Turkey's Year of Living Dangerously

By Yaphe, Judith S. | Strategic Forum, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Turkey's Year of Living Dangerously


Yaphe, Judith S., Strategic Forum


Conclusions

* Turkey's generals temporarily resolved what they viewed as the country's most serious political crisis in 1997 by forcing the resignation of the government led by the leader of the Islamist Refah Party.

* The next civilian government, which resigned in late 1998, was too weak to direct policy or to govern the generals. A leader is being sought to put together a new government. New elections, whenever held, are unlikely to resolve the tensions between military and civilian leaders.

* Disputes with Greece over Cyprus and missile deployments, and with Syria over support for anti-Turkish Kurdish terrorists, pose a serious threat to Mediterranean security.

* Turkey is becoming increasingly alienated from Europe due to its virtual civil war against the Kurds of southeastern Turkey and anti-Ankara Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, and a poor human rights record. An unintended consequence has been closer ties with the United States, although some Turkish policies continue to differ from current U.S. policy.

* Turkey's expanding ties to Israel are drawing condemnation from its neighbors in the Arab and Muslim Middle East. The ties, which include military upgrades, arms sales, and intelligence cooperation, raise accusations of hostile encirclement and malevolent intent from Damascus, Tehran, and Cairo.

Background: The Stealth Coup

The intervention by the Turkish military in June 1997, its fourth since 1960, was the first to stop short of a direct takeover of the government. The confrontation with civil authority began in early 1997, when the National Security Council, dominated by the Turkish General Staff, declared reactionism--Islamist activism--to be a greater threat to Turkish security than separatism--the insurrection headed by the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK). The General Staff stepped up its campaign in February 1998 when it announced a series of demands outlining what was permissible and what was banned to protect the security of the state and the legacy of secularism as defined by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish Republic in the 1920s. The restrictions banned some forms of religious education, mosque construction, and the wearing of Islamic clothing (the hijab or headscarf for women and girls, the turban for men). They also provided for monitoring the media and prohibited politicians and government officials from "contradicting the principles of the republic."

Military leaders insisted the government enforce the demands. When Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz tried to distinguish areas appropriate for military scrutiny--national security issues, such as the Kurdish insurgency--from areas of governance appropriate for civilian government oversight--education and dress code policy--the Turkish General Staff warned that "No one, for the sake of his personal interests or ambitions ... can confuse, weaken, or overshadow the Turkish armed forces' determination to fight separatist or fundamentalist activities."

The Turkish General Staff: Preserving the Past

The military is Turkey's oldest, most disciplined, and most respected institution. It enjoys a wide measure of popular support, according to opinion polls and most observers of Turkish politics. Its General Staff views the world as hostile and threatening. While the generals apparently believe they have suppressed Turkey's Kurdish militants, Ankara continues to fight the Kurdish rebels of Northern Iraq. The generals also accuse Greece, Iran, and Syria (which has sheltered PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan) of providing assistance to the PKK.

According to the generals, Turkey's Islamists--Muslims with a political agenda--pose the greatest threat to national security and identity. They make no apparent distinction between Islamists with political agendas, Islamists with more radical leanings, Islamists with no political ambitions, and Muslims desiring more personal piety in their daily lives. …

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