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U.S./Turkey: Washington, Ankara Locked In Tough Talks Over Aid Package

Washington and Ankara are locked in tough negotiations over the deployment of U.S. troops to southern Turkey for a possible war with Iraq. Analysts say the outcome of the talks will greatly affect U.S. war plans and possibly U.S. relations with NATO's only Muslim member.

Washington, 20 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United States says time is running out for Ankara to accept a final offer for an aid package that would pave the way for U.S. troops to be deployed to Turkey for a possible war with its southern neighbor Iraq.

Though attacking northern Iraq from Turkey is widely considered a vital part of any military plan, the White House yesterday escalated its brinkmanship, saying the United States can defeat Iraq even without Ankara's help.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told a briefing that Washington has options to deploy troops elsewhere in the region should Turkey reject the United States' "final offer," which reportedly involves $6 billion in grants and $20 billion in loans and loan guarantees. "Turkey, of course, is a desirable [partner] from the strategic point of view for any military staging, but the military of the United States is sufficiently flexible, and whatever decision is made, the United States will still be successful in carrying out any military operations," Fleischer said.

Turkey, a key U.S. ally and the only Muslim member of NATO, suffered economically from the 1991 Gulf War. With more than 90 percent of Turks opposed to a new war, Ankara is proving to be a tough negotiator now under the recently elected Justice and Development Party, a political grouping with Islamic roots.

Washington, which has strongly supported Turkey's bid to join the European Union, had originally offered up to $15 billion in aid.

But analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say neither Washington nor Ankara is really prepared to deal with the consequences of failing to reach a deal. Zeyno Baran, a Turkish-born analyst at Washington's Nixon Center, a policy institute, said negotiations have reached a difficult point, but added: "Rationally, ideally, both sides need each other."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell sought to break the deadlock yesterday in a phone conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul. But Ankara is still demanding that the United States add a further $4 billion in direct aid to its package, even though Washington has called the offer final.

Justice and Development Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday in Ankara that the Turkish parliament has no plans this week to vote on allowing U.S. troops to use Turkish soil for a possible attack.

Washington, meanwhile, has told Ankara it needs to know by the end of the week whether Turkey would accept the U.S. aid package and allow up to 80,000 U.S. troops into the country.

Erdogan also suggested that Ankara need not fear the consequences of not reaching a deal with Washington. "There are many countries which do not support the United States but which are friends," Erdogan said. "Will [Washington] cut relations with France, China, [and] Russia as well?"

So what's Turkey driving at? Is it just money, or is Ankara's new government trying to get Washington to drop plans to use Turkish military bases for an Iraq war?

Baran of the Nixon Center said that while the economic package could still fall through because of Turkey's tough bargaining, Ankara ultimately does not want to be left out of any war on its southern flank. It worries that Kurds in northern Iraq could seek independence and thus destabilize its own sizable Kurdish minority. "The way that the Turks have put themselves into a corner, it's just difficult to see how they're going to make it work, because they've conditioned it on a second UN vote or a clear additional economic package. And they've also indicated that most likely there is not going to be a vote [in the Turkish parliament] by Friday [21 February]," Baran said.

Baran added, "There's still time until Friday; post-Friday, things are going to get messy."

Baran also said that because of its huge economic and political interests in northern Iraq, Turkey would be wise to secure a deal with the United States before any fighting starts. "I think if there's war in Iraq, [Ankara] will want to be somehow part of it, providing airspace. There's already the Incirlik air base, which the U.S. and U.K. have been using. So they'll want to have limited engagement but enough engagement so they could take the benefits out of being an ally," Baran said.

As for Washington, even if U.S. officials say they can wage war without Turkey, military analysts say losing Ankara would deal a major blow to U.S. war plans.

Anthony Cordesman, a former senior official at the U.S. State and Defense departments, is one of the United States' top military analysts. Cordesman, in an interview with RFE/RL, said that regardless of whether the aid deal is reached, it is still unclear whether that agreement affects the use of Turkish bases for U.S. air power.

The United States and Britain already use southern Turkey's Incirlik air base to enforce the no-fly zone over northern Iraq.

Cordesman said that even if the deal only affects land power, Washington will still have a variety of problems in waging war in Iraq. "We really have no access to the [Persian] Gulf except through Kuwait. It would put all of our advance on one line of advance; it would greatly complicate the logistic problems; it would complicate the supply problems and make our line of advance far more predictable. There would be the difficulty that Iraq would be able to predict the lines of advance and that it would be relatively secure in the north," Cordesman said.

That means Iraq could concentrate on defending its south and west, where U.S. troops may attack from Jordan, a task Cordesman said would greatly simplify Iraq's defense and complicate U.S. efforts to achieve a swift victory. "And it certainly would create potential problems in the course of the war, because the United States would not be moving through the Kurdish areas, not be securing the north, and this creates a higher risk of Kurdish separatism and a different kind of Turkish intervention," Cordesman said.

Washington has indicated that despite widespread international opposition to war, a possible invasion of Iraq could be just weeks away.

With U.S. Navy ships steaming toward Turkey, U.S. officials say the possibility is growing that they will be redirected southward to join a main invasion force gathering near Iraq's southern borders. Washington already has some 150,000 troops in the region.

The U.S. military off-loaded a number of armored vehicles and ammunition at a port in southeast Turkey yesterday. But it was not clear if that equipment was outside an existing deal allowing the United States to upgrade Turkish bases.

Another 35 U.S. military supply ships are reportedly heading toward Turkey. But whether they can disembark there remains in question.