Global terror front jumps west

In a relay of fast track approvals that ended with US President George W Bush, Turkey was last week declared "a front" in the global war on terror.

Like people in countries who awoke on 31 January 2002 to find themselves branded part of "an axis of evil", Turkish people are now wondering what this new label means for them.
Last week, more than 50 people were killed in the Turkish commercial capital, Istanbul, in Thursday's suicide bombings on British targets and in the previous Saturday's bombings aimed at Jewish synagogues.

In the hours after Thursday's bombings, President Bush called the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to offer his condolences.

In a statement that followed, the president said he told Mr Erdogan that: "We will work with him to defeat terror and that the terrorists have decided to use Turkey as a front."

Suddenly, the boundary in the global war on terror shifted several thousand miles West and a rapid chain of events began to unfold.

As guardian of the South East flank - a long-time major Nato area of concern - Turkey has been an indispensable and loyal ally of the West.

Successive Western governments have been at pains to be seen to condemn the country over its poor human rights record, while at the same time, forging ever-deepening diplomatic ties.

The country's powerful geographical position in a map that is being slowly re-drawn by the EU enlargement programme has previously enjoyed relative immunity over gaping black holes in its conduct such its suppression of the Kurds and 1974 invasion of Cyprus.

This year had, until this week, been a particularly bad one for US-Turkish relations following the country's refusal to play host to US armour and troops in the days after coalition bombing began in Baghdad.

Then there was a diplomatic "crisis" when US troops arrested 24 members of Turkey's special forces in northern Iraq in July, leading to angry anti-US street demonstrations across the country.

But events over the past week have seen such anomalies brushed under the carpet as leaders lined up to pledge their support in the now infamous theatre of the war on terror.

"Iraq's a front, Turkey's a front - anywhere where the terrorists think they can strike," President Bush said on Friday, speaking in Prime Minister Tony Blair's Sedgefield constituency.

He said the US would help Turkey, including by sharing intelligence, while a loan package announced in September of $8.5 billion to support Turkey's economic reform is expected to be fast-tracked.

Mr Blair’s response was to condemn the blasts as “evil” and send Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to witness the devastation and pledge assistance in combating terrorism there first-hand.

"The atrocities in Turkey … show that we who represent the civilised world are facing a global threat. We have to deal with it in a global way. We stand together with Turkey in this," Mr Straw said in Istanbul.

The Foreign Secretary emphasised that Turkey was now closer to joining the European Union than ever before, a sentiment keenly shared by Turkey's ambassador to the EU, Oguz Demirelp.

Mr Demirelp’s response was to say Thursday’s attacks showed "a profound link" between Europe and Turkey.

"Because the target of terrorism in Istanbul was European values, what was actually bombed by terrorists was Europe in Turkey," he said.

Abdullah Gul, Turkey's Foreign Minister suggested the country had made itself a target because it had embraced democracy, a key prong in its thrust towards gaining EU acceptability.

"We are upgrading our democracy. We are trying to prove that a Muslim country can be democratic, can be transparent, can fulfil the best human rights standards, and we are trying to prove that a Muslim country can be compatible with the modern world," he said.

But Turkey's overt leanings towards the West cost it dear last week.

Opinion in the rest of Europe is divided over whether Thursday’s “punishment” bombings, since claimed on behalf of al-Qaeda, should mean Turkey’s accession to become 16th member of the European Union is now sped up.

Bavaria's Interior Minister Guenther Beckstein warned against an early EU membership for Turkey after the Istanbul terror attacks.

"In the present security situation, this is not in our interest," Mr Beckstein told the Munich-based Abendzeitung newspaper.

But a clear integration of Turkey in the West regarding security co-operation is possible, he said.

The minister stressed: "In no event must we push Turkey away, but we must pursue realistic goals."

Thus, "as an Islamic country, Turkey can provide valuable information and contributions to the fight against terror," he added.

Joost Lagendijk, the Dutch MEP for the Green Party who is also on the EU-Turkey joint Parliament committee says he wants the EU to become clearer over Turkey's future role within it.

"I think these attacks should be reasons for all the member states of the EU to be extremely clear on what we hope will happen at the end of next year when the EU has to decide whether or not to start negotiations with Turkey," he said.

He added Turkey's membership to the EU should happen “as soon as possible” but this should not mean relaxing the criteria for joining, most notably in the area of its human rights obligations.

"When we are talking about problems on torture, on human rights, on minority rights and on the position of the army, I would not be willing to compromise on them," he said.

"What I am afraid of is that the creation of instability and fear among the Turkish population will have had an effect that means security forces, the army, the police will step in to push Turkey closer to Europe. In fact, it should take one step back," he said.

In downtown Istanbul, resentment of the West’s sudden interest in Turkey is marked among ordinary citizens.

“I do not feel that the West is with Turkey during these attacks,” said Mehmet Gulhan, a dried fruit and nut seller. “The West is not sincere towards Turkey. They only support Turkey if they have interests,” he said.

Turkey can no doubt expect to see what those interests are before it is finally invited to join the EU.