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Turkey: Ankara Agrees Conditionally To Join U.S. 'War Coalition' As EU, Cyprus Issues Loom

  • Jeffrey Donovan

A key piece of Washington's "war coalition" appeared to fall into place yesterday with Turkey's announcement that it would allow Western war planes to use its air bases for any military campaign against Iraq that is approved by the UN Security Council. But U.S. officials are still said to worry that an anti-Western backlash could erupt in Turkey and weaken its support on Iraq if the European Union fails to embrace Ankara's hopes of joining the union.

Washington, 4 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- With Turkey signing on yesterday, at least conditionally, the United States appears to have sewn up a network of military support from countries around Iraq to back a possible U.S.-led war to topple Saddam Hussein.

Over the past few months, the United States has been building up its military presence in the Persian Gulf region and securing agreements with countries to support U.S. equipment and personnel for any campaign against Iraq.

Turkey announced yesterday that U.S. planes could use its air bases in any war against Iraq that was first approved by a UN resolution authorizing the use of force. Turkey is a key link in a chain of countries that have pledged cooperation with the United States, including Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, and possibly Saudi Arabia.

Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis made the announcement in Ankara yesterday after talks with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. "If it comes to [war], then, of course, we will cooperate with the United States, because it's a big ally," Yakis said.

Turkey's Foreign Ministry later clarified Yakis's comments, saying he was speaking of "possibilities," not firm commitments. Yakis also said it is difficult to foresee allowing the United States to launch a large-scale ground attack against Iraq from Turkish soil.

Turkish media outlets report the hesitation expressed by Ankara is most likely for domestic political consumption. The left-liberal Turkish newspaper "Cumhuriyet" reports that the United States and Turkey have achieved a "broad-based agreement" on a plan for a possible war against Iraq in which Turkey would play a major role, while Turkish NTV television says Ankara will cooperate with Washington provided the United States satisfies Ankara's "main demands," such as prevention of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq and compensation for economic losses in the event of war.

Yakis said Turkey hopes the standoff over Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction will end peacefully. He was echoed by U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who also met with Yakis yesterday in Ankara along with U.S. Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman.

Wolfowitz added that Hussein must radically change his behavior to avoid a military conflict. "Our focus with Iraq is to try to bring about a peaceful resolution of the problem that is posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and that requires persuading [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein that there has to be a fundamental change," Wolfowitz said.

Bulent Aliriza is the director of the Turkish program at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. Aliriza told RFE/RL that negotiations between Washington and Ankara over an Iraq war are complex, involving U.S. financial and military assistance to Turkey and a host of other matters.

Aliriza said it's possible that Turkey will provide a lot more to a U.S. military effort than what Yakis is indicating. "We're going to find out in the next few days exactly what the Turks have signed on to. And my guess is that they've signed on to a lot more than we know at this stage," Aliriza said.

It also remains unclear to what extent the other key regional player, Saudi Arabia, will cooperate with a U.S. war. The United States directed the 1991 Gulf War from bases in Saudi Arabia, but Riyadh has been reluctant to publicly pledge similar support this time.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has built a new command post in Qatar in the event of another Iraqi war.

Adel al-Jubeir, foreign-policy adviser to Saudi Arabia, summed up the Saudi position at a Washington news conference yesterday. "We have said that, as a member of the UN, we'll support whatever decisions the UN makes. How we translate that support is something that we will have to decide when the time comes and when we weigh all the options," al-Jubeir said.

Analysts say that even if Riyadh does not allow the United States to operate on its soil, the addition of Turkey to what the U.S. media are calling "the war coalition" gives Washington the key ability to strike Iraq from both the north and the south.

But Wolfowitz's visit to Ankara, his second this year, was not limited to lobbying for support on Iraq, at least not directly.

The Pentagon's No. 2 man arrived in Ankara after delivering a major speech in London on Monday in which he urged the European Union to open its doors to Turkey.

Washington has long argued that Europe should embrace democratic and secular Turkey as a model and bridge to the West for the Muslim world.

Wolfowitz, in his London speech, stepped up traditional U.S. support for Turkey's bid to join the EU, saying that while it is a European matter, it would be "unthinkable" for the EU to leave out Turkey.

The EU is due to announce a decision on whether to give Turkey a key date by which to begin negotiations on joining the union at a summit in Copenhagen on 12 December.

Aliriza said that beyond the long-term strategic interests that bind Washington to Ankara, the United States is concerned that its short-term Iraq plans could be hurt if the European Union fails to embrace Turkey and if a United Nations-brokered deal on reuniting divided Cyprus is not reached.

The Turkish-born analyst said that if the EU door is slammed on Ankara, an anti-West backlash could erupt in Turkey, whose new ruling party has Islamist roots. "The xenophobic reaction to Turkey might make the current government less responsive to U.S. needs. It won't say no, but it might be slightly less cooperative because the [Turkish] mood may be against the West in a xenophobic kind of way," Aliriza said.

At Copenhagen, the EU is expected to invite the Greek side of Cyprus -- divided since 1974 -- to join in 2004. The EU wants the whole island to join together under a UN reunification plan, but Turkish Cypriot leaders are stalling.

Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, has said the EU won't give Turkey its prized date unless there is a deal on Cyprus.

Aliriza said U.S. officials will be lobbying hard in the next few days on the EU question and on Cyprus. "At the operational level, you don't want an unhappy Turkey reviewing its links with the West because of what the Europeans have done. You want a Turkey looking forward to enhanced cooperation with the Western alliance -- that's the importance of Copenhagen," Aliriza said.

Both Moeller and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday that they still believe a Cyprus deal can be reached in time for the summit.