Turkey on the crossroads: The metamorphosis

Posted in Asia | 08-Jul-07 | Author: Ioannis Michaletos

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during the 5th World Chambers Congress in Istanbul, Turkey, Wednesday, July 4, 2007.

A state in the Southeastern European political landscape, that could best described to be in the crossroads, is modern day Turkey. The pre-election period, before the 22nd of July elections (1); is consumed with the power chasm and clash between secularists-Kemalists and the Islamists of the Prime Minister Erdogan. Moreover the perennial Kurdish issue is steadily bringing Turkey into a collision course with the USA and Israeli ambitions for the Middle East, that dictate the creation of an independent Kurdish state, as a counterbalance against Iran, Syria, Shia & Shia Iraqis. In addition the election of Sarkozy in France along with the reluctance of the European Union to expand further East; has brought the political climate in Ankara to a state of alert, since a multitude of great and chronic affairs, are all intermixed at the same momentum.

The current power brokers in Turkey’s establishment are not the politicians but the Army figures. More than 80 years since the shedding of the Ottoman Monarchy in the country and the appearance of Kemal Attaturk, contemporary Turkey is experiencing the pains of change and political evolution. The Turkish Armed forces up-to-date are regarded as the guarantee forces of secularism and integrity of the state. Thus they are able first of all in an ideological level to impose a heavy-handed influence in the political parties, the civil society, the state bureaucracy and most importantly the religious societal forces.

The debate that is energizing Turkey nowadays is to whether allow an Islamic moderate President to be elected as the 11th one incumbent since Kemal Attaturk. From this prestigious office, the Head of the state exerts its powers by placing the judicial branch executives, and the Army’s heads. Therefore it was more than certain that the military would react against any seizure of this Office by Erdogan’s party and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdullah Gul (2).

Since the first coup d’etat of the military in 1960 (3) and the subsequent execution (4) of the then Prime Minister Menderes in 1960, three other power takeovers took place (5) in 1971, 1980 and in 1997, albeit in the latter with a subtle form, since the military didn’t actually seize power by the use of arms, but by simply objecting the stance of the Prime Minister Erbakan (6), the Islamist Administration in the mid-90’s. Actually Turkey is the first nation in NATO in terms of military interference in public life and in an abrupt form; therefore the question lies as to whether a repetition of that behavior is possible in our époque.

There are quite a few obstacles in case the Army decides to exit the barracks and throw itself in the political arena in such a way. First of all the negotiations between the EU and Turkey will typically terminate without a viable re-start and a drift will be created between Brussels and Ankara. It seems unconceivable that any European government will regard Turkey as a candidate for future accession. The USA as well will be extremely irritated, since a military regime in Turkey might result in an ideological catastrophe for the promotion of democracy and parliamentary establishments that Washington wants to promote (7) in countries such as Iraq. The case of Pakistan is all different, because Turkey was always regarded by the States as a model democracy –Despite all the hardships- in the midst of tyrannical or Islamic regimes.

In the domestic political scene, a return of the khaki in power might create the necessary conditions for a civil war, taking into consideration the existence of a formidable popular support base for Erdogan and the all-pervading presence of radical Islamic groups (8) that have multiplied over the past few decades in the country. It is notable to mention that the current administration despite its Islamic roots has managed to bring Turkey closer to Europe and has performed well in the economic field. Thus it has the image of a successful group that was able to govern the country for around five years in a fairly stable mode regardless of the Iraq war in 2003 and the Islamic terrorist threats and attacks in between. It is actually one of the well-respected post WW2 Turkish Administrations and certainly a hard opponent for the Army. Two worlds seem to collide, in a development unique in political terms all over the world.

