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NATO

Why were German soldiers 'attacked' in Turkey?

The recent attack on German soldiers by a group of Turkish nationalists in Iskenderun reveals the distrust some Turks feel toward the West, NATO and the US. It seems likely that more protests will follow.

For the German soldiers deployed in Turkey to work on Patriot missile installations, there's good reason to feel a bit confused. First the Turkish government demanded the assistance of NATO allies to defend itself against potential rocket attacks due to the turmoil in neighboring Syria.

Yet barely had German soldiers set foot on Turkish soil when they were met by protests and physical attacks by Turkish citizens. For weeks now, a colorful smattering of political groups, made up of nationalists, communists and Islamists have been protesting against the installation of Patriot missiles in Turkey. The attack on German soldiers in Iskenderun this week was the culmination of those demonstrations.

Green tanks roll across a parking lot after exiting the the large ship that carried them.
(Photo: REUTERS/Umit Bektas)

German Patriots arrived at Iskenderun's port in early January

"We're going to fight until NATO soldiers are driven out of our country," said Cagdas Cengiz, vice chairman of the Turkish Youth Union (TGB), a left-wing nationalist group, during a demonstration in front of the German consulate in Istanbul, shortly after the attack on the German soldiers.

"We warned you," Cengiz said to the Germans. "But you didn't listen."

Sacks as a symbol

In Iskenderun, under the leadership of TGB Chairman Ilker Yücel, members of the group surrounded plainclothes German soldiers, insulted them and then attempted to stuff sacks over their heads. By using sacks, nationalists were playing on an incident that took place after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. At that time US troops in northern Iraq arrested Turkish soldiers and placed sacks over their heads. Turkish nationalists have yet to forgive that incident.

The shape the protests have taken has made it clear that the German army has stepped into storm of aggressive anti-Americanism - a sentiment which, according to surveys and statements by experts, is widespread. Anti-American attitudes, says Füsun Türkmen, a political scientist in Istanbul, have a firm grip on Turkish society. A Lieutenant Colonel from the German military, Frank Sarak, believes that "demonstrators confused the German soldiers with American GIs."

A tough spot for the German government

When the German Marshall Fund - an American policy institution that promotes cooperation between North America and Europe - conducted a survey on the popularity of the US in Europe and Russia a few months ago, Turkey came in at the bottom of the barrel. Only 34 percent of Turkish citizens have a positive impression of the US and just one in four would like to see Washington DC in a role of international leadership. Opinions were similar with regard to NATO. A mere 38 percent considered the alliance necessary; in the EU and US the number of NATO supporters is 20 percent higher.

A middle-aged Turksih man looks off camera with a Turkish flag behind him.
(Photo: REUTERS/Osman Orsal)

Erdogan is facing a presidential election next year

That didn't used to be a problem for the Turkish government under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan gets along splendidly with US President Barack Obama. Turkish-American relations are better than they have been in a long time.

Yet should the protests against Ankara and its request for NATO troops spread further, Erdogan might be forced to have an emergency meeting with NATO allies. After the incident in Iskenderun, Ankara received strong warnings and criticism from the German government in Berlin.

Protests expected to continue

To date the Turkish protest movement remains small and confined to Turkey's political fringe. That said, the Turkish Youth Union has recently received the support of parliamentarians of the Republican People's Party (CHP), a social democratic party and the largest opposition force in the country.

With an election campaign just getting underway in Turkey - both a presidential election and parliamentary elections will take place in 2014 and 2015 - Erdogan's opponents will likely attempt to utilize anti-Western sentiment.

Men in green battle dress uniforms march in file
Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

In Berlin, 240 German soldiers board a plane for Turkey's border - and Erdogan wants them home ASAP

As a result of the protests the Turkish government would like to rid Turkey of the Patriot missile batteries as soon as possible. When dangers from Syria ultimately subside, NATO weapons will leave the country "on the same day - and even the same hour," said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

Until that happens the Turkish Youth Union, which has already announced plans for further demonstrations, will continue to protest.

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