BACKGROUND: For decades Turkey loyally aligned its foreign and defense policies with those of the United States and its other NATO allies. But since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, the Turkish government has sought to develop new partnerships while calling into question old ones, such as with Israel. Many wonder to what extent Turkey will remain tightly linked to NATO, will move northward toward Russia, will attempt to regain influence among the Turkic republics of Central Asia -- possibly to include building security ties with China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization-- or will turn southward to identify more with the other Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East.
One reason Turkey is seeking new partnerships is that many Turkish national security experts no longer believe they can assure their country’s security through alignment with the United States and its NATO allies. The reasons for this distrust include the refusal of the European Union to admit Turkey as a full member, perceived reluctance of Western countries to transfer defense technology to Turkey, shrill rhetoric in the Western media denouncing the influence of Islamists in the Turkish government, and a general sense that Western countries do not appreciate the burden Turkey has borne as a front-line buffer state against the Soviet Union, Iraq, Iran, and other adversaries of the West.
Analysts at the Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies (BILGESAM) in Istanbul recently told Turkey Analyst that the United States imposes excessive limits on transferring defense technology to Ankara. As a result, while Turkey would often prefer to purchase U.S. military systems, the country has increasingly been seeking to buy weapons from other countries or develop indigenous substitutes for these systems.
In this context, the recent U.S. decision to sell Turkey three more AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopters is a welcome move. The United States sold Turkey 10 of these copters in the 1990s. They have proved powerful weapons against the PKK insurgents, who recently increased their operations. But due to crashes and other problems, Turkey’s fleet of operational helicopters has declined to six, leading Turkey to press the United States to provide replacements. Washington had resisted since its own copter fleet was heavily engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now with the U.S. military drawdown in both countries, the Pentagon is prepared to transfer the three AH-1Ws to the Turkish military.
Another previous source of U.S.-Turkey tension, the war in Iraq, also appears to be weakening. Turkish officials told Turkey Analyst that its government has generally been satisfied with U.S. policy in Iraq during the last few years. Washington has been praised in particular for providing extensive intelligence data to Turkey regarding the PKK. They also appreciated Americans’ encouraging Turkey to establish a large diplomatic and commercial presence in northern Iraq. Still, there is some unease in Ankara that the whole Iraqi house of cards could fall apart after U.S. troops leave the scene.
Another source of tension between Turkey and the United States that has been managed well has been the deterioration in Turkey’s relations with Israel. The winter 2008-09 Gaza War alienated the AKP from Israel, and the Israeli military’s killing of nine Turkish citizens when intercepting a Gaza-bound aid flotilla from Turkey in 2010 generated unprecedented strains in the long-standing security alliance between Turkey and Tel Aviv. The tensions ended Turkish-Israeli joint exercises and reduced other forms of military cooperation, depriving Israel of one of its very few military allies in the Middle East. Turks regretted that the U.S. government had not more directly condemned what they perceived as an Israeli act of aggression, especially since one of those killed on the flotilla was an American citizen. Turkish officials seem to understand, however, that U.S. officials were constrained from siding with one ally against the other.
IMPLICATIONS: Given this tension between Turkey and the West, it is no wonder that Turkish officials are very buoyant about their relations with Russia. They regularly describe their country’s ties with Russia to be their best ever. They point to their extensive bilateral trade, the millions of Russian tourists who visit Turkey each year, and the strong harmony in Russian and Turkey security interests in the Balkans, Middle East, Afghanistan, and the Black Sea region. Despite some unease in Turkey with Moscow’s repressive counterinsurgency policies in the South Caucasus, Russian security ties with Armenia and conflicts with Georgia, and Russia’s growing military power in Turkey’s neighborhood, many Turkish leaders no longer perceive an imminent military threat from Russia.
One of the few points of division among Turkish government officials and analysts is their competing views regarding future political developments in Central Asia. One group believes that Central Asia is ripe for deep political change. They see the region as the last bastion of one-party authoritarian rule and consider the prospects for its near-term democratization to be high. This first group would also welcome a phenomenon like the Arab Spring in the region since they consider the absence of functioning democracies in most Central Asian countries a significant problem for Turkish entities. For example, they note that, since a single individual or group determines all major policies in a dictatorship, authoritarian governments are prone to make radical changes in policy overnight. In addition, the constraints on most individuals’ ability to access information in authoritarian regimes as well as the legal arbitrariness common in non-democracies present major obstacles to domestic and foreign entrepreneurs seeking to run profitable businesses in these countries.
But another group of Turkish officials consider the prospects for Central Asia’s near-term democratization to be low because they are more optimistic about these regimes’ ability to withstand the kind of political chaos sweeping through the Arab world. They argue that it would take decades for these countries, whose leaders still consist of people who have overwhelmingly developed their political views during the Soviet period, to abandon their Soviet mentality and adopt Western liberal values. In the view of these Turkish analysts and officials, another constraint on political change in Central Asia is the geographic isolation of these states from other democratic countries as well as their history of authoritarian rule. They argue that Central Asia’s democratization would entail a lengthy process requiring the further political and economic evolution of these countries. Conversely, this second group of Turkish officials fears that efforts to rush Central Asia’s democratization could easily backfire and lead their rulers to adopt even more repressive domestic policies. Instead, they advocate that Western governments focus for now on promoting the rule of law and human rights in Central Asia while hoping that economic development and other modernization trends eventually lead to more democratic governments in the region.
At present, this second group of Turkish officials seems to have greater influence in Ankara. But the onset of revolutionary upheavals in this region could easily shift the balance of influence in favor of the first group, which is more eager and optimistic about the prospects for Central Asia’s democratization. Despite their differences, both groups of Turkish officials maintain that their country could play at best a modest role in Central Asia. Neither considers Turkey sufficiently powerful to compete with Russia directly for regional influence. Turkish officials recognize Russia’s political, military, and economic primacy in Central Asia. They also view China as a growing economic power in the region. These officials see Turkey’s role in Central Asia mainly in cultural terms, encouraging these Turkic peoples to learn Turkish and acknowledge their historical affinity with the commonwealth of Turkish nations. They also want Turkish businesses to trade and invest in the region. In practice, the few Turkish companies having a major presence in Central Asia concentrate their activities in certain economic sectors such as construction.
CONCLUSIONS: One factor driving Turkey back closer to the Unites States is its deteriorating relations with Iran. Many Turks, Iranians, and others see Iran and Turkey as the main rivals for influence in the Middle East. Although the Turkish government still publicly supports Iran’s self-declared peaceful nuclear activities, some influential Turks fear that Tehran has ambitions of acquiring nuclear weapons. More recent sources of tension have included the contrasting approaches of Ankara and Tehran toward Syria and Turkey’s decision to host a missile defense radar on its territory designed to protect Europe from Iranian missiles.
The coming years could see an even more overt Turkey-Iran competition for regional influence, now that the new Arab governments produced by the Arab Spring look to Tehran and Ankara for competing guidance regarding how to modernize their political structures and orient their domestic and foreign policies. This is an interesting development since for the first few decades after World War II, both Iran and Turkey, as well as Israel were considered as regional outliers due to their westward orientations, secular governments, and non-Arab populations. Then Iran experienced its 1979 Islamic Revolution, which toppled its pro-Western monarchy. Now Turkey has moved closer to the Middle Eastern Sunni mainstream by distancing itself from Israel and repairing ties with a number of Arab states. But Turkey has important advantages in any direct competition with Iran, including a more popular leader, a stronger economy, and renewed security ties with NATO and Washington.
Richard Weitz, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".