgotten and the integrity, sovereignty and consolidation of the new state continued to be at the center of the Kemalist reforms.
The new Turkish political forces not only inherited the precarious security situation, but also the complex structure of domestic political actors from the Ottoman past. The leadership of the “Young Turks,” as well as of the republican forces under Mustafa Kemal, had to defend their position not only against foreign threats, but also at home. From the beginning, the republican leaders were confronted with the power aspirations of traditional local notables, ethnic groups, religious networks, and of conservative circles aiming at the restoration of Ottoman rule. Moreover, the internal fragmentation of the republican military-bureaucratic elite created an increasing potential for internal conflict in the newly established republic. The foundation and subsequent closure of the Progressive Republican Party (1924), the Kurdish rebellion under the Naqshbandi Sheikh Said (1925) or the assassination attempt against Mustafa Kemal in Izmir (1926) are only some cases in point. It is this particular pattern of external and internal threats coupled with the political ideas and actions of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk that made the foundational myth of the Turkish Republic. In its ideological form, Kemalism or Atatürkism, it is still an influential ideological force in Turkish politics.
The foundational myth of the republic and the political culture of modern Turkey were heavily molded by this violent struggle against internal and external foes. This historical experience reinforced the Ottoman heritage of conspiracy and betrayal that already was a part of the social habitus of the republican elite. Through the lenses of this particular legacy, Turkey’s military-bureaucratic establishment has perceived the Turkish state as permanently endangered. Against this background, the Turkish officer corps evolved as the sole legitimate heir of Kemalist authority and as a distinct political force apart from and above the everyday quarrels of democratic politics. Like the Janissaries, the military backbone of the empire that was only obliged to the sultan and the Ottoman state, the modern Turkish officer is obliged to Atatürk and the Kemalist republic. In a genealogical spirit, tracing via its elders a direct line from Atatürk, the military conceives itself as guardian and trustee of the Turkish state. Therefore, any attempt to change the basic principles of Atatürkism is viewed as a direct threat to the integrity and sovereignty of the state. It is within this historical and sociological context that Turkish foreign policy evolved. However, Turkish foreign policy must be explained in the light of this context, but has not been determined by it. The Sèvres Syndrome has worked as a constraint and the following section shows how rational choices have been made within this inherited constraint of the Kemalist social habitus.
IV. Four Phases of Turkish Foreign Policy
With the integration of the so-far independent republic of Hatay in July 1939, the territorial consolidation of the Turkish Republic ended eight months after the death of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In contrast to his dedicated domestic policies of westernization, Atatürk’s foreign policies remained rather indifferent. The normalization of Turkey’s foreign relations was guarded by the intention to keep the country neutral. His immediate successor, Ismet Inönü, basically followed this line. He tried hard to maintain Turkey’s neutrality during the Second World War, before the country eventually was compelled to declare war against Germany in February 1945. In the light of the previously analyzed social habitus of the republican elite, it seems obvious that Atatürk and Inönü were suspicious towards both the intentions of the European powers and the emerging Arab states. As leaders of a state with scarce power resources, they pursued a cautious foreign policy that was guided by détente without engagement, following a course of deliberate neutrality without being isolated from outside.
The second phase of Turkish foreign policy began after the Second World War. This phase was characterized by the westernization of Turkey’s international relations. Stalin’s abrogation of the Turkish-Soviet friendship pact in 1945 and his demands to return the Kars and Ardahan provinces, as well as to establish Soviet military bases along the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, were instrumental in Turkey’s decision to seek full affiliation with the West (Mufti 1998: 41). In the context of the rising Cold War, the security and integrity of the Turkish state could no longer be guaranteed by neutrality and the deep-rooted suspicions against the West had to be overcome. From its previous neutrality Turkey switched almost to the other extreme, sometimes “acting as if she was a cold war warrior” (Gözen 1995: 74).
Since the end of the Second World War, the economic and political integration of Turkey with Europe and the United States has been materialized in a variety of institutional relations. Turkey became a founding member of the Organization of European Economic Cooperation in 1948, and has been a member of the Council of Europe since 1949 and of NATO since 1952. In 1963, Ankara concluded an association agreement with the European Community that has been accomplished by a customs union with the European Union in 1996. Since the EU summit in Helsinki (1999), Turkey holds the status of a candidate for full-membership in the EU. Hence, the internal westernization of Turkey has been completed with the westernization of its foreign relations.
