Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Dostoevsky had it right when he argued “While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him.” In the wake of terrorist attacks, there is always a human tendency to ask: Why here? Why now? As Turks mourn the victims of the two horrendous attacks that shook Istanbul last week, they are also trying to come to terms with what has tragically befallen their country.

Turkey may now sadly become one of the frontline states in the war against terrorism. Since September 11, the stepped-up U.S. security and intelligence measures have diverted the wrath of terrorists to softer targets. Indonesia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey are such targets. But make no mistake: The United States will surely remain number one on the terrorists’ list. In fact, the concurrence of terrorist attacks with President Bush’s visit to the United Kingdom and the choice of British targets sends a strong symbolic message about who the terrorists really consider their enemy. Targeting synagogues in Turkey is part of the same logic in terms of sending a message to Israel.

Yet there is something new that the most recent wave of terrorist attacks is telling us. Starting with Italians in Iraq and continuing with Jewish and British symbols on Turkish soil, the attacks have repeatedly targeted the close allies of the United States. Put simply, the message to these countries seems to be “your cooperation with America will not go unpunished.”

The terrorists’ reasoning is simple. The United Kingdom is America’s staunchest ally in Europe. Turkey, has a similar image in the Islamic world in terms of its pro-American credentials. Yes, Turkish-American relations were strained because of Iraq. But thanks to Turkey’s recent turnaround and offer to send as many as 10,000 Turkish troops to help Americans stabilize the country — an offer that is now shelved only because Iraqis opposed it — U.S.-Turkish relations are back on track.

Given the recent improvement in Turkish-American relations, the attacks came at a very bad time. The terrorists knew perfectly well when to strike. I realized this when I called a relative in Istanbul right after the attacks to check if everyone was all right. After a brief exchange his voice saddened as he pointed out that this is the price Turkey is paying for siding with the United States. I am afraid that the 60 to 70 percent of Turks who are opposed to any kind of Turkish-American cooperation in Iraq may come to the same conclusion.

The same sad logic may also apply to the terrorist attacks against synagogues. Turkey is the only Muslim country in the world that has strong military ties with Israel. The terrorists did target Jews, but ended up killing more Muslims. They may now be tempted to think that with a few more of such attacks they can force Turkish society to rethink its alliance with Israel.

The bottom line is that its excellent relations with the United States and Israel makes Turkey a perfect target for jihadist terrorists. Being the most secular, democratic and pro-Western country in the Islamic world is another misfortune of Turkey that is worthy of punishment in the eyes of Islamist radicals. We can be sure that most Turks will see what happened along these lines.

Yet, the difference will be between those who will make such observations without any major complaints and others who will turn them into arguments in favor of changing Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy orientation. My humble opinion is that those who think that such attacks will alter the pro-Western and secular nature of the Turkish state know very little about the country.

One major reason why the Turkish state would not even consider changing its pro-Western course is because it is used to terrorism and has a high threshold of pain. The Kurdish insurgency in the southeast has cost 30,000 lives in the 1990s, and the Turkish government started to reform its Kurdish policy only after a clear victory against Kurdish guerrillas. Ankara does not like to negotiate from a position of weakness. No change should therefore be expected in Turkish foreign policy at a time when the country is attacked.

On the domestic front, a major reason why the terrorist attacks would only strengthen the Turkish resolve to fight terrorism is because of the political color of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The last thing this moderately pro-Islamic government wants is to appear soft against Islamist terrorism. Such a perception would give the Turkish secular establishment and the Turkish military the excuse they need to jump on the AKP and start a campaign to force it out of power.

Once the dust settles and the shock of terrorism is painfully absorbed, the AKP should make it clear that what the terrorists wanted to achieve will be the opposite of what they will get. This would mean an even stronger partnership between the United State and Turkey; a Turkish republic committed to good relations with both Israel and the Arab world; and most importantly, a unique country that will continue to challenge the clash of civilizations with its democratic, secular,Muslimand pro-Western character.

Omer Taspinar is co-director of the Turkey Program at the Brookings Institution and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, SAIS.

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