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Why Turkey Matters


From the November/December 2007 Trumpet Print Edition »

Turkey’s increasing significance is arresting the world’s attention. Here’s why it should arrest yours. By Joel Hilliker

Suddenly, Turkey is all over the headlines.

Most Americans would tend to underestimate its significance. But why, in the midst of October, did an outburst of public discussion center on whether to call the World War i-era Turkish killing of Armenians a “genocide”? Why did Congress raise the issue, and why did the White House scramble to squelch it?

The crux of debate rested on the potential for losing Turkey’s help in the war in Iraq. Its role as vital supply route for U.S. troops took center stage. In fact, some analysts suggested that the Democrat-led Congress pushed the “genocide” issue to alienate Turkey in an underhanded effort to spite the president and torpedo the Iraq war.

Is it really possible that this nation—about which few Americans concern themselves—could make the difference between victory and defeat in Iraq?

Who knew Turkey was so important?

At the Crossroads

The instant clamor surrounding that single issue is a meaningful symbol of just how much this historically pivotal nation is rising again to prominence in modern geopolitics.

Turkey sits right at the crossroads of a developing clash of civilizations. Its population is almost wholly Muslim, but its constitution is staunchly secular. It is a democracy and a constitutional republic, yet since 1960 its military leaders have overthrown four duly elected governments for being too religious. It is anchored to the Middle East as a member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, yet welded to the West within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. On top of that, a pillar in its foreign policy for a generation has been its bid for membership in the European Union.

The U.S. is not alone in trying to come to grips with this complex geopolitical puzzle. Nations across the globe are coming to see that, for all its contradictions, and after decades of quiet since the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of World War i, Turkey is shaping up to be an extremely significant global player. As the world increasingly fractures into regional blocs—the United States, the Middle East, Europe, Asia—Turkey remains a distinct entity whose value to all of these powers is rapidly rising.

This exceptional position, which we can witness developing right before us, appears to be setting Turkey up perfectly for the unique role it plays in end-time biblical prophecy.

Why the World Is Taking Note

Turkey is attracting interest for a number of reasons.

First, its economy is on fire—it is one of the fastest-growing on Earth. Since 2002, under the leadership of the Justice and Development Party (akp), the economy has transformed. It is now the largest Muslim economy, and the largest in the region. Turkey is a member of the G-20, a gathering of the world’s 20 largest economies. It is playing its cards wisely, reducing restrictions on trade with Muslim states while simultaneously cultivating relationships with European and other nations.

As Dr. George Friedman put it, “The ability of Greece, Armenia, Syria, Iraq and Iran to remain hostile to Turkey decreases as the Turkish economy grows. Ideology and history are very real things, but so is the economic power of a dynamic economy” (Stratfor, July 31).

Of course, a large Turkish economy means a large Turkish military. Already it is nato’s second-largest armed force after the U.S., with over 1 million uniformed personnel. This reality has several ramifications regarding the balance of power in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Second, Turkey is comfortably stepping into a ready-made role as a vital energy hub linking Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia.

This is one of the most geographically strategic countries in the world—a literal bridge between continents. On its west, Turkey borders Greece and Bulgaria—EU nations; on its south, Syria, Iraq and Iran—Middle Eastern Muslim states; and on its east, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan—former Soviet republics. It connects to the Mediterranean, Black and Aegean seas, and encompasses the vital Bosporus and Dardanelles sea gates, linking Central Asia to the Mediterranean. In a world increasingly driven by energy politics, its unique location translates into valuable energy transit routes for more and more nations.

With Russia aggressively taking over global oil and natural gas markets, uncomfortable customers, particularly those in Europe, are actively seeking energy from other sources. Turkey is in the right place at the right time, with major oil pipelines being built across its soil, circumventing Russian territory altogether. It is proving itself a worthy middleman for energy from not only former Soviet republics Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, but also Iraq and Iran. In addition, Turkey, in conjunction with foreign investors and companies, is building new oil refineries that will increase its worth even more. Analysts say the nation’s refining capacity should double within only a few years.

This reality seems tailor-made to suit Ankara’s foreign-policy interests, because the entity hungriest for non-Russian energy happens to be the very one Turkey has been working so hard to pretty itself up for: Europe.