Parallel to this “external westintegration,” Turkey began also to become involved in Middle Eastern politics. In particular, the country played a key role in the US concept of the “northern tier,” the containment of Soviet influence through an alliance of Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thereby, the gravity center of Western Middle Eastern policy moved from its Arab core region to the northern periphery. Facing a wave of Arab suspicions, the Menderes government decided to join the so-called Middle East Command (MEC) together with the US, Britain and France in October 1951. In June 1952, Turkey supported the Middle East Defense Organization (MEDO) between the United Kingdom and the United States. After promoting these two ill-fated defense organizations, Turkey became under Prime Minister Menderes the leading regional force in forging the so-called Baghdad Pact among Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Turkey. The Menderes government was thereby not only pushing for the Baghdad Pact, but also tried to intimidate anti-western regimes. In both the Syrian crisis of 1957 and the Iraqi crisis of 1958 the West had to discourage the Turkish government from taking any kind of unilateral military action against its neighbors (cf. Sever 1998). With an economy predominantly based on agriculture and poor of relevant commodities, it was Turkey’s geo-strategic position that turned foreign policy into an economic resource. More specifically, the strategy of a political rent seeker increasingly eclipsed the cautious foreign policy of the early republican era and the 1950s saw first signs of activism in Turkish Middle Eastern policies, although restricted by western interests.
The ten years under the rule of the Democratic Party (1950-1960) were characterized by an almost complete westernization of Turkey’s foreign relations. Ironically, this westernization brought Turkey back into Middle Eastern affairs, but as a staunch ally of the West and therefore causing an increased alienation from its Arab neighborhood. In contradiction to his western attitude in foreign policy, however, Menderes started domestically a “re-Islamization” of the Turkish society in order to get support for his populist government. His Democratic Party promised respect for Islamic traditions and presented itself as the voice of the marginalized Anatolian majority (Yavuz 1997: 24). Both the increasing signs of activism in foreign policy and the weakening of secularism in domestic politics were followed with suspicion by Turkey’s generals. In May 1960, the Turkish army toppled the civilian government and Prime Minister Menderes was executed in 1961. The second phase of Turkish foreign policy brought about Turkey’s institutional integration into the West and its isolation in the Middle East. However, the new course of western integration was not due to a change in the worldview of Turkey’s elite. Rather, it was triggered by security threats from outside and by Turkey’s increasing economic dependency on the West as a political rent-seeker in the Cold War.
The third phase, which can be described as a move towards rapprochement with the Arab world, can also been interpreted as a reaction to the changing political and economic environment. The deep-rooted suspicions against the West never disappeared and were strongly reconfirmed by political events during the 1960s and 1970s. The Jupiter missile crisis in 1962 and the Cyprus crises of 1964 and 1974 are just some cases in point during which the Sèvres Syndrome with its conspiracy theories re-emerged. Especially the letter of President Johnson to Ismet Inönü, written during the Cyprus crisis 1964, reconfirmed Turkish suspicions and stirred anti-American and neutralist sentiments. In this letter, Johnson was “cautioning Inönü that if Turkish action on the island would invite a Soviet attack, then NATO was not obliged to defend Turkey” (Criss 1997: 119). Another proof of the alleged insincerity of the West, was the arms embargo the American government put on Turkey after its military intervention in Cyprus (1974). The attempt to normalize relations with the Arab world was partly a response to these disappointments with western policies. The Turkish decision not to allow the United States to use its military base in Incirlik during the Arab-Israeli wars in 1967 and 1973, as well as Ankara’s recognition of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the opening of a formal representation with it in 1979 (Gözen 1995:74-5), are examples of Turkey’s growing willingness to act against western interests.
