The Turk Has No Friend but the Turk

On the day after Americans observed Veteran’s Day, three U.S. Navy sailors were singled out for unwelcome attention in another part of the world. A group of Turkish nationalists staged a demonstration in an Istanbul area frequented by tourists to protest the docking of the USS Ross in Istanbul for four days after a NATO ...


On the day after Americans observed Veteran’s Day, three U.S. Navy sailors were singled out for unwelcome attention in another part of the world. A group of Turkish nationalists staged a demonstration in an Istanbul area frequented by tourists to protest the docking of the USS Ross in Istanbul for four days after a NATO drill in the Black Sea. Members of the Turkish Youth Union (TGB) accosted and manhandled the sailors, even attempting to put cloth hoods over their heads — a reference to a humiliating incident in 2003, when U.S. troops in northern Iraq arrested a group of Turkish soldiers and held them for three days.

In a video released by the group, one TGB member says: "You confirmed that you are members of the U.S. military. We define you as murderers. We want you to leave our land. We are using our right to protest against you!" He and others then try to put a sack on the head of one of the sailors, shouting "Yankee, go home!" According to a statement from the Navy, the three sailors managed to flee the scene unharmed, returning safely to their ship. 12 people were subsequently arrested.

In a statement posted on Twitter, the U.S. embassy in Ankara described the footage of the incident, which was posted on social networks, as "appalling." "While we respect the right to peaceful protest and freedom of expression, we condemn today’s attack in Istanbul," it said. The embassy said it had "no doubt the vast majority of Turks would join us in rejecting an action that so disrespects Turkey’s reputation for hospitality." The whole episode was quite remarkable, considering that the two countries have been close military allies for decades. Turkey joined NATO in 1952, and its 600,000 active troops make it the second-largest army in the alliance — right after the United States.

One of the most frequently invoked Turkish proverbs is probably "the Turk has no friend but the Turk." It’s a saying that strongly reflected the general sentiment in the young Republic of Turkey, which emerged from the ruins of the defeated Ottoman Empire after World War I. France, Great Britain, Italy, and Greece invaded the territory of what is now Turkey after the collapse of the Ottomans; the Turks drove them out in a war of independence led by Kemal Ataturk, who became the founder of the new Turkish state.

The proverb’s relevance today has been confirmed by recent opinion data from the Pew Research Center. According to a survey published earlier this year, Turks dislike Israel the most: 86 percent of Turks said they disliked Israel, followed by Iran with 75 percent. The United States and Russia shared third place, with both scoring a 73 percent disapproval rating. Turks also expressed negative sentiments to a host of international institutions. While 70 percent of Turks said they dislike NATO, 66 percent disapprove of the European Union.

"In fact, it is hard to find any country or organization the Turkish people really like, except, of course, Turkey itself," Pew researchers noted in a written statement. "According to our spring 2012 poll, 78 percent of Turks said they had a favorable view of their country."

Turkish dislike of Israel comes as no surprise. In 2010, Israeli commandos staged a raid on an unarmed, Turkish-owned ship, the Mavi Marmara, that resulted in the death of 10 Turkish activists. Although the International Criminal Court (ICC) recently announced that it will not prosecute Israel for its raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla of which the ship was a part (though the Court noted there was a "reasonable basis" to assume that war crimes may have been committed), President Erdogan and the Turkish public largely share the belief that the unjustified raid constituted grounds for war.

Nor is it hard to imagine why Iran and Russia, both of which strongly support President Assad’s regime in Damascus, are unpopular among Turks, who despise the Syrian president and the violence he has unleashed on his own people. In stark contrast to the United States, however, neither of these countries is Ankara’s strategic partner.

Despite the 60-year alliance between Turkey and the United States, Turks have had dim views of the U.S. for years. Disapproval hit a record high in the aftermath of the Iraq War, with 83 percent of Turks expressing dislike for America. The incident on July 4, 2003, when U.S. forces in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq detained 11 Turkish special operations troops, rankles even today. Turks interpreted the arrest of their soldiers — who were handcuffed, hooded, and generally treated like terrorists until their release after 60 hours in captivity — as a clumsy message from Washington, warning Ankara to stay out of the area. Turkey’s government and public were outraged, believing that the United States had humiliated them by treating some of their most elite soldiers as terrorists. The event sent America’s image in Turkey, already inflamed by the U.S. invasion, into a tailspin. Some Turks even began regarding the United States as Turkey’s biggest security threat.

The TGB is a marginal nationalist group known for its anti-American sentiments, and it would be an overstatement to claim that it represents majority opinion. Still, every American official or service member who visits Turkey is aware of the group. This was not their first incident and almost certainly won’t be their last. What’s significant is that the level of anti-American sentiment in Turkey, though almost always expressed non-violently, often surpasses that in other Muslim countries, including Pakistan and the Palestinian territories. The intensity of Turkish feeling is a bit of a mystery to Americans, who continue to count on their alliance with Ankara.

The reasons for Turkish anti-Americanism lie with U.S. foreign policy, largely with Washington’s support of Israel (which is perceived as unconditional by Ankara). But there is also a more personal reason, and that’s the Kurdish issue. Turks largely believe that the United States supports not only the Iraqi Kurds, but also PKK militants, and that it aims to divide Turkey. Turkish secularists generally charge the U.S. approach to political Islam with empowering the Erdogan government. Turkey is a largely polarized country, but if there is one thing that brings everyone together, it is their love for conspiracy theories about the United States and its ill intentions in the region.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is heading to Turkey on Nov. 21 for talks with Turkish leaders. It may not be realistic to expect too much from a single meeting, but it is in the common interest of both countries to smooth out the current tensions between Washington and Ankara.

Berivan Orucoglu is the Turkey blogger for Transitions and a fellow at the McCain Institute’s Next Generation Leaders Program. Read the rest of her posts here.

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