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Turkey: The Iraqi Equation -- Did Ankara Miss The Train?

The Turkish parliament's approval yesterday of a motion to allow the U.S. military to use its airspace in the Iraq war -- and to permit Turkish soldiers to enter northern Iraq -- has not fully succeeded in reassuring the public that the government is doing everything possible to address Turkish concerns about the Iraq crisis.

Ankara, 21 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Hours after U.S.-led troops began to bomb Iraq, Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer expressed concern about the conflict and reiterated his previous statement that the U.S. action is "unilateral" and lacks UN legitimacy.

Following that statement, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to answer a question about whether Washington had informed his government about the start of military action against Baghdad.

These developments have increased public concern that Ankara, which considers itself a major player in the region, has become an inactive observer of developments expected to have broad consequences for the entire Middle East, including Turkey.

The motion passed yesterday by the Turkish parliament allows the U.S. only to use Turkish airspace. This is in contrast to the first motion, rejected earlier month by parliament, which would have allowed the deployment of some 62,000 U.S. troops on Turkish soil and the use of Turkish military bases. In return, the U.S. had reportedly promised Turkey some $30 billion in grants and loan guarantees.

The rejection of the first motion killed the aid option. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday: "Previously, there had been discussion of a package of aid for Turkey that was contingent on Turkey's acceptance of a total cooperation package. That did not develop and that package is not on the table and that package will not be on the table."

The news dampened hopes in Turkey that closer cooperation with the U.S. would boost the country's indebted economy and allow Ankara to play a more active role in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq.

"How could we mess up like this?" asked the Turkish "Daily News," which quoted U.S. sources as saying that Turkey "would not get a penny from Washington" for passing only the watered-down second motion.

Turkish political scientist Husein Bagci of the Middle Eastern Technical University told RFE/RL: "Turkey has, in fact, become the losing side in this campaign because it couldn't foresee this war obviously approaching and because it couldn't take a resolved position. Now what Turkey has to do in its relations with the U.S. is, based on the logics of damage control, to take part in the international coalition."

The motion passed yesterday by parliament also allows Turkish troops to enter northern Iraq, but American sources quoted in Ankara say the U.S. will not tolerate Turkish combat troops on Iraqi soil.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul noted yesterday, however, that Washington has agreed that Turkish troops in northern Iraq may play a humanitarian role in the crisis.

Turkey -- which has its own restive Kurdish minority -- is concerned about possible Kurdish military activities in northern Iraq and an influx of Kurdish refugees.

In addition to the squandered U.S. aid and the lost opportunity for a more active role for Turkey in the region, analysts here fear damage to the traditionally strong ties between Washington and Ankara.

In rallying votes for the second motion, Prime Minister Erdogan, referring to the importance of maintaining friendly ties with the U.S., called deputies of his ruling Justice and Development Party to act "as if it would be a vote of confidence" in the government.

Analysts say the Iraq crisis has, indeed, strained U.S.-Turkish relations. But Gunduz Aktan, a former Turkish ambassador to the UN and a prominent political analyst, said relations are strong enough to survive. "I hope that with the approval of the new motion, these negative effects will swiftly diminish as far as possible. If the two sides have lost trust [in one another], I hope they will restore it easily because politicians may have lost their trust, but the militaries, being the main elements of the alliance, know each other for a long time and much better [than the politicians]," Aktan said.

With the new motion, Ankara hopes to satisfy both its NATO ally Washington and the Turkish public, without antagonizing either. Critics, however, fear this policy will be considered half-hearted by both sides and will fall short of maintaining the government's strong public support and continuing, let alone improving, its relations with Washington.