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Turkey: Partial Commitment On Iraq War Satisfies U.S. Planners

  • Charles Recknagel

As Washington seeks to line up international support for possible military action against Iraq, Turkey this week provided the clearest outline yet of its terms for joining a coalition. Ankara said Washington could use its air bases but that Turkish public opinion would have difficulty accepting large numbers of U.S. ground troops attacking Iraq from Turkish soil. Turkey's statements have sparked some press debate over whether such conditional support is a setback or success for Washington's potential war plans.

Prague, 5 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush has frequently said Washington will lead a military coalition against Iraq if Baghdad does not fully disarm in cooperation with ongoing UN arms inspections.

He repeated that vow again this week at a political rally in the southern United States. "The fundamental question is -- in the name of peace, in the name of security, not only for America and the American people, in the name of security for our friends and the neighborhood, in the name of freedom -- will this man [Saddam Hussein] disarm? The choice is his, and if he does not disarm, the United States of America will lead a coalition and disarm him in the name of peace," Bush said.

But despite Washington's determination to disarm Iraq by force if necessary, many potential coalition partners continue to express only conditional support for a military campaign.

One of the most important of these partners is Turkey, which borders Iraq and already provides a base for U.S. and British airplanes patrolling the northern no-fly zone.

Ankara this week said it would allow Washington to use its air bases to strike targets across Iraq in the event of a campaign against Baghdad. But Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said his government would have a domestic public-opinion problem with accepting large numbers of U.S. troops on its soil for ground operations against its neighbor. "If we are talking about the extensive presence of American forces in Turkey, we have difficulty in explaining this to Turkish public opinion. It may be difficult to see thousands of American forces being transported through Turkish territory into Iraq or being stationed or deployed somewhere in Turkey and then carrying out strikes in Iraq."

At the same time, Yakis -- who spoke after meeting with U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in Ankara on 3 December -- said Washington should "leave no stone unturned" in seeking to avert a war. Other Turkish officials have said that means Ankara would not favor action without a new UN resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iraq, a resolution Washington says is not necessary.

After Yakis's comments this week, a report in "The Wall Street Journal" said: "the foreign minister's suggestion...that Turkey wouldn't likely allow a large U.S. ground force to launch attacks on Iraq from Turkey is a setback for U.S. war plans. The Pentagon had hoped to mount attacks on Baghdad...from both the north and the south, forcing the Iraqi military to fight on multiple fronts."

But another Western daily, Britain's "The Guardian," reported that Turkey's agreement "to allow its military bases to be used for an invasion of Iraq" enabled "the U.S. to threaten Baghdad with a two-front war." The paper said "Turkey's green light represents a significant success for the U.S., which a few months ago was having difficulties securing the agreement of any of Iraq's neighbors for military action."

To better determine whether Turkey's expression of conditional support is likely to help or hinder Washington's war planning, RFE/RL spoke to several experts on U.S. military strategy.

Andrew Brooks of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London said that U.S. officials are likely to be fully satisfied with Ankara's pledge this week to provide air bases, because they do not believe Turkey can publicly commit to more than that at this time.

He said that position recognizes that the international community has only endorsed efforts to disarm Iraq, not to invade it, and Ankara is acting within those limits. "At present, I can see no way you are going to sell a large American force going [into Iraq], because there is no mandate to send a large force in. Nobody is going to sign up to a mass invasion of Iraq by conventional forces," Brooks said.

Brooks said that the only thing most countries feel comfortable doing publicly is endorsing such goals as destroying Iraq's weapons-of-mass-destruction programs by force if Baghdad does not disarm peacefully, and in some cases, welcoming the possibility that Saddam Hussein's dictatorial regime could collapse in the process. "All the UN and international community are going to do is sign up to a precision [air]-strike capability to sort out his weapons of mass destruction and perhaps on the focusing of local opposition to unseat Saddam Hussein and his band of brothers," Brooks said.

But the analyst said that Washington and London believe that the reluctance of Turkey and other countries to talk about ground operations against Iraq could change should an air campaign begin.

Brooks said that should sustained air strikes fail to end the Iraq crisis, coalition partners would find it easier to publicly support a U.S.-led ground intervention. That would follow the model of the 1999 Kosovo crisis, in which 11 weeks of initial reliance on air strikes alone produced mounting international calls for NATO's ultimate use of troops.

Andrew Koch, the Washington bureau chief for the London-based "Jane's Defence Weekly," agrees that Turkey's conditional support is enough for Washington at this time.

He said that U.S. officials got what they wanted from Ankara regarding air bases and may not even want permission for ground troops. He said that, instead, the Pentagon's plans for a "northern front" may focus on helping Iraqi-Kurd fighters tie down Baghdad's troops while a U.S. ground attack itself comes across Iraq's southern borders. "[The Iraqi Kurds] don't have big tanks, and they don't have the heavy equipment, but combined with U.S. air power and Special Operations troops to do the spotting [for U.S. bombers], that would probably be enough to have a kind of [second] front. Not a major battle but enough to pin down Saddam's troops in that area," Koch said.

Koch said such a strategy could see Iraqi Kurds deploying in a defensive line under the cover of U.S. air power, forcing Baghdad to respond with a large northern deployment of its own. Pentagon planners are reported to have developed numerous war scenarios, and there is continual press speculation as to what shape any final strategy may take.

This week's effort to secure Turkey's contribution to any war against Iraq comes as Washington has sent queries to dozens of governments for possible support, both within the Persian Gulf region and outside it.

To encourage Ankara's cooperation, the United States has been pressing European countries to facilitate Turkey's entry into the European Union. Washington also has promised increased support for Turkey's troubled economy through the International Monetary Fund and assured Ankara that the United States does not support establishment of a Kurdish state.