Wednesday, 07 November 2001

TURKEY’S NEW CHALLENGES IN THE CAUCASUS AND CENTRAL ASIA

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By Kemal Kaya (11/7/2001 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: Turkey was among the first countries to recognize their independence of the newly independent states, and over  time, relations intensified in various areas. Especially after awareness of the vast oil and gas reserves in the Caspian basin grew, Turkey, like many other countries, developed interest in these vast energy sources. Apart from strategic political objectives, it has a fast-growing demand for energy consumption domestically and sees additional revenue opportunities in the transportation of these resources to world markets through its soil.

BACKGROUND: Turkey was among the first countries to recognize their independence of the newly independent states, and over  time, relations intensified in various areas. Especially after awareness of the vast oil and gas reserves in the Caspian basin grew, Turkey, like many other countries, developed interest in these vast energy sources. Apart from strategic political objectives, it has a fast-growing demand for energy consumption domestically and sees additional revenue opportunities in the transportation of these resources to world markets through its soil. While Turkey has established a wide spectrum of relations with these newly independent countries, it has tried to avoid any form of conflict with Russia and Iran based on its own important trade relations with both as well as political considerations. However,  Turkish relations with the Caucasus and Central Asia have changed dramatically in recent weeks. There has been a shift from an agenda dominated by economical, cultural and social factors toward a more marked military character, due to two events: first, the assault by Iranian fighters and warships on an Azerbaijani oil research ship in the Caspian in August this year; and secondly, and more importantly, the September 11th terrorist attacks in the United States and in its immediate aftermath, the US-led military operation “Enduring Freedom” against Afghanistan’s Taliban Government and the Al-Qaida terrorist organization.  In fact, Turkey’s bilateral military contacts with countries in the region began well before NATO’s Partnership for Peace arrangement which provided the  multilateral framework for military relations. Within this context, Turkey continues to  provide military assistance to most of the region’s countries, especially in areas such as the training of military officers and students. Each year, large numbers of students are trained in Turkish Military Academies, while others receive Turkish language training. In addition, the Turkish military has taken upon itself the responsibility to establish an efficient military structure in Azerbaijan including the complete training of Azerbaijan’s military personnel. 

IMPLICATIONS: After Iranian warships and fighters attacked an Azerbaijani research vessel, a series of violations of Azerbaijani airspace and Azerbaijan’s sector of the still contentious Caspian Sea took place in August 2001. This significantly heightened tensions in the Caspian. Although there is still no final agreement on  the legal status of the Caspian Sea and seabed, until that time  nobody had tried to flex military muscles to solve this  problem. Turkey, as a supporter of the east-west corridor pipelines, approached the incident in a two-pronged diplomatic and military way to keep stability in the region. General Hüseyin Kivrikoglu, the Turkish Chief of General Staff, paid a visit to Baku and participated in the graduation ceremony of the first batch of cadets from the Turkish-run military academy, and affirmed Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan’s independence and territorial integrity. The air force demonstration jets ‘Turkish Stars’ (a modified version of F-5 aircraft) displayed an air show that brought about half a million cheering Azerbaijanis to the streets of Baku - almost six percent of the country’s total population. This visit was a clear demonstration of Turkish support for Azerbaijan’s government and people, and constituted a lesson to countries trying to exert pressure on their neighbors by means of military force and subversion. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Turkey, like its allies in the west, faced a new set of problems. Although most of the problems are not clearly defined, one thing was very obvious: that the course of actions would lead from diplomatic efforts to the declaration of war on terrorism and terrorist-supporting countries. These attacks were accepted as a direct attack at NATO and thus, for the first time in history, article 5 of the NATO Treaty was invoked. Turkey immediately opened its airspace and bases for military operation against the Taliban and the Al-Qaida network, and shared intelligence reports regarding Afghanistan and terrorist groups with the United States. The Turkish government received approval from the Turkish parliament to send military personnel to Afghanistan for training and liaison purposes. Turkey is already in the process of sending 90 military ‘experts’ into the  Northern Alliance-controlled region as a first group for coordinating ground operations. Furthermore, as a part of this operation, 10 senior Turkish officers are stationed in the Pentagon to coordinate the military actions with US colleagues. Having a long and successful experience in fighting the PKK terrorist organization in its south-eastern region, the Turkish military will provide essential military and peacekeeping efforts during and after the war. Parallel to the military actions in Afghanistan, diplomatic efforts are under way  to  establish a new Afghan government after the war period. Turkey recently hosted a meeting in Istanbul between the exiled king Zahir Shah’s team and Afghan opposition leaders. Turkey, while having some contacts with Northern Alliance powers, has established direct links with Pakistan, a traditional ally and a close friend of Turkey in the region. Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer visited Pakistan and met with President Perviz Musharraf to exchange views and provide political support for the  policy course Pakistan has taken so far.  A great concern for the  Turkish Government is the campaign against countries accused of harboring terrorists, including Iraq. It is very well known that Turkey is dissatisfied with the current situation in Iraq created by the Gulf War. Turkey experienced significant economic losses, social upheaval, PKK camps in the border region, and the establishment of a de facto independent Kurdish entity at its southern border. Turkey clearly communicated its concerns on the Iraq issue to the  US. However, according to reliable sources, Turkey is preparing itself for all types of outcomes that might take place along the campaign against terrorism.

CONCLUSIONS: In the light of recent developments, as a NATO partner and a secular Islamic nation , Turkey’s role as a key player in the Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as in the Western security system in general, will only increase. Turkey’s military presence in the region with western allies will give it a chance to improve and intensify relations with other Central Asian countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. Turkey and the West will have a strong hand to support and enhance the independence of the region’s countries. At the same time, Turkey may have a chance to raise longstanding foreign policy issues close to its heart, such as Cyprus, Iraq, and European Union membership.

AUTHOR BIO: Dr. Kemal Kaya is a visiting researcher at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, The Johns Hopkins University-SAIS. He holds a Ph.D. in Aeronautical Engineering, and has long experience in the Turkish Defense Industry. He is currently the Head of the Technical Division of the Turkish Parliament.

Copyright 2001 The Analyst All rights reserved

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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