While rooted in political problems, Turkey’s rapprochement with its Middle Eastern neighbors was also due to economic problems and to the rising Islamic sentiments among its populace. In economic terms, the 1973 oil crisis, Turkish supplies of labor and manpower to Arab states and the search for new markets in the Middle East accompanied Turkey’s shift in foreign policy. With regard to the Islamization of Turkish politics, the rise of Necmettin Erbakan was the most salient development. In 1973, his Islamic National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi) joined a coalition government and called for a withdrawal form the “Western Club” (Karaosmanoglu 1985: 76). Although the Democratic Party was instrumentalizing religious sentiments in domestic politics during the 1950s, its leadership was still following the Kemalist way. It was not before Erbakan, that Islamist politics entered Turkey’s political scene. However, these changes in Turkish foreign policy were rather reactive. They were attempts of the elite to adjust their policies to a changing international and regional environment, yet still according to the dominant principles of the Kemalist habitus.
The fourth phase, characterized by a new quality of activism, started after the military coup in 1980 and was to a large extent related to political decisions made by Prime Minister (1983-1989) and later President (1989-1993) Turgut Özal. His domestic policy of economic liberalization and gradual Islamization was accompanied by an active export strategy especially towards Middle Eastern countries. Between 1980 and 1985 Turkish exports to the Middle East increased fivefold, in 1985 sixty-four per cent of total exports went to neighboring Iran and Iraq (Dalacoura 1990: 210). Turkish exports to Iran rose from twelve million US dollars in 1979 to a peak of 1.1 billion in 1985 (Eralp 1996: 101). In the mid 1980s, Özal opened the country also for Saudi capital and Turkish-Saudi joint ventures (Bagis 1985: 87). While the economic ties with the Arab world and Iran steadily improved, the relations with Israel deteriorated further after the coup of September 1980. Ankara recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and relations were not restored to the ambassadorial level until December 1991 (Yavuz 1997: 24).
Whereas in the 1980s Özal’s new activism was following the pattern of rapprochement with Turkey’s neighbors, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 marks a radical turning point. Meanwhile Turkey’s economic boom with her neighbors had proved to be a passing fancy. Turkey’s export rate with Arab countries was falling, reaching a marginal percentage of twelve per cent of its total exports in 1994 (Yavuz 1997: 27). The export boom with Iraq and Iran was not built on solid trade relations, but on the specific conditions of the First Gulf War (1980-1988). In the run-up to the Second Gulf War (1991), the Turkish President changed his mind and saw a chance for the reorientation of Turkish foreign policy. While his diplomats and the army advocated more neutral policies, Özal was eager to play a major role in the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq. Uninformed about his decision to close the Iraqi oil pipelines and the pressures to adopt a more active military stance, the then General Chief of Staff, Necip Torumtay, resigned in December 1990 (Mufti 1998: 44).
The degree of activism and boldness, that characterizes the fourth phase of Turkish foreign policy introduced by Turgut Özal, has still been visible after his death. The new Turkish Israeli axis, re-emerging dreams of Turanism, Turkish military operations in Iraq and the threat of force against Syria in October 1998 are clear examples that Turkey adopted a more active role in Middle Eastern politics. Whereas the reconciliation with the Middle Eastern neighbors was triggered by the dissatisfaction with Europe and America, the reorientation in the fourth phase was due to the volatile decisions of a strong political leader. Although criticizing Özal’s single-handed decisions, the army and parts of the Kemalist establishment did not escape their impact. In the 1990s, they became themselves proponents of a much more activist foreign policy.
Since the end of the Second World War, Turkey has more and more been dragged into regional politics, without accepting itself as a part of the Middle East. The powerless threatened state of Atatürk’s time grew into a regional power with an attitude to use its political, military and economic capabilities in a more active and independent way. However, this regional activism has not been guided by a new vision of Turkey’s role in Middle Eastern politics. On the contrary, Turkey’s foreign relations are still under the impact of the traditionalist Kemalist worldview. On the one hand, there is the latent mistrust towards both the West and the Middle Eastern neighbors. On the other hand, this worldview is mirrored by the narrow notion of security—limited to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state—that characterizes Turkish politics. A brief glance at the problems of Kurdish separatism and religious fundamentalism with regard to Turkey’s relations to Syria, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia makes this more transparent.
