In a First Test, Pro-Islamic Turkey Stays the Course on Western Ties
1,400 US troops likely to stay in region to protect Iraqi Kurds
ISTANBUL, TURKEY — In the 1920s Turkey's secular leader, Kemal Ataturk, decreed that Turkish soldiers would no longer don the famed fez hat. Ridding the Turkish military of the round, red fez in favor of western headwear was a symbolic move - and one that heralded a strategic and cultural pivot by this predominately Muslim regional power.
Turkey swiveled away from the Islamic world and turned instead to embrace the West. This connection was reaffirmed after the 1991 Gulf war, when Turkey began hosting 1,400 US troops in the mission called Operation Provide Comfort - a US-led effort that protects the ethnic Kurds in nearby Iraq from persecution by Saddam Hussein.
But the ascendance of Necmettin Erbakan, a pro-Islamic leader, to the post of prime minister last month cast the nation's strong connection to the West into doubt.
Before gaining power, Mr. Erbakan called Operation Provide Comfort an occupation force designed to suppress "our Muslim brothers" and said it should leave. Despite this rhetoric, in the first real test of the direction in which he will lead Turkey, he has reaffirmed ties to the West, if only for practical, economic reasons.
The mandate for Operation Provide Comfort expires July 31 and must be extended by vote of the parliament. The vote largely hinges on Erbakan's support. He says he's ready to deal with the United States and has indicated general support for the extension.
After meeting with Erbakan last week, US Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright said there had been "a meeting of the minds" on the issue.
And after meeting with the Turkish army - a powerful and staunchly pro-Western force - Erbakan said, "We cannot afford to offend the US. Our national defense depends on the US and our economy is facing difficulties. A policy of confrontation [with the US] is not in our interest." But in a new twist, he added: "Of course we have our own conditions. The renewal of the mandate can no longer be made free of charge."
Erbakan has had to consider pressure from many sides: military commanders who favor Provide Comfort; his governing coalition partner, the True Path Party of pro-West Tansu Ciller; and business leaders who wants strong ties with the US and Europe. On the other hand, he must take into account his past political stance and the anti-West feeling in the public and his pro-Islamic Welfare Party.
Operation Provide Comfort carves out a "security zone" in Iraq north of the 36th parallel. From the massive NATO base at Incirlik, 80 aircraft, including fighter bombers, AWACS radar planes, reconnaissance planes, and helicopters patrol the zone. The force also has a command post in Zakho, a town in northern Iraq, where Kurds have established an autonomous local government, a parliament, and security forces.
Many Turks, including Erbakan, view the development as a threat to Turkish security. The protected zone, they say, gives Kurdish separatists, who have been fighting Turkey for an independent homeland, a secure base. Kurdish rebels regularly attack the Turkish military and have carried out a terrorist campaign for many years.
Turks also suspect that in order to further nettle Mr. Hussein, the US may encourage the Iraqi Kurds to separate from Iraq. This move would only further protect and encourage the anti-Turk separatists.
So in negotiating to extend the Provide Comfort mandate, Erbakan has convinced the US and its allies to issue a formal declaration that they oppose any division of Iraq. The US will also cooperate closely with Turkey in its fight against Kurdish terrorism. And, perhaps most importantly, Turkey has asked for economic benefits - including easing the UN embargo of Iraq, which hurts Turkey.
Said one Western diplomat: "Erbakan has proved to be a skillful Oriental bargainer. He knows ... the value of what he is offering - a military presence and political influence in the Gulf that the US cannot afford to relinquish."