Turkey's Secular Model

Wall Street Journal-Europe (op-ed page),

April 24, 1996

© Copyright 1996 by Kenneth R. Timmerman


Washington, DC - Europe's odd man out, Turkey, has come to play a pivotalrole in the Middle East and Central Asia, despite the cold shoulder itcontinues to receive from the European Community. But Turkey's new importance,strongly encouraged by the United States and more recently by Israel, hasnot been without its growing pains. Attacked by many liberals for its militarycampaign against the guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), Turkeyhas reacted by extending back-handed support to Saddam Hussein with theaim of preventing the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish region in northernIraq. This in turn has created a major opportunity for Iran, which by allaccounts today calls the shots in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkey and Iran have increasingly become rivals, not only in the struggleover the future of Iraq but in Central Asia and beyond. For the peoplesof Central Asia, Turkey's secular democracy, with its strong ties to theWest, presents a refreshing alternative to Iran's dour fundamentalism.Turkish-language broadcasting and television stations have attracted awider audience in Central Asia than their Iranian counterparts. With littlepopular response to political Islam in the Central Asian republics, Iranhas largely abandoned its earlier attempts to export its revolutionaryideology and has instead forged more practical ties with the countriesof the region based on economic cooperation and trade. And in one case,Iran has even sided against a Muslim neighbor - Azerbaijan - in favor ofChristian Armenia, in the ongoing dispute between those two countries.(Iran's aversion to the current regime in Azerbaijan is based on severalfactors, not the least of which is Azerbaijan's strong ties to Turkey andits intermittent claims to ethnic Azeri areas in northern Iran).

The fundamental difference in approach between theocratic Iran and secularTurkey is exemplified by the new security relationship Turkey has beenforging with Israel. The two countries signed a landmark military cooperationagreement in February. Last week [April 15], Turkey became the first Muslimnation ever to openly play host to Israeli Air Force jets, which flew toTurkey to engage in a week of joint training exercises. Although both countrieshave emphasized that the Israeli planes will not be armed or carry electronicsurveillance equipment, neighboring Syria and Iran have strongly criticizedthe Turks for their new relationship with Israel, and have accused Israelfor seeking to use Turkey as a spy-base against their countries.

Speaking during a visit to Kuwait as the Air Force training exercisesbegan, a deputy Iranian foreign minister, Murtada Sarmadi, lashed out thatit was "not to the benefit of the Islamic world that one of its memberstates concludes such an agreement with an enemy state."

A less public side to this newfound partnership between Israel and Turkeyhas already had a tremendous impact in both countries: intelligence sharingon international terrorism. The first glimpse of what appears to be a growingintelligence sharing arrangement between the countries was provided onApril 7, when Israeli security officials announced they had arrested aPalestinian who had been recruited by Islamic Jihad while studying medicinein Turkey. The Israelis claimed the student, identified as 24-year oldKhalil Abu Easa, confessed that he had been sent to Iran last August byIslamic Jihad to receive training in weapons and explosives use. They apprehendedAbu Easa as he arrived back in the country at Ben Gurion internationalairport. Officials suggested privately that they had been tipped off toAbu Easa's arrival by the Turks, and that he was headed back to the GazaStrip to orchestrate terrorist attacks against Israel.

Like Israel, Turkey and its secular democracy have been the targetsof so-called "Islamic" terrorists trained in Iran, who have brutallymurdered Turkish intellectuals, politicians, and journalists over the pasteleven years. In March 1994, then Istanbul police chief Necdet Menzir saidin a rare interview that police investigators had "positively linked"four of the assassinations to Iranian intelligence. In addition, Iranianagents were believed to have masterminded the slaying of two Saudi diplomatsposted to Ankara, in October of 1988, and October 1989.

Menzir made available the videotaped confession of a radical TurkishIslamic leader, Mehmet Ali Bilici, who not only acknowledged his involvementin some of those murders, but provided explicit details of the traininghe and other members of his clandestine network had received at a terroristtraining camp near the Iranian holy city of Qom. As police chief Menzirput it, Turkey was "effectively under siege by Iran." Turkey'scombination of democracy and secular rule "has made us the prime targetof the fundamentalists," Menzir said. It had also made Turkey "theonly country that eventually can stop them."

