Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 39

Almost exactly 150 years ago, in June 1858, Abraham Lincoln famously declared that a house divided against itself could not stand. Yet in recent days, despite deepening internal divisions over the government’s attempts to lift the headscarf ban in Turkish universities, officials and politicians from across almost the entire political spectrum have been unanimous in resisting U.S. pressure to ensure that Turkey’s ongoing military operation against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is kept as short as possible. The only exception has been the Democratic Society Party (DTP), many of whose members are openly sympathetic to the PKK.

On February 28, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates held meetings in Ankara to urge Turkey only to stay in northern Iraq for a short time and to pull its troops out before mid-March at the latest. But Turkish officials remained defiant.

“The operation will last as long as necessary,” said Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul. “When it is finished, we will withdraw.”

“Short is a relative term,” added Turkish Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit. “As a result, our struggle against terrorism will continue” (Aksam, Hurriyet, Radikal, February 29).

In a public address later on February 28, U.S. President George W. Bush reinforced Gates’s warning, although he dismissed suggestions that Washington might try to increase the pressure on Ankara by withholding the actionable intelligence that the United States has been providing to Turkey on the PKK presence in northern Iraq and which appears to have formed the basis for recent Turkish air and ground operations against the PKK. Nevertheless, even if relations remain cordial, it would appear that the honeymoon in U.S.-Turkish relations that followed the November 5 meeting in Washington between Bush and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at which the United States is believed to have promised to provide actionable intelligence (see EDM, November 6, 2007), is now over.

The standoff between Ankara and Washington comes at a time when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is facing increasing opposition to its attempts to lift the ban on students wearing headscarves in Turkish universities. Over the last decade, many very devout female students have either been wearing wigs to class or taking their headscarves off at the entrance to the universities. On February 9, the AKP amended the Turkish constitution to try to create a legal framework for the abolition of the ban (see EDM, February 11). On February 24, Yusuf Ziya Ozcan, the head of the Higher Education Council (YOK), which oversees higher education in Turkey, instructed all universities in the country to start admitting students wearing headscarves with immediate effect (see EDM, February 25).

However, only around a dozen of Turkey’s 115 universities appear to have complied. All the others continue to forbid women wearing headscarves from entering their campuses. On February 28, representatives of 90 universities came together at a meeting of the Inter-University Council (UAK) and released a statement calling for Ozcan’s resignation (Radikal, Hurriyet, Milliyet, NTV, CNNTurk, February 29). They argued that, as the constitutional amendments did not directly address the headscarf, the ban remained in place and that any attempt to pressure universities into allowing headscarfed students onto campuses was an incitement to break the law.

The statement triggered a furious reaction from AKP Deputy Chair Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat, who claimed that the ban had been abolished by the constitutional amendments.

“Even if you are a rector, even if you are a professor, you do not have the freedom to break the law,” he said. “At the moment, they are committing a crime. This falls within the remit of the public prosecutors” (Radikal, Aksam, February 29).

By coincidence, the UAK statement was issued on the eleventh anniversary of the beginning of the military-organized campaign to topple the Islamist Welfare Party (RP) in 1997, in what subsequently became known as the “February 28th Process,” after the day on which it was initiated. In addition to applying pressure directly to the RP-led government, the February 28th Process also included a defamation campaign to try to try to undermine the RP’s popular support, most notably by accusing it of failing to support military operations against the PKK.

On May 14, 1997, the Turkish military launched a massive cross-border incursion in which 50,000 troops struck at PKK bases in northern Iraq. The Turkish General Staff (TGS) announced the operation to the media first and then later notified the RP government. It subsequently explained that it could not trust the RP not to leak news of the operation to the PKK. On June 6, 1997, the day after a highly emotional funeral for 11 soldiers killed when their helicopter was downed by a PKK missile in northern Iraq, the TGS accused the RP government of hampering the ongoing military operation in northern Iraq by withholding funds.

Most of the leading members of the AKP, including Erdogan, were in the RP at the time and will not have forgotten the role that the TGS’s accusations that the government was preventing it from combating the PKK played in it eventually being forced from office. Although the TGS has remained quiet on the UAK’s statement of February 28, nobody in Turkey has any doubt about the military’s support for a continuation of the headscarf ban.

On the morning of February 29, Turkish television showed footage of some Turkish military units crossing the border from northern Iraq into Turkey. The numbers appear to be quite small, and it is currently unclear whether there the withdrawal has any implications for the duration of the military operation as a whole. But what was clear was that, with the AKP under increasing pressure over the headscarf ban, it will be the TGS, not the civilian government, that decides when the time has come to wind up the military operation in northern Iraq.