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US will ignore Turkey's grey wolves at its peril

   
OpinionsWhatever the tactical differences between Turkey's armed forces and its politicians, there is no dispute over their ultimate strategic objectives. Perhaps the time has come to redeem the unfulfilled dream of Turkey's founder, Kemal Ataturk, who salvaged the republic from the ashes of the Ottoman empire in 1923.

In 1919, when Ataturk and his comrades had begun organizing a war of resistance for Turkey's independence, then under the heels of World War I victors led by Great Britain, their map of a sacred new nation included, apart from the present-day boundaries of Turkey, the Kurdish province of Mosul (with Kirkuk), now in Iraq. Much of this area had been occupied by the British forces after the ceasefire in 1918 and was later joined with the former Ottoman Arab vilayets (provinces) of Baghdad and Basra to create Iraq. But this divided the Kurdish homelands. From Iraq too, the sub-province of Kuwait under the Kayakayam of Basra was detached to create a new emirate. Oil was then, as it is now, the main driving force; not the freedom or welfare of the people. The British colonial policy of encouraging and then creating dissension and divisions can be seen elsewhere, too, in the world - the Indian sub-continent, Palestine, Cyprus and Ireland.

In a fast-evolving strategic situation in the region, there might be an opportunity to take back oil-rich Mosul and Kirkuk, many Turks feel. Almost all political leaders, including those from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), media writers and others have reiterated the country's claims on Kirkuk. One of the reasons for going into north Iraq is to protect their kinsmen the Turkomans and their rights over the reserves of oil around Kirkuk. This area is now under the control of Saddam Hussein's Sunni Arabs, but it has been traditionally claimed by the Kurds, who are in the majority in the region. The other major reason cited, of course, is Turkish fears of Kurds declaring an independent state after the collapse of the Saddam regime.

Turkey has paid dearly during the past two decades because of almost autonomous Kurdish enclaves in north Iraq, which have inspired and assisted a fierce rebellion for independence among its own Kurds, who form 25 percent of its population. During the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s and after the 1991 Gulf War, the rebellion reached its heights. Since the beginning of the Marxist PKK (Kurdish Workers Party)-inspired rebellion in 1984, over 35,000 Turkish citizens have been killed, including 5,000 soldiers. The struggle has also shattered the social and economic fabric in the south and east of Turkey. The problem is now under control after a 1999 ceasefire was declared and the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment last year and the ban on the use of the Kurdish language for education etc was eased.

Therefore, ignoring protests from foes and friends alike, the Turkish armed forces have regularly moved in and out of north Iraq to punish Turkey's residual Kurdish rebels who shelter there. It has regularly maintained some presence in Kurdish north Iraq, which was stepped up even before Turkey's parliament on March 21 authorized its troops to enter Iraq, along with granting permission to the US to use its air space to transport troops and hardware for a possible second front in Kurdish north Iraq. Turkish troops are now reported to be in north Iraq, estimated to be between 2,000 to 5,000 strong. Ever since the US administration took a decision to attack Iraq to bring about a regime change in Baghdad, even without UN sanction, serious differences and strains have emerged, not only with the US's NATO allies in Europe, but also with Turkey.

In order to conduct a successful and short war to minimize world opprobrium, as well as casualties and costs, the US asked for permission for the use of Turkish bases in southeast Turkey to station 62,000 US troops in order to open a second front against Iraq. The request was made in the US's usual insensitive fashion of public "bribing" and arm-twisting. It was irritating to hear daily broadcasts or claims that in spite of a package of nearly US$30 billion in grants and loans, Turkey was not taking the bait. Turkey has lost tens of billions of dollars following the sanctions imposed on Iraq since 1990. It is one of the major reasons for the current economic malaise in Turkey.

The new and inexperienced government of the AKP, especially its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was agreeable to provide bases to the US, but a massive majority of Turks (now 94 percent) have remained opposed to a war on Muslim Iraq. Iraq has been the friendliest of Turkey's mostly inimical neighbors until very recently. Many AKP deputies belong to southeast Turkey with Kurdish and Arab blood relations across the borders with Iraq and Syria.

Turkish president Ahmet Sezer, a former head of the Constitutional Court, has always insisted on international legitimacy before waging a war on Iraq. Before the March 1 vote that rejected the US request, he had impressed his view on the speaker of parliament. It was a somewhat confused situation. With tens of thousands of Turkish citizens protesting passionately in front of parliament and elsewhere, it further pressurized the newly- elected and divided deputies. The AKP government had come into almost absolute power unexpectedly after last November's elections, but its leader Erdogan had still to be elected in a by-election to become prime minister. This led to more confusion, with diffused decision-making centers. A day before the parliamentary vote, Turkey's military-dominated, highest policymaking body, the National Security Council, had dared not take a decision to recommend a vote for the motion in the face of overwhelming public opposition. After five hours of discussion, it left the decision to the government and parliament.

While Erdogan was enthusiastic, many in the party were opposed to giving approval. The government-supported motion, with the ruling party boasting two-thirds of the deputies in a 550-member parliament, was lost on March 1 when nearly 100 ruling party members voted against it, along with the opposition. The vote was lost by only 4 votes. This stunned the US, stumping its war plans. It certainly slowed down the preparations for the northern front. But the US still hoped that once Erdogan was elected to parliament and became prime minister, a second vote would be held.