V. Kurdish Nationalism, Political Islam and Turkey’s Foreign Policy
The Kurdish question and political Islam are not recent phenomena; rather they represent two major sources of internal conflict of the Turkish Republic since its outset. Therefore, the Kemalist elite views Kurdish nationalism and political Islam almost naturally through the prism of the Sèvres Syndrome. In the foundation phase of the modern Turkish state eighteen rebellions against the republican regime were reported, of which seventeen took place in eastern Anatolia and sixteen involved Kurdish groups (Kirisci 1998: 74). The abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in March 1924 marks the departure point for this series of rebellions. The famous Sheik Said rebellion (1925), for instance, shows that it is impossible to clearly differentiate in this Anatolian resistance against the republican regime between Kurdish and Islamic motivations. The Kurdish Naqshbandi Sheik Said mobilized his followers by denouncing the republican government for its godless policies and he claimed to restore religion (Olson 1989: 95). This blending of ethnicity and religion was even more pronounced among the rebels whose religious and nationalist loyalties could not be separated. On the contrary, Kurdish and Muslim motivations coincided and were virtually identical (van Bruinessen 1992: 299). It was the continuing modernization of the Turkish society itself that eventually resulted in the separation of Kurdish and religious resistance against Kemalism. Therefore, secular Kurdish nationalism is a product of the Kemalist reforms themselves, rather than the result of foreign intervention.
This close connection between the rise of Kurdish nationalism and the modernization process in Turkey is also proved by the change in its leadership. Whereas the revolts in the 1920s and 1930s were led by traditional tribal and religious leaders, from 1945 onwards modern forces within the Kurdish society have become more relevant. The extension of state bureaucracy, the spread of modern education and the growing integration in the world market have contributed to the emergence of a modern stratum of Kurdish society. Until the 1970s, Turkey was rather successful in containing the national aspirations of these new social actors. This had happened either through integration into the modern political and economic sectors of Turkish society or through the repressive subordination of radical forces. In the course of the economic and political crises of the 1970s, when violent clashes among radical right- and left wing groups, and between them and the state authorities, claimed almost daily victims, the Kurdish movement became likewise radicalized. In 1978, Abdullah Öcalan founded the PKK, based on Marxist-Leninist ideology. In combining the aspirations of both nationalists and social revolutionaries, the PKK called for armed struggle against the Turkish state and for the establishment of a socialist Kurdish state. The PKK was later the only Kurdish political organization that managed to reorganize itself after the military coup in 1980. In 1984, the PKK launched its guerrilla war in the southeast of Turkey and became a political tool in the hands of Turkey’s neighbors.
Like the Kurdish question, political Islam developed within the country and was not initiated from outside. It was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself who used Islam as an essential component in defining the Turkish nation in order to form a people out of the ethnically and religiously fragmented Anatolian society. Even the war of independence against Greek occupation forces was sometimes called a holy war. Since the inception of the multi-party system in 1946, Turkish politicians have been instrumentalizing religious sentiments for political gains to the extent that “political patronage became the basic strategy of obtaining votes, in which religion was frequently used for political purposes” (Heper and Keyman 1998: 259). In Turkish politics a double discourse was adopted: “Islam was disestablished as the state religion while religious language was incorporated into the nationalist discourse, without making its conceptual grammar essentially Islamic (Cizre-Sakallioglu 1998: 16).” The development of political parties like the National Salvation Party, the Welfare Party (Refah), the Virtue Party (Fazilet) or the currently governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) is therefore nothing more than a logical outcome of both the use of religious language in politics and the existence of strong religious sentiments in Turkey’s population.
Not only politicians, but also the generals “instrumentalized” Islam. After the civil unrest in the 1970s and the subsequent military coup, Islam seemed to be the means at hand to discipline and stabilize society. In the aftermath of the coup, “the State Planning Organization prepared a report for the leaders of the 1980 coup suggesting the reintegration of Islamic ethics into public education as a means of consolidating national unity” (Yavuz 1998: 29). In order to achieve a new social consensus it was the state elite itself that politicized religion under the official banner of a “Turkish-Islamic synthesis.” Turgut Özal further strengthened this new discourse and thus both the generals and leading politicians of the 1980s paved the way for the relative success of the religious political wing in Turkey. With the decision of the National Security Council on 28 February 1997, which led to the resignation of Prime Minister Erbakan and to the closure of Refah, the military tried to get rid of a “monster” they had themselves helped creating. The overwhelming success of the AKP in the national elections on 3 November 2002, however, indicated that this Islamic political identity is more solidly rooted in a new urban and modern context. From this perspective, the same forces of social change that were behind the rise of Kurdish nationalism brought about the politicization of Islam. With the accelerated modernization of Turkish society, especially since the 1960s, a new modern segment of society has emerged which has challenged the position of the Kemalist elite with new patterns of Islamic and Kurdish identity.
