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Turkey: Reluctant Ankara Takes A Lot Of U.S. Persuading Over Options For Military Action In Iraq

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

While Turkey is still mulling its participation in any U.S.-led military attack against its southern neighbor Iraq, ongoing preparations to host allied troops indicate that it will eventually, though reluctantly, align itself with the United States. But Ankara's foot-dragging is causing some gnashing of teeth in the U.S. administration.

Prague, 17 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- On 15 January, the private Turkish television channel NTV quoted unidentified U.S. defense officials as saying that the White House is getting impatient over Ankara's feeble support for its possible war against Iraq and expects Turkey to decide by the end of this month whether to firmly endorse action against Baghdad.

The NTV report could not be confirmed, but there are signs that testify to growing nervousness in Washington, which considers NATO ally Turkey a key element in its plan of attack.

Although it is unclear whether the Pentagon would launch any attack from the north, military analysts say the deployment of U.S. soldiers on Turkish soil would play an essential role in any war scenario. U.S. General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is expected in Ankara this weekend for talks with civilian and military officials.

"The end of the show is not yet clear, but the Turkish unwillingness to respond is beginning to affect military planning," former U.S. Ambassador to Ankara Morton Abramowitz wrote in yesterday's "The Wall Street Journal."

In remarks published yesterday in "The New York Times," columnist William Safire, a former aide to former U.S. President Richard Nixon and a man known for having close ties to the current administration, urged Turkey to act "as a strategic ally [of the United States] rather than a nervous renter of bases."

In Ankara today, presidential spokesman Tacan Ildem said the Turkish government would find it difficult to win parliamentary approval for the deployment of U.S. troops without a United Nations resolution authorizing war. And he warned that Ankara would make only a limited contribution to any possible U.S.-led war effort. "It would be realistic to expect that the contribution Turkey could consider giving to a possible operation, if it meets international law, would be limited because of [Turkey's] historic ties to its neighbor and situation in the region," Ildem said.

Turkey's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which won early legislative polls on 3 November, has said it would maintain Ankara's traditional, strategic ties with the United States, a pledge generally understood in Washington as its tentative approval for participation in a possible conflict with Iraq.

Analysts, however, believe Turkey's new leadership shares the same strong reservations as its predecessor about getting involved in a war against Baghdad, with as few options to rebuke its American partner.

Soli Ozel teaches international relations at Istanbul's Bilgi University. He said that, in its approach to the Iraq crisis, the current government does not fundamentally differ from the previous cabinet of Bulent Ecevit. All nuances aside, he said, only the time factor makes the difference. "The big difference is that with the previous government, the war was not that close, basically. How would they have handled this, I don't know, quite frankly. But they would have been under the same pressure. Maybe they would have finessed it better; maybe the emphasis on Middle Eastern countries would not have been that accentuated. But there would have been the same pressure and the same kind of tentativeness, I think," Ozel said.

AKP Prime Minister Abdullah Gul last week visited Iran and a number of Arab countries, officially in a last-ditch attempt to find a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis. But regional experts believe his tour may have also been aimed at sounding out Turkey's neighbors should his cabinet decide to endorse U.S. military action.

The arrival in Turkey on 13 January of an advance team of 150 U.S. military experts and the announcement made yesterday that Turkey is inviting a number of Middle Eastern leaders to Ankara next week to discuss ways of averting war seem to confirm this reading.

Former U.S. Ambassador Abramowitz was posted in Ankara during the 1991 Gulf War. He is now a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

Abramowitz told our correspondent that, in sharp contrast to 1991 when then-President Turgut Ozal did everything he could to convince parliament to endorse Ankara's support of the U.S.-led war coalition, Turkey is displaying a much more ambivalent attitude today. "[This government] wants to avoid war. It wants to avoid, as much as possible, coming down to a position. But, clearly, it is moving in the direction of trying to meet American demands. How far they would go, I don't know. I think they probably, in the end, [will] turn out to be more receptive than Ecevit might have been. However, they are bargaining hard," Abramowitz said.

Abramowitz believes economic recession and fears of an independent Kurdish state being declared near Turkey's own restive Kurdish provinces during or after the war certainly contribute to Ankara's hesitations. But he said there are other factors. Among them is Europe's reluctance to back the United States, which is felt in Turkey, and the United States asking Ankara to carry a heavier load. "The Europeans are not eager to have war, so a lot of people [in Turkey] do not want war. The United Nations is involved in a much different way [than in 1991]. [Turkey's new] government is a government with strong Islamic [roots], and they are very concerned about antagonizing many in their party. And the Americans have asked for far more in terms of military cooperation. Notably, they [have talked about deploying] 90,000 troops there," Abramowitz said.

