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Turkey: Ankara Cautions Washington Against Automatic Support

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

The United States is pressing Turkey to allow the deployment of U.S. soldiers on its soil with a view to opening a second front in a possible war against Baghdad. U.S. military planners see a "northern front" as essential to gaining a quick victory over Iraqi troops and for securing the oil fields of northern Iraq. But Turkey is dragging its feet on a decision, triggering growing resentment in Washington.

Prague, 18 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Washington is showing signs of mounting impatience as Turkey postpones a much-awaited decision to allow U.S. troops to use its territory in a possible war against Iraq.

Turkey's private NTV television channel today quoted senior Pentagon adviser Richard Perle as saying Ankara's failure to support U.S. war plans would seriously damage bilateral ties.

Also today, U.S. and British media reported that talks over the possible deployment of U.S. soldiers on Turkish soil were in a deadlock and that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush was clearly unhappy about the delay.

On 6 February, the Turkish Grand National Assembly (parliament) met behind closed doors and approved a government proposal to allow U.S. military engineers to upgrade a number of seaports and air bases for use in a possible U.S.-led attack on Iraq. Earlier this week, some 500 U.S. specialists began work in southeastern Turkey.

The approval given by Turkish lawmakers was widely seen overseas as a sign that U.S. military plans were inching toward acceptance. The Ankara-based "Turkish Daily News" today reports that a group of U.S. congressmen sent a letter to Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul thanking him for authorizing the upgrading of military facilities and pledging to lobby Turkish interests in the future.

Yet, the leader of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) today said that decision did not oblige Turkey to voice further support for any U.S. move against Iraq.

Addressing fellow party members in parliament, Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Washington not to look at Turkish support as a foregone conclusion. "Our American friends must not believe that the decision made by parliament on modernizing bases and ports means that we have set off on an irreversible path of support," Erdogan said.

Lawmakers today were due to debate a motion authorizing the deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Turkey. But the parliamentary hearings were put off indefinitely amid growing Turkish-U.S. disagreement over the size and nature of the compensation Ankara could get in return for its support to Washington.

Erdogan today declined to confirm reports that the AKP-dominated parliament might convene on 21 February to debate the possible deployment of foreign troops.

The AKP leader hinted at dissent among the party's deputies about allowing Washington to use Turkey as a base for launching an attack on Iraq. He said that even if the motion is submitted to parliament, the outcome might not be a good one for Washington.

In open breach of Turkey's traditional party discipline, dozens of AKP parliamentarians voted against authorizing U.S. engineers to modernize military facilities. They reportedly threatened to resign from the party if the government backed the deployment of U.S. troops on Turkish soil.

Talking to reporters yesterday before heading to an emergency European Union summit in Brussels, Gul said his cabinet had decided to postpone the parliamentary debate because it believed a "yes" vote would be too difficult to secure. "As you know, there are certain issues to which Turkey attaches importance. Such issues can be characterized as military, political, and economic all together. We have certain views and concerns regarding these issues, and there are some points we attach importance to. Without an agreement on these points, we believe it would be difficult to convince the Turkish Grand National Assembly. With this in mind, we reached this conclusion at a meeting yesterday. We will convey our concerns to the United States today," Gul said.

There is widespread belief, both at home and abroad, that Turkey is bargaining hard to be compensated for any eventual support of U.S. war plans. Ankara claims the 1991 Gulf War has cost its economy up to $40 billion in lost revenue and says it wants to avoid a repetition of what happened 12 years ago.

Turkey is slowly recovering from a major economic recession with the help of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Both international lending agencies have cautioned against the risk a war near Turkey's southern border would present for its fragile economy.

Yesterday, the chairman of Turkey's Union of Chambers of Commerce and Stock Exchanges, Rifat Hisarciklioglu, estimated that a war could cost his country about $17 billion in economic damage. Some government officials maintain the cost may mount to nearly twice that.

Reports say the United States is offering Turkey up to $26 billion in aid, partly in grants, partly in loan guarantees. But Ankara is requesting more.

Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis and Economy Minister Ali Babacan went to Washington last week for talks reportedly aimed at securing more generous U.S. financial support. But the two emissaries returned empty-handed.

Talking to reporters upon his arrival in Ankara on 16 February, Yakis said he had been unable to reach an agreement on the size of the U.S. aid package. He also said discussions on a figure would continue over the next few days.

But there may be more to Turkey's concerns. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Ertugrul Yalcinbayir, in Tokyo today, said his country remains committed to finding a peaceful settlement to the Iraq crisis. Ankara has made it clear it will participate in U.S.-led military action against Baghdad only if all peaceful options have been exhausted and only in order to prevent unrest within its own borders.

Widespread antiwar sentiments, both at home and abroad, may also influence Turkey's decision. Opinion polls show that, as in most Western countries, more than 80 percent of the Turkish population opposes war.

Adding to Ankara's concerns, the Pentagon has rejected a demand that Turkish troops meant to support a U.S. northern offensive against Iraq be placed under autonomous command. Washington insists that Turkish soldiers be put under U.S. command, an option AKP leader Erdogan last week said would be a "humiliation" for the Turkish military.

Both sides are reportedly working on a compromise that would leave a Turkish officer as second in command. It is unclear whether that option would satisfy the concerns of the Turkish General Staff. Drawing a lesson from the Gulf War -- when half a million Iraqi Kurds sought refuge in Turkey -- Ankara is considering dispatching tens of thousands of troops to northern Iraq, officially to prevent a possible flood of refugees. But analysts believe the massive presence of Turkish soldiers in the area would also help prevent northern Iraq's Kurds from seizing the oil-rich cities of Mosul and Kirkuk.

Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer today threw his voice into the debate. Echoing comments made by Erdogan last week, he said that any decision to authorize the deployment of foreign troops on national territory depends on whether the United Nations Security Council passes a second resolution authorizing use of force against Iraq. "We have been saying from the beginning that the presence of foreign soldiers in Turkey could be allowed in circumstances considered legitimate by international law. And in order to have a situation deemed legitimate under international law, we believe there should be a new Security Council resolution other than Resolution 1441," Sezer said.

Sezer has the power to veto any parliamentary decision. But it is not clear whether his comments were a veiled threat to the United States or merely a way to raise the stake in talks with Washington.

In the meantime, the White House and the Pentagon are reportedly considering alternative options in case Turkey refuses to support their war plans.

"The New York Times" today quotes a senior Bush administration official as warning that the U.S. plans to "get the job done" even without Ankara's support. "But it won't be good for Turkey," the official was quoted as saying.