Turkish Balancing Act

Onur Oymen, Turkey’s ambassador to NATO, knows that his nation is in a unique position — allied not only to the US and Europe but also to the Islamic world. Now, can Turkey act as a bridge between the two?

Image: AP/Wide World Photos


Even before September 11, Turkey was in a pivotal geopolitical position. As a member of both NATO and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Turkey has been long been cited as a possible bridge between the muslim world and the west.

Recent months have only highlighted the unique nature of Turkey’s dual role.

In September, Turkey strongly condemned the September attacks, and joined other NATO countries in invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty for the first time, saying they viewed the September attacks on the United States as attacks on all of NATO. Just as importantly, Turkey in October joined with the 56 other members of the Islamic Conference to condone — in a limited fashion — the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan.

At that meeting, member states warned that their support would not continue should the US seek to expand its war on terror to other muslim nations. Turkish officials are now reiterating that message — at least as far as it applies to Iraq. Turkey’s Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, is expected to make a case against an Iraqi invasion when he meets with President Bush at the White House this week.

Turkey’s ambassador to NATO, Onur Oymen, discussed his nation’s concerns about action against Iraq and Turkey’s potentially pivotal role in an interview with MotherJones.com.

MotherJones.com: How concerned are you that the United States will take further military action against Iraq?

Onur Oymen: We have not received any indication from the American government that they intend to operate against any other countries. We have no indication that the Americans have decided to attack another country.

MJ: Is that in contrast to what you were told before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan?

OO: In the beginning, they communicated to us the evidence they had on the connection between the Al Qaeda organization and these attacks, and it was obvious to us that the Americans would do everything they could to fight against the Al Qaeda organization and their supporters. And everyone knew where they were. Therefore there was no doubt about the intentions of the Americans. At this moment, we have not received any signals from our American friends about operating in any other country.

MJ: Some have called the U.S.-led war on terrorism a war on Islam. Does this put Turkey in an awkward position?

OO: We say just the opposite. We believe that terrorists have no religion, and no right to identify with religion. The fight against terrorism should not be seen as a fight against Islam, or a fight against religion. But the unfortunate thing is we believe that while talking about terrorism, we should not be putting any adjectives in there, like Islamic terrorist. We are of the opinion that we should not attribute religion to these terrorist organizations. They are not qualified to represent religion.

MJ: That’s Turkey’s position. But it’s not universally shared.

OO: Turkey is going to organize an international conference in February between European Union countries and Islamic countries on this subject, so we will see the position of different countries. I’m confident that we will see the end result is that this fight against terrorism should not be seen as a fight against Islam. We are confident that most of the Islamic countries, as it was expressed at the October emergency meeting of the Islamic Conference in Qatar, condemn this Al Qaeda organization.

MJ: So does Turkey embrace the role of being a bridge of sorts between nations?

OO: The word bridge does not represent the exact situation perhaps. A bridge is a natural element, whereas we are a member of the western community of nations. As such, we may serve as a model for the rest of the Islamic countries, if they choose to follow the model and profit from our experiences as a member of NATO and a member of the western family of organizations. We can certainly provide them all support if they wish to profit from our experience.

MJ: But has this role of being a model become different after September 11?

OO: On the contrary. Everyone understands that the democratic model of Turkey will help to create an environment in this country that will not be suitable for destabilization. The best way to create stability is to have a democratic government. Therefore, our democratic system may serve as a model.

MJ: Speaking of stability, the New York Times reported a year ago that European Union officials are concerned that the Turkish military exerts too much influence on Turkey’s democratic government. It quoted one European diplomat as saying, “In its present military-civilian configuration, Turkey would be unacceptable to the EU. The Turks have to find a way to get the pashas out of politics.” Is that a fair assessment?

OO: It’s unjust and unfair. In our constitution, the main power in the country belongs with the parliament, and the parliament elects the government. The only role the military plays is in a national security council, whose role is only advisory. This organization can make suggestions to the government, but it is up to the government to accept the suggestions or not. Traditionally the Turkish military has played a very important role in our history. Ataturk, the founder of the modern republic, was a general. The tradition of the Turkish military in our history was to be an influence for progress.

