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Turkey: Could Ankara Possibly Disrupt U.S. War Plans Against Iraq?

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

As the United States and Britain beef up their military presence pending any offensive against Iraq, Turkey's tit-for-tat demands over providing tactical support for any large-scale ground attack from the north are making Washington fume. Although few analysts believe Turkey will ultimately deny U.S. troops access to its bases and territory, Ankara's foot-dragging may ultimately force the Pentagon to revise its war plans. RFE/RL discusses with regional and defense experts other possible options left to U.S. military planners.

Prague, 20 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has been pressing Ankara to authorize the deployment of tens of thousands of soldiers north of the 350-kilometer Turkish-Iraqi border with a view to opening a second front against Baghdad. For the Pentagon, this plan should help take the burden off a possible primary southern invasion from Kuwait and Qatar in the Persian Gulf area.

Washington has already amassed 150,000 army personnel in the region for an attack, while Britain is considering sending more than 40,000 troops.

Four U.S. ships carrying heavy equipment for use in a possible "northern front" are reportedly waiting off the Turkish coast. An additional three dozen supply ships are due to arrive in the area soon.

All the United States needs now is Turkey's green light.

Phillip Mitchell is a ground-forces analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. He told our correspondent that it may be a matter of days before the Pentagon is forced to modify its war plans. "All the U.S. mechanized troops' equipment is at the far end of the Mediterranean [Sea], and [the Americans] cannot hold it there for much longer. If permission [by Turkey] is not going to be given, then that equipment and those ships will have to be diverted to the Suez Canal and onwards to Kuwait to meet up with troops there," Mitchell said.

"The Washington Post" yesterday indicated that the Pentagon might discount the possibility of Turkey's cooperation if Ankara doesn't make a decision within the next 48 hours. The U.S. State Department has so far declined to confirm that Washington is considering any such deadline.

Michele Flournoy is a senior adviser for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. She said that, even if the U.S. political leadership decides to continue talks with Turkey without an immediate agreement, the Pentagon might still confront logistical problems. "I think [military planners] are not going to wait forever. Once you deploy large numbers of U.S. troops into the region, the clock is ticking, because if you don't use them, you have to start worrying about degrading [combat] readiness and also the need to rotate them out of the region after a certain point of time," Flournoy said.

Turkish lawmakers on 6 February decided to allow U.S. Army engineers to upgrade a number of seaports and airfields for use in a possible attack on Iraq. But Ankara this week warned that ongoing work to modernize military facilities does not prejudge the possible use of national territory as a springboard for a ground offensive against Baghdad.

On 18 February, Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer said any large-scale U.S. military buildup within Turkey's borders is conditional upon passage of a second UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq.

Although U.S. President George W. Bush this week said he does not believe a new UN resolution is necessary, both Washington and London are reportedly working on a document that would placate widespread opposition to immediate military action against Iraq. It is unclear when a draft resolution -- if ever -- will be submitted to the Security Council.

Mainstream U.S. newspapers yesterday quoted U.S. officials as saying Turkish-U.S. ties are suffering because of Ankara's decision to put off a parliamentary debate over the issue of U.S. military deployment. The hearings were due to take place on 18 February but were adjourned indefinitely after the Turkish government told Washington it could not guarantee a "yes" vote.

New Turkish-U.S. talks took place yesterday in Ankara but yielded no result.

Speaking to reporters yesterday in Ankara after a meeting with Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Ugur Ziyal, U.S. Ambassador Robert Pearson indicated that time is running out for Turkey to make a decision. "Our time frame is the [U.S.] president's, and I won't speak for him. But as I've said before, time is a critical issue for us. Both sides are working hard, and I hope we can find a solution," Pearson said.

Also yesterday, a Turkish cabinet meeting concluded that the United States has failed so far to allay Ankara's concerns about the economic, political, and military risks inherent in involvement in any U.S.-led operation against Iraq.

Washington is said to be offering Ankara an economic aid package worth $26 billion -- partly in grants and partly in loans -- to compensate for the losses that would be incurred in any war with Iraq. But Turkey, which says the 1991 Gulf War cost its economy some $40 billion, is reportedly asking for more money. It is also demanding written guarantees from the U.S. Congress that, unlike what happened 12 years ago, Washington will honor its promises.

