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Turkey: Analysis From Washington -- U.S. Aware Of Pivotal Role Of Outcast State

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 17 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The rebuffs Turkey has suffered in the Middle East and in Europe are likely to put enormous pressure on Ankara to change both its foreign and domestic policies.

Any shift in either could have a significant impact not only on the geopolitics of Turkey's immediate neighbors but also on that of Central Asia, Europe and the United States as well.

As a result, the upcoming visit of Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz to Washington may provide some significant clues to the direction and extent of change in Turkey and in its role in the international community.

Turkey has suffered two serious setbacks in the last two weeks. First of all, it was treated as a virtual outcast at the Teheran summit of Islamic countries because of Turkey's close ties with Israel. Indeed, the Turkish delegation there left early.

And then the Luxembourg summit of the European Union did not invite Turkey to begin accession talks -- something Ankara has long sought and that the U.S. has backed -- even as the EU issued such invitations to a number of former communist countries.

Indeed, the statements of some European leaders -- particularly those of Germany and France -- sent what many Turks took to be a clear message that the EU will never invite Turkey to become a member of the European club regardless of what Ankara does domestically.

Each of these two diplomatic defeats puts very different and contradictory pressures on Turkey both at home and abroad.

Islamic criticism of Turkey for its ties to Israel is certain to lead some of the Islamist parties in Turkey itself to drop support for Jerusalem as the only way to gain support from Turkey's Islamic neighbors.

The Turkish authorities have argued that the link to Israel is critical both for Turkish national interests and for Turkey's aspirations to be accepted as a full member of the West.

But the latest European rejection of Turkey is likely to increase support for the Islamist parties and limit the ability and willingness of the government to maintain its pro-Israel position.

At the same time, the EU decision may lead some in the government, particularly among the military, to conclude that Ankara no longer need worry all that much about Western criticism of its human rights record or crackdown on the Kurds.

And to the extent that they drew this lesson from the Luxembourg meeting, the Turkish government might behave in ways that would make it even less attractive as a NATO partner.

But these twin defeats have far broader implications, and they will be very much in evidence when Yilmaz meets U.S. President Bill Clinton later this week.

The United States has looked to Turkey not only as a key member of the Western alliance but also as a major route for pipelines carrying oil from the Caspian basin and as a major influence on the Turkic peoples of Central Asia.

And Washington has sought Turkish assistance in helping to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan by opening the Turkish-Armenian border to more trade. That might allow the U.S. to solve the conflict and thus open the way for oil to flow westward.

But if Turkey shifts away from the West either toward Islam or toward Moscow whose foreign minister Yevgeniy Primakov has advocated a rapprochement between Turkey and Russia, all of these American hopes for the region could be dashed.

A Turkish-Islamic linkup would transform Turkish domestic policies in ways that would further distance Turkey from the West.

And it would mean that what Turkish influence there is in Central Asia would be of a very different kind than that which the West has hoped Ankara would exercise.

In contrast, a Turkish-Russian linkup could limit both Western influence on the southern Caucasus and Central Asia and the ability of Western firms to export Caspian gas and oil.

None of these developments is inevitable, but the Turkish prime minister will be seeking reassurance that Washington still considers Ankara an important ally of the West and is prepared to support Turkey when others like the Europeans are not.

Just what kind of support Yilmaz will be looking for during his visit is far from clear, and whether any American support can counter these countervailing influences remains far from certain.

But the stakes of any Turkish shift are so large that it is almost certain that the U.S. will try to reaffirm its vision of Turkey as a key player in the West, even when others are unwilling to do so.