Turkey: From Bloody Birth to Power Broker

According to legend, its flag sprang from the reflection of a star and the crescent moon in a pool of native warriors’ blood. The national anthem exults, "Martyrs would gush out were one to squeeze the soil!" Of all the Muslim countries created after World War I, only Turkey succeeded in expelling Western occupiers to achieve a modern statehood that many consider miraculous. Today, its treatment by the U.S. as a backwater pawn has roused the nation to defiance: 86 percent of all Turks now hold a negative view of America.

Ruled by Muslim Turks since 1453, the Ottoman Empire entered a long period of decline during the 19th century. Shrinking in territories and burdened with war debt, it defaulted on its international loans in 1875, drawing France and Britain to Constantinople – present-day Istanbul – to collect repayment from the Ottoman treasury. When the sick man of Europe crumbled during World War I, world leaders carved it into a dozen pieces under the 1920 Treaty of Sevres and subsequently refined the borders under the Sykes-Picot agreement. A mandate system that allowed the newly formed entities varying degrees of independence delineated five states: Britain claimed Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan (now Jordan), while France took Syria and Lebanon.

Because the Entente powers considered the Anatolian Turks incapable of self-rule, they parceled the strategic coastal areas among the victors. The British, the French, and the Italians sent occupation forces to Constantinople, and Greece, staunchly backed by Britain, took over the Aegean port of Smyrna (Izmir). Its goal was to restore Constantinople – the seat of the Greek-speaking Christian empire for a millennium – to its Byzantine glory. And finally, to the east, the Bolsheviks were eager to stamp a communist footprint on this strategic landmass. Strapped for foreign exchange, Russia needed unencumbered transit from the Black Sea through the Dardanelles to export its wheat surplus and newly discovered crude oil.

Against this backdrop, by 1922, the Turks drove out the Greeks (who had advanced into the central plateau with the goal of capturing the newly declared capital of Ankara), expelled the European powers, and reclaimed large territories to the east from Armenia. The Turkish-Greco war still lingers bitterly. Historical records blame the Greeks for a scorched-earth policy as they were driven out of Smyrna, while others depict the Turks burning the Greek and Armenian Christian villages to the ground. Witnesses say that 75 percent of Smyrna was destroyed. Standing on the waterfront of the ancient Mediterranean port, I asked a Turkish friend what happened during the postwar deportation of the remaining Greek and Armenian communities, and he quietly told me, "The boats came and they went."

By 1923, all Western forces had demobilized. Turkey established most of its modern-day borders under the Treaty of Lausanne. Although the U.S. had stayed out of the Turkish wars, Turkey’s success at Lausanne caused the U.S. ambassador to Germany to proclaim, "Christian civilization was crucified … and the Stars and Stripes were trailed in the mire in the interest of a group of oil speculators."


Anyone visiting the capital city of Ankara is struck by the ubiquitous presence of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state. His likeness appears in every visual form imaginable, gracing photographs, paintings, busts, masks, bas-reliefs, and statues. On the main thoroughfare, his face gazes out at the street procession from gigantic Orwellian tapestries unfurled from the tops of buildings. The symbolism is forceful – it serves the citizenry as a permanent reminder of Turkey’s struggle for independence 84 years ago (Oct. 29) and fuses the state and the man into an enduring mythological unity.

Ataturk’s life was a one-man revolution of breathtaking proportions. Officially, he is credited with the establishment of a modern, Western-leaning republic that included a civil code and language reform, universal education, equal inheritance and voting rights for women, and the abolition of the Caliphate, as well as industrial projects, including railway development and state-run manufacturing. Accounts of his personal life are dizzying: war hero, president (Time dubbed him "dictator"), educator, arts patron, father of seven adopted daughters – all of which he managed while drinking himself to death by age 57. But beneath the glowing biography is a darker story of Kemalism. While espousing republican principles and secularism, the doctrine sought to unify Turkey as one culture and one language by forced assimilation. The new republic outlawed mystical and ecstatic orders such as Sufism and denied the Kurds – a minority accused of deviant worship and orgiastic sexual practices – basic expression of culture and language. As early as 1925, uprisings were repressed with bombardment, slaying, and hanging. Beneath the philosophy of rational enlightenment lay brutal repression and a strong dose of militarism.

After World War II

Since the Korean War and following Turkey’s entry into NATO (never mind that it is nowhere near the Atlantic), the U.S. has assumed Turkey would dutifully bow to America’s dictates. But Turkey – boosted by its booming economy and its perception of the U.S. as a clumsy brute at its doorstep – is experiencing a resurgence of nationalism. Its parliamentary rejection in 2003 of the coalition’s plan to stage the Iraq invasion through Turkish territory and its embrace of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – a devout Muslim – have caught the U.S. completely flatfooted. The U.S. government fails to see that its transformative design for the region and Turkey’s desire for border integrity and economic expansion are on a collision course.

On the economic front, Turkey, which has an energy deficit, envisions becoming an energy transit hub. Its southeastern port of Ceyhan is the terminus for one pipeline originating from the Caspian Sea port Baku (BTC) and another from Kirkuk, Iraq. Turkey projects earning several hundred million dollars in transit fees per year from these two pipelines and sees the restive Kurdish region as a threat to its plans. It has announced intentions to secure a long-term supply contract with Kirkuk and strongly opposes Kurdish plans to incorporate the city (once claimed by Turkey after WWI) into the semi-autonomous northern Iraqi region. Similarly, Turkey plans to expand trade with Iran, notwithstanding U.S. disapproval. According to the Turkish press, trade has grown from $2.3 billion to $6.7 billion between 2003 and 2006, and the two countries have signed a preferential trade pact on a series of goods. Iran (along with Russia) supplies Turkey its gas needs, which have been growing in pace with the economy.

On the political side, Ankara and Tehran progressively share a cause that unites them – a "war on terror" against the PKK and its Iranian arm, PJAK. For Turkey, the growing attacks by the PKK against Turkish forces are not just acts of terrorism (the U.S. view), but the embodiment of the separatist movement that wants to chip off its southeastern region. Turkey sees duplicity in America’s role: the U.S. condemns the PKK, but not PJAK – finding the latter useful for provoking Iran. Hence, Turks overwhelmingly support the military crossing the border – not just to crush the rebels but to commit an act of defiance against the superpower.

As it begins to play a role of regional political power broker, Turkey openly bristles at American sermonizing and patronizing, especially since it correctly warned the U.S. how instability would ripple through the whole region following the Iraq invasion. As a country that criminalizes "insults to Turkishness," it views the recent U.S. congressional effort to recognize as genocide the Ottoman Turks’ massacre of Armenians in 1915 to be an irreparable blow to its alliance with the U.S. Fiercely proud of its revolutionary birth and protective of its sovereign borders, the rising crescent will increasingly exert its own will in the region. For the U.S., that means one more miscalculation in a bloody field of failures.