Ambition in Ankara

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Connor Mendenhall
columnist

Over the last few weeks, a string of almost unbelievable news has emerged from Iraq. American military commanders have announced that murders, bombings and violent attacks have dropped precipitously. Iraqi officials are speaking optimistically about a peaceful future in Baghdad and beyond. Even undertakers at Iraqi cemeteries are reporting less work burying the bodies of dead civilians.

Although Sunni and Shi'a blocs have yet to make political amends, today's Iraq is far from the state of chaotic civil war it was headed toward after the Samarra mosque bombings of last February, which ignited spates of sectarian violence and factional killings. Yesterday, Britain's top commander in Basra, Major General Graham Brinns, announced that Iraqi forces are now in full control of the southeastern city, citingÿ ""a remarkable and dramatic reduction in the number of attacks"" against British troops. Last week, Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki said that militia violence ""is closed now,"" and a statement released by the U.S. military said ""significant progress"" has been made against Al-Qaeda in Iraq.ÿA fortified American presence, combined with Iraqi weariness of Al-Qaeda's bloody attacks seem to have stabilized some of the biggest trouble spots inside Iraq.

Although the U.S. has had friendly relations with the Kurds since the beginning of the occupation, that relationship is quickly embroiling the U.S. in an even larger geopolitical conflict - one that could affect the balance of power in the region for years to come.


But unfortunately, as violence cools to a simmer in the Sunni and Shi'a regions of Iraq where most have come to expect bad news, conflict is rapidly reaching a boiling point in another region - the Kurdish-dominated north, popularly accepted as the biggest success in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Although the U.S. has had friendly relations with the Kurds since the beginning of the occupation, that relationship is quickly embroiling the U.S. in an even larger geopolitical conflict - one that could affect the balance of power in the region for years to come.

Iran, to Iraq's east, has drawn the scorn of most American hawks. But it's Turkey, to the north, that plays the pivotal role in Iraq's latest conflict. American forces have given Iraq's Kurds unprecedented autonomy - so much that their leader, Marsoud Barsani, has been chastised by diplomats for acting like a head of state. Although most have seen the Kurdish experiment as a success, Turkey sees it as a threat to their sovereignty. Iraqi Kurdistan is a small part of a larger region that stretches across mountainous parts of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran - and the Turks maintain that the Kurdish Worker's Party, or PKK, a Kurdish terrorist group that has fought for Kurdish autonomy since the mid-eighties, is using staging grounds in northern Iraq to launch attacks inside eastern Turkey.

Last month, the Turkish parliament authorized the military to intervene in Iraq and engage the PKK if necessary. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Turkish troops have gathered along the Iraqi border, pursuing PKK militants into Iraq. This week, reports of bombing raids and helicopter attacks just inside Iraqi territory emerged. And all the while, Turkish generals have rattled their sabers, leaving the U.S. scrambling to forestall a disastrous conflict or full-scale invasion. Despite meetings with Turkish leaders and an intelligence-sharing agreement hammered out Wednesday, it could already be too late to prevent conflict - because Turkey is newly aware of its status as an assertive regional power.

The United States' relationship with Turkey has been dramatically changed by our decision to invade Iraq. Though historically, a cozy relationship with the United States has been a cornerstone of Turkish foreign policy since the Truman Doctrine of the Cold War, the chaos sown by our misadventures in Iraq has put Turkey on the fast track to regional hegemony - a geopolitical position more similar to the time when its historical forebear, the Ottoman Empire, wielded influence around the world.

In the run-up to the war, Turkey refused to let the U.S. invade Iraq from Turkish soil - the first signal of their new confidence. Since then, Turkey has provided key supply routes for U.S. troops in Iraq, but their relationship with the U.S. has changed. Embroiled in Iraq, we now need to be allied with Turkey more than Turkey needs to be allied with us.

This shift is popularly reflected, as well. Despite years of congenial relations, this year's Pew Global Attitudes survey found that a mere 9 percent of Turks have a favorable opinion of the United States - a figure that has steadily slipped from a recent high of 30 percent in 2004.

Turkey has the largest, most dynamic economy of any nation in the Middle East - and it has grown by 7.2 percent over the last four years. It is a large Muslim nation with a vibrant democracy, proving that a secular state and the world's largest religion are compatible. And it has a strong regional military presence - in fact, Turkey is the second-largest standing force in NATO after the U.S. The nation embodies the American vision of democracy in the Middle East - an island of stability in a region rife with conflict.

Now, Turkey can add ""rising regional hegemon"" to that list of accomplishments. The newest result of U.S. involvement in Iraq is an ambitious and assertive Turkey. It's time for Americans to get used to it.

Connor Mendenhall is a sophomore majoring in economics and international studies. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.


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