Thursday May 23, 2024

Turkey and the US

By Dr Murad Ali
October 31, 2019

We are truly living in a bizarre world. When literally almost everyone has access to the latest mode of communication to convey messages and interact with others, US President Trump decides to write a letter to his Turkish counterpart.

Perhaps the whimsical and unpredictable Trump wanted to be remembered in history for sending a letter to Turkey like the one sent by President Johnson 55 years back (in 1964). There are also indications that it was no one else but President Trump himself who tacitly gave Ankara a green light to attack northern Syria after the US pulled back its troops and deserted the Kurdish fighters who had fought side-by-side with the American security forces to defeat fighters belonging to the Islamic State.

When pressure mounted on Trump, the White House released a letter duly signed by President Trump and addressed to President Erdogan of Turkey. The administration presented it as tangible evidence that the American president is neither complacent nor complicit in what was happening in the region.

“Let’s work out a good deal!”, President Trump wrote in his letter of October 9, the day Turkish security forces pounded northern Syria. “You don’t want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy and I will”. He advised President Erdogan not to act rashly as “History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way…It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen. Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”

Expectedly, Turkey was deeply offended by this blunt way of correspondence. Turkish officials disclosed to some media outlets that the letter was an insult to the Turkish nation and it so infuriated President Erdogan that he threw it in the bin. Also, President Erdogan accused President Trump of having broken with “diplomatic and political courtesy”. He told reporters in Istanbul that “We will not forget this lack of respect”.

While the overall situation is now somewhat normal as at last some sanity prevailed and the crisis did not balloon to an unmanageable situation, this letter reminds us of the very (in)famous letter of President Johnson that he sent to Turkish PM Ismet Inonu on June 5, 1964.

A brief background of that letter: Cyprus, which declared independence as a sovereign state on August 16, 1960 after the end of British rule, consisted of two main ethnic groups: Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. On December 21, 1963 intercommunal violence broke out between the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish population. According to some accounts, “the intercommunal violence started on 21 December 1963, after Greek Cypriot policemen shot dead two Turks who refused to be body-searched and were suspected of carrying arms”. Within few hours, Greek Cypriot policemen and other security personnel launched an all-out attack against a number of Turkish Cypriots throughout Cyprus.

Following the killing of dozens of Turkish Cypriots, Turkey was thinking of a military intervention to contain the Greek Cypriots and protect the rights of the Turkish Cypriots. However, on June 5, 1964, in his letter to Turkish PM Inonu, US President Johnson dissuaded Turkey from a military incursion in Cyprus. This open and blunt gesture of no-help-in-crisis seriously strained bilateral ties between the two allies. The letter clearly stated that Turkey’s military intervention could lead to a war between Greece and Turkey, two Nato members. Furthermore, the letter argued that if Turkey’s military campaign led to a direct Soviet involvement on behalf of Cyprus, then Nato had no liability to intervene in the matter on behalf of Turkey.

The Johnson letter was a deep shock to the Turks and created a furore in the country about the reliability of the US as an ally. There were ‘anti-American demonstrations by Turkish students’ in universities and various cities across the country. In his study ‘The Johnson Letter Revisited’, Bolukbasi states that “the impact of the Johnson Letter was so powerful that most Turks considered it a solemn indication that the US controlled everything in Turkey, and that it even directed Turkish foreign policy”. Although Turkey was among the largest recipients of US economic and military aid during these years, there was also a deep sense of patriotism and nationalism that Turkey must not compromise on its sovereignty and core national interests.

It is worth remembering here that like Pakistan, Turkey was also a key US ally and a member of the US-carved defence alliance: Cento (Central Treaty Organization, originally known as the Baghdad Pact but renamed in 1959 after Iraq pulled out of the pact).

Another strange parallel is that like Pakistan, Turkey also had to face US sanctions and an arms embargo when it carried out military action in Cyprus. The US enforced an embargo on Pakistan during the 1965 Pakistan-India war despite the fact that Pakistan was the only South Asian country with membership in two US-sponsored military alliances: Seato and Cento.

The same happened to Turkey in 1975. Following 11 years of instability and communal violence in Cyprus and particularly the July 1974 coup, “engineered by the Greek junta” and executed by Greek Cypriot nationalists and mainland Greek troops, Turkish security forces entered the island in 1974. The Turkish military intervention in Cyprus resulted in the partition of the island between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. These developments worsened bilateral ties between the US and Turkey when the US imposed an arms embargo on Turkey which remained in effect from 1975 to 1978.

The US administration justified the ban on the grounds that Turkey had used US-supplied weapons against Cyprus, violating the US Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which proscribes the use of American weapons for aggressive purposes. Although Israel has frequently used US-supplied arms against Palestinians and in Lebanon, in the gruesome Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982 by the Phalange militia, under the eyes of their Israeli allies the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), the US has never imposed such an embargo on it.

In response to the US arms embargo, in 1975 the Turkish government placed all US military installations and air bases on Turkish soil under its own control. How Pakistan responded or reacted over the US sanctions in 1965 is known history.

The writer holds a PhD from Massey University, New Zealand. He teaches at the University of Malakand.