Turkish conscripts likely to be least willing of coalition
ISTANBUL — Turks were already skeptical of their leaders' decision last week to allow troops to be sent to neighboring Iraq in line with US pleas for backup.
But following a car bomb attack outside the Turkish embassy in Baghdad Tuesday, many are growing more leery of letting Turkish troops get bogged down in a violent quagmire - and thrown into a job which they may be unprepared to handle.
Unlike the US and Britain, Turkey makes military service compulsory for all men. Given that well over 90 percent of Turks opposed the US-launched war against Iraq, the young conscripts heading to Iraq's volatile "Sunni Triangle" may be less motivated additions to the coalition of the willing.
"You cannot send compulsory, conscripted soldiers outside your national territory," says Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Riza Kocukoglu, who served for 43 years in the military before joining the staff of Istanbul's Yeditepe University. "Even the American and British soldiers there are very demoralized."
For Turks, he says, who largely did not see the war to topple Saddam Hussein as an unavoidable war to eliminate terrorism, incentive to risk one's life for the mission can be expected to be far weaker - and tolerance for losses far lower.
In addition, few of the rank-and-file sent to cover the most volatile parts of Iraq will have had any experience in the field. Most men are drafted for 15 months of military service; university graduates serve shorter stints. And Turkey does not maintain a call-up system for bringing in reserve soldiers who have served in the past.
The most recent experience Turkish troops have had fighting guerrilla warfare was in southeastern Turkey, where the military did battle with separatist Kurdish forces for 15 years. That conflict quieted down in 1999, when Abdullah Ocalan, a leader of the PKK or Kurdistan Workers Party, was captured and called on his comrades to give up the struggle against the Turkish state.
"Very few of the senior officers have experience fighting terrorism, and the conscripted troops have no experience with it at all," says General Kocukoglu.
Turkey's internal war was different, however, because Turks viewed it as an essential fight to defend the nation's territorial integrity. Northern Iraq, due to its large Kurdish majority and de facto autonomy that Turks fear could translate into independence, is also seen as part of Turkey's security concerns. But the Arab center in the south of Iraq is not - a key reason why the troops would be sent there - and thus, Turks say, it will be far more difficult to accept Turkish losses from those parts of Iraq.
To be sure, Turkey does have one of the best militaries in the Middle East. It enjoys strategic partnerships with the US and Israel, and is also a longstanding member of NATO. Turkey's troops served in Korea in the 1950s, but all of their more recent military contributions - in Somalia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan - have been accompanied by United Nations resolutions that established international legitimacy for the use of troops, mainly for humanitarian purposes.
None of the these missions put Turkey's troops in a neighboring country, nor amid a population already so skeptical of Turkish intentions.
"There is no doubt that the Turkish army is a world-class army. It's well-disciplined and well-equipped," says Charles Heyman, the editor of Jane's World Armies in London.
Indeed, many Turks and Iraqis alike, say the concept of putting Turkish troops in the Iraqi-Arab heartland will feel like a throwback to the Ottoman Empire which controlled the territory that later became Iraq for some 400 years. Arabs often describe those centuries not as a period of Turkish rule, but as an "occupation."
On the flip side, when compared to the image of US and other foreign soldiers in Iraq, some Turks say that their soldiers will be better equipped to handle cultural differences.
"Because we are both Muslims and neighbors and know each other, I think the Turkish soldiers have more advantages in the region, compared to the American and British soldiers," says Gen. (Ret.) Orhan Kose, who served over 40 years in the Turkish Air Force.
"Of course, we will give preference to sending those soldiers who know Arabic and English and those trained for dealing with hot weather," he says.
General Kose argues that those sent to Iraq will not be new conscripts with low morale and little experience. "I don't think that those who are only in for 15 months will be sent to that region," he says. "Those sent will be Special Forces and those who went to the military academy and preferred to stay with the army."
Still, most here estimate that upwards of 10,000 troops would be sent, raising the likelihood that draftees will be the ones out on perilous patrols.
One way to rally the troops is to point out the worse-case scenario: the disintegration of Iraq itself. Turks worry that a lawless Iraq could break apart - and that the first part to secede would be largely Kurdish northern Iraq.
"As the present crisis in Iraq is deepening, there is a possibility that the country could disintegrate," Gen. Metin Yavuz Yalcin told reporters in a briefing on Monday. "Therefore, Turkey must take into account the possibility of the proliferation of terrorist activities in the war-devastated country."
This, analysts here say, demonstrates that concerns about Kurdish separatism remain the main focus of convincing troops and their families of the need to go to Iraq. The number of troops and length of deployment has yet to be decided; last week's vote in parliament merely gives the Turkish government permission to send troops to Iraq.
"I hope I'll be mistaken, but I think the Turkish army will have some problems there," says Rusen Cakir, a columnist for the Vatan newspaper.
"There is a potential of civil war in Iraq, and what will the Turkish army do? Will it fight pro-Saddam and pro-Islamist forces, and ally itself with other parts of Iraqi society?" he says. "There are some parts of Iraqi society which consider Turkey as a kind of enemy."
Mr. Cakir, like other critics of the decision to send troops, are hoping the Turkish government will reconsider its greenlight from about two-third of the parliament. "We don't know what they will gain by sending troops," Cakir says. "We know clearly what Turkey and the AK Party government will lose if things go badly."