Into the Iraq quagmire

On October 9 the Grand National Assembly (GNA), or parliament, voted to commit Turkish troops to Iraq for a period of one year under the command of US generals. Aziz Demir reports

The number of troops to be committed and the area where they will be stationed will be decided later.

This decision reverses the defeat of a similar bill on March 1, when the government’s plans to join the war against Iraq were thwarted - and relations with the USA entered a rough patch as a result.

The speed with which the war was concluded and the alleged low casualty figures (that is, if you only count US and UK fatalities) emboldened those who were in favour of joining the allied forces. They bemoaned the fact that Turkey (read Turkish finance capital) had lost out on the generous American aid that was there for the taking; that Turkey had no chance of a share of the loot in the shape of juicy contracts for the post-war reconstruction of Iraq; and that Turkey had lost a golden opportunity to fulfil its imperialistic aspirations towards Mosul and Kirkuk, and the adjacent oilfields, under the guise of ‘border security’.

The Bush administration did indeed decide to punish Turkey. When the GNA prevented the government fulfilling its promise to the US in March, months of military planning went out of the window. One of the three main assault forces, earmarked for an attack on Baghdad from the north, over the Turkish border, was left stranded on ships already in the eastern Mediterranean and Red Sea while the war was being waged. Consequently the assault from the south was bogged down for a while too.

The Turkish government allowed the US to use its air space for military purposes (without seeking authority from the GNA), but this hardly compensated for the American inability to launch a land invasion from the north. As a result Turkey was kept out of the negotiations on the future of Kurdistan. Before the war a major unit of the Turkish army was poised to strike deep into Iraq. It was the largest force in the area, but it was not allowed to move one inch from its positions on the border. The Americans made it very clear that they would not countenance Turkish army operations in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The US forces did not think twice about detaining the so-called liaison officers of the Turkish special forces operating in the Kirkuk and Mosul area, and they were photographed being interrogated with sacks over their heads. The humiliation of these crack troops caused indignation in the Turkish military and among the jingoistic press, but the politicians, fully aware of their limited options, tried to play down the incident.

The government was adamant that it must join the occupation. After the war, when the US asked for troops to help quell the internal resistance, its initial position was to wait for the UN decision on the formation of an international force. When that hope floundered, they reluctantly agreed to go in with the USA without any UN mandate.

Their reward was an agreement by the US to provide $8.5 billion of credit - on condition that Turkey did not intervene unilaterally in Iraqi Kurdistan, and sent its troops into the area designated for them by the US command. The concession Turkey got in return was a promise from the US forces to impede the freedom of action of the Kurdish guerrillas and allow Turkey to establish a land supply route to its troops that look set to be stationed in an area north west of Baghdad. Inevitably such a land route, passing through many critical cities and junctions, would give Turkey plenty of scope to meddle in the affairs of Kurdistan.

However, since the stability of post-war Iraq is far from clear and both Bush and Blair seem in trouble domestically, some in Turkey started to have second thoughts. Suddenly even the Association of Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen - the main driving force for the campaign to join in the war during the winter - begun to express doubts about sending troops in now without a UN mandate. A leading representative of finance capital in Turkey has openly warned against “marching into the quagmire” without UN backing.

Papering over the cracks

The defeat of the government in the GNA in March provoked yet another crisis in Turkey’s internal politics, causing tremors along the well established fault lines within the state.

Turkish finance capital is unable to make the working class and petty bourgeoisie submit to its interests, which usually dovetail with those of international finance capital and are therefore alien to the ‘national interest’. Furthermore finance capital is more often than not unable to persuade non-monopoly sections of the Turkish bourgeoisie to agree to its own requirements.

These contradictions help explain why we call Turkey the weak link of imperialism. They help explain why democracy can only be temporary in Turkey and crisis is the norm - a situation which tends towards either a revolutionary situation or severe repression by the military.

The government is trying to milk its good fortune to the last drop. It is able to please the military by allowing the armed forces to become embroiled in a foreign venture. It hopes such involvement will give it greater scope in domestic politics - not least the possibility of clearing away the rubble blocking the road to membership of the European Union. However, the cracks are opening wider and wider.

Military dissatisfaction with the state of domestic politics is evident. In early summer rumours circulated in Ankara that young officers were unhappy with the government. Such stories have often been put about in order to serve as a warning shot in order to secure compliance. This time the top army brass did their best to call a halt to the rumours, but their attacks on political islam and dislike of the governing party’s anti-secular agenda continue, as do the military’s ominous threats against the separatists, especially since the Kurds in Iraq now enjoy a freer hand.

Meanwhile, the international agenda of harmonising Turkish legislation in line with the EU acts as another sore point. The government is required to clip the powers of the military high command which operates through the national security council. The resulting draft bill was met by an angry chorus. After a bit of horse-trading, the new bill, which allegedly reduces the influence of the military over state affairs, was voted through.

During debates over the legislation a striking feature of the Turkish state came to light. Apparently secret regulations covering the activities of the secretariat of the national security council have been in force for two decades. This so-called ‘secretariat’ in reality wielded more powers than the prime minister’s office and was assisted by a massive independent bureaucracy. Somebody could be in breach of these regulations, and sentenced by a state security court to years of imprisonment, without actually knowing what he/she had breached!

There followed an alarming meeting of the high military council (HMC). It normally comes together in late summer to decide on the retirement, promotion and disciplining of officers. Generals were dualy promoted and retired in accordance with the established rules and some lower officers were declared to be in breach of military regulations because they were deemed to be following religious orders and were therefore dishonourably discharged.

