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Turkey's Strategic Position at the Crossroads of World Affairs

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank, Dr. William T. Johnsen, Dr. Stephen C. Pelletiere.

December 3, 1993

113 Pages

Brief Synopsis

This report analyzes the implications of Turkey's policies and the reactions of Turkey's neighbors in three discrete chapters. The authors focus their conclusions and options for U.S. policymakers on the effect of Turkish policies in Europe, the Middle East, and the former Soviet republics. The final chapter summarizes their conclusions with respect to the three regions and provides policy options for continuing U.S.-Turkish relations that are so important in the search for peace and stability in these regions.


Turkey sits astride Europe, particularly the Balkans, the Middle East, and the former Soviet empire now known as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). In addition, since 1980 Turkey has compiled an enviable record of economic growth and democratization in politics. For these reasons U.S. policymakers have assumed that Turkey, a steadfast U.S. ally, is especially well-poised to play a role as an anchor in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), as a positive pole of attraction for the Middle East and southern republics of the ex-USSR in Transcaucasia and Central Asia, and as a block against a resurgence of Russian power and/or Iranian fundamentalism.

This analysis of Turkey's policies and current geostrategic or geopolitical role in these regions is contained in three independent chapters that consider the extent to which Turkey can play those roles expected by its leaders and elites and by U.S. policymakers, as well. In his analysis, Lieutenant Colonel William T. Johnsen observes that Turkey's role in Europe has both magnified and declined since the fall of the Soviet empire. On the one hand, its importance for the Middle East, which could become an out-of-area threat to Europe, has visibly grown. On the other, Turkey's application to the European Union (EU) (formerly European Community [EC]) and, by implication, the Western European Union (WEU), has been deflected and delayed, causing a great deal of concern in Turkey as to European suspicion of Turkey. In addition, NATO as a whole and Turkey's role in particular have come under question in the absence of a definable threat and Western Europe's visible disinclination to shoulder security burdens in the Balkans.

Nowhere is that disinclination and Turkish suspicion of European objectives more clear than in the Bosnian war where Turkey continues to see a Muslim state wiped out in Europe while nobody takes action against Serbia. There are fears that entry into Europe through integration with European security organizations, the fundamental priority of Turkish foreign policy, is in danger, and that Turkey runs a risk of being somehow marginalized in European calculations. Accordingly, Turkey will and has come closer to the United States to seek support for and understanding of its ultimate objectives. Turkey's integration into Europe is, Johnsen argues, in our interests, and should be supported by a series of U.S. initiatives in and out of NATO to strengthen its standing in Europe, win support for this integration, and bolster Turkey's self-confidence about its future prospects.

But, on the other hand, it is clear that, because of this disconnection between Europe and Turkey, it would be fallacious to expect that Turkey undertake a leading or even unilateral role in assuring Balkan security or the lead in the Eastern Mediterranean. Greco-Turkish rivalry has grown in the recent past, and while one cannot forecast what the new Papandreou government in Greece will do, the Bosnian war, Cyprus, and other issues have brought this rivalry into the center of regional security agendas and further complicated Turkey's efforts to win support for its European objectives. Much depends on U.S. support for Turkey, but it cannot be said that even then Turkey's problems will be sufficiently reduced for it to satisfy its objectives. But otherwise, there is hardly any prospect for successful Turkish integration into Europe in the near-to-medium term.

Dr. Stephen C. Pelletiere focuses on the complexities that Turkey's own unresolved domestic issues, in particular the Kurdish insurgency in its southeast, pose for Turkey's overall security relationship with its Near Eastern neighbors: Syria, Iran, and Iraq. From Dr. Pelletiere's analysis it is clear Iran and Syria are using the Kurdish issue to coerce Turkey. They fear Ankara's close ties with the United States which, they believe, is a vehicle for spreading the influence of the West into the region. Thus, support for Kurdish rebels has become an instrument of these states' policies, to be turned on and off in order to achieve their aims or to pressure Turkey.

Today, as Turkey assumes a clearer rivalry in the area with Iran, he argues that Iran has stepped up its support for the Kurdish insurgents and is using them to unhinge Turkey at home. At the same time Turkey appears to be playing a dangerously uncertain hand in its own policies towards the insurgents because it is relying almost exclusively on military repression of the movements involved and neglecting the socio-economic and political alternatives many Western observers believe must be employed to resolve the Kurdish issue. Indeed, the army has evidently threatened to impose martial law in the spring of 1994 if the insurgency is not crushed. But as long as this issue remains an increasingly vital and first-order military priority, Turkey will face an enormous task of domestic reconstruction, be at odds with its neighbors over their support for the insurgents, and find itself castigated in the United States and Europe for human rights violations. At the same time, if it continues to resort exclusively to military tactics of counterinsurgency, Turkey may risk the progress in democratization that it has achieved and undermine not only its domestic stability but also its ability to play a leading role in any international venue.

