Operation Provide Comfort makes use of a large NATO air base in Incirlik, eastern Turkey, to patrol a security zone set up as a safe haven for the Iraqi Kurds, large numbers of whom were driven out of their homes by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's forces following the 1991 Gulf War. The Turkish government's cooperation is crucial to Operation Provide Comfort; without it, the NATO forces at Incirlik would not be able to support their ground forces in Zakho, inside the Iraqi frontier, where the Kurds have set up an autonomous local government.
For Turkey, the situation is touchy -- not only because of the new government's pro-Islamist leanings and its position vis-a-vis the rest of the Islamic world, but also because of the historical ethnic problem of the Kurds. Turkey has its own Kurdish minority, concentrated in the region along the Iraqi frontier, a restive population that has sprouted a separatist movement. The Kurds of Turkey have long desired an independent homeland; militants among them have for many years sporadically attacked the Turkish army and carried out acts of terrorism.
The Erbakan government is struggling to establish itself in control over a society with many rifts. Over the weekend, the government announced the settlement of a deadly two-month hunger strike among leftist inmates of 33 prisons. Conditions in Turkey's prisons have long been notorious. It remains to be seen whether the government's settlement with the hunger strikers will win popular support or appear as a sign of weakness.
In any case, it is clear that Prime Minister Erbakan is intent on avoiding any stirring-up of the international waters at this sensitive time in his government's tenure.
For the United States and its European allies, keeping Turkey in NATO as a fully cooperating partner has always been a high priority and remains so, even now that the Soviet Union, which bordered on Turkey, no longer exists. And just as dealing with the West will be an ongoing test for the Erbakan government, dealing with an Islamist government in Ankara will be a test for NATO. Shocked by the ascendancy of Mr. Erbakan's Islamic Welfare Party, the West must face the reality that Islamic political movements are here to stay; that the dynamism of Islam as a religious force and the appeal of Islamism will continue to change the politics of a large part of the world for the foreseeable future; and that dealing with Islamist governments is something the rest of the world must learn how to do. Wishing Islamism into extinction will not work.
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