Testing Turkey: a joint American-Israeli Venture

Two major developments in regard to Turkey, within a span of few days, have landed it right into the centre of international focus.

The first news was truly sensational. The democratic government of Turkey led by Justice and Development (AK) Party arrested, in the second half of February, as many as 49 serving and retired military officers for plotting to overthrow the popularly elected government within a year of its coming to power with a massive vote. The year was 2003, coinciding with the US invasion and occupation of neighbouring Iraq.

The AK government, led by two highly popular and charismatic leaders-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul-has hardly been accepted with an open mind by Turkey's powerful and influential military brass. The Turkish army, which intervened directly in the country's political process at four different times between 1960 and 1995, has suspected AK for being a closet-religious party. The army, on its part, has always prided itself on its role as the guardian and conscience-keeper of Kemalism, the creed associated with the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, a.k.a. Ata Turk, father of the Turks.

Ata Turk is credited with secularizing Turkey and weaning the state away from its religious moorings under the Ottoman Caliphate. In its place, he founded his Republic firmly on secular basis, with no room for religion in the statecraft. The army, over the years since the founding of the Republic in 1923 has regarded itself as the bastion of Kemalist secularism and assigned to itself the gratuitous role of watching over the political progress of the country, lest it veered off the Kemalist doctrine. It hanged the popular Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, back in 1960, for deviating from Kemalist philosophy and promoting Islamic ideals.

In its last intervention in politics, the army toppled the government of another popularly elected Prime Minister, Necmeddin Erbakan. The charge against him was almost the same as against Menderes, i.e. he was goading Turkey in the direction of Islam and watering down the sacrosanct (to the military) guidelines of secular rule.

AK Party, from its very inception, has been suspected by the military brass for being a successor to Erbakan's Refah Party. Likewise, Erdogan and Abdullah Gul have been blamed for being disciples of Erbakan and taking their lead from him. The military had managed to slap a three year ban on Erdogan on trumped up charges of reciting a nationalist poem in public when he was the popular mayor of Istanbul. That ban expired in 2003 and immediately afterward Erdogan, the most charismatic leader of Turkey since Ata Turk, was elected prime minister. His AK Party had swept to power in a landslide vote a year earlier, in 2002, and Abdullah Gul, a loyal lieutenant to him, kept the PM's seat hot for a year until Erdogan was free to take up the mantle.

The Turkish military brass was so upset and unnerved on the triumph of AK that when Erdogan, as PM, proposed the name of his colleague Abdullah Gul, then foreign minister, to become the country's president, the army high command openly opposed the move on charge that Gul's wife donned the Islamic Hijab publicly. But Erdogan managed to have his way on the strength of his party's unassailable majority in the Turkish parliament. His own wife also wears the hijab, as also do his two daughters. But Erdogan's daughters had to be sent to US for their university education because no Turkish university allows a female to enroll if she wears a hijab.

Against such a backdrop, it's a measure of Erdogan's popularity and the strength of his government that he has not shied away from arresting so many senior military leaders and making a public statement of it. The group of 37 officers, out of the 49 initially arrested, formally charged with plotting to overthrow the popularly elected government also includes three retired chiefs of the army ( General Dugan), Air Force (General Ibrahim Fartana) and Navy (Admiral Ozdan).

According to the charge sheet against these senior officers of the military, they plotted to start large scale sabotage and acts of terrorism in the country by blowing up a mosque and thus enraging the followers of Erdogan. The plot also envisaged triggering a military confrontation with Greece, by shooting down a Turkish aircraft over the waters close to the Greek maritime limit, blame Greece for it and seize political power in the name of a military emergency necessitated by 'war' with Greece.

What's most noteworthy in the details of the coup plot is the timing of it.

The plot was hatched at about the same time, precisely, when the new government of AK led by Erdogan and in office for less than a year since its massive electoral triumph had refused permission to US to use Turkish land as a corridor to invade Iraq from the north. The Pentagon brass in Washington had reasoned that attacking Iraq from Turkey would be much less costly, in more senses than one and would deal a quick blow to Saddam's regime.

The Turkish government was offered huge sums of money-as much as 30 billion dollars, according to reports at that time-by George W. Bush to let its territory be used as a conduit. But Erdogan refused to become a pawn in the American ploy of invading a country that had nothing to do with the events of 9/11. Erdogan's decision was quickly ratified and given its seal of approval by the Turkish parliament.

That must have been as rattling to the Turkish military brass as much as it was disappointing to George W. Bush and his neo con warmongers.

The Turkish armed forces have a long tradition of loyalty and camaraderie with the Pentagon and US military-industrial complex. Washington too has a long history of dependence on Turkey for keeping a sensitive region, in which it shared a very long frontier with the now-defunct Soviet Union during the currency of the Cold War.