Naturally, the whole situation also deeply concerns Russia, whose monopolistic energy tendencies are undercut by Turkey’s activities. On top of that, Russia is robustly fighting a strong Islamist incursion on its southwestern border, particularly against Muslim separatists in Chechnya—and it possesses proof that Turkey has financially supported and trained Chechen terrorists in their struggle for independence.

A third reason for Turkey’s growing relevance—as became abundantly evident in October—is its role in the unfolding drama surrounding the future of Iraq.

A Strained Alliance

The Iraq war has created bad blood between the U.S. and Turkey. The Turks have long struggled with a restive Kurdish population in their southeast region, driven by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (pkk). This terrorist group seeks to carve an independent Kurdish state out of territory in southeast Turkey, as well as parts of Syria, Iraq and Iran. Whatever differences these four nations have, they are united in their determination to stop Kurdistan from materializing.

The fact that the U.S. empowered the Iraqi Kurds by eliminating Saddam Hussein rocked the American-Turkish alliance. In 2003, Ankara simply refused to let the U.S. invade Iraq from Turkish territory—a major snub from a nato ally. Add to that a turning of the historic tables: With a growing economy and military, Turkey simply isn’t as dependent on the U.S. as it once was. In fact, since the U.S. has gotten entrenched in Iraq, it has come to depend deeply on Turkey: 70 percent of its Iraq-bound air cargo and 33 percent of its fuel passes through Turkey, and it heavily uses the Incirlik Air Base for refueling operations and cargo flights to both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The upshot is, Turkey feels very comfortable with ignoring Washington’s wishes and doing what it feels it must to protect its own interests.

Recent events highlight just how monumental this change is.

In an October attack, pkk rebels killed 13 Turkish soldiers; the people of Turkey angrily demanded retaliation. The government bombed and shelled northern Iraq, and then the parliament approved plans to launch a ground invasion.

All this fuss puts the U.S. in an awkward spot. The Kurdish north has been the most stable part of Iraq since Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003, and Washington would rather nothing upset that. Supporting Turkey could well alienate the Kurdish allies the U.S. has built there, and the whole situation may further destabilize Iraq—something U.S. and Iraqi leaders are desperate to avoid.

But the amazing thing is, the Turks just don’t care. “We don’t need anyone’s advice on northern Iraq and the operation to be carried out there,” Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said. Reuters reported that the crowd in Istanbul cheered this pronouncement, and cheered again when he said that the U.S. “came tens of thousands of kilometers and attacked Iraq without asking anyone’s permission.”

Amid these developments, the timing couldn’t have been worse for the U.S. congressional committee’s “genocide” resolution. Turkey bristled at the news, recalling its ambassador in the U.S. and threatening to close its doors to American troops. Anti-American demonstrations spilled into the streets, according to the Jerusalem Post. “All prospects look bad … and relations with the U.S. have already gone down the drain,” Turkish foreign policy expert Semih Idiz said.

The White House responded by going into full damage control mode: It issued public statements condemning the measure, it essentially apologized to Turkey’s leaders, and it finally convinced Congress to kill the resolution. The fervor of the response revealed just how desperately the U.S. needs Turkey’s cooperation in order to resolve the crisis in Iraq in a manner suited to its own national interests. But the U.S. isn’t the only country in that situation. So is the other primary external player in this theater: Iran.

An Islamic Shift

In practical terms, as Washington contemplates reducing its presence in Iraq, its primary concern is to try to prevent Iran from simply taking over—not just Iraq but virtually the entire Middle East. In Turkey, it sees the closest thing it has to a regional counterbalance to Iran.

Unfortunately, it so happens that all this friction between Ankara and Washington has strengthened Turkey’s historically wary relationship with Iran.

Something else that could strengthen this relationship—and markedly change the balance within several of the precarious situations in which Turkey plays a role—occurred on August 28, when Turkish parliamentarians elected a former Islamist as president.

The new president, Abdullah Gül, is a bit of a puzzle. He was a cabinet member in one of the Islamic governments the military ousted in the 1990s—yet he has been a leading supporter of his nation’s EU membership bid. His devotion to Europe certainly placates the nation’s generals and military commanders, but his religion still chafes against their fierce loyalty to the secularist ideals institutionalized in 1923 by the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. His political party, the akp, has an Islamist pedigree and maintains pan-Islamic ties throughout the region. Turkey’s secularist military suspects that it retains a masked Islamist agenda.

