Turkey’s Two Faces

‘Turkey has to choose: it is either part of the Western alliance against Islamism or it is with the radicals’

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There is a non-Arab Middle Eastern country that has occupied foreign territory by force for more than three decades — and nobody else recognises that occupation. That same country has denied its national minorities such basic rights as cultural autonomy and has prevented them from using their own languages. A ruthless war has been raging against a self-appointed national liberation movement, which it calls terrorists. Not infrequently, it has launched brutal cross-border raids in pursuit of the said “terrorists”, without bothering to ask its neighbours for permission. And it has blockaded a landlocked neighbour as punishment for a long-standing conflict tinged with the memory of a genocide that the blockading party denies ever happened.

If you thought I was describing Israel you’d be wrong: it’s Turkey.

Turkey occupied Northern Cyprus in 1974, later supporting a separate Turkish-speaking republic there that is recognised by no one except Ankara.

Turkey has also fought the Kurdish PKK in a ruthless war that has seen tens of thousands killed. While fighting the PKK — in Iraq — Turkey has been reluctant to recognise Kurdish autonomy at home. Not only is separatism not indulged but the very notion of a separate Kurdish identity is dismissed. Kurds cannot teach and learn in their own language, while their national identity is routinely suppressed.

Turkey is reluctant (to put it mildly) to confront its past and still won’t accept its genocide against the Armenians.

Now comes Turkey’s harsh criticism of Israel, before and after the Gaza flotilla incident in June. You may notice a tinge of hypocrisy. 

Naturally, Turks of all political stripes will object to at least some of the above. The PKK are terrorists, without the inverted commas — and it is hard to fight terrorism within the constraints of international law and human rights. Israel wouldn’t disagree.

Turkey intervened in Cyprus in 1974 in order to rescue ethnic Turks after a military coup engineered by the Greek military junta. While the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus might be little more than political fiction, one cannot ignore its existence or the needs and wishes of its 250,000 citizens. Still, as far as the EU is concerned, Northern Cyprus is EU territory under Turkish military occupation. 

On the Armenians, Turkey remains understandably opposed to determining history by foreign parliamentary resolutions. But it is a little more open to the idea of an unbiased historical inquiry into the events of 1915, there is room for improvement.

There are, in short, many parallels between Turkish conduct and what Israel stands accused of by Ankara. Turkey does not have cast-iron justification for its behaviour. It has legitimate excuses perhaps, but they do not place it on the moral high ground from which it can lecture others on human rights, justice, peace and international law.

In years gone by, Turkey’s own fight against the PKK meant it avoided lecturing Israel on its approach to terror. The Turkey-Israel strategic alliance was based on similar predicaments and common enemies.

The rise of an Islamist government in Ankara has changed all that. The only reason why Turkey felt it could turn its back on its erstwhile ally and engineer a crisis in the Mediterranean is its political orientation.

Europeans may find it difficult, in the short term, to understand the flotilla incident other than in the romantic terms of a harmless group of peace activists being attacked by ruthless Israeli commandos. The EU may use the events to redouble its largely pointless effort to promote peace in our time in the Middle East.

Beyond the teary-eyed response of the European commentariat, there is a longer- term issue that sooner or later Europe will have to address. Ankara is slowly starting to look and act more like an Islamist government. As its Cold War Atlanticism morphs into a foreign policy adversarial to Western interests, Turkish relations with Russia and Iran point increasingly to irreconcilable differences with Nato.

Turkey used to be the West’s best answer to the rise of radical Islam and the lack of democracy in the Muslim world. Its role in the flotilla incident should be a wake-up call for those still convinced of that. Turkey has joined the radicals and in so doing it has both eroded domestic democracy and harmed Western interests in the region.

Ankara should be made to pay a price. Losing Turkey should not be the goal of Nato. But Turkey must choose — and the West should offer Ankara no discounts.