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Turkey: Ankara Moves To Vote On Second U.S. Motion In Hope Of Containing Kurds

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Turkish lawmakers are expected tomorrow to debate a draft government motion allowing U.S. warplanes to use national airspace in a war against neighboring Iraq. The motion also envisages the dispatching of Turkish troops to northern Iraq. Prospects of the United States operating in that region have raised concerns in Ankara, which fears Washington's postwar scenarios might foster Kurdish national aspirations.

Prague, 19 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Pressed by the United States, the Turkish government yesterday said it would ask parliament to vote on a draft motion authorizing the Pentagon to use Turkey's airspace in a northern offensive against neighboring Iraq.

On 1 March, Turkish lawmakers failed to endorse a proposal authorizing the deployment of up to 62,000 U.S. troops with a view to carrying out a massive ground attack on Baghdad.

The decision to open the country's airspace to U.S. warplanes for possible airborne operations was approved at an emergency cabinet meeting chaired by newly appointed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The move came one day after U.S. President George W. Bush gave Iraqi President Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave Baghdad or face war.

Seyfi Tashan chairs the Ankara-based Foreign Policy Institute think tank. He told RFE/RL that what prompted the Turkish leadership to action is the fact that war now seems inevitable. "The point was that by refusing to take a stand, [Turkish leaders] were hoping to delay the start of the war. But the war is starting [now] and, therefore, Turkey will take its place [in it]," Tashan said.

Turkish Justice Minister and government spokesman Cemil Cicek said lawmakers would convene tomorrow to debate the government motion.

Leaving the door ajar to the possible deployment of U.S. troops in the near future, Cicek said Ankara would consider any additional demand Washington might put forth in the coming days or weeks.

The cabinet motion also envisages dispatching an undisclosed number of Turkish troops into northern Iraq, a move that is likely to raise concerns in Washington, which fears possible clashes between Ankara's soldiers and Iraq's anti-Hussein Kurdish fighters.

Turkey has already sent army reinforcements to the border area, and press reports say soldiers are already being deployed in northern Iraq.

Ankara's 11th-hour decision to draft a new motion followed a meeting late on 17 March that was attended by Erdogan, President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, and Army Chief of Staff General Hilmi Ozkok.

Turkey's procrastination in committing its territory and airspace to U.S. war plans has caused much frustration in Washington, which was reportedly ready to earmark some $30 billion in aid to help the country alleviate the economic consequences of war.

Amid claims it had other options to compensate for Ankara's possible defection, the United States on 14 March ordered a number of missile-firing ships and submarines to move to the Persian Gulf from the Mediterranean Sea.

Asli Aydintasbas is a U.S.-based correspondent for Turkey's "Sabah" daily and an adjunct fellow at the Western Policy Center in Washington. She ascribes Erdogan's move to fears of being left out of Iraq's postwar equation. "I think whatever change has taken place, it has largely been a psychological one. Suddenly, the effect of, 'Oh my God, we're being left out of this equation. We're going to be deprived of the financial aid, and we're not going to be able to do anything in northern Iraq,' just had a sudden alarming effect on the Turkish political elite," Aydintasbas said.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday confirmed that the aid offer made last month had expired, and there is no indication of how much assistance is now on the table. White House officials have said overflight rights alone could not justify financial compensation.

Besides economic concerns, Erdogan's cabinet and Turkey's influential army generals fear a regional conflict might seriously affect Ankara's strategic interests. Hence, they argue, Turkey should not to remain on the sidelines of a U.S.-led war on Baghdad.

Ankara claims possible unrest in Iraq's mainly Kurdish northern region might impact its own southeastern provinces, which were the scene of a fierce Kurdish armed struggle in the 1980s and 1990s. After 15 years of guerrilla war, Turkey eventually succeeded in quelling the rebels, containing militants of the Marxist Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) beyond national territory and capturing party leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Last year, the outlawed PKK announced it had changed its name to KADEK, the Kurdish Freedom and Democratic Congress. Although the group has said it now wants to achieve its goals through peaceful means only, officials in Ankara insist it remains a terrorist organization.

Turkey's judiciary on 13 March cited alleged links with the PKK as its reason for outlawing the People's Democracy Party (HADEP), the country's largest legal Kurdish party.

