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Turkey: U.S. Steps Up War Diplomacy With A Reluctant Ankara

  • Jeffrey Donovan

As international opposition to a possible U.S. war on Iraq intensifies, U.S. diplomacy appears to be concentrating on countries in the region that would be vital to any U.S. military effort. As RFE/RL reports, Washington faces a major challenge in persuading NATO ally Turkey to climb on board.

Washington, 2 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. diplomacy with Turkey, whose support could be key to a strike on Baghdad, is intensifying as the war drums grow louder in Washington.

But analysts say U.S. diplomats are in a bind, forced to perform a balancing act to win the blessing and support of both NATO ally Turkey and its Kurdish neighbors in northern Iraq. Those two sides are separated by deep divisions and mistrust over what a postwar Iraq should look like.

The United States needs Ankara's air bases, which it already uses to protect the Iraqi Kurds and enforce the no-fly zone they live in. Washington also needs some 70,000 Kurdish fighters, known as 'peshmerga,' who are likely to play key combat and strategic roles in any U.S.-led offensive.

The problem is that Ankara fears that the Kurds, who enjoy independence from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, have already taken on the trappings of an autonomous state, one that could be made official after a war. Turkey also worries such a move could fuel similar aspirations among Ankara's own 18 million Kurds.

But Ankara has made it clear that it would consider such a development a casus belli. Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Program at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the U.S. faces a major diplomatic dilemma. "The more you promise the Kurds, the less happy the Turks will be. And if you give the Turks so many assurances with respect to what happens after Saddam, the Kurds are less likely to help you. So it's a conundrum for planners," Aliriza said.

And the planners are hard at work.

Last week, Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Ugur Ziyal held meetings in Washington to discuss the possible war and its impact on the region. Ziyal met with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

His visit follows trips to Turkey by Cheney last March and by Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Iraq topped the agenda on both occasions.

Turkey, which suffered heavy economic losses when official trade with Iraq was cut off after the first Gulf War, publicly opposes a new campaign against Saddam. In an address to the Washington Institute, a think tank that focuses on the Middle East, Ziyal observed that the dismemberment of Iraq, which he says is a possibility, "would dangerously upset the existing balances in the region and would create renewed instability with consequences that nobody can predict. The territorial integrity of Iraq is of paramount importance to us."

Ziyal appeared to leave the door open to possible Turkish backing of a U.S.-led war. But he said this would be conditional on Washington's making a bigger effort to legitimize the campaign by winning the support of the international community and the United Nations Security Council.

Ziyal said Iraq will also need more than Saddam's removal to ensure its viability and regional stability, and that both regional neighbors and the U.S. must be willing to make a long-term, postwar commitment.

Yesterday, Turkey again signaled a reluctance to support a possible U.S. campaign. Turkish Foreign Minister Sukru Sina Gurel, during a visit to Iran, called for a peaceful settlement of the Iraq crisis and said any change in Iraq's government "must be decided by the Iraqi people."

Analysts say the key to Washington's campaign to enlist Turkish and Kurdish war support will be whether it can sell them on a common blueprint for postwar Iraq.

That effort, however, is complicated by matters on the ground.

Tensions are running high at the moment between Turkey and one of the two main Kurdish factions that run northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

The two sides have waged a recent war of words, in which both sides spoke about armed conflict, following what Turkey saw as efforts by KDP leader Mas'ud Barzani to make Iraqi Kurdistan look like a real state.

Those efforts included a proposal for a constitution to give Kurdistan extensive autonomy within a loosely federal, post-Saddam Iraq. Barzani also proposed making the oil-rich city Kirkuk his capital, with the right to its own parliament, presidency, and flag.

Turkey responded with several strongly worded statements. Analysts say they indicate that Ankara, which already has troops in northern Iraq to fight Turkish Kurdish separatists, will use force if the Iraqi Kurds seek autonomy or control of the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul and their rich oil resources.