The Kurdish issue

The main security threat for Turkey is the probability of an independent Kurdish dominated Northern Iraq. In that case Ankara believes it will not be able to contain the demands of its Kurdish minority towards autonomy, perhaps experiencing a strong secession movement, much stronger than it has to deal currently. The USA-Turkish disagreement was the crucial factor that elevated the role of the Kurds as the staunch American allies in the Middle East that actually fought and suffered against the regime of Sadam Hussein. On October 2003 the Kurdish militia denied access to Turkish soldiers that tried to enter Iraq, a clear sign that the ex-guerillas were the ones in control in one of the most oil-rich and strategically important areas of the M. East.

Another factor influencing the Kurdish policy is Israel. The state of Israeli has vested interests in the region due to its antagonism with Iran and Syria and seems to assist Kurds as a bulwark to any Iranian mostly ambitions. BBC on September 2006 revealed the existence of a training operation of a grand scale that included the antiterrorist and security preparation of Kurds by Israeli trainers (9). It cannot be excluded that should a war on Iran erupts the only Israeli allies apart from the Americans would be the war-hardened Kurdish fighters, that are very apt in mountain war and have substantial experience in the border area between Iran-Iraq. For the aforementioned it is needless to say that the USA-Israeli involvement is minimizing Turkish influence and further complicates the international relations of that state.

The ongoing diplomatic negotiations on the “Iranian nuclear affair” (10) are unavoidable related with Kurdistan and the USA-Turkish-Israeli relations. Should a war or a serious crisis erupt, Turkey will have to choose between relinquishing its interests in N. Iraq otherwise getting into opposite terms with its allies unraveling thus one of the greatest crises in the region. The elections in turkey this summer, coupled with the ongoing negotiations with the EU, will present an amount task to any Turkish Administration that will have to balance an European, a Middle Eastern Policy and at the same time ease the tensions on the domestic level between nationalists-secularists and Islamists.

The Turcoman (11) : Turkey’s wild card?

The Turcoman are a Turkish ethnic group residing in Northern Iraq and numbers some 350,000 people. Most of them live in the Kirkouk area and view Turks as their only friendly nation in the area that is dominated by Kurds and Sunni Arabs. From its part Turkey has an opportunity of establishing a role in the new geopolitical environment by playing the "Turcoman card” and use this minority as a Trojan horde, should it wants too either invade or influence the Kurdish area. Moreover Ankara for obvious reasons is against any motion for the disintegration of Iraq that will subsequently lead to an independent Kurdish state. Already though the Kurdish Pesmerga-Paramilitary force- is nominally under the central Baghdad command and quite a few organizations that resemble a modern state have been established. Examples include the first national Kurdish university (12), the recognition of the Kurdish language and actually one can call Northern Iraq as a De Facto ethnic Kurdish state. Only the typical declaration is out of the context yet.

The President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani (13), a Kurd himself stated on September 2006 on his visit to Washington that Turkey, Syria and Iran should stop meddling in Northern Iraq (14) otherwise the Kurds would be forced to proceed with their own plans. This is a significant change from the late 80’s where the three mentioned states systematically persecuted Kurds, whereas now the latter are the only ones having the backup and assistance of the only global superpower! This is a clear case of how fast international relations can change and produce results not imaginable by anyone before.

The metamorphosis stage

Turkey under Kemal Attaturk was a unique political experiment that sought to merge Turkish nationalism, Western type Parliamentary Democracy & procedures, a privileged status for the Armed Forces and a complete breakthrough from the Empire era that dominated Anatolia and Minor Asia since the Ottoman period and going backwards one could mention the historical link between the former and the Byzantine and Roman Empires, even the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the early 3rd Century BC. In a few worlds this region had never experienced a “Western type” of governance and it seems that time has come to shed this influence and construct a different model. A very important but rarely mentioned aspect of the Turkish society is the existence of the Alevi (15) group of Islam. According to Turkologists, some 20% of the Sunni Turks can be considered to follow this sect which places great value in the tolerance and intermixture between different religions and civilizations. It is actually a religious movement well-rooted in the Turkish society that during the Ottoman era represented the outmost religious expression of the upper crust members of the elite and state bureaucracy (I). Along with the various freemason-like religious orders (16) that have gained power during Erdogan’s administration; it is probable to expect a louder voice from them in order to counterbalance the three antithetical forces of contemporary Turkey. The secularists, the Islamists and the Kurds. What actually unites them all is a tolerant expression of Islam that influenced to great extent the Turkey’s forefathers (The Ottomans) and could easily facilitate a dialogue between Turkey and its neighboring nationalities.

