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August 30, 2002
Turkey Says No To War

Vincent A. Parker / Getty
The most militarily viable road to Baghdad runs through Turkey, but Ankara is reluctant to endorse U.S. plans for Saddam Hussein.
These days the mantra of U.S. foreign policy-makers toward the Middle East is “regime change.” Hamid Karzai is firmly installed in Afghanistan, the Palestinians have been given an ultimatum to replace Yasser Arafat, and now all eyes are on Saddam Hussein. But as the White House gears up to attack Iraq, a messy situation for a longtime ally could complicate U.S. plans. Turkey seems to be conducting a regime change of its own, and it’s not clear who will take the reins or what the new government’s stance will be toward Washington.

To invade Iraq, the United States desperately needs Turkish help. The most militarily viable road to Baghdad runs through southeast Turkey. And the air cover provided during the Gulf War from Incirlik airbase in southwest Turkey—currently home to more than 50 U.S. fighter jets—would be even more essential in the type of campaign that Washington is now considering. Furthermore, the Pentagon wants to arm and train the Kurds in northern Iraq, as it did with Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance. But that would require a green light from Ankara, which keeps the Kurdish population firmly under its thumb.

As the only predominantly Muslim member of NATO, Turkey is diplomatically important, representing the geographic and cultural gateway between the West and the Islamic world. Turkish willingness to cooperate with Western interests in the region is not in question. The Turks have played an active role in the war on terrorism, and, for the next six months, 1,400 Turkish troops will take over as the international force in Afghanistan.

But the United States has had trouble getting a reluctant Turkey to endorse its plans for Saddam Hussein. The Gulf War and its fallout cost the Turks $50 billion in lost trade. The country’s economy remains in its worst shape since 1945; the IMF’s single largest debtor, Turkey is teetering on the edge of default.

Turkey also desperately want to join the European Union—most of whose members oppose an invasion of Iraq. In its bid for membership, Turkey recently took the positive steps of ending peacetime capital punishment and loosening restrictions on Kurdish broadcasting. But Brussels will demand further economic reforms and stronger checks on the military’s involvement in politics.

A U.S. invasion of Iraq would surely inflame Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds. Since 1984, Turkey has been at war with the Kurds, both within and across its borders. There have been some 40,000 mostly Kurdish casualties and more than 3,000 Kurdish villages destroyed, displacing as many as 2 million civilians. Turkey fears the possibility of an autonomous Kurdish state being created in post-Saddam Iraq, which might embolden the 20 million Kurds of southern Turkey to push for more basic rights or eventually break away. Ankara especially doesn’t like the idea of Kirkuk and its surrounding oil-rich area, which once produced more than 70 percent of Iraq oil exports, ending up as the Kurdish capital.

But Turkey’s internal political crisis may be the most serious obstacle to U.S. aspirations. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit is a lame duck, and as the 77-year-old’s health has worsened, his coalition government has fallen apart. Defections have taken Ecevit’s party from being the largest component of the government to the smallest, forcing him to acquiesce to early elections in November.

Polls in Turkey currently have the Justice and Development Party—led by Istanbul’s former mayor, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a pro-Islamist—winning by a landslide. In the past, Islamist parties have been outspokenly opposed to Turkey’s facilitation of U.S. policy toward Iraq, including the no-fly zones policed by U.S. and British fighters from Incirlik.

Promises of debt assistance and arms disbursements in hand, Washington might throw its weight behind Ismail Cem, the strongly pro-Western ex-foreign minister, who has quickly assembled the New Turkey Party out of Ecevit defectors. But so far Cem has failed to form a viable coalition, an effort particularly frustrated by former World Bank Vice President Kemal Dervis, who left Ecevit’s government but remains on the sidelines, withholding his endorsement.

The far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), making the best of a chaotic situation, is now running second in the polls at around 11 percent. Aside from tapping into the frustration of skyrocketing unemployment, the MHP also has drawn strong backing from the Army by taking a firm stance against any expansion of Kurdish civil rights, claiming it will only fan the flames of separatism.

The prospect of democratic elections ushering in an Islamist government is deeply troubling to the highly influential armed forces, who fear that Erdogan would steer the nation away from its pro-Western course. That raises the danger of a military coup. The military has seized power three times in the last four decades, including a pivotal role in unseating the republic’s first Islamist-led government in 1997.

Would the United States look the other way in the event of another coup? For Washington, calculated and guided regime change is always preferable to an unpredictable democratic vote. With so many financial and strategic interests at stake, it is likely that the United States will get involved in Turkey’s political quagmire. The question is how.


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