Turkey; Reagan's new Mideast spearhead?
Istanbul — The Reagan administration has proposed to nearly double military aid to Turkey, a country that lies cheek by jowl to the Soviet border and within striking range of vital Gulf oil fields.
This possible increase in United States military reliance on Turkey, while raising some eyebrows in Washington, has caused much debate in Turkey.
The question: Will the US use Turkish airfields to launch the Pentagon's newly formed Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) into a possible Mideast conflict?
Although a member of NATO, Turkey doubts it wants to be so closely tied to US strategic interests. At the crossroads of two continents, it has tried to balance its relations in the region. But its military is out of date and in need of repair.
In February, President Reagan proposed raising military aid to Turkey from $ 465 million in 1983 to $755 million in 1984. Hearings on the proposal have begun in Congress, and a vote is expected soon. If passed, the new package, which includes $175 million in economic aid, would make Turkey third after Israel and Egypt in receiving US military and economic aid.
Washington would like Turkey to take some responsibility in the RDF, which is assigned to defend US interests, mainly oil, in the Mideast, the Horn of Africa, and the Gulf. Started under the Carter administration and expanded under Mr. Reagan, the Florida-based force has an estimated 230,000 US soldiers, sailors, marines, and Air Force personnel.
Though American officials have on several occasions expressed their wish that Turkey - a convenient launching pad for the RDF because of its proximity to the Gulf - would show more willingness to house the force, they know Turkish sensitivities on the subject and have refrained from pushing it too hard or formulating a formal demand.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ilter Turkmen and Defense Minister Umit Haluk Bayulken have repeatedly stated Turkey has not made any secret deal with the US to grant facilities for the RDF. They further contend Turkey has no intention of doing so by itself.
Yet local newspapers continue to carry from time to time reports about a possible Turkish role in the use of the RDF in the Gulf area. Reports about the modernization of some Turkish airfields, particularly those in eastern Turkey, have aroused speculation here that the US was helping Turkey develop some of these bases for future use by the RDF.
Mr. Bayulken categorically denied those speculations in a statement in February to Hurriyet, a leading Turkish daily newspaper. He pointed out that the modernization of the airfields was purely a NATO activity.
''The expansion of these airfields and the setting up of new equipment will serve NATO's purposes,'' Mr. Bayulken said. ''Under NATO's rapid reinforcement plan, allied forces will be able to use these bases and perform their NATO duties in case a serious threat is posed against the vital interests of the alliance. As to the Rapid Deployment Force, which is a separate thing, there is no decision on it within NATO, and only some exchanges of views are taking place.''
Both Mr. Bayulken and Mr. Turkmen have emphasized Turkey will not accept a role for support of the RDF, and that the country's commitment to NATO remains within the area of responsibility of the alliance - therefore up to the eastern borders of this country and not further into the Middle East.
A decade ago, the US substantially increased its military aid to another Mideast country - Iran - and lost its alliance in the overthrow of the Shah.
Turkey could be a different case. It has a stable government, which is pro-Western and has begun to return to full democracy. In November 1982 the Turkish people overwhelmingly voted in favor of a new constitution that would make Gen. Kenan Evren president for a seven-year period. However, the government has banned political party leaders who were active before the 1980 coup from political activity for 10 years. It holds more than 16,000 political prisoners, according to Amnesty International. Many wonder if the military will want to relinquish its power by October, when the general election is scheduled to take place.
Ankara's relations with the US are very good at present, and the Reagan administration's support for Turkey permits a closer cooperation between the two countries.
''The Americans may think that we could or should play a role in the RDF, and they may even have this in mind when they help us in modernizing some of our bases,'' a senior Turkish official said in an interview. ''But they know and respect our position. We certainly do not invite the RDF and there are no hard feelings on either side because of this.''
But what about the future? This depends very much on the conditions that will prevail in the Middle East. According to the same official, ''Turkey will do whatever its national interests will necessitate.''
A major reason for Turkey's refusal to take any role associated with the RDF is the fear that this may drag Turkey into conflicting positions with the Arab world (more than with the Soviet Union). Ankara has been developing its relations with the Arab countries and Iran as well - and its pro-Arab attitude has been paying off, particularly in economic and commercial terms. The fear is that any direct involvement in US policy on the Middle East - including the RDF - may jeopardize these relations.
Thus the modernization of the air bases in Turkey is presented by the Turkish government as a purely national defense matter. When Foreign Minister Turkmen recently visited Moscow, he told Soviet leaders that this was simply a matter of infrastructure.
In fact, the expansion of the 11 bases is part of NATO's infrastructure program. Two bases, Batman and Mus in eastern Turkey (regarded as the closest areas to the Gulf), will be renewed and built, respectively, and become operational by 1985.
Turkish officials note that the US is beefing up military facilities in Turkey, while the future of the US bases in Greece, now subject to negotiations, is uncertain.
In case the talks would fail and these bases would be closed down, there are indications that some of these facilities may be transferred to Turkey - within the NATO framework and, of course, with the Turkish government's consent.