Through the traditional lenses of Kemalism, however, the Kurdish insurgency and the rise of religious parties have almost exclusively been attributed to conspiracies from outside. Domestic conflicts caused by social change are thus interpreted as attempts at foreign political interference. This is clearly visible in Turkey’s relations with its neighbors, in which fields of possible cooperation tend to become battlefields of confrontation. Although it is true that Syria hosted PKK-leader Abdullah Öcalan for more than 15 years, it was not Syria that created the PKK and the national sentiments among Turkey’s Kurdish population. Syrian support for the PKK was a means of extortion in the conflict about the waters of the Euphrates rather than an attempt to destroy the territorial integrity of the Turkish state. The Kurdish question became a tool in the foreign relations between two states that have been historically suspicious of each other. The same situation, although in a more complex way, applies to Turkish-Iraqi relations.
Since the PKK began its war against the Turkish state in 1984, the Turkish army intervened in northern Iraq not less than 57 times. In the aftermath of the Second Gulf War and the Kurdish refugee crisis in Iraq in April and May 1991, northern Iraq became the theatre for major Turkish military operations. In August 1991, almost 5,000 Turkish troops entered northern Iraq to create a buffer zone along the border. More than 20,000 troops backed by tanks and the Turkish airforce crossed the borders to Iran and Iraq in October 1992. In relation to a military operation in March 1995, in which 35,000 Turkish troops went 40 km deep and 220 km wide into Iraqi territory, the then President Süleyman Demirel publicly spoke about a change in the Turkish-Iraqi border in favor of Turkey. This statement together with operation Murad, during which more than 50,000 Turkish soldiers entered northern Iraq in May 1997, raised suspicions in the Arab world that Turkey could have territorial claims and might want to revoke the Mosul decision of 1926 (Gunter 1998: 36-40).
Operation Provide Comfort, which created a Kurdish sanctuary in north Iraq, brought Turkey in a paradoxical situation. While denying a Kurdish question at home and claiming the preservation of the integrity of the Iraqi state as a major foreign policy objective, Turkey became fully embroiled in the Kurdish struggle in northern Iraq and participated in the upholding of its de facto division. On the one hand, Turkey wanted to avoid a Kurdish “buffer state” in northern Iraq and the possible spillover of Kurdish self-determination. On the other hand, in the war against the PKK Ankara concluded an alliance with Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), which for decades has been a major force in the Kurdish struggle with Iraqi regimes in Baghdad. In March 1991 representatives of the KDP and of its Kurdish adversary, Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), were invited to visit Ankara—a U-turn from the previous policy of not contacting the Kurdish groups in northern Iraq. In this way, Barzani and his KDP, who was in the 1970s fighting the Baathist regime in Baghdad supported by the CIA and Iran, became the main ally in Turkey’s fight against the PKK in northern Iraq, receiving military and logistic support.
The results of the Second Gulf War and Özal’s reorientation turned out to be not a new chance, but rather a new predicament for Turkey’s foreign policy. It brought about the permanent danger of a complete disintegration of the Iraqi state, which would have a tremendous impact on the Kurdish question in Turkey. This predicament was precisely the background for Turkey’s claim to enter northern Iraq together with US forces in the advent of the Iraq war 2003. In addition, Turkey’s military interventions in northern Iraq evoked new suspicions in the Arab world over Turkish irredentist claims to the Mosul province. Both issues became confused with the water issue and the question about the reopening of the two oil pipelines between Iraq and Turkey. Moreover, Turkey is confronted with enormous economic losses due to the embargo against Iraq. According to senior officials in the Turkish ministry of foreign affairs the Turkish economy had to bear a loss of around 40 billion US-Dollars since the end of the Second Gulf War. This negative economic situation has been further aggravated by the U. S. containment policy against Iran and, most recently, by the decision of the Turkish Parliament, on 1 March 2003, to reject the deployment of American troops. A decision that deprived the Turkish state of billions of dollars of economic compensation.
