by Arthur I. Cyr

Sentinel & Enterprise (Fitchburg, Massachusetts)
November 2, 2009 Monday

What's in a name? Plenty, and the same goes for a nation's flag.

The national flag remains a potent emotional symbol, demonstrated this
month by intense -- and underreported -- conflict among Turkey, Armenia
and Azerbaijan. The flag flap has important bearing on international
relations, especially U.S. foreign policy.

Azerbaijan flags were removed from a stadium in Bursa, Turkey, where
a World Cup match between Armenia and Turkey was being held. They
were found in a trashcan. In retaliation, Azerbaijani officials in
Baku removed Turkey's flag from a war memorial commemorating Turkish
troops who fell in fighting for Azerbaijan independence in 1918. On
Oct. 27, the flags were raised again.

Turkey is making strong efforts, so far reciprocated, to resolve
fundamental conflict with Armenia, dating back to the Armenian genocide
early in the 20th century. On Oct. 10, the two nations signed a
protocol to open their shared border. Turkey closed the border in
1993 as a gesture of solidarity with Azerbaijan. In mid-October,
President Serkh Sarkisian became the first head of state of Armenia
to travel to Turkey.

Armenia-Turkey rapprochement in turn has antagonized Azerbaijan,
which has been losing to Armenia in a border dispute involving the
territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. This has occurred despite repeated
assurances from national officials in Ankara that relations with Baku
would remain strong.

This interplay may be difficult to follow, involving complex politics
as well as obscure geography, but Turkey's vital strategic importance
provides a powerful incentive to understand developments. Despite
current tensions between a religious government and a secular
constitution and state, Turkey remains a strong, stable representative
democracy. Eventually, the nation may serve as a bridge between East
and West that brings essential economic and political modernization
to the Arab world.

Turkey's relative isolation within Europe is a problem. The European
Union has turned the nation's application for membership into seemingly
endless agony. No doubt, concern about Islamic extremism contributes
to caution, but more general, long-standing European prejudice against
outside populations undeniably is involved.

Condescension is combined with inertia.

Developments within Turkey overall have been reassuring. The people
remain committed to representative government, an effective counter
against al-Qaida and other extremist movements. To date, terrorist
acts in Turkey have boomeranged.

The government in Ankara has placed priority on good relations with
Israel as well as with Arab states. Turkey commands vital sea lanes
and trade routes, including the Straits of Bosporus, and potential
oil and gas lines from the Caucasus.

Ankara-Washington cooperation is strongly rooted. Turkey has been
actively engaged in Afghanistan, including major military command
responsibilities. During the first Persian Gulf War, U.S. B-52 bombers
were deployed on Turkish soil, a potentially risky move by Ankara.

Turkey played a vital Allied role during the Korean War; the UN
military cemetery at Pusan contains a notably large number of Turkish

This background is of even greater importance given that ties between
Turkey and the United States are currently badly strained. The Bush
administration invasion of Iraq was bitterly opposed by Ankara.

Attacks by anti-Ankara Kurdish terrorists based in Iraq have led to
Turkish military strikes into the northern region of that country.

The Obama administration is giving some priority to rebuilding frayed
relations with Turkey, along with Israel, our most important ally in
the region. This may reinforce positive steps in Southeast Europe.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College.