Turkish nationalism as expressed by the secularists or the extreme right – wing “Grey Wolves” organization (17), cannot longer perform the role of the ideological cement that would keep the country united. Already an affluent and Westernized elite in the West is energized simply by the prospect of entering the EU and considers its role solemnly in the Western camp, whilst another and far greater in numbers is subject to influence from the East and it is lured by the prospect of a greater role of Islam at its purest form for the state.

The demographics actually favor the latter, since the Westward oriented Turks have acquired the social norms of small nuclear families, whilst the main bulk of the Anatolia population relies on the extended kinship network and the great number of newborns. If one adds the expansion of the Kurdish minority population in the East, it becomes clear that an eventual disintegration along ethnic and social lines cannot be excluded.

The metamorphosis of Turkey had already begun since the administration of Turgut Ozal (18) in the late 80’s when the first religious orders gained a foothold in the political mainstream. Nowadays this progressive evolution of Turkey away from a pseudo-Western political form is reaching a critical point. Regardless of the winner in the July’s election, Turkey will re-discover religion and the importance of the Alevis in order to save its territorial integrity and balance between the dynamic East and the ageing West.


(1) http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/05/03/europe/EU-POL-Turkey-Elections.php

International Herarld Tribune article on the Turkish elections

(2) http://www.abdullahgul.gen.tr/EN/Main.asp

The official biography of Abdullah Gul

(3) http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-44437/Turkey

Britannica Encyclopedia article on the Coup d' Etat in Turkey, in 1960

(4) http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,895700,00.html?promoid=googlep

Time Magazine report on Mendere's execution

(5) http://www.elifsavas.com/coup/index.htm

The Turkish, Elif Savas documentary on military coups

(6) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necmettin_Erbakan

Biographical information on the ex Prime Minister Erbakan

(7) http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/2005-07-29-iraq-money_x.htm

An article by USA Today newspaper, on the promotion tactics by the USA Administration of democratic procedures in Iraq

(8) http://www.biu.ac.il/Besa/meria/journal/1997/issue4/jv1n4a2.html

Paper by Ely Karmon of the MERIA Journal, on the radical Islamist groups in modern day Turkey

(9) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/5364982.stm

Documentary by BBC on Israeli training & involvement in the Kurdish areas

(10) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4290161.stm

Article by the BBC on the Iranian nuclear issue

(11) http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9056846/Oguz

Britannica Encyclopedia article on the Turcoman community

(12) http://www.usalah.org/

The official website of the first Kurdish University: Salahaddin University in Erbil city

(13) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4415459.stm

Report by BBC on Talabani's statements

(14) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyid=6142314

Report by the NPR News Organization around Talabani's and Kurdish initiatives in the region

(15) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alevi

Encyclopedic reference on the Alevi religious community in Turkey

(16) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bektashi

Encyclopedic reference on the Bektashism, the Islamic Sufi order

(17) http://www.fas.org/irp/world/para/grey_wolves.htm

Briefing by the Federation of American Scientists on the Grey Wolves organization

(18) http://lexicorient.com/e.o/ozal_t.htm

Biographical information on Turgut Ozal by the Encyclopedia of the Orient


(I)L’Empire Ottoman, By Prof. Dimitrios Kitsikis, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1st d, 1985.

Also for more insights on the Alevi sect in modern day Turkey: The Alevis in Turkey: The Emergence of a Secular Islamic Tradition, by David Shankland, RoutledgeCurzon, London, 2003.

Ioannis Michaletos is a Southeastern European Editor for WSN and the Coordinator of the Peripheral Athens & S.E.E Office.
Balkan Security Analyst of the RIEAS Institute