Turkey's anti-Americanism in a state of flux

Joost Lagendijk, Today's Zaman, 14.5.2013.

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This week, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and other Turkish ministers will visit the US. It is obvious that the situation in Syria will be the main talking point. The Turkish government will, again, try to convince their American counterparts that the US should step in more forcefully by supplying the moderate wing of the Syrian armed resistance with weapons and by guaranteeing the establishment of safe corridors or a no-fly zone along the Turkish-Syrian border.

The Obama administration will explain, one more time, that they are deeply concerned about the bloody civil war in Syria, understand Turkey's anxieties but are not able or willing to react positively to Turkey's requests. This is either because they do not trust the Syrian rebels or because creating Assad-free zones in northern Syria would simply be too complicated. Washington has settled on a new diplomatic initiative with Moscow, and at the end of the visit Erdoğan and Davutoğlu will, most probably, reluctantly express their support for this option, one which they, deep down, don't believe in.

What is remarkable in my view, however, is not US President Barack Obama's determination to stay out of the Syrian swamp but the fact that Ankara is pushing so hard to get the Americans in. It shows once again how unpredictable and changeable the expectations on US policy in the Middle East are. Ten years ago, an overwhelming majority of Turks, for good reasons, protested the American invasion of Iraq. Two years ago, the Turkish government, echoing popular criticism, initially spoke out against a combined US and European military intervention to save the Libyan opposition in Benghazi, only to change course later on. Washington is blamed when it intervenes in the region (in Libya) and when it does not (in Syria).

The plea to the US to help Turkey in kicking out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in particular looks conspicuous against the background of continued and strong anti-Americanism in Turkey. The Global Attitudes Project of the Pew Research Center has, over the years, indicated that Turks are among the world champions in anti-Americanism. The latest one, in 2012, showed that 72 percent of Turks rated the US unfavorably, while only 15 percent were positive. Only Pakistan and Jordan were more critical of the Americans.

A lot has been said and written in the last couple of years on this incredible unpopularity of the US in the eyes of so many Turks. While some analysts hint at a deep hatred of American culture and civilization, most observers believe anti-Americanism in Turkey is directly linked to extremely detested US policies in the region, first and foremost the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which caused a strong rise in Turkish disapproval of the US.

In his Today's Zaman column last year, Washington insider Ömer Taşpınar added an interesting dimension by linking anti-Americanism to Turkey's identity problems: the Kurdish question and political Islam. According to Taşpınar, Turks across the board accuse the US of nurturing the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and harboring plans to create an independent Kurdistan. Taşpınar wrote: “Most secular Turks blame America for promoting ‘moderate Islam' in Turkey and using the AKP [Justice and Development Party] to erode Kemalist secularism. Pious Turks are equally angry with the US because of its anti-Muslim policies and support for military coups.”

In a recent article on Arab anti-Americanism in Foreign Affairs magazine, Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, gave a special twist to Taşpınar's argument. According to Lynch, Islamists are in the process of changing their position on the US. He wrote: “For all their cultural and political antipathy to the US, Islamists are now becoming the regime incumbents who benefit from American support. They no longer represent the vanguard of anti-Americanism: that role has fallen, ironically, to leftist and liberal opposition movements who might identify in the abstract with American values but remain marginalized in a US-backed status quo.”

Could Taşpınar and Lynch's observations, combined and translated to the specific situation in Turkey, explain why the AKP, assisted by Washington in its efforts to solve the Kurdish problem, is so keen on US involvement in Syria and the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) is so vehemently opposed?