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NATO: Dispute Over Military Preparations Puts Turkey In A Predicament

Ambassadors from NATO's 19 member states yesterday failed, for the third time this week, to overcome an impasse over a Turkish request for defensive weapons against a possible Iraqi attack. France, Germany, and Belgium oppose Ankara's demand, saying starting military preparations against Baghdad now would undermine efforts to preserve peace in the Middle East. The dispute is putting Turkey, a key NATO ally and a candidate for membership in the European Union, in a predicament.

Prague, 12 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A deadlock over NATO's preparations for a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq is putting Turkey, the alliance's only member state in the Middle East, in a delicate position.

NATO allies France, Germany, and Belgium earlier this week (10 February) vetoed plans to offer Ankara immediate military assistance to confront a hypothetical Iraqi missile attack. Backed by the U.S. and Britain, which view Turkey as a crucial element in their war plans, Ankara is demanding that NATO provide AWACS surveillance aircraft and Patriot antimissile batteries, as well as antichemical- and antibiological-warfare teams.

Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul called upon NATO members yesterday to abide by the alliance's founding treaty. Article 4 of the Washington Treaty provides for NATO members to consult when any one of them believes its territorial integrity, political independence, or security is threatened.

Referring to the instrumental role Turkey had played against communism throughout the Cold War, Gul said the alliance has both moral and contractual obligations toward his country. "Turkey defended all of Europe during the Cold War. It served as a shield for Europe. Consequently, there is no doubt that NATO must [now] fulfill everything that falls to it. The Turkish armed forces are very strong. They do not [necessarily] need all this [NATO support]. Our military power is among the strongest in the world. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that [NATO] has responsibilities which stem from the rights we have that are envisaged in [various] treaties," Gul said.

Hours later, addressing the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw made a similar reference to the Cold War-period to caution NATO against any further delay in committing resources to Turkey. "This is a serious issue. Inaction in the face of a threat to an ally risks eroding the solemn commitments which underlie the North Atlantic Treaty [Washington Treaty] and would undermine the trans-Atlantic defense relationship, which served every ally so well during the Cold War and the turbulent decade which followed. That treaty remains the fundamental basis for our defense against the new threats which confront us today," Straw said.

In an apparent bid to play down the NATO rift, Turkish leaders say they are aware that France, Belgium, and Germany are not questioning Ankara's security. In that sense, Turkey's official response to the dispute sharply contrasts with angry comments made by the U.S. administration.

U.S. President George W. Bush said that he is "disappointed" at France's efforts to "block NATO from helping" Turkey prepare for war.

Asked by a reporter yesterday whether he thought the row was more about jostling between the U.S. and its opponents in Europe, Gul said: "You are right. Turkey is not really the target here. However, there is, as we say, a diplomatic fight going on."

Gul was referring to joint Franco-German attempts at averting war against Baghdad by convincing both the international community and Iraqi leaders that UN weapons inspections must be continued and reinforced. The U.S. has dismissed the French-German plan as a "distraction."

Some defense analysts believe growing disagreements between the United States, France, and Germany might have serious consequences for NATO.

Speaking to reporters in Brussels after France, Germany, and Belgium vetoed assistance to Turkey, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns on 10 February blamed the three countries for triggering what he described as a "crisis of credibility" within the 19-member alliance.

Addressing journalists that same day in Ankara after telephone talks with his French, German, and Belgian counterparts, Turkey's Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis, however, adopted a more cautious tone, saying he believes the row is more about timing than substance. Yakis also said he is reasonably confident the alliance will eventually come to an agreement.

"I believe these problems can be overcome because there is no disagreement on the essence of the problem. Certain countries have a problem with the timing [of NATO's assistance to Turkey]. Once we allay their worries, I think those countries will adopt the line defended by Turkey, the United States and, to some extent, by Britain," Yakis said. Yakis also made clear the Turkish leadership is convinced that France, Belgium, and Germany would not bargain their support to Ankara in the event of an Iraqi attack.

Turkey's rather cautious approach seems to reflect Ankara's embarrassment over the NATO rift. Although the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has vowed to enhance Turkey's traditional ties with the U.S., it has also said it sees relations with the European Union as its top foreign-policy priority.

Ankara, which applied for membership in the EU in 1987, hopes formal entry talks will start in 2005, at the latest. Under these circumstances, Turkish leaders fear that antagonizing France and Germany now might create new obstacles to Ankara's membership bid in the future.

In remarks published in Istanbul's "Star" daily, columnist Zeynep Gurcanli wrote yesterday that Ankara has already suffered to a certain extent from Washington's dispute with "Europe's Franco-German axis" and therefore appears extremely careful "not to aggravate things" further.

The NATO rift has forced Yakis to postpone a planned visit to neighboring Georgia. It has also prompted some resentful comments in Turkey. In remarks published in Ankara's English-language "Turkish Daily News," columnist Burak Bekdil yesterday said, "It is time someone openly says NATO is no longer needed because it is no longer a genuine alliance." He concluded, "No one will pay for a fire extinguisher that won't work the only time it is needed."

Washington is pressing Ankara to authorize the deployment of U.S. soldiers on its soil with an eye to opening a possible northern front against Iraq that would take the heat off a primary invasion from the Persian Gulf area. U.S. military planners also believe a breakthrough from Turkey would be essential in securing Iraq's oil-production facilities, which are concentrated in the northern half of the country.

Before going on recess for the Muslim holiday of Kurban Bayrami (Feast of the Sacrifice), the Turkish parliament last week (6 February) endorsed a government proposal to allow U.S. military personnel to modernize a number of seaports and airfields for use in any war against Iraq.

Legislators are due to debate next week (18 February) another government request to authorize the deployment of U.S. troops in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeastern provinces, near the Iraqi border.

Both Turkish public opinion and the governing AKP are strongly opposed to a war in Iraq, if only for security concerns. The AKP leadership, however, fears that should Ankara deny logistical support to the U.S., it would have no say in the remapping of Iraq and would be unable to avert what it would consider unpleasant developments, such as the emergence of an autonomous Kurdistan near its own restive Kurdish southeast. The U.S. has denied it has any plan to grant northern Iraq's Kurds autonomy or independence, but Turkey has been traditionally touchy over the Kurdish issue.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, Turkey has sent reinforcements to the Iraqi border and insists NATO provide extra military equipment in case the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein launches a preemptive strike or a counterattack on its territory.

Turkish leaders dismiss objections made by France, Germany, and Belgium that such preparations might send Iraq the signal that war is inevitable and that there is no room left for further diplomatic initiatives under the aegis of the United Nations. As Foreign Minister Yakis reiterated on 10 February, Ankara believes stepping up military preparations near Iraq's borders might contribute to preserving peace in the region by forcing Hussein to abide by UN disarmament resolutions.