Turkey gathered several of Iraq's neighbors, plus regional powerbroker Egypt here Thursday for a high-profile meeting billed as a forum to find ways to avert a US-led war against the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Turkey is the one regional ally whom the Bush Administration has been waiting on to complete its plans, hoping for an official go-ahead to station thousands of US troops here for a ground invasion of northern Iraq. But as the Pentagon moves closer to implementing plans for an attack on Iraq, Turkey's discomfort with the concept of allowing its soil to be used for a strike against its neighbor appears to be growing alongside European resistance to the use of force.
Foreign ministers from Iraq's neighbors Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, who met at a heavily guarded palace-turned-hotel along the Bosporus, were expected to announce late Thursday that a subsequent meeting would be held in Damascus, Syria.
Turkey has grown increasingly vocal about its reservations about aiding the US in a war against Iraq, a fellow Muslim nation, and has now assumed a role as a regional consensus-maker. But while Turkey's diplomatic drive throws another kink into the Bush Administration's war scenarios, Ankara is continuing to cooperate with senior Pentagon officials: Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited here this week amid reports that the the two militaries are already discussing specifics of a US deployment here.
That leaves some observers concluding that Thursday's meeting was mostly to show the public here and in various other countries that regional governments are doing everything in their capacity to avoid war. But the effort is likely to be unsuccessful, analysts say, and could be raising false expectations and putting Turkey's new leaders up to a task they cannot achieve.
"The reason why this will result in a failure is because this will be seen as a new attempt by Turkey to lead the region, which is historically not at all welcomed, even though this is a brave effort to avert war," says Ali Carkoglu, the reserach director of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation.
"At the end of the day, Turkey will take part in an active way, if it is cooperation with a Western alliance. But if this is only a unilateral move on the part of the US and if no other major military force is actively taking part in this operation, Turkey would find itelf isolated," Mr. Carkoglu adds. "We will be left with the Americans alone in the Middlle East, and we will be perceived as importers of an unacceptable solution to the region."
Turkey's history with many of the countries gathered here Thursday is colored by the fact that this was, less than a century, ago, the seat of the Ottoman Empire, under whose control large parts of the Islamic world fell. But regional Arab countries say they are far less concerned about the prospect of a renascent Turkish role in regional politics than they are about the outcome of a possible war against Iraq.
"There is no guarantee the whole region will be better off after this war than now," says Gamel A. G. Soltan, senior researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
"There seems to be a wishful thinking on the part of the American administration that everything will go smoothly," says Dr. Soltan. "But we are the ones that are likely to pay for the mistakes that might happen as a result. The US, which is a country that is away from the region, can take the risk of war. But this is something that is too luxurious for us." He adds: "All of those governments want to tell their people that they did as much as they could to avoid war and to open a window of diplomacy. And if this can delay a decision and can convince the Iraqi leader to be more cooperative, can delay the war and give us some more time, than that's good," he says.
"We shouldn't expect much out of these meetings," Soltan says. "The main players - the US and Iraq - are not very amenable to influence coming from regional countries, and we have to be honest about that."
The US had asked to station about 80,000 troops in Turkey. Now the number appears to have been scaled down to a much more conservative figure - closer to 15,000 - but the concept of whether Turkey will allow its territory to be used is more critical than the actual number of troops.
Turkey also says it wants the United Nations Security Council to pass another resolution before it would agree to its territory being used by the US military for a ground invasion of Iraq. But with several members of the Council suggesting that they would resist the "rush" to use force - France has threatened to use its veto - President Bush's aides seem to be emphasizing his recent "coalition of the willing" language. Reading between the lines, it means that no additional resolution will be necessary, as far as the Administration is concerned, and given current European attitudes toward to potential war, a new resolution might not be sought.
This, US officials confirm, raises the likelihood that the Bush Administration may at some point forge ahead with its war plans, with or without Turkey.
But Turkish officials say that if European leaders such as France and Germany oppose the use of force, this will make it increasingly uncomfortable for Turkey to fall into step with Washington, considering that one of the government's key goals is an invitation to join the European Union. "Yes, I think it will put Turkey in a more difficult position," Yusuf Buluc, the spokesman for the foreign ministry, says of increased European opposition to the war.
Officials in the prime minister's office say that Turkey cannot be on board without another UN resolution and that the stationing of new troops here would have to be approved by Turkey's parliament. "We cannot act unilaterally, even bilaterally. There should be a base of international legitimacy for any action in Iraq," says Ahmet Davutoglu, a policy adviser to Prime Minister Abdullah Gul. "If the answer is 'no' in the parliament," he says of ongoing military cooperation. related to a potential US war in Iraq, "all of these technical developments would be stopped."