What if Turkey had joined the US invasion of Iraq?

Former Chief of General Staff retired Gen. Hilmi Özkök testified last week »»

Former Chief of General Staff retired Gen. Hilmi Özkök testified last week as a witness in the ongoing Ergenekon trial and acknowledged the existence of coup plots during his term in office, but said he did not take any legal action because he was unsure of their authenticity. It was reported in the Turkish press that Zekeriya Öz, the former chief prosecutor of the Ergenekon case, commenting on the role played by Özkök in the period between 2002 and 2006 when he was in charge of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), said: “I believe he is a hero of democracy. … Someone who single-handedly averted a military coup.”

What Öz said about Özkök is certainly true. It definitely was not an easy task for Özkök to assure respect for the democratic process and preserve discipline in the ranks when all the force commanders were in favor of and contemplating a military intervention against the elected government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the 2003-2004 period. There is therefore no doubt that Özkök has served democracy in Turkey. It is frightening even to think of what could have taken place in the country if Özkök had decided to go along with the force commanders, unable to resist the pressure they put on him in various ways.

How did Özkök manage to hinder the coup? This may partly be due to the fact that the authority of the chief commander had been established after the bitter experiences of the TSK in the past, when juntas dared to go against the highest commander. Özkök's ability to avert a coup can perhaps also be partly explained by the fact that he was acutely aware that not only were the vast majority of the people fed up with the political role of the military, but that the vast majority of the officer corps did not approve the idea of yet another coup even if they did not sympathize with the government. Özkök deserves respect also for his declared views in favor of respect for religious beliefs, unusual among Turkey's generals. And one really has to be a champion of wishful thinking like Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), to declare that with Özkök's testimony, the prosecution's charges in the Ergenekon case have “collapsed.” That Kılıçdaroğlu continues to side with those accused of plotting a military coup is yet another indicator of how “new” his CHP is.

I do have respect for Gen. Özkök, but I share neither his views in defense of the provisions of the TSK Internal Service Law, which has been continuously used to legitimize military interventions, nor his regrets for the failure in the Turkish Parliament on March 1, 2003 of the motion to allow American troops to invade Iraq from Turkish territory. In a recent interview he gave he said the following: “If the motion had passed, we would have entered Iraqi territory with 20,000-25,000 troops. … We would have established a buffer zone along the border, especially on the border passages. And we would have stayed there for a long time. … The Kurdish problem is a separate topic, but we would have been in a much more advantageous position against the Kurdistan Workers' Party [PKK] than is the case today.” (Radikal, Aug. 6, 2012)

I have great difficulty in comprehending how such and similar views can be aired after the bitter experiences of the last nearly 10 years. First of all, if the motion had been adopted, that would have been anti-democratic, against the will of the vast majority of the people. Sending 20,000-25,000 troops to Iraq would have led to a strong reaction not only among Kurdish citizens but citizens of nearly all backgrounds. Secondly, these would have been the likely consequences of invading Iraq jointly with the Americans: We would have confronted not only all Kurds but also all Arabs. Our soldiers would have had to fight not only with the PKK, but also with the peshmerga soldiers of Iraqi Kurdistan since Iraqi Kurdish leadership was rightly opposed to Turkey's cooperation in the invasion due to the animosity displayed by Ankara against them. And the close political and economic relationship we have with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) today would be unthinkable.

Just like Americans, our soldiers would be targets of Islamist violence by al-Qaeda and the like. Internally, reforms towards European Union accession, which have immensely helped the modernization of the economy and democratization-civilianization of politics, would not have been possible. Neither economic stability nor growth would have been achieved. Ankara would be bereft of the international prestige and respect it gained by saying “no” to George W. Bush and would have been perceived as a “poodle” of the United States, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's international image being no different than that of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Finally, I am really shocked that some people are still able to separate the PKK from the Kurdish problem and unable to conceive of the fact that the PKK's armed insurgency is a consequence of the denial of Kurdish identity.



Columnist: ŞAHİN ALPAY