Turkey's Difficult Balancing Act
Turkey is trapped-between the requirements of its strategic partnership with the United States and a strong desire to avert war with Iraq. Despite overwhelming international and domestic opposition to a war with Iraq, the Bush Administration is gradually laying the groundwork for a war to start in late February or early March. For the war to end successfully within a matter of weeks and with few casualties, it is essential that Turkey allow the U.S. military to launch attacks from its territory. While the U.S. has good logistics for a southern front attack, it needs Turkey for a second, northern front if it hopes to divide Saddam Hussein's forces and provide security for the Arabs, Kurds and the Turkomen as well as the oil fields of Kirkuk. Clearly it is in Turkey's interest to see a potential war concluded quickly and with minimal bloodshed, but with nearly 90 percent of the Turