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Turkey’s ambiguous relationship to the war on terror




Republic Day, Izmir, Turkey, 10/29/2016 arda savasciogullari / Shutterstock

Do you know where you were on August 14, 2001? Maybe not, because it is not a defining day in world history in the same way as September 11, 2001 or September 11, as it is called. However, in the Turkish political landscape, August 14, 2001 can now be seen as a turning point.

It was on this day that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was founded. One of its founding members was a man named Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was the latest in a long list of parties destined for a religiously devout and socially conservative constituency in Turkey. All the precedents had been banned.

Context 360: How September 11 and the War on Terror Shaped the World


What makes August 14, 2001 so important is the simple fact that the AKP has never been banned. Despite the party’s daring to walk on secular principles few others had dared to do, this time the country, with strong support from the European Union, had no appetite for military-backed bans.

Turkey says no

Just as September 11th did not really come out of a clear blue sky for anyone watching the tide of Islamist militancy, so the AKP’s success in Turkey did not come out of the blue. It took a long time to prepare, but his takeover, so soon after 9/11, was pivotal for the country.

In 2003, as the war on terror under George W. Bush broke out in Iraq, the AKP took control of the Turkish government. Despite repeated attempts to shut down the party and even a failed coup in 2016, the AKP remains in power. As perhaps the most successful Islamist party in the Middle East, its relationship with the events of September 11 and the war on terror that followed has always been strained. Turkey from the 20e century would have been a staunch supporter of American policy. The new Turkey was not.

I was in Turkey on September 11 and saw the immediate reaction of ordinary people to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In the hours after the towers fell, there were wild, but retrospective rumors that the United States was about to bomb Afghanistan. The mood among ordinary Turks was not supportive.

The visceral anger and anti-American sentiment were clearly palpable. While not outright encouraging al Qaeda, it was obvious that most people would not side with the United States in a fight. That mood was reflected when Washington finally went to war with Iraq and hoped to use Incirlik air base in southeast Turkey.

The parliamentary vote which vetoed the use of the base for flights to Iraq was decisive. It was the first strong sign of demonstrable national action reflecting a national mindset. In the post-Cold War world, the Turkish Islamist government was ready to dig its own furrow.

Who defines terrorism?

The years that followed saw an ambiguous and often very distorted relationship with the war on terror. Sometimes Turkey has used the concept of counterterrorism for its own purposes, as have many other allies of the United States. At other times he has turned a blind eye to activities that surely fell under the banner of terrorism.

The Arab Spring of 2010 provided Islamists across the Middle East with their highlight. The secular autocrats, long supported by the West, faltered. Turkey’s Islamist government has been one of the most vocal and active in trying to ride this wave which they hoped would bring Islamist governments to a large number of countries.

Initially, the signs were good. The Muslim Brotherhood won the first free and fair elections in Egypt. Meanwhile, in neighboring Syria, the long-suppressed Islamist movement threatened to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship. For a while, Turkey has become a beacon of hope and a model for the development of the rest of the Middle East.

Turkish flags were waved by protesters in Syria, and President Erdogan has become the region’s most popular leader, loved by people far beyond his own nation. Then the Egyptian coup destroyed the Muslim Brotherhood, and Russia and Iran stepped in to save the Assad regime in Syria. The atmosphere has deteriorated for Turkey.

In an attempt to save something in the Syrian conflict and in response to the failure of national peace talks between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the Turkish border has become a very porous route for jihadists entering Syria. Over time, these jihadists called themselves the Islamic State and declared a caliphate. This bold move dramatically raised the stakes for the 2001 al-Qaeda attempts, with an even more brutal form of terrorism. Turkey’s ambiguous attitude to these developments was hardly a war on terrorism.

Yet at this point the the concept behind the war on terror had become so nebulous, and the AKP’s relations with the United States so strained by Washington’s support for the Kurds in Syria, that it was a case of realpolitik until at the end. For any accusation of softness towards the terrorists, Turkey underlined the attitude of the United States towards the Kurdish militants.

President Erdogan has, over time, started to carve out a niche for himself as an anti-Western champion, leader of some sort of non-aligned movement of the last days, spokesperson for the rights of Muslims around the world. This political and cultural stance has made Turkey’s place in a liberal and democratic world order highly questionable.

What seems clear with hindsight is that 9/11 and the war on terror that followed were never Turkey’s fights. Due to Turkey’s long-standing alliance with the United States and NATO, these themes are constantly recurring in Turkish politics. But the events that have been so central to shaping US policy over the past two decades have generally been used to advance Ankara’s own strategic goals in light of the seizure of power and entrenched hegemony. of the Islamist movement in contemporary Turkish politics.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observers.




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