Stratfor noted that, because the president chooses judges and hence dominates the judiciary, having Gül as president means that “for the first time since the founding of the Turkish republic more than 80 years ago, a political force rooted in Islamism essentially controls all of the key civilian institutions of the state” (August 29, emphasis mine). Stratfor expects the akp to seek to use its new power as a beachhead to move the nation away from secularism and toward the freer expression of religion in public life; it anticipates drama ahead as the akp is forced “to balance pan-Islamic issues with Turkish nationalist objectives” (ibid.). Though this analysis probably overstates how much Turkey will change under President Gül, we would not be surprised to see the nation proceed with a more sympathetic economic and foreign policy toward the leading Arab and Muslim energy producers in the region.

Any shift within Turkey away from secularism and toward Islam could help alter the balance of power in the Middle East—most notably, in favor of Iran.

A Nightmare for Israel?

In 1996, Turkey inked a mutual defense deal with Israel that, for years, analysts credited with contributing to the relative stability of the region. The Islamic Affairs Analyst went so far as to say that Israel’s enemies respected Turkey enough that the Jewish state’s national survival was all but assured as long as the deal stood.

Events in the past couple of years, however, have shown that whatever deterrent effect Turkey once had has already weakened to some degree: Iran and Syria have unleashed forces in Lebanon and within Israel against the Jewish state with few qualms. But, given Turkey’s new Islamic leadership, this trend could get worse.

Any further weakening of Turkey’s restraining influence on Iranian power is a nightmare for Israel, which Iran has committed itself to eliminating.

Tensions between Washington and Ankara over Iraq have already opened a door for the Islamic Republic. Suspicion between Turkey and Iran has thawed in recent years, and ties have improved. The fact that Turkey is now ruled by a Muslim—albeit Sunni—rather than a secularist certainly doesn’t hurt.

The more cooperative these two nations are, the more latitude the Turks are likely to give Iran without feeling directly threatened as Tehran pursues its regional ambitions.

Watch for that cooperation to increase—and for Iran to become even more brazen.

Unrequited Love

What does Turkey get out of the deal? If nothing else, it gets Iranian energy—energy it can pass on to Europe.

The two countries have just completed an oil pipeline that will pump 500,000 barrels of Iranian oil a day into Turkey. And the Turkish Petroleum Corp. has announced plans to invest $3.5 billion in Iran’s South Pars natural gas field. This project would include building the means to transport Iranian gas through Turkey to Europe. The U.S., though flatly opposed to the deal, can do little to stop it.

Ultimately, even under an Islamic president, it appears Europe is who Turkey most wants to please. Ankara simply sees Iran as a workable partner in increasingly procuring the energy that Europe desperately wants. Radio Free Europe reports that for decades to come, Iranian gas may be Europe’s most viable source of non-Russian gas. Nothing Turkey could do would strengthen its value to the EU more than its growth as an energy hub.

Even the slippage in Turkey’s relationship with the United States is driving it more toward Europe, according to Semih Idiz. Speaking of the Iraq crisis, Idiz said, “Having its relations with the U.S. ‘electrified,’ Ankara will be more and more eager to grab hold of the EU anchor” (Turkish Weekly, September 1).

President Gül has strongly emphasized his intent to forge ahead with plans to join the European Union, plans that will require further economic reforms and constitutional amendments. His ally, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, also from the Justice and Development Party, has outlined a five-year program to increase individual freedoms, further boost the economy, and, above all, strengthen the nation’s case for EU membership.

Biblical prophecy indicates, however, that although Turkey will remain committed to its romance with Europe, all these efforts are doomed to fail—just as they always have.

Turkey’s Image Problem

From the time Atatürk himself famously admonished his countrymen to “turn toward Europe,” Turkey has labored, to varying degrees, to cast itself in the image of the West. For the past decade, it has worked overtime.

