`AFTER the Gulf crisis, the map of the Middle East will change completely,'' Turkish President Turgut Ozal has said. ``If there is a better place [for us] in the world, we must take it. But this requires a more active policy.'' Turkey's approach to developments in the Gulf since Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2 reflects this desire to take a more active part in the region's affairs.
Ankara was quick to respond to the Iraqi aggression by shutting down a key oil pipeline and putting United Nations-sponsored economic sanctions into effect. Parliament last week also granted the Turkish government special powers to send troops to the Gulf and to allow foreign forces to be stationed on its soil for non-NATO purposes.
In the past, Turkey has preferred to stay out of conflicts in the Middle East. It took a strictly neutral position on the Iran-Iraq war.
Much of this new direction in policy is the initiative of Mr. Ozal, who says the Gulf crisis offers an opportunity for Turkey to regain its geopolitical and strategic importance, which Turks feel has been devalued by the end of the cold war.
Ozal's personal diplomacy and initiatives on the Gulf crisis, however, have aroused widespread criticism from opposition parties, who blame him and the government for causing a major shift in Turkey's traditional, cautious policy on the Middle East.
``This is an adventurous policy,'' says Erdal Inonu, the leader of the Social Democratic People's Party. ``The government calls it an active or dynamic policy. Turkey needs no such policy, which presents nothing but great risks.''
According to Suleyman Demirel, the leader of the center-right True Path Party, Turkey's attitude is now ``more royalist than the King ... Ozal wants to send our boys to the deserts of Arabia for the sake of adopting an active policy. To expect benefits from the possible bloodshed of our men in the desert is just ruthlessness and unintelligent.''
Most Turks seem to be strongly opposed to any military commitment in the area. Parliament's decision to give the government special ``war powers'' sparked a chorus of protests. Newspapers were bombarded with letters saying that no Turk wants to die ``in the Arabian deserts'' for the Arabs or for the ``oil interests'' of the superpowers.
``This is not our cause and is not worth a drop of Turkish blood,'' an Istanbul driver says.
However, the government only intends to use these powers as a last resort, according to Ozal. ``It does not mean that we are going to send troops immediately,'' he said Sunday. ``War would be the last resort, only after all the peaceful means are fully used and exhausted.''
Ozal, who meets President Bush in Washington later this month, feels that being equipped with such powers gives him and the government more room for maneuvering in the new ``active policy'' he wants Turkey to play.
In recent private conversations with journalists and leading members of the government and of his ruling Motherland Party, Ozal has spelled out his vision for Turkey's future role in the Middle East.
First, he feels that the downfall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is inevitable.
Second, once this happens, the ``map of the Middle East will come under consideration.'' There may be major changes in the balance of power in the region. Iraq's political structure may be revised to give more autonomy to Iraqi Kurds close to Turkey's southern border and to its own Kurdish population. Turkey should have a say on such a sensitive issue, Ozal believes. And the best way to ensure this is to embark on a ``dynamic policy.''
Ankara is also sympathetic to US Secretary of State James Baker III's suggestion for a security system in the Middle East. Foreign Minister Ali Bozer said Sunday that Turkey would be interested in participating in a collective effort for security in the region.