"The Washington Post" today reports that the Pentagon may reconsider its demands and deploy as few as 15,000 troops in southeastern Anatolia to avoid antagonizing the Turkish population, which strongly opposes a war in the region.

Only U.S. air forces were deployed on Turkish soil in 1991, mainly at the southern Incirlik military air base, which is still being used by U.S. and British war planes to patrol Iraq's no-fly zone imposed by Washington after the war.

Incirlik is among the military facilities that U.S. experts who arrived in Turkey this week were granted permission to inspect. Other installations that the Americans have already examined, or plan to examine in the coming days, reportedly include Istanbul's Sabiha Gokcen civilian airport; four Eastern Anatolian air bases in Diyarbakir, Batman, Malatya, and Mus; two southern port facilities in Mersin and Iskenderun, which are connected by rail to the Iraqi border; and a new southern naval base in Tasucu, which was recently built with NATO's financial support.

In addition, Turkey's "Star" daily yesterday quoted a Turkish Army General Staff order demanding that preparations be made to urgently upgrade four other eastern civilian airports -- Gaziantep, Erzurum, Van, and Urfa -- in the event of war.

In a gesture partly aimed at soliciting Ankara's support, the United States is pressing NATO to provide defensive military assistance to Turkey, including the deployment of Patriot air-defense missiles to boost Turkey's defense capacities in case of retaliatory strikes by Iraq.

Speaking in Athens yesterday after talks with Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis, NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson confirmed the U.S. demands but said the alliance has not made any decisions regarding them. "Some proposals [regarding military assistance to Turkey] have been made by the Americans and others, and they are being given normal consideration inside NATO at the moment. But no decisions have yet been taken on any of these proposals," Robertson said.

In return for its support, Turkey is also suspected of asking the United States to compensate it for the expected economic losses resulting from a conflict.

Ankara claims the Gulf War has cost its economy some $40 billion in lost revenue and says it wants to avoid a repetition of what happened 12 years ago. Market analysts believe a new regional conflict may cost Turkey up to $15 billion, but Turkish government officials maintain the cost may be much higher.

U.S. President George W. Bush's administration is reportedly considering allocating Ankara a financial aid package of no less than $3 billion, followed by up to $20 billion in loan guarantees. Yesterday, the U.S. Export-Import Bank granted Turkey access to more than $300 million in loan guarantees to purchase 14 U.S.-made helicopters.

But Ankara, which is still struggling to alleviate the consequences of its worst economic crisis in nearly six decades with the help of the International Monetary Fund, says this is not enough.

Reports that Prime Minister Gul is pressing the Washington-headquartered international lending agency for additional financing ahead of a possible war on Iraq could not be confirmed.

On 15 January, Tuncay Ozilhan, the chairman of the Turkish Association of Businessmen and Industrialists, said visiting IMF deputy chief Anne Krueger had promised to examine Turkey's demands for extra funding. But Reuters later quoted an official close to the talks between Ankara and the fund as denying the issue had even been discussed.

Remarks made on 6 January by Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis have renewed speculation that Ankara may claim ownership rights over northern Iraq's Mosul and Kirkuk oil fields in the event of war. The Kirkuk and Mosul provinces are both former Ottoman possessions, and Ankara opposes any plan that would leave them under the exclusive control of either of the two Kurdish factions that have been controlling the area since 1991.

Meanwhile, Gul is pursuing his good-offices mission to avert a conflict.

Ankara yesterday announced plans to invite the leaders of all five countries the Turkish prime minister toured last week -- Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia -- to discuss ways to preserve peace in the region. The summit would be held next week at a date and venue that remain to be determined.

A Foreign Ministry statement also said that Gul, who recently dispatched State Minister Kursat Tuzmen to Baghdad with an unspecified message to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, would visit another four Middle Eastern countries next week.

Ankara's steps may be making the U.S. administration unhappy. Reactions from the State Department to Gul's recent initiatives indicate Turkey is not closely coordinating its actions with Washington.

In comments printed yesterday in Turkey's "Milliyet" daily, Gul, however, denied any rift between Ankara and Washington, saying: "We're having contacts with Iraq, regional countries, and the U.S. in our efforts to attain a peaceful solution. We are working to find something in the midway."

It is unclear whether Gul was referring to alleged joint Turkish-Arab plans to convince Hussein to go into exile to avert a war.

But Abramowitz said he does not have much faith in Ankara's peace diplomacy. "I don't give it much credibility that [the Turks] and the Arabs have any successful plan that would avert war. I cannot preclude, but I am skeptical," he said.

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