Unlike Iraq, whose current problems are mainly linked to its lack of a tradition of statehood, Turkey and Iran share the historical background of patrimonial and imperial rule. Their current borders were established under the Treaty of Zohab in 1639, and although the history of Iranian-Turkish relations has not always been characterized by friendship, territorial claims do not exist. In spite of their cooperation in the Baghdad and CENTO pacts, a mutually shared mistrust towards the other side has always existed. Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, the ideological difference between Ankara’s secularism and Tehran’s Islamism has aggravated Turkish-Iranian tensions over issues such as the Kurdish question, Turkey’s alliance with the West and the two countries competing interests in the post-Soviet Republics. While Armenia and Iran provide “physical obstacles” to Turkey’s entry into the Caucasus and Central Asia, Turkish nationalism in Azerbaijan posed a threat to the national integrity of Iran. This was especially apparent during the early 1990s, as the then Azeri President Elchibey used a heavy Azeri and pan-Turcic rhetoric and nationalistic political claims to unite “northern and southern Azerbaijan” became known (Eralp 1996: 88 and 106).
Whereas the pan-Turkic wave quickly faded away, the Kurdish question was a major source of tension during the 1990s. For a short period from 1992 to 1995, Turkey, Iran and Syria tried to coordinate their policies towards northern Iraq in order to prevent a Kurdish state (Gunter 1998: 35). However, the common ground of those Tripartite conferences was dissolved with the outbreak of warfare in northern Iraq between the KDP and PUK in 1996 and the three states resumed their policies of supporting their respective Kurdish clients: Turkey the KDP, Iran the PUK and Syria the PKK. Besides Iranian support for Talabani’s PUK, there was a rather unsubstantiated support for the PKK from Iran. Turkish sources talked about an estimated number of 35 PKK camps on Iranian territory. These Turkish accusations were countered by Iranian allegations that Turkey harbored opponents of the regime in Tehran and supports the Mujaheddin-e Khalq (Calabrese 1998: 76).
While Pan-Turkism and Kurdish nationalism have always been possible sources of tension between Turkey and Iran, the ideological conflict between Ankara and Tehran has further increased them. Right after the revolution, Khomeini condemned Kemalism and Iranian representatives have frequently refused to visit the mausoleum of Atatürk during official visits in Ankara. Furthermore, the Iranian regime was accused of producing anti-secular propaganda material that was smuggled into Turkey. The domestic rise of Islamist political forces could therefore easily be attributed to foreign intervention. How this situation affected the bilateral relationship between Turkey and Iran was clearly shown by the “Jerusalem incident” in Sincan, a small town in the vicinity of Ankara. On 1 February 1997, the mayor of Sincan, who was a member of Refah, organized a rally to protest the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem. During the event, posters supporting Hizballah and Hamas were displayed and the Israeli-Turkish agreements were denounced in the presence of the Iranian ambassador. Three days later tanks turned up in Sincan, the mayor was arrested and the ambassadors were mutually withdrawn from Ankara and Tehran (Yavuz 1997: 22).
Although the support of Islamist groups in Turkey has mainly been attributed to Iran, Saudi money rather than direct political influence played a role. With the economic opening for Saudi capital in the 1980s, Turkey also attracted the influx of “ideological money” from non-governmental organizations in Saudi Arabia. It is apparent that Saudi money contributed partly to the Islamization of the Turkish society, although Saudi Arabia had no interest in destabilizing Turkey. However, both countries were competitors in the Middle East and Central Asia, where Saudi Arabia used its monetary resources as well as Sunni Islam as means to enhance its influence. In addition, the “cool reception given by Saudi Arabian officials to Turkey’s offer to send troops during the Gulf War” proved that Turkish-Saudi relations still bear the historically rooted mistrust and suspicion between Turks and Arabs (Birand 1996: 172).