Still, for every obstacle Turkey hurdles, the EU throws up another. Since 1987, when Turkey applied for full membership, 15 other states have cut to the front of the line and been accepted: Austria, Finland, Sweden, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania. The Turks have watched the Union swell from 12 states to 27, while they remain peering through the window from the outside.

Now, the prospect of becoming an energy bridge to the Continent has inflamed Turkey’s hopes of finally convincing the EU to return the love.

Those hopes are wasted. Try as it may to overcome it, Turkey clearly has an image problem among Europe’s decision makers—and even its voters. Just this year, France elected a president—Nicolas Sarkozy—who campaigned on opposition to Turkish EU membership.

Why? Why is Europe so opposed to considering Turks European citizens? Only one major issue separates Turkey from all the other nations being granted their pass into the Union: religion.

The fundamentally Roman Catholic continent simply has no intention of incorporating 70 million Muslims in one swoop. And Turkey—with its Ottoman history, which at one time threatened Catholicism’s very existence—has particularly negative associations in European minds. As Bernard Lewis expresses it, “[T]here is still a reserve of mistrust, and even at times of hostility [toward Turks], with roots deep in the European Christian past” (From Babel to Dragomans).

The election of an openly Islamic president has only solidified Europe’s unspoken yet inflexible resistance to embracing Turkey. Still, given this nation’s growing strategic value to Europe, watch for the EU to continue to dangle carrots and incentives to keep the Turks onside. And as Europe grows in power in the time ahead, Ankara’s devotion to the European cause will only grow along with it.

Thus, Turkey is destined to remain suspended between worlds—always searching, ever more desperate to please.

A Shocking Betrayal

These trends become far more significant in light of the Bible’s description of Turkey’s place in end-time events. It is only with the revelation of God’s Word that we can understand why Turkey truly matters.

The biblical prophecies regarding events in the Middle East are clear: A Muslim-Jewish war is about to erupt—initiated by Islamic forces clearly unrestrained by Turkey or anything else. That conflagration will trigger a series of events leading to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

When the Muslims move to sack Jerusalem, it will provoke a united European bloc of nations to intervene. This bloc will set up armies around Jerusalem—appearing like a “peacekeeping force”—but quickly transforming into a deadly war machine (Luke 21:20). It won’t be just Arabs or Muslims that suffer at their hands; this European power will turn its full force on the nations of Israel—including America and Britain. This horrifying double-cross is discussed in Ezekiel 23. Many in the Jerusalem area will be trapped!

The Prophet Obadiah recorded an extraordinary prophecy about “Edom,” whose modern descendants are the Turks. (Request a free copy of the Trumpet’s December 1997 article “Turkey: An Act of Revenge!” for a detailed explanation of this prophecy.) It shows how Turkey, possessing the escape route via land—the Cilician Gates mountain pass—will actually betray those Israelis, Americans and British who are trying to escape, delivering them into the hands of their conquerors. This is one last act, true to present form, of Turkey attempting to curry favor with Europe!

The description of these events reveals several things that illuminate the meaning of present-day headlines.

One, the fact that those escapees look to Turkey strongly indicates that Turkey’s alliances with the U.S. and with Israel will remain, at least in name.

Two, the betrayal may mean we can expect still more friction to develop within these alliances, like that which has arisen over the “genocide” question and the Kurd condition in Iraq. Though the U.S. still enjoys the support of Turkey’s secularist military, anti-Americanism is rampant and growing within Turkish media and among the Turkish people—a fact that the U.S., as desperate as it is to retain Turkey’s help, is willing to overlook.

Three, for Turkey, relations with Europe will continue to trump all other foreign-policy considerations.

Thus, based on biblical prophecy, in the end the Trumpet expects recent events that have thrust Turkey into the headlines only to cement the unique position this nation already occupies in modern geopolitics. They may tax Turkey’s agreements with the U.S. and Israel, but will not destroy them. They may increase Turkey’s cooperation with Muslim states, shifting the balance of power in favor of Iran, but that cooperation will fall short of a full-scale alliance. And most importantly, they will strengthen Europe’s resolve to keep Turkey at arm’s length, but do nothing to diminish Turkey’s undying resolve to get into Europe’s bed.

And as Obadiah’s prophecy reveals, that nation’s willingness to do anything to serve this ambition—including betrayal—will lead to its ruin.

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