MJ: About that national security council? A majority of its members come from the military, yes? That was true as of last year.

OO: That’s the old system. Now we include more civilians than military. It doesn’t matter, because it’s an advisory council. But yes, last year changes were made and there are more civilians on the council than military officials.

MJ: That’s part of the changes Turkey is making to try to be accepted by the European Union. Are you frustrated at the pace of that process?

OO: We were expecting to have this process go faster, because the EU had accepted Turkey as a formal candidate in December 1999. They still have not started enlargement talks with Turkey, even though they have started enlargement talks with all the other candidate countries. We believe we have to start these enlargement talks as soon as possible without unnecessary delays.

MJ: What do you see as “unnecessary” delays?

OO: The delays are that we have not finalized all the necessary steps to start enlargement talks. As far as Turkey is concerned, we have changed a lot of rules, one third of our constitution, and the parliament is working hard to change other laws, and in return we expect the European Union to start enlargement talks pretty soon.

MJ: EU leaders have talked about the need for a rapid reaction military force that would be capable of taking quick and decisive action, but governments have been slow to budget the needed funds. Do you think this force will ever become a reality?

OO: We have pledged one brigade together with sea and air components for the rapid reaction force. This is more than the pledge of 10 EU countries. We believe that the European Union should develop its ability to manage crises, international crises, and as a future member of the European Union, we believe that it is in our advantage to have a stronger union rather than a weaker union.

We have actively participated in all operations in the Balkans. We believe the EU should stay in the region as long as the basic conditions of peace and prosperity to do not prevail. Toward that goal, we are all making some sacrifices. We pay the expense of our troops from the national budget. This is a sacrifice. But we believe it is our duty.

MJ: Are other countries making enough of a budgetary commitment for this force to become a reality?

OO: They say it should be operational by the year 2003. The EU needs new capabilities. They need new technologies. They have to invest in defense technologies. They have to increase their defense budgets. Some of the EU countries realize they have to spend more for defense. There is a new awareness on the need for more capabilities. I am not pessimistic in this area. I am confident that the European Union countries will spend more money. I can’t say that the Europeans are reluctant in improving their militaries; whether their budgets are enough for that, it’s an open question. But on the other hand, they should profit from the existing capabilities of non-EU nations like Turkey. We are the second-strongest military country in NATO after the United States. Therefore, it would be inappropriate if the EU did not profit from the capabilities of some NATO country when they need them. Of course we are not a nuclear power, like the UK and France. But in terms of the troops and capabilities, we are the second-strongest army of NATO.

MJ: What’s your assessment of how the war on terrorism is going so far?

OO: Turkey has expressed very strong commendations for the events of September 11 and we gladly joined in NATO’s decision on Article 5. We provided all possible assistance to our American friends. We shared with our American friends the view that there should be no tolerance for any form of terrorism regardless of their origins, aims and methods. We should combat terrorism as such without any qualification or limitation. This is our understanding.

On this issue, we are happy that the Americans have included on their list of terrorism groups operating against Turkey, Kurdish and other extreme leftist organizations working against us. For example, the PKK and Hezbollah, operating in Turkey. Our prime minister said it was unforgivable that the European Union has not included these organizations on this list. We are of the opinion that such an attitude may give a wrong signal to terrorist organizations and may not help our common battle against terrorism.

I believe that no other nation can better understand the Americans than us. The number of victims of terrorism in Turkey is higher than the number of people who died on September 11. We share fully the sorrow of the American people. We believe these feelings should turn in to a real cooperation all over the world. But if we have attempts to justify some terrorist groups, it will create a big disappointment in Turkey. The victims of terrorism in Turkey were not children of a lesser god. They are equally human beings. The PKK are responsible for the deaths of 5,000 civilians, and 5,000 policemen. An organization guilty of such massacres is not at this time classified by the European Union as terrorists? It’s unbelievable.