Turkey gained another importance in the eyes of the neo cons that were calling the shots under Bush, especially in the wake of 9/11. A modern secular Muslim state like Turkey was regarded as a model anti-dote against Islamic fundamentalism, especially in the perspective of Bush's open-ended 'war against terror.' No wonder that Washington has been espousing Turkey's candidacy for EU with greater sense of purpose and vigour since the cataclysm of 9/11, because of the fear that if shunned by Europe, Turkey would turn to its natural calling within the Islamic world and religious radicalism would gain the upper hand as a backlash against European prejudices. That its European partners, particularly France and Germany, are still hostile to letting Turkey's candidacy for EU go unchallenged must be a big disappointment to Washington.

But there's also an Israeli factor integral to the tension between Ankara and Washington since that calculated Turkish rebuff to George W. Bush.

In the years when the Turkish military brass, frontally or stealthily, was ruling the roost in the country and dominating its political landscape, Turkey and Israel got quite close to each other in military co-operation. Indeed Washington and Pentagon-in both diplomatic and military spheres-lent its moral support and material inputs to foster such co-operation between the defence establishments of the two countries-both close allies. Turkey became the number one buyer of Israeli defence productions and its American-supplied tanks and aircraft were being regularly serviced in Israel.

Turkey on its part, afforded facilities to the Israeli air force pilots to use its skies for practice and training. It was widely believed, in the 90s when Iraq was being strangulated under history's most binding sanctions and no Iraqi aircraft could take to the air, that Israeli air force pilots regularly flew over the Iraqi air space to familiarize themselves with the terrain in the company of their American mentors and allies.

But the government of AK in Turkey quietly clamped on military co-operation with Israel. More annoying to the Zionists in Israel and US, the new Turkish leadership, buoyed with confidence, also started speaking up on behalf of the Palestinians oppressed under Israel's suffocating grip over their land. Erdogan famously got into a shouting match with Israeli president, Shimon Perez, at the 2009 Davos Summit in Switzerland and openly berated the Israelis for their brutal invasion of Gaza a few months earlier.

The Israelis made a brazen attempt to cut Turkey down to size when, in January, the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister summoned the Turkish Ambassador in Tel Aviv to his office and insulted him, in front of television cameras, by not shaking hands with him and by seating him on a chair lower than those on which he and his minions were sitting.
Erdogan, never to be out-manoeuvred, demanded a public apology from the Israeli government, and quickly received one for the faux pas.

That the government of Erdogan is getting under the skin of the American neo cons, still fairly active and influential under Obama in Washington, and their Zionist allies and fellow-travellers in Israel is the background to the second development of recent days in regard to Turkey.

Smarting at their inability to rein in a popular Turkish government, which is now beyond the faded glory of the Turkish military high command to match in influence and power, the American law-makers in Congress, in Washington, are dusting off a piece of garbage that has been on their files for sometime in the guise of a congressional resolution to declare the alleged 1915 massacre of the Armenians in Turkey as 'genocide.' This provocative piece of legislation has already been passed by the House of Representatives and is now before the Senate.

American Congress is known to being swayed by influential lobbies that grow in Washington like poppies in spring. The most powerful of these lobbies are those working for Israel, and those working for the Armenians-in that order. There is a disproportionate representation of Armenians in Congress and, as every student of international relations would vouch, the influence of the powerful and well-heeled Jewish lobbies, with deep pockets bulging with money for pliant law-makers, is beyond anybody's imagination or wildest guess.

The Israelis and the Americans have both been smarting with humiliation and defeat at the hands of the current democratic government in Ankara. So a nexus of plans calculated to undermine Erdogan and whittle down his government's authority in Turkey isn't something that can be dismissed out-of-hand as mere speculation or conjecture. The Armenians, with an old and corroded axe of their own to grind with the Turks may always be counted upon to join hands in any anti-Turkish government campaign. They also have allies ensconced within the Turkish military establishment, no matter how their prestige and reputation of yesteryears has gone done with the Turkish people.

Obama, for the moment, is keeping silent on the insidious move within Congress to corner Turkey. But he should know the consequences for his administration and the whole future of Washington's relations with Ankara if the zealots in Congress were allowed to embarrass Turkey.

The myopic lawmakers in Congress may think they have a winning card in their hands, via this crude blackmail, to corner the Turkish government to be more accommodating to Israeli wishes and American diktat. They might labour under their fanciful belief that they could twist Turkey's arm to allow the withdrawing American forces to use the shorter route via Turkey for this purpose.

However, they should know that this Turkish government has the unstinted support of the Turkish people. Erdogan has an ace up his sleeve that could be far more decisive than the cards in Congressional hands or those of the lobbies. Turkey could not only refuse the retreating American troops to stay off its territory, as it did in 2003, but also shut down the huge American military base at Incirlik, outside Adana on the Mediterranean. US depends a lot on that base, especially in relation to its military presence in Iraq, and would face a nightmare of logistics and planning if booted out of it. Congress should think twice before provoking Turkey to the point of no-return.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 March 2010 on page no. 26

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