In an unusual move, the Turkish armed forces' Chief of General Staff, General Hilmi Ozkok, issued a statement on March 5 extending its support to the government in "its option to open a second front against Iraq in the event of war [which] would shorten the conflict and minimize casualties". He said, "Turkey's support of the US would also reduce the harm to its economy." At the same time, Ozkok clarified that it was the right of parliament to reject the proposal to station US forces in Turkey, but "the Turkish armed forces' view is the same as the government's". He explained that the military had not made public its views earlier to avoid the impression of trying to influence the vote. "If we had expressed our views, it would have amounted to pressurizing the parliament for the approval of the resolution," he said. "It wouldn't have been democratic."

Ozkok pointed out that the Iraqi problem was a vital and multilateral issue having political, social and legal dimensions. Agreeing that 94 percent of the people said "no" to war, he added. "We, as soldiers, know the violence and dimensions of war and oppose the war most. It is obvious that we will suffer major damage whatever Turkey's move if a war starts. Turkey can face political, economic, social damage and also damage to its security." Ozkok went on to say, "It is a reality in the current stage that Turkey does not have the possibility and capability to prevent a war on its own. I wish the war could be prevented. Unfortunately, our choice is between the bad and worse, not between the good and bad." He noted that Turkey would suffer losses in any case, but if it joined the US, it would be compensated. He believed that it would also eliminate unexpected political developments in the north of Iraq.

Being a member of NATO since the early 1950s, Turkey's armed forces have a very close relationship with the US military brass. Turkey is heavily reliant on the International Monetary Fund, controlled by the US, to bail it out of its current acute economic problems and ease the weight of massive external debt payments. This was a failsafe position for Turkey. If the US carried out a short and quick war successfully, Turkey would play a major role in the reshaping of Iraq. If in the unlikely event of a peaceful solution of the problem, Turkey would have won enough brownie points with the US.

But after taking over as prime minister, Erdogan had a better appreciation of all the pros and cons, including in his party. It might even split. Sensing the mood of the country and in his party, he continued to stall the second vote while the US continued with its arm-twisting tactics, which further annoyed the Turkish leadership, media and the public. The US then said that it would change its war plans and fly its troops and arms from Romanian and Bulgarian bases and elsewhere to north Iraq. It said that it would do without Turkish bases and withdrew its financial package.

On the whole it was an unappetizing show, as it has been between the US and the UK on the one side and France and Germany on the other. Some US ships were diverted to the Red Sea, but many still wait at Turkish ports to unload military hardware for transfer to the war front in southeast Turkey.

Statements and counter statements, bullying tactics, threats and defiance between the US and Turkey have left no less deep a chasm than between the Atlantic alliance's Western members. There is a lot of confusion, acrimony and misunderstanding aired publicly, even after an agreement was passed in parliament for the US to use its air space. Reportedly, the Turkish government had even refused the US its permission for 24 hours unless Washington agreed to let Ankara send its troops to northern Iraq.

Secretary of State Colin Powell had three phone conversations in 48 hours with Erdogan to bring him round. The confusion continued when US officials said that the US had not agreed to Turkish demands, but senior Turkish officials said that they had reached an agreement with Powell that allowed them to add to the troops they already had in north Iraq. The confusion, which even included reports of Turkish troop movements into north Iraq, came amid high tension between the two NATO allies and clenched teeth comments by US officials (Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did show commendable restraint, though). Later on, it turned out that fresh Turkish troops had not entered north Iraq after all. But the ill will, rancor and suspicions remain.

For the moment it appears that the US will not be utilizing much of the airspace facility as its plans have already been completely upset in north Iraq. Incidentally, a few days before the terms were agreed to, a US Special Forces team in north Iraq ran into trouble with Iraqi forces and requested air support. Turkey rejected the request. While the US forces escaped unharmed, Turkey's refusal stunned Pentagon and State Department officials. Verily, US-Turkish relations have hit a nadir after years of close cooperation.

Compare this to the 1950s, when the Soviet Union, one of the victors of World War II, had staked claims over two northeastern provinces of Turkey and some control over the Bosphorus Straits. A nervous Turkey, which had rightly kept out of the war, as it did not want to be first devastated by the Nazis and then liberated by the Soviets, went begging to the US for protection. It sent a brigade to the Korean War to fight until the last man. Since then, through thick and thin, the allies have stayed together. Now, only a bitter taste in the mouth.

There is a lesson for all. A bully who can browbeat or thrash smaller kids, sooner or later arouses hostility and resistance in the whole community. Something like that coalesced between the last week of February and the first week of March. Turkey's democratic institutions, the region's largest democratic republic, rejected a US troop presence on Turkish soil as American ships waited off the Turkish coast.

After five days, it appears that the war is not turning out to be the cake walk that it was made out to be to the US public. Iraqis are not welcoming and hugging the US as "liberators". US soldiers have been taken prisoner, and there have been battle fatalities, apart from casualties of "friendly fire".

What will happen in north Iraq? Without wider agreement and more support from Turkey, with the second largest armed forces in NATO, the war which the US and the UK have embarked on could end up disastrously in north Iraq. Even if all goes well, the US will still need Turkey as a strategic partner in the now inflamed region. But the US will have to pay a price. Otherwise, the "grey wolf" will await and seize its opportunity.
  
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