Aydintasbas said Ankara's insistence on sending troops to northern Iraq -- ostensibly to prevent a massive influx of refugees similar to the 1 million-strong migration flows that hit Turkey during the 1991 Gulf War -- partially stems from fears, based on past experience, of renewed PKK activity in the region. "Many people in Turkey view the Gulf War and the end of the Gulf War as something that single-handedly fuelled terrorism in Turkey. You may or may not agree with this, but this is certainly the perception in Turkey. To be [more] specific, many people in the political establishment and in the military establishment believe the Kurdish exodus in Turkey at the end of the Gulf War allowed PKK forces to infiltrate and use both Turkey and northern Iraq as a staging ground. That fact is sometimes overlooked in the analysis of Turkey in Western media, [but] I think the PKK issue remains a high priority for Turkey," Aydintasbas said.

For most of the past decade, PKK fighters have been based in Syria, Iran, and Iraq.

In Iraq, PKK activists have had conflicting relations with the two rival factions that control the country's northern provinces: Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Mas'ud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

Although Ankara has maintained alternatively good ties with both groups, which have condoned Turkish armed forays into northern Iraq and helped Ankara crush the PKK in the 1990s, it fears a change in leadership in Baghdad might result in the official endorsement of the de facto autonomy Iraqi Kurdistan has been enjoying since 1991 or even in the area declaring its independence.

Tashan said Turkey has two major demands for the United States: "There are two basic problems. [The first] one is that the PKK should not be given safe haven [in northern Iraq's Kurdistan]. [The second one is] that Turkomans should be considered as an [essential] part of Iraqi society, just like Arabs and Kurds."

There are no reliable figures that could help assess the demographic weight of Iraq's Turkic community. Depending on estimates, Turkomans are said to number between 300,000 and 2 million and are mainly concentrated around Mosul, Kirkuk, and Arbil.

In the past, Turkomans have equally suffered from Kurdish armed raids and Hussein's forced Arabization policy. But it is only recently that the situation of Iraq's Turkic population has raised concerns in Ankara.

Turkey would like the Turkomans to obtain greater political influence in the region to counterbalance Iraq's 4 million to 6 million Kurds and to reduce the risk of political impact on its own Kurdish provinces. "Turkey insists that Turkomans be part of the post-Saddam equation, not just in the north but in Baghdad [itself]. There are detailed issues [such as], 'Will Turkomans be mentioned by name in Iraq's new constitution?' We know, for example, that the constitution draft put forth by one of the Kurdish groups [Barzani's KDP] just talks about Iraq consisting of Arab and Kurdish populations. Turkey would like very much to see the Turkomans mentioned in the constitution as one of the ethnic groups of the country. Similarly, they would like to make sure that the political representation that takes place in Baghdad and in the north [after the war] would include Turkomans," Aydintasbas said.

In a bid to ease Ankara's concerns, the Bush administration has repeatedly said the rights of Iraq's Turkic minority would be preserved once there is a regime change in Baghdad.

A U.S.-sponsored Iraqi opposition meeting held on 26-28 February in the Iraqi Kurdish town of Salahaddin, however, failed to include Turkomans among the leadership council that could possibly administer the region in a post-Hussein scenario.

If Turkey is concerned about Washington's postwar objectives, the United States is wary about possible confrontation between Turkish troops and northern Iraq's Kurdish population and insists that all troops present in the area be placed under U.S. command.

Although Ankara says its troops will not take part in any combat operations, Iraqi Kurds have threatened to fight any Turkish Army unit that acts independently from Washington.

Despite Turkey's claims to the contrary, Barzani's KDP also suspects Ankara of planning to use the Turkoman card to claim the two oil-rich cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. Ankara, in turn, fears the United States might let Iraq's Kurds assume control of these two Baghdad-controlled former Ottoman possessions.

Aydintasbas believes U.S. postwar plans will ultimately depend on how Turkey will respond to any future American demands. "What the U.S. would like in northern Iraq is a question that, ultimately, is dependent on how much participation there is [in a war against Iraq]. U.S. officials are, for example, saying that they understand Turkey's sensitivities and therefore insist behind closed doors that Kurdish groups do not capture Kirkuk. But should Turkey not be part of the equation in this operation -- in other words, should Turkey say we are 'hands-off,' and we are not going to let American troops in -- it is my perception that the U.S. would not have that [many] reasons to be too sensitive about Kirkuk, for example," Aydintasbas said.

White House envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is in Ankara to discuss the future of northern Iraq with Turkish officials and representatives of Iraq's Kurds and Turkomans.

Talking to reporters yesterday, Khalilzad seemed to address some of Turkey's concerns when he said the U.S. military would control access to Kirkuk and Mosul. But he also warned Ankara that sending troops to northern Iraq beyond U.S. control was not "the best option."