Thursday, October 27, 2005

Last Thursday, while the European Union began its process of assessing Turkey’s compatibility with EU law, the U.N. investigative report on the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri came out, concluding that the Syrians played a high-level role in the bombing.

Turks still doubt whether they will ever be accepted as a EU full member. German Chancellor-elect Angela Merkel said last week that she favors a privileged partnership despite the full-membership talks granted to Turkey on Oct 3. Although Austrian resistance to allowing Turkey to start the membership talks ended happily, their long-term memory — remembering the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683 — was worth a million.

Prior to the war in Iraq, the Arab League warned Turkey that it should not send its troops in alongside U.S. forces to Iraq because the Ottoman Empire once controlled these lands. Arabs generally don’t accept Turks as true Muslims; Turkey is the only secular and democratic state in the region with a Muslim-majority population. Arabs believe Turks gave too much of themselves to become part of West and lost their real identity — in fact, the new Iraqi constitution is not as secular as Turkey’s.

Turkey is neither Western enough to easily be accepted in the EU nor Muslim enough for the Muslim countries to give it a leadership role. Like Israel, Turkey is hardly accepted in its environment.

However, it achieved the unthinkable while its next-door neighbor (Iraq) is at war; for the first time in its history, Turkey has a good relationship with nearly all of its neighbors. But that is a new and hardly predictable development.

The Hariri report has everyone thinking about what will happen next. President Bush called the report “deeply disturbing,” and asked for an immediate U.N. session to impose strict sanctions on Syria if it does not bring to justice those responsible for the Hariri assassination. French President Jacques Chirac, a close friend of Mr. Hariri, completely supports the U.S. attitude toward Syria. Yet Syrian President Bashar Assad told the weekly German newspaper Die Zeit, “We are [one] hundred percent innocent.” Although Mr. Assad told CNN that the involvement of any Syrian would be considered treason and the perpetrator would be punished either domestically or internationally, no one really expects him to turn in his brother and brother-in-law. So, what is next?

When I asked Sen. Carl Levin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Arms Services Committee, whether he thinks military action against Syria is an option, he said, “I don’t think it’s likely at all, and I don’t think it’s in the cards.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is much more definitive when she says that U.S. military action against Iran is “not on the agenda.” But when predicting what may happen with Syria, Mr. Levin said, “[Syrians] could send people over the border into Iraq a few feet to be shot at, and that could serve some Syrian political purpose. So I don’t put much stock in any skirmish along the border in terms of an attack on Syria.”

Both Turkey and Israel would prefer Mr. Assad in power. They don’t prefer the status quo or support Mr. Assad in opposition to the United States; they simply support their own national-security interests. Both the Israelis and the Turks would prefer to deal with a known entity rather than an unknown one to replace Mr. Assad. Yet the so-called suicide of Ghazi Kenaan may be the first sign that Mr. Assad’s regime is collapsing.

When Mr. Assad’s regime goes, it won’t be a fast, clean transition to a democratic regime in Syria. Depending on developments in Iraq, the insurgency could get worse or a civil war could erupt. It is hard to predict that Iran will watch the developments on the sidelines innocently. Then think of what will happen; U.S. troops cannot pull out immediately. With Mr. Bush still adamantly determined to preserve Iraq’s territorial integrity, the troops will most likely position themselves along the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish borders, as well as the Syrian and Iranian ones.

There are not enough coalition forces in Iraq to fight and win this war alone. The United States needs Turkey as an ally now even more than at the beginning of the war. If the United States continues not to understand and address the need to deal with the PKK in Northern Iraq, it will be a major mistake. Turkey, against all the difficulties, is overcoming its history — whether all the EU members like it or not, the negotiations have begun and Arab countries support its foreign policy today. Iraqi Kurds should adapt to the change, because inaction against the PKK threatens the U.S. national security interests.

Tulin Daloglu is the Washington correspondent and columnist for Turkey’s Star TV and newspaper. A former BBC reporter, she writes occasionally for The Washington Times.

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