Turks Deny Gulf-Coalition Allies Airbase to Enforce `No-Fly' Zone
Officials ask why West does not move to protect Muslims in Bosnia
ISTANBUL — TURKEY sided with the US-led coalition during the Gulf crisis, putting its Incirlik Airbase at the disposal of the United States for strikes against Iraq, but the country now finds itself at odds with Western policy.
The Turks do not want to get involved in a new Gulf crisis over President Saddam Hussein's treatment of Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq, and remain firmly opposed to any intervention that would divide the country, according to officials and diplomats here and in Ankara.
The Turkish government has informed the Western countries that led the Gulf war coalition that it does not consider itself a party to the enforcement of a "no-fly" zone in southern Iraq and that it will not allow the use of Incirlik Airbase in southern Turkey for such an operation.
United States, British, and French diplomats in Ankara have also been told by senior government officials of Turkey's concern over reports of a Western plan to slice up Iraq into a Kurdish region in the north, a Shiite area in the south, and a Sunni Muslim heartland between the two.
The Turks have made it clear that they disapprove of any plan that would dismember Iraq to get rid of Saddam. The Turks question whether it is necessary to take military action against Iraq because of its repression of Shiites. No use of air base
Defense Minister Nevzat Ayaz has ruled out the use of Incirlik for any new air operations against Iraq and has said Turkey "cannot be a party in such an intervention." Foreign Minister Hikmet Cetin declared that no formal request was made by the coalition leaders to this effect, adding, "They already know that we shall not accept it."
About 50 US, British, and French military aircraft are stationed at Incirlik as part of the "Provide Comfort" force set up to protect the Kurdish region in northern Iraq. The Turks have told Western diplomats that the mission of that force does not extend below the 36th parallel.
The Turkish government's position against aiding a new intervention stems from the general reluctance to get involved in Western plans that might lead to a dismemberment of its southern neighbor.
The government agreed recently, not without hesitation, to extend the mission of the coalition force at Incirlik until the end of this year. They believe that the emergence of a semi-independent Kurdish region in Northern Iraq is the result of the support given by the West through the "Provide Comfort" force. Fear of Kurdish revolt
The Turks fear that the breakup of Iraq as a result of the creation of another autonomous region, this time in the Shiite south, would ultimately lead to Kurdish independence, which Turkey opposes.
Recent reports in the US press suggesting that the idea behind the creation of a "no-fly" zone in southern Iraq was to split off that region from Saddam's Baghdad stronghold and to dismember the country, have provoked apprehension here.
"The preservation of Iraq's territorial integrity remains the basic principle of our policy toward Iraq," Foreign Minister Cetin said.
The minister has formally assured the Iraqi ambassador in Ankara, Rafi Mejwel al-Tikriti, that Turkey stands against the division of Iraq. However, Cetin warned Iraq against provoking the West and advised full compliance with UN resolutions.
Despite recent statements in Washington that the US does not intend to partition Iraq, the Turks still seem suspicious about Western strategy. Officials say privately that even if that is not the US intent, the result could be a de facto division, as it has been the case in the creation of the now-autonomous Kurdish region.
Cetin did not hide his suspicion in an interview with a Turkish daily, saying, "Odd things are happening about Iraq. What is done differs from what is said." This reflects the government's uneasiness about the encouragement given to the Iraqi Kurds to set up their own administration while statements were made in Washington in favor of Iraq's territorial integrity.
The Turks see the creation of the autonomous region in northern Iraq as a step toward independence. This, they fear, would encourage the 12 million Kurds living mostly in southeastern Turkey to seek secession and join their brethren across the border. Turkey already is facing what is developing into a Kurdish rebellion in its southeastern province, led by the Marxist Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK).
The PKK has been using the Kurdish region in northern Iraq as a base for their attacks against Turkey. The general feeling here is that the political vacuum in northern Iraq - which is no more under Baghdad's control - has provided the Kurdish guerrillas a favorable base for their anti-Turkish activities.
That explains why Turkey is so sensitive on the territorial integrity of its neighbor.
"Saddam exists today but may not be there tomorrow. But Iraq will always be our neighbor. Therefore we have to take this into account," says Defense Minister Ayaz.
In fact Turkey is silently trying to normalize its relations with Iraq. Although the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad remains closed, a Foreign Ministry official has recently been sent to Baghdad. The Turks are also exploring the possibility of restoring trade ties to the extent that sanctions permit. Viewed with suspicion
Most Turks regard with suspicion the Western move to ban Iraqi flights south of the 32nd parallel. They say that the West should rather be more concerned with the plight of the Muslim population in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
"It is hard to understand the West's sensitivity on Iraq while the people in Bosnia are slaughtered. This is double-standard policy," said Ayaz.