Arthur I. Cyr: Turkey’s pivotal role in the Mideast
October 11, 2012 7:28PM
Updated: November 13, 2012 6:27AM
On Oct. 10, the confrontation between Syria and Turkey ratcheted up further when a Syrian civilian passenger airplane was forced to land in Ankara, suspected of carrying military supplies.
The Turkish government has ordered civilian aircraft to avoid Syrian airspace. Syrian artillery shelling has led to retaliation in kind. Turkey shelters many refugees from Syria
Last June, a Syrian missile shot down a Turkish F-4 jet fighter. Some expected war. Instead, officials in Ankara expanded air defenses and troops on the border, consulted NATO and declared remedies would be pursued within international law.
Ironically, Syria’s aggressive missile launchers increased the international isolation of their own regime, and leverage of United Nations mediator Kofi Annan. Nonetheless, the efforts of the former secretary-general of the UN ended in frustration.
The destruction of the Turkish plane bolstered the international effort to bring down the Syrian regime. A broad range of leaders from various countries have been explicit in declaring that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must be removed.
The continuing confrontation with Syria likely will expand Turkey’s already expanding influence in Europe and Central Asia, as well as the Mideast and Persian Gulf. Turkish representatives were added to the Geneva summit of permanent UN Security Council members at the end of June.
Turkey is a pivotal nation, Western in practices, but with a Moslem majority. Since the successful revolution in the 1920s led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the government of Turkey has been constitutionally secular. The army has served as watchdog to keep religion at bay.
Since 2002, Turkey has been governed by the Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), with substantial popular support reinforced in elections in 2007 and 2011. Relations with the military have been stressful, but manageable.
Continuing anxiety in Europe about Islamic extremism expanding in the nation so far has not been justified. Terrorist efforts in Turkey have boomeranged. The people remain committed to representative government, an effective counter against al- Qaida and other extremist movements.
Ankara historically has placed priority on good relations with Israel, as well as Arab states. Israel’s military interdiction in 2010 of ships carrying humanitarian relief supplies to the Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip severely damaged, but did not destroy the relationship.
Turkey commands vital sea lanes and trade routes, including the Strait of Bosporus. Last June, Azerbaijan and Turkey signed a $7 billion gas pipeline deal. A summit last month confirmed the alliance.
Ankara-Washington cooperation is strongly rooted. Turkey has been engaged in Afghanistan, including military command responsibilities. During the first Persian Gulf War, U.S. B-52 bombers were deployed on Turkish soil, a risky move for that government. Turkey played a vital Allied role during the Korean War; the UN military cemetery at Pusan contains a notably large number of Turkish graves.
This background is of great importance in this volatile, unstable region where Turkey-U.S. ties have been badly strained. The Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq was bitterly opposed by Ankara. As one consequence, Kurdish terrorists based in Iraq were freed to attack Turkey, leading to retaliatory military strikes across the northern border.
President Obama made a special point of visiting Turkey at the start of his administration. Turkey has emphasized prudence and restraint concerning provocations, and good faith as an ally. Washington should give high priority to strengthening relations with this nation which, along with Israel, is our most vital ally in the region.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., and author of “After the Cold War”