To sum up: although there are apparent links between Turkey’s domestic conflicts and regional politics, the roots of the Kurdish question and of political Islam are to be found within Turkish society. The neighbors merely capitalized on Turkey’s unsolved social conflicts. In these conflicts the traditional Kemalist establishment was confronted with the claims of new social forces to participate in the political and economic sectors of society. The exclusiveness of “Kemalist enlightenment,” a legacy of Turkey’s top-down modernization and its conservation in the Kemalist social habitus, has been losing its legitimacy. In the categories of the dominant Kemalist worldview these domestic conflicts were perceived as attempts to destroy the integrity of the Turkish state. Again internal and external threats are equated and domestic conflicts interpreted as a result of external interference that has to be countered by force. The factual overlapping of domestic causes and foreign support of terrorism, in particular with respect to the Kurdish question, seemingly provided evidence for this conspiracy theory. Regarding the quotations in section two, it is hard to tell conviction and instrumentalization apart. Most likely it is both. On the one hand, the republican establishment instrumentalized threat perceptions that are attached to the Sèvres Syndrome in order to legitimize the endangered position of a privileged elite. On the other hand, they are the expression of a Kemalist social habitus that still impacted on the political action of an elite which has lost the pace of a social change it once initiated.
This confrontation with the Ottoman legacy and Turkey’s historical and cultural roots in the Middle East brings us back to the social habitus of the Kemalist elite. Although the regional environment and the social and economic structures of Turkish society have changed, Ankara’s political establishment is still inclined to perceive politics in the categories of the 1920s. This applies not only to foreign policy perceptions, but also to the way the Kemalist elite is dealing with domestic problems. However, these problems are not due to the fact that the country is a “torn state” in the sense of Huntington’s analysis, rather they are results of a society with a high proportion of uneven developments. The coexistence of an individualized urban society in its western cities with tribal societies in the east, the blend of modern and traditional values among its youth, the mushrooming of nepotism and corruption under the impact of an accelerated neo-liberal reconstruction of the economy, these are typical phenomena for a modernizing country in which traditional forms of social integration give way without being sufficiently replaced by modern ones.
Like in its reaction to the changing regional environment, the Kemalist establishment reacts to the domestic challenges according to the same anachronistic patterns of interpretation. The attempt, however, to stop this process of social disintegration by the means of authoritarian corporatism is bound to fail. The unitarian idea of a corporatist society of the 1920s has to give way to a pluralistic approach to reintegrate Turkey’s population based on a consensus of identity as diversity. The major threat to the integrity of the Turkish state is not posed by foreign powers with territorial ambitions as it was at Sèvres, but it is caused by centripetal societal forces that are themselves a result of the Kemalist modernization project. Looking at current events, the process of redefining Turkey’s social identity is in full process. The uncompromising reaction against Kurdish nationalism and political Islam and their association with foreign intervention became an anachronism for a country that has chosen to access the European Union.
The future role of Turkey depends on the ability of its elite to come to terms with its own history and its Ottoman and Kemalist legacies. To assume an appropriate regional role, Turkey has to overcome the Sèvres Syndrome so that feelings of suspicion and encirclement could give way to a new self-confidence based on the material and intellectual capabilities the country has achieved. A self-confident, pluralistic and democratic Turkey would have a major impact on the region. It could spearhead the forces of economic and political liberalization in the Middle East. In this way, Turkey could play a decisive and non-military role in pacifying the conflict-ridden Eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf areas. In following the democratic prescriptions of Brussels, Turkey could not only become an influential new member of the EU, but also develop into a cornerstone of stability and security in the Middle East. The current confrontation between the new government and Kemalist hardliners in the military and state bureaucracy might be decisive whether Turkey will head in this direction or not.
Republished by permission of I.B. Tauris publishers.
Dietrich Jung is a senior researcher at the Institute for International Studies in Copenhagen, Denmark. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from University of Hamburg and his most recent book, Shadow Globalization, Ethnic Conflicts and New Wars. A Political Economy of Intra-State War, was published by Routledge in 2003. This is the revised version of a paper that was presented in Bjørn Møller (ed.), Oil & Water: Cooperative Security in the Persian Gulf, (London and New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers 2001), pp. 131-159. Republished by permission of I.B. Tauris publishers.