During the ceremonies following the HMC meeting, retiring commanders laid into the government, together with the religious and anti-secular forces concealed behind it. The new chiefs of staff stressed their absolute adherence to the founding tenets of the republic: ie, Turkey’s indivisible territorial integrity, secular ‘democracy’ and the rights of extra-territorial Turkish minorities, including those living in Cyprus, Iraq, Greece and other Balkan countries. The inevitable conclusion of such speeches is that the military stands opposed to the main strategic policies of Turkish finance capital.

Next came the government’s attempts to overhaul the higher education council (HEC), which was established by the military junta of 1980, to the chagrin of all democrats. The HEC was set up to hold the universities in a vice, curtail academic freedom and independent scientific research, and stamp out student political activism. University rectors appealed to the top brass, pleading for the retention of the sweeping powers  bestowed upon them by the HEC and threatened by government reforms. As a result a further barrage of army criticism was fired against the government and anti-secularist forces.

‘Cheating Kurds’

In the midst of all this conflict, it suddenly became clear that both the government and political stability were under threat. Sections of the state bureaucracy were even moving to undermine the government by using the intricacies of restrictive electoral legislation.

The law governing elections requires political parties to fulfil a series of very onerous requirements. Only then are they allowed to participate in elections. It is necessary, for example, to prove that your party is organised in more than half of the 81 provinces, and in all counties of those provinces. The law goes to such lengths as demanding certified copies of the tenancy agreements or title deeds for party premises.

The main bourgeois parties clear these legal obstacles by hiring ‘professional politicians’ who earn their living by forming party branches in small towns and fulfilling all the required procedures. However, in Kurdistan, which is under permanent emergency rule, such an option is not available. So in order to take part in the elections, it is essential to find ways and means of circumventing the restrictions.

The leaders of Dehap - a Kurdish nationalist party - managed to circumvent them. True, to a certain extent it was a case of the authorities turning a blind eye - Dehap’s participation in the election was likely to counteract the snowballing support enjoyed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

But, having weighed up their options, the authorities decided to move against Dehap. By declaring them “cheating Kurds” they tried to besmirch the whole Kurdish movement. Legal proceedings were initiated against Dehap’s electoral “fraud” with a view to undermining the entire result.

First, a lower criminal court found Dehap leaders guilty of presenting false documents to the high council for elections (HCE). Then the case came before the appeal court, which gave its ruling with uncharacteristic speed. After it approved the lower court’s verdict, this was taken by some as their cue to apply to the high council for a judgement declaring last year’s elections null and void. Some parties called for Dehap’s votes to be discounted and results recalculated - which would have led to a substantially different distribution of seats.

Opposition politicians hoped such an outcome would undermine the government. However, the HCE resolved by a majority vote that the election was final and binding, as they had no powers to overturn results once they had been declared.

A sigh of relief was heard from Turkey’s finance capital - ‘stability’ was maintained.

Against sending troops

The creaking organisations of the Turkish left are moving into action, but the slow and muddled responses reflect the illusions created by the government’s defeat last March.

During the September 1 demonstration to mark World Peace Day two joint action groups, consisting of left organisations, were formed in opposition to Turkish intervention in Iraq - and in opposition to each other. In the end, only one of them managed to stage a demonstration (the other grouping did not take part). To date this disunity still has to be overcome. Furthermore the anti-imperialist posturing of much of the left bears all the hallmarks of nationalism.

Many former Maoists are now fervent champions of Turkish nationalism. One group exposed its true identity when it allowed its youth organisation to organise a joint anti-war demonstration with the notorious Grey Wolves of the fascist party. Meanwhile the leaders of so-called Red Apple Coalition declared themselves ready to take up arms to defend Turkey’s national interest. They are opposed to placing Turkish troops under the command of US forces, not to sending in the troops per se.

The Kurdish nationalists did not put a great effort into mobilising for the September 1 demonstration, even though they formed the largest contingent. Consequently the demonstration remained relatively small and ineffectual. The reason for this unwillingness became apparent the next day when Kadek - that is, the repackaged PKK - declared that it was unilaterally ending the tacit ceasefire which had been in force for a couple of years.

The legal Communist Party (TKP) declared its distance from the other left forces on the basis of its opposition to nationalism and did not join in the demonstrations at all. The party continues to ape the TKP of the 70s in attempting to re-establish the Peace Association and opted instead to organise a couple of small meetings around the issue.

While the Turkish left is divided and unable to prevent the government sending in troops, within Iraq itself even those that supported the US invasion are firmly opposed to the presence of Turkish forces.

The Iraqi Kurdish tribal organisations, Barzani’s DKP and Talabani’s PUK, joined together to support the interim Iraqi government established by the US and have been rewarded with important posts, including the foreign ministry. They strongly object to any presence of Turkish troops, which they see as hampering their efforts to obtain greater autonomy within Iraq or even independence.

The shia Iraqis are also against the Turkish troops. For them the presence of a sunni-dominated army would bolster the position of sunni Arabs. Not to be outdone, the sunni Arabs have come out against the Turkish army too. The presence of their former masters, albeit in a new, secular guise, strengthens the grip of the imperialists and jeopardises Iraqi independence.

And in Turkey the great majority of working people are also against sending troops. It now falls upon the revolutionary left to overcome its divisions in order to defeat this latest adventurist turn by a crisis-ridden government.