The War on Terror Was Never Turkey’s Fight

For 20 years, Turkey has had an ambiguous relationship with the US war on terror.
Nathaniel Handy, war on terror, Turkey news, Turkey war on terror, 9 11 attacks anniversary, Arab Spring, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey AKP, Turkey NATO membership, US Turkey relations

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

Do you know where you were on August 14, 2001? Perhaps not, since it isn’t a defining day in world history in quite the same way as September 11, 2001, or 9/11, as it’s become known. Yet in the Turkish political landscape, August 14, 2001, can now be seen as something of a watershed moment.

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 catering to a religiously devout and socially conservative constituency in Turkey. All the previous ones had been banned.

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What makes August 14, 2001, so significant is the simple fact that the AKP was never banned. Despite the party’s daring to tread on secularist principles that few others had dared, this time, the country, with strong European Union support, had no appetite for military-backed bans.

Turkey Says No

Just as September 11 didn’t really come out of a clear blue sky for anyone observing the tide of Islamist militancy, so too the success of the AKP in Turkey did not come unannounced. It was a long time in the making, but its assumption of power, so soon after 9/11, has been defining for the country.

By 2003, when George W. Bush’s war on terror was swinging into action in Iraq, the AKP took control of Turkey‘s government. Despite repeated attempts to shutter the party and even a failed 2016 coup, the AKP remains in power. As perhaps the most successful Islamist party in the Middle East, its relationship to both the events of 9/11 and the ensuing war on terror has always been a strained one. The Turkey of the 20th century would have been an unquestioning supporter of US policy. The new Turkey was not.

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I was in Turkey on 9/11 and I 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, yet in retrospect on-the-mark rumors that the US was about to bomb Afghanistan. The mood among ordinary Turks was not one of support.

Visceral anger and anti-American sentiment were clearly palpable. While not outright cheering al-Qaeda, it was obvious that most people wouldn’t take the US side in a fight. This mood was reflected when Washington eventually went to war with Iraq and hoped to use the airbase at Incirlik in southeastern Turkey.

The parliamentary vote that vetoed the use of the base for flights into Iraq was a pivotal one. It was the first strong sign of demonstrable national action in reflection of a national mood. In the post-Cold War world, Turkey’s Islamist government was ready to plow its own furrow.

Who Defines Terrorism?

The years that have followed have seen an ambiguous and often highly contorted relationship with the war on terror. Sometimes, Turkey has used the anti-terrorism concept to its own ends, as have many other US allies. At other times, it has turned a blind eye to activity that surely fell under the banner of terrorism.

The Arab Spring of 2010 offered Islamists across the Middle East their big moment. Secular autocrats, long propped up by the West, tottered. Turkey’s Islamist government was one of the most vocal and active in attempting to ride this wave that they hoped would bring Islamist governments to a swathe 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 overwhelm the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. For a time, Turkey became a beacon of hope and a model for how the rest of the Middle East might evolve.

Turkish flags were being waved by demonstrators in Syria, and President Erdogan became the most popular leader in the region, loved by people far beyond his own nation. Then the Egyptian coup destroyed the Brotherhood, and Russia and Iran stepped in to save Assad’s regime in Syria. The mood soured for Turkey.

In an attempt to rescue something in the Syrian conflict and in response to the collapse of domestic peace talks between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Turkey’s border became a very porous route for jihadists entering into Syria. In time, these jihadists named themselves the Islamic State and declared a caliphate. This audacious move severely upped the stakes on al-Qaeda’s attempts of 2001, with an even more brutal brand of terrorism. Turkey’s ambiguous attitude to these developments was hardly a war on terror.

Yet by this stage, theconcept behind the war on terror had become so nebulous and the AKP’s relations to the US so strained by Washington’s support for the Kurds in Syria, that it was a case of realpolitik all the way. To any accusation of soft-handedness toward terrorists, Turkey pointed to US attitudes vis-à-vis Kurdish militants.

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President Erdogan has, over time, began to carve a space for himself as an anti-Western champion, a leader of some kind of latter-day non-aligned movement, a spokesman for Muslim rights worldwide. This political and cultural position has made Turkey’s place in a liberal, democratic world order highly questionable.

What seems clear in retrospect is that both 9/11 and the subsequent war on terror were never Turkey’s fights. Due to the longstanding Turkish alliance with the US and NATO, these have been constantly recurring themes in Turkish politics. But the events that have been so central to US policymaking for the past two decades have generally been used to advance Ankara’s own strategic goals in light of the assumption of power and entrenched hegemony of the Islamist movement in Turkey’s contemporary politics.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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