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The Middle East propaganda mills have focussed their benevolent attention these past two weeks on the activities of three hostile armies-- Russian, Turkish, and Syrian--currently maneuvering along frontiers where hostile armies have maneuvered for centuries. History offers all parties involved an ample list of unsettled grievances to justify their current posturing, but this time big- power involvement makes the stakes higher and more dangerous than ever before. In this unfunny game, Western political and military power is represented primarily by the large and well-trained Turkish army, built up by American aid and strongly committed to membership in NATO.
The contrast between this tough atomic-age force and the red-hatted Janissaries of the Ottoman past represents one of the more startling recent transformations of a country driven by a compelling desire for social and economic progress. But the traditional discipline and wariness toward foreigners nonetheless remain the chief characteristics of the Turks, even while their scimitars and blunderbusses have given way to massive quantities of American-made mechanized equipment.
Charged with holding NATO's southern flank and the entire Middle East from Communist penetration, the 500,000-man Turkish army forms the largest national contribution to the West's European forces. Along with the somewhat less impressive army of neighboring Greece--currently distracted from full co-operation by the divisive Cyprus issue--the Turkish army is responsible for defending a 1400-mile armed frontier stretching from Albania on the west to the Russian Cauccasus on the east. Yet, despite recent Soviet missile threats, this exposed position involves hazards that are nothing new for the Turks, who for centuries, have fought the Russians for control of the Dardanelles.
Turkey's current strategic role in the Western alliance developed out of Russia's most recent challenge to her territorial sovereignty. Following World War II, Turkey appealed to the U.S. for aid in resisting Russian demands on her two key eastern provinces of Kars and Andahan. Since the enunciation of the Truman Doctrine in 1947, more than a billion dollars in loans, grants, and surplus military equipment has been turned over to Turkey.
Both Greece and Turkey were admitted to NATO in 1951 in recognition of their growing military strength and importance to Western defense. At NATO's headquarters for "Southeast Land Europe" in Izmir, command functions are today divided equally between Greek, Turkish, and U.S. officers. These NATO commanders, in their multi-uniforms, frankly admit that "this alliance has little hope of accomplishing anything beyond deterrance and defense. Ultimate control over the Straits," they say, "will be crucial for naval and land operations in any future war, and it will take the Russians at least 50 or 60 divisions to break through Greek and Turkish manpower."
American monetary and technical assistance has been largely responsible for the maintenance of this strong counter-weight on Russia's southern borders, providing heavy subsidies for road building, harbor developments, and industrial construction as well as for strict military needs. But American help has been more than matched by the eagerness of the Turks themselves to develop a military force capable of restraining the Russians, for whom they bear an ingrained contempt. The Turks have been so eager to fight Communists, in fact, that they volunteered a highly effective brigade of troops for duty in Korea under the United Nations flag.
But the military and political role of the Turkish army within Western policy has not been confined to Soviet containment alone. Through the controversial Baghdad Past, Turkey has been bound since 1955 with Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan in a Moslem alliance directed toward providing stability in the Middle East. What stability the pact has provided, however, is subject to debate--and many have criticized the alliance for stirring up fresh trouble rather than calming tension. Thus Turkey's role as chief representative of Western policies in the Middle East has put her in a position where today she is surrounded by enemies on virtually all sides.
The likelihood is slim, therefore, that Turkey would ever launch agressive action against either the Syrians--whose weak army could offer little resistance to the confident and trigger-happy Turkish juggernaut--or against the Russians, whose size and atomic strength unfortunately, for the Turks, preclude the thought of risking a grudge war. But on the other hand, the strength and toughness of the Turkish army now being manifested in the muscle-flexing along the Syrian border should be sufficient to deter reckless moves within Syria. Yet the hard reality of the situation in the Middle East today is that a miscalculation on either side could cause these prognostications and a lot more besides--to go up in smoke.
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