US diplomatic strategy in Turkey based on outdated roadmap

The head of Turkey's ruling party announced plans yesterday to seek a second vote on US troops.

It was a gentlemen's disagreement that turned into an arm wrestle.

According to conventional wisdom, there was no question whose arm would fold when Turkey went elbow-to-elbow with its superpower ally. But the conventional wisdom that has shaped ties between the US and Turkey since World War II may have proven to be an outdated playbook for reaching a deal to base tens of thousands of US troops here for a war against Iraq.

Turks say that trying to force their arm - and assuming that it would give way without much resistance - is a strategy that has backfired on the Bush administration. Among the developments that prickled politicians here most: Washington's deadline for an answer before a week-long Muslim holiday, the image of US ships hovering off the coast of Turkey, and American newspaper cartoons depicting Turkey as a slippery rug dealer.

"The [US] stance during the talks and American publications that hurt Turkey's feelings had a negative effect," Prime Minister Abdullah Gul told Secretary of State Colin Powell after Saturday's parliamentary vote failed to support US troop presence, according to the daily Milliyet.

Others here acknowledge that Turkey's new leadership and old military establishment had, in recent months, indicated that Turkish cooperation was inevitable and that parliament would rubber-stamp any decision by the country's higher-ups.

That may have been the case in a 20th-century Turkey, one in which power was centralized, geography meant Ankara was a bulwark against Soviet communism, and the nation's secular leadership could not fathom being ruled by an Islamic-inspired party. But this is 21st-century Turkey, where a ruling party with conservative Muslim roots worries about constituents who see a US-led war as an imperialist, oil-driven crusade at best and as a war on Islam at worst.

In the current diplomatic quake, several analysts say both sides are at fault. But it is Turkey whose geography still makes it a coveted staging ground for the Bush administration, which has muted its frustration with Ankara in the hopes that a second vote on basing troops here could be forthcoming.

The shock of this weekend's "no" vote here not only has the Pentagon's war plans in a holding pattern, it raises the possibility that the US may ultimately look for closer cooperation with key Kurdish factions in northern Iraq. These groups, however, have in recent weeks complained that Washington was preparing to give Turkey too much leeway to suppress Kurdish self-rule during the course of the war.

On Monday, the Pentagon ordered another 60,000 US troops to the Gulf Region, which would bring the number of US and British forces there to more than 230,000. But it's not clear whether the Bush administration could wait another two weeks, the amount of time Turkish officials estimate it would take for another motion to be brought to parliament.

Yesterday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the head of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party announced that the government would pursue another vote in parliament, but failed to specify when. In the interim, local by-elections on Sunday in the southeastern Turkish city of Siirt, would pave the way for Mr. Erdogan, who was banned from holding office until AK Party parliamentarians overturned laws that stood in his way, to become prime minister. Erdogan would probably need another week to install a new government and rally support for a second vote.

That could be two weeks too many. If the Bush administration decides to push ahead in its war strategy, Turkey would lose approximately $15 billion in grants and loans, plus Washington's vigorous backing in dealings with the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.

Monday, Turkey's stocks plunged more than 10 percent on the news of Parliament's rejection - recovering partially yesterday. Equally important, Turkey could stand to lose its role, hammered out in months of negotiations, in determining the military and political arrangements during and after a war in Iraq.

Observers are surprised that Turkey's military did not put more muscle behind Saturday's vote, given Washington's tilt toward Turkey's interests above Iraqi Kurdish ones. "The political and military deal was a really good one for the Turks, and they are throwing that all out the window," says Dr. Bulent Aliriza, the head of the Turkey project at the Center for Strategic and International Affairs in Washington.

Still he says, there should have been ongoing dialogue at a higher-level, instead of an assumption that the details could be worked out. Ammunition, tanks, and other heavy war machinery, waiting at the port of Iskenderun, should perhaps not have been sent to Turkey's shores as though Ankara's help were a done deal. "America could have asked, okay, what's your biggest problem with this?' Instead you had these confrontational negotiations on an almost daily basis. There could have been a different way of negotiating," he says.

"This is diplomacy 101 between two allies," adds Aliriza. " I would put both down to the malaise in the relationship. This is a relationship that has long needed redefinition and renewal of the marriage vows."

But the Bush administration is not keen to give up on Turkey for reasons that go well beyond military strategy. Turkey, if not on board, will sap US aims to show that a war against Saddam Hussein is a just war with international backing. Moreover, turning the boats around and re-routing them to the Persian Gulf would take a week to 10 days, military experts say - not much different than waiting to see if Turkey will come around.

In the meantime, the US could avoid thinking out loud about Plan B or suggesting that Turkey will be punished if it does not play along, says Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Riza Kocukoglu, a military analyst at Yeditepe University in Istanbul.

"The U.S. must give a guarantee not to create a Kurdish state in northern Iraq, and not keep talking about Plan B," a codeword for moving ahead with war plans without Turkey, he says. "This could create a better atmosphere."

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