Those cities also have large numbers of Turkomans, ethnic Turks who are Iraq's third-largest ethnic group. Turkey has said it will safeguard Turkoman interests and that all of Iraq's ethnic groups must reach a consensus on the country's future structure.

Barzani's position contrasts with that of rival Iraqi Kurd leader Jalal Talabani, who has sought closer ties with Ankara and said his forces would protect Turkomans.

But Aliriza of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said Talabani has also irked Ankara by announcing at an Iraqi opposition meeting in Washington last month that U.S. troops could use Iraqi Kurdistan to attack Baghdad. Aliriza said Turkey sees such moves as setting a precedent for Kurdish statehood. "They don't want the Kurds to be ahead of Turkey with respect to battle plans. Now if the U.S. is going to use the Kurdish area, unless you do it with paratroopers, presumably the troops have to be sent through somewhere. Now, if you're not going to be doing it from Iran or Syria or Saudi Arabia, you've got to do it from Turkey," Aliriza said.

Last week, there were signs Barzani's KDP and Ankara were seeking to cool tensions. After talks with officials in Ankara on 29 August, Barzani's foreign-policy aide Hoshyar Zebari said: "We are not interested at all in any tension. We want to bring our relations back to the good old days of cooperation, of mutual respect."

In an interview before those meetings with RFE/RL, Zebari said Ankara was being "paranoid" about the possibility of a Kurdish state. Zebari sought to reassure Turkey on the issue of Kurdish control of Kirkuk and Mosul. "We don't say that only Kurds live there, that only Kurds have a claim to Kirkuk. No. We say this is an Iraqi city, that the Kurds live there, that the Turkoman live there, the Arabs live there. And the fate of Kirkuk has to be negotiated, and settled jointly, by all the communities, all the parties," Zebari said.

Mark Parris, U.S. ambassador to Ankara from 1997 to 2000, told RFE/RL that in principle, Turkey is not opposed to a federal Iraq. But he said that "the devil will be in the details on the ground."

Parris said that to be sold on war, Ankara will need to see a clear plan and commitment from all sides for a federal Iraq in which Baghdad retains significant control, especially over oil resources. Parris also said that Turkey will be wary of any Kurdish attempt to control northern oil resources now under Saddam's control.

Aliriza agreed. "If the Kurds tried to extend their area of control into the oil fields of Mosul and Kirkuk where their ethnic brethren, the Turkoman, are living, then Turkey will fight and intervene militarily to prevent it," Aliriza said.

For that reason and others, Michael Rubin, a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute who recently spent nine months living in Iraqi Kurdistan, believes federalism is the answer for a post-Saddam Iraq, but not Barzani's kind of federalism. "Some of the Kurds, more so on the KDP side again, are talking about a tripartite federalism where there would be an Arab Shiite state, an Arab Sunni state, and a Kurdish state. And that's not going to happen. It's not acceptable to Iraq's other minorities and it's not acceptable to the neighboring countries like Turkey, like Saudi Arabia, like Kuwait," Rubin said.

Rubin said Iraq's other two major groups, the Shiites and Sunnis, would not want tripartite federalism, either. And he believes that planners in Washington and elsewhere are working on a blueprint for a federal Iraq organized along administrative lines, rather than sectarian or ethnic ones.

Under such a plan, he said, Iraq would be divided up by its 18 provinces. He said that would assuage the country's minorities and its neighbors.

Meanwhile, oil resources could be distributed proportionate to each province's population. That way, the four or five Kurdish provinces could continue to receive the 13 percent of common national oil revenues they currently receive under the United Nations oil-for-food program.

But ultimately, Turkey will need more than reassurances on post-war Iraq. Ankara says it has lost between $40 billion and $80 billion in lost trade as a result of the first Gulf War. Aliriza said no one in Turkey expects a U.S. offer to come close to covering those loses, but Ankara is still seeking major financial concessions from Washington in return for any cooperation. "Having talked to a current U.S. official," Aliriza said, "I know those talks are going to be very, very tricky. Nobody has a figure in those discussions. I really would not want to be involved in those discussions."