Is Turkey Still an Ally?
A briefing by Sabri Sayari
May 7, 1997
Two developments raise questions whether Turkey remains an ally of the United States, observed Sabri Sayari, executive director of the Institute of Turkish Studies at Georgetown University. The end of the Cold War meant the perception of a common threat vanished, while differences between the two countries are all the more visible. Second, the rise to power of the Refah (or Welfare) Party in Turkey has caused much concern. Turkey remains a democracy and a member of NATO but because the government has been headed since July 1996 by a fundamentalist Muslim, Necmettin Erbakan, its future direction is in doubt.
An intact alliance. Close ties between Washington and Ankara in fact survive. Turkey firmly supported U.S. policy during the Kuwait War, participating in the coalition against Saddam Husayn. It has endorsed Washington's policy of "dual containment" of Iraq and Iran. It hosts Operation Provide Comfort (to provide relief to Kurds in the north of Iraq). It has 1,500 troops to stationed in Bosnia to help with the the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords.
Nor is this relationship one-sided. The United States, in turn, supports Turkey's attempts to win full membership to the European Union. It has endorsed the Turkish plan to build a pipeline through Azerbaijan and Turkey for the exportation of petroleum from the Caspian Sea Basin, as opposed to using alternative Russian routes.
But the increasing strength of the fundamentalist party in Turkey creates doubts about Turkey continuing as an ally of the United States.
The Islamist agenda. Islamist parties have been active in Turkish politics for almost three decades, but they were for most of that time small, capturing less about 10 percent of the vote. In the December 1995 elections, however, they secured 21 percent of the vote, making them the single largest vote-getter. With Erbakan, Turkey has a leader for the first time in the history of the republic who is openly Islamist in outlook.
What does this mean in practice? The Islamists seek the gradual Islamization of society by undermining secular institutions. In particular, they seek to reestablish a legal system based on Islamic law, the Shari`a. As for foreign policy, they wish to loosen Turkey's ties to the Western world, including NATO and the European Union. Instead, they advocate closer ties with Arab states, proposing a military alliance of Islamic states (with Turkey as its leader) and an Islamic common market. Political figures have connections to terrorists; thus, Mr. Erbakan has close relations with radical groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brethren.
Fundamentalists in power. Most of the fundamentalists' agenda has not been achieved in the year Mr. Erbakan has been in office. He has been careful to accommodate Washington on a host of important issues. Yes, he has worked for closer ties with Iran and he has visited rogue states like Libya, but these are symbolic gestures to appease his more radical followers. Overall, he has not had the major impact on Turkish foreign policy that Mr. Sayari expected. Mr. Sayari's previous predictions that Turkey would face problems with the U.S. over Israel have proved wrong, as the relationship between Turkey and Israel is becoming one of the most important military alliances in the region.
Why hasn't there been this radical change with the Islamist party in power? First, Erbakan is in a coalition government with a secular party, the center right, leaving him little room to maneuver. Second, the Turkish military has long been involved in politics to the point that it executed three military interventions during the past 50 years. The military is the staunchest supporter of secularism in Turkey, and it has issued ultimatums to the Islamist government on both domestic developments and foreign policy issues.
The future. The next elections are scheduled for the year 2000, the question remains what will happen if new elections or early elections are held; what happens if this time the Islamists capture a majority of the vote and come to power by itself? This is not out of the question as Refah has established a very strong grassroots organization, which Mr. Sayari called " the most efficient, best organized" political entity in Turkey. The Islamists are catering to the needs of the poor, especially those who have migrated from the countryside into the cities.
This is the first time this well-orchestrated work at the grassroots level has occurred in Turkey. If current trends continue, the electoral strength of the Islamists is likely to increase. Unless the secular parties can overcome their differences and work together, the Islamists will be even more powerful in the years to come.
Jennifer Taylor is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania and an intern at the Middle East Forum.
Related Topics: Turkey and Turks | Sabri Sayari
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