"The New York Times" on 18 February said Turkish leaders had put the price of their logistical support for an Iraq war at $32 billion. This report has not been independently confirmed.

Yet, analysts generally agree that money is not Turkey's only concern. Ankara is trying to obtain firm U.S. assurances that no autonomous or independent Kurdistan will emerge from the rubble of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime.

Turkey, which is considering sending some 50,000 soldiers to Iraq's Kurdish-held areas to prevent a massive influx of refugees, is also refusing to put its troops under U.S. command. Finally, it wants U.S. guarantees regarding the future of Iraq's 300,000-strong Turkic community.

Most defense experts believe the inability to stage a major invasion from Turkey would strike a serious blow to the Pentagon's war plans, even though the United States may still be able to achieve its war objectives. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld yesterday said there are ways to compensate if Turkey decides not to cooperate.

British analyst Mitchell agreed, saying that losing Turkey would not prove fatal to U.S. war plans against Iraq. "I am sure [the Americans] can go ahead without an attack from the north. That just means that the southern offensive would take priority. I am sure they have already factored in this possibility and this option. How they would attack Iraq on a one-front basis, I have no idea. But I am sure it can be done and will be done," Mitchell said.

Flournoy said that, in the event of what she described as the "unlikely" scenario that Turkey will deny U.S. troops access to its territory, Washington might turn to other countries for assistance. "I think there are certainly other options for aircraft and air forces. They would be staged from other bases in Europe, and they would simply have to travel longer distances to conduct their missions. I think for ground forces, what we would see is a shift in focus toward other countries that border on Iraq and much greater pressure put on them to accept additional ground forces so that that second front could be created," Flournoy said.

Flournoy said that Saudi Arabia and Jordan are among the countries the United States could ask to allow large numbers of its troops to operate on their soil.

Saudi Arabia served as a launchpad for U.S.-led coalition forces against Iraq in 1991, but it has still not made clear whether it would authorize the use of its bases in any new war. Like Turkey, the Saudi kingdom already hosts U.S. and British aircraft tasked with implementing the no-fly zones imposed on Iraq after the Gulf War.

Although Jordan did not participate in the previous conflict, Washington has been considering using Iraq's southwestern neighbor as a possible springboard. Despite Amman's denials to the contrary, some 1,500 U.S. special-operations troops have reportedly been stationed in Jordan since October.

Reports say that, should Turkey eventually deny its territory for use in a ground offensive, the Pentagon might still consider attacking Iraq from the north with airborne troops in a scenario that would involve substantially fewer troops.

Kamran al-Karadaghi is deputy director of Radio Free Iraq. He said that existing infrastructure in Iraq's Kurdish-led areas is suitable for a possible airlift option, although such airfields would not be appropriate for a large-scale offensive. "If you're talking about special-forces operations, then it is possible, because in Kurdistan there are a few small [airfields], and the Americans have been working on them for months now to prepare them for possible use. So I think there is a possibility, really, for this kind of operation. But for a [large]-scale operation, I think it would be difficult without having [ground] troops [entering] from Turkey," al-Karadaghi said.

Analyst Mitchell, himself a retired British Army officer, agreed that an airlift operation would have to be limited in scope. Should Ankara decide against the use of its territory by U.S. tanks and infantry, he said an airborne invasion from the north is unlikely, even though any U.S. war plan probably envisages airlifting some troops into Iraqi Kurdistan. "That was going to go ahead anyway and that will probably still go ahead. But the problem is that once airborne troops are here, once [they] are landed, they can only stay on the ground for a limited period of time before other advancing troops have to meet up with them. They can only sustain themselves on the ground for a limited period of time before they would require assistance. So that would be a very difficult option," Mitchell said.

Officials in the U.S. capital claim Turkey is bound to open its territory to U.S. troops for fear of damaging relations. Convinced that it is a key element in U.S. war plans, Turkey in turn is trying to obtain as much economic compensation and security guarantees as it can from Washington.

Both sides are "bluffing," in Mitchell's view: "With the Turks holding out for as much money as they can possibly get, and the U.S. saying, 'If you don't allow us in, you stand to lose far more in terms of economic assistance and credits,' it is a huge game of poker, isn't it?"

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