This prospect is particularly troubling because the Kurdish areas of Turkey are the only ones in which U.S. forces are directly engaged through our participation in OPERATION PROVIDE COMFORT. U.S. forces, using this area for that relief operation and for overflights and monitoring of Iraqi compliance with U.N. resolutions, could be drawn into future hostilities over the Kurdish issue. Since there are grounds for believing that Iran and Iraq, as well as possibly Syria, see that U.S. engagement as a potential base for a long-term U.S. military presence that is directly aimed at them, there are real possibilities for an anti-American coalition, either political or even military, employing terrorism, low-intensity conflict operations, and the like that could involve the United States as well as offer serious problems for Turkey.

As numerous analysts have noted, Turkey cannot play a role of a model and commercial entrepot for the new former Soviet republics if it cannot solve its own extensive domestic problems. In his chapter, detailing Turkey's relations with the new states in Central Asia and the Transcaucasus and Russia, Dr. Stephen J. Blank assesses the prospect for Turkey to play this role and finds it substantially overdrawn. Both the United States and Turkey in 1991-92 believed that Turkey ought to take a leading role in the stabilization of the Black Sea, Transcaucasia, and Central Asia, against revived Russian imperialism and, in particular, Iranian-type fundamentalism. Regardless of the fact that these new societies of largely Muslim persuasion are very unlike Iran, it appears that Turkey's domestic problems and the economic crisis of enormous magnitude afflicting those areas precludes Turkey from successfully playing the role hoped for by the United States.

Turkey's main concrete objectives have been to dominate these new states' energy economy and thus enrich itself and tie them into a Turkish-led economic system, and to prevent the return of Russian military pressure to and on its borders. In both objectives it is failing or has demonstratively failed. In the Black Sea, efforts at security collaboration with Ukraine and larger regional coordination through the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Zone (BSECZ) have failed to give Turkey what it wants. In Ukraine, failure to reform has led Ukraine to sell its Black Sea Fleet and nuclear arms to Russia, although it denies doing so, in return for debt relief. In the BSECZ, Greece and Russia are combining to block any Turkish leadership role.

In the Transcaucasus, during 1993 it became clear that Turkey was deterred effectively from acting against Armenian expansion and threats to dismember Azerbaijan that have developed in the course of the long war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkish helplessness to aid even a pro-Ankara government and Russia's ability to unseat that government, and replace it with a pro-Moscow one that now has rejoined the CIS and is accepting long-term Russian bases there denotes the breakdown of Turkey's defense strategy. As a result of Russian overt and covert operations throughout this region, Russian troops will be stationed in all three states, Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, and Russia alone will probably play the role of "peacemaker" in the region's numerous ethnic conflicts. Turkey has also failed to monopolize or gain a commanding role in the energy economy of Transcaucasia. Instead it is locked in a bruising economic rivalry with Russia over transshipment routes and pipelines. The outcome remains undecided, but it cannot end better than in a compromise where Russia gains the most.

Although Turkey has invested heavily in Central Asia, it is still unable to provide what the pro-Moscow rulers of the region most need, military security and control over energy and transportation, and food trade. Central Asian rulers, whatever their private inclinations, have been obliged to rejoin the Russian economic sphere by quite brutal Muscovite policies and have also evinced growing suspicion of Turkey's activities. Moreover, other states, not just Iran, Russia, and Pakistan, are competing for influence in the region, allowing local leaders to pick and choose among them. Turkey's own limitations emerge in this context as the most serious factor inhibiting it from playing the leadership role in Central Asia that was previously expected.

Finally, there are strains growing in the relationship with Washington. U.S. aid is being cut and converted into loans. Turkey's efforts to reverse that trend and get stable guarantees has led to growing resort to mutual blackmail over aid and bases, and a threat to condition aid on solution of the Kurdish problem. That would mean making Turkey's entire international position hostage to its ability to satisfy Washington and/or Europe on this problem at a time when neither one of them appears fully committed to helping Turkey achieve its and their interests. Thus the report concludes with suggestions for improving the relationship and calls for a clear U.S. strategy and concept of U.S. and Turkish interests in the regions of mutual engagement so that the United States can help Ankara overcome its problems.

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