Turkey's Iraq troubles

As the war on terrorism draws to a close in Afghanistan, talk is growing in Washington about a "next phase" that would include Iraq.

As a traditionally close ally of the United States and a NATO member with a predominantly Muslim population, Turkey is in a delicate position. It is clear that Turkey's support is crucial for any US military strike against Iraq. But are the Turks as willing to cooperate as the late President Turgut Ozal was in 1990?

The possibility of such a military operation brings back bitter memories of the Gulf War of the early '90s, when Turkey's prospering economy was severely hit by the war. Ironically, the ongoing economic crisis could lead to a reversal of Turkey's position on Iraq.

After Sept. 11, Turkey was reluctant to back the US in case the war spread into Turkey's southern neighbor, Iraq. In a CNN interview Oct. 16, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said that an attack on Iraq "could lead to the partitioning of Iraq, which ... could create problems for Turkey, for Turkey's independence or territorial integrity." He added, "We don't see any reason for attacking Iraq at all."

His concerns about the possible emergence of a Kurdish entity in the aftermath of such an operation were echoed by the military's General Chief of Staff, Huseyin Kivrikoglu. During a visit to Diyarbakir, a town near the Iraqi border, he said on Nov. 9 that Turkey did not want military action against Iraq. Turkey's apprehension is understandable: For 15 years, the country waged a costly campaign against Kurdish insurgents, ultimately defeating them in 1998. Turkey has also suffered more than $30 billion in losses from the continuing embargo against Iraq since the Gulf War, first and foremost because the Iraq-Turkey oil pipeline was shut down. In addition, trading relationships were ruptured not only with Iraq but also with other Arab nations south of Turkey.

Now all this appears to be changing. By Nov. 21, only a fortnight after an Ecevit interview on CBS-TV where he made it clear "Turkey would not support" US action against Iraq, the Turkish ambassador to the US, Faruk Logoglu, said, "new conditions would bring new evaluations to our agenda," adding that "we can make its reevaluation if a credible case is brought against Iraq, showing that Iraq is involved in the terrorist attacks."

This statement was backed by Defense Minister Sabahattin Cakmakoglu a few days later. In fact, this swift shift in view indicates that Turkey must be running out of maneuvering space and that it can no longer expect to have its cake and eat it, too. Now aware that a strike against Iraq is becoming more likely, the Turkish government has apparently realized that support of the US could be the only viable way to advance its aspirations for better relations with the European Union. Cyprus's probable accession into the EU in 2004 and the EU's intention to exclude Turkey from the European Security and Defense Policy have aggravated EU-Turkey relations.

Support of US policies on Iraq was also seen as a means to continue getting loans from the IMF and the World Bank, support that is vital to the Turkish economy. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Iraqi ambassador to Turkey was sent home Nov. 22, the day after Ambassador Logoglu's statement.

How far Turkey will go in supporting a US military strike against Iraq is unclear. Remember that the late President Ozal, who in the Gulf War didn't hesitate to turn off the valves of the Iraqi-Turkish oil pipeline and allowed free use of the strategic Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey, could not convince the Turkish military to deploy troops against Iraq.

Today, the political climate in Turkey is even less favorable for such unconditional support. Mr. Ecevit is known for his status-quo views that would exclude intervention in Iraq. At the end of the day, however, economics may dictate politics. The Turkish economy will increasingly depend on IMF and World Bank funds over the next three years. This will probably give the US significant leverage while Ecevit is in Washington this week to discuss Iraq, among other strategically significant issues for US-Turkish relations.

By the time the prime minister is back in Turkey, we may have seen yet another step in the reversal of Turkey's position on Iraq.

Bora Yagiz is a research assistant for the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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