Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey's relations with the newly independent states of Central Asia and the Caucasus have focused on diplomatic, political, and economic issues. However, with Turkey's participation in the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition, Ankara's approach has taken on a military dimension, as well. As discussion continues over the composition of an international peacekeeping force in post-Taliban Afghanistan, Turkey is looking to play a role -- and boost its standing in Central Asia.
Prague, 11 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Since the 11 September terrorist attacks, Turkey has sought to cement its relationship with the United States and Europe by emphasizing its role in the crisis as a pro-Western regional power. As a Muslim NATO member with extensive experience in special operations and peacekeeping -- most recently in Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Turkey is in a unique position to play a central role in any peacekeeping force in Afghanistan.
As the world community works to assemble an international stabilization force before Afghanistan's interim government assumes power on 22 December, Turkey has indicated it would like to play a role.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who today holds talks with both French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the subject of an Afghan peacekeeping force, has said that Britain has volunteered to command and organize an international force to guard the Afghan capital, Kabul. The UN Security Council plans to authorize the operation in a resolution it hopes to adopt on 14 December.
Kemal Kaya is a Turkish defense analyst with Johns Hopkins University's Central Asia and Caucasus Institute. He says Ankara has already held talks with members of the U.S.-led coalition to discuss its possible participation in the peacekeeping force.
"Turkey is ready to send between 3,000 and 10,000 [soldiers] to Afghanistan, which has already been discussed with the United States and with some [other] Western countries."
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey's relations with Central Asia and the Caucasus have been dominated by economic and cultural concerns. Kaya says he believes Turkey has tried to avoid creating conflict with Russia and Iran, both of which are important trading partners for Turkey.
"Turkey's long-term strategy for the region is to support their sovereignty [of the Central Asian and Caucasus states] and support their independence. Turkey is collaborating with the countries of the region [based] on a mutual understanding, on mutual agreements."
Much of Turkey's interest in the area is centered on the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, which will link Azerbaijan and Tbilisi to Turkey and which will bypass Russia in delivering Caspian oil to Western markets.
The issue has prompted Turkey to show open support for its pipeline partners. After Iranian warships attacked a research vessel belonging to Azerbaijan in August -- and after numerous subsequent violations of Azerbaijani airspace and its sector of the Caspian Sea by Iran -- Ankara affirmed Turkey's readiness to offer all possible assistance to Azerbaijan.
In late August, Turkey's chief of general staff, General Huseyin Kivrikoglu, traveled to Baku to participate in a ceremony for the first class of cadets to graduate from that city's Turkish-run military academy, and Turkish jets participated in an air show above the Azerbaijani capital. Analysts said Kivrikoglu's visit was a clear demonstration of Turkish support for Azerbaijan, and a warning to other countries in the region, notably Iran, about trying to exert pressure on their neighbors by means of military force.
In fact, Turkey maintained bilateral military contacts with the Central Asian and Caucasus countries even before NATO's Partnership for Peace arrangement that provided the multilateral framework for military relations. Turkey provides military assistance to most of the region's countries, especially in areas such as the training of military officers and students.
Following 11 September, Turkey -- which as a NATO member accepts the principle of Article 5, stating that an attack on one alliance member constitutes an attack on all NATO countries -- reiterated its "unconditional support," offering its airspace and military bases for the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan. Despite objections from the country's Islamic opposition politicians, the Turkish parliament in October authorized the government to send troops abroad to assist the U.S. in its campaign.
As Turkey's military role in the region grows, Kaya says Iran and Russia have grown increasingly uncomfortable.
"I think there is some opposition from the Northern Alliance side to Turkish troops in Afghanistan. But I think Iran and Russia [also] do not like to see Turkish troops in Afghanistan. That is the main problem, in my opinion."
Even a minor role for Turkey in an Afghan peacekeeping force will boost Ankara's position in the region. The Turkish government appears more than willing to move its Bosnian peacekeeping experience to the east.