Earlier this year yet another Turkish Islamist hitman, Irfan Cagirici,admitted to having been trained in Iran. Among the accusations now weighingagainst him are the assassination of Iranian dissidents in Istanbul in1992 and the 1990 shooting death of Turkish columnist Cetin Emec, an outspokenproponent of secular rule.

The Cagirici case is important, because he named four Iranian intelligenceofficers posing as diplomats at the Istanbul consulate, as the organizersof the terrorist network to which he belonged. Last month, Turkey quietlydemanded that Iran withdraw the diplomats. When the Iranians refused, Turkeydispatched a senior envoy to Tehran, to lay out the details of the case.Iran retaliated by arresting four Turkish diplomats posted in western Iranon April 9, on accusations of espionage and subversive activities.

Clearly, Turkey's success in maintaining its Islamic credentials withinthe framework of a secular democracy poses a challenge and a threat toIran, which has not hesitated to use terrorism against Turkey. But Iran'sassault on secular Turkey also involves direct military support for Turkey'savowed enemy, the PKK.

Turkey accuses Iran of providing training and military supplies to thePKK, whose guerrillas have been steadily losing ground to Turkey's massivemilitary campaign. Three years ago, southeastern Turkey was virtually undertheir control; now, say U.S. officials, "the PKK no longer has therun of the land." But they do still benefit from Iranian support and,more recently, from safe havens in Iraqi Kurdistan, where Iran has coercedlocal leaders to provide them refuge. Iran also maintains training campsfor the PKK near Qom and at other locations inside Iran.

Turkey's ineptness in dealing with its Kurdish population has largelyfed the Euro-liberals. While Turkey argues, rightly, that it is facinga terrorist challenge, it has reacted by treating large numbers of TurkishKurds who have little sympathy for the PKK as potential enemies. This isa tragic mistake which the PKK's sophisticated public relations machinein Europe has exploited with skill.

So is Turkey's aversion to Iraqi and Iranian Kurdish groups who haveabandoned the PKK's separatist agenda, in favor of winning full civil andpolitical rights within their respective countries.

Turkey suspects that the Iraqi Kurds have forged a secret pact withthe PKK, and has grown impatient with the UN sanctions on Saddam, whichhave taken a substantial toll on the Turkish economy. As a result, Ankarahas actively opposed the emergence of a pro-Western democratic enclavein northern Iraq.

But in the end, it was the Clinton administration's acquiescence toAnkara that finally doomed the effort to build democracy in Iraq. The U.S.does no favor to Turkey by acquiescing to a bad policy. If Washington hadmore forcibly supported the multi-ethnic experiment underway in Iraqi Kurdistan,Ankara would have gone along, Kurdish experts here believe. Instead, thelack of U.S. leadership and Turkey's blundering created a vacuum in northernIraq into which Tehran has leapt. There was nothing inevitable about this,and it is a major U.S. foreign policy failure whose effects have yet tobe felt. Here was a historic opportunity to sow the seeds of democracyin the Middle East, and it was missed. By all accounts, Iran now callsthe shots in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Now the Iraqi Kurds - and other opposition groups as well - are turningto King Hussein as the only remaining alternative The King, whose Hashemitedynasty ruled Iraq in the 1920s, is highly respected by most Iraqis, whobelieve they can gain by some form of federation with Jordan that wouldguarantee Iraq's territorial integrity and the rights of Iraq's large minorities.(The King came to Washington last month to sell the idea of an Iraqi-Jordanianfederation to the Clinton administration, although no news has filteredout on the results).

The Iraqi Kurds believe that the Turkish model of secular democracyhas much to offer, and that Turkey can resolve its difficulties with itsown Kurds. But Turkey needs help, and constructive criticism, to do so- not blind acquiescence, such as it has received from Washington, or theill-intentioned attacks it has received from the PKK propaganda machineand those seeking to prevent Turkey from joining Europe.

Turkey can not only play a constructive role in northern Iraq, but itcan serve as a counterweight and as an alternative to Iran throughout theregion. Indeed, the Turkish "model" has already got Tehran'smullahs worried, since the success of Turkey's democracy stands in starkcontrast to a theocratic dictatorship that has only maintained its holdon power by brutally suppressing all opposition.

Kenneth Timmerman is the Executive Director of the Foundation for Democracyin Iran (FDI). FDI is a private, non-profit corporation registered in theState of Maryland. FDI materials, including the FDI News Update, are availablefree-of-charge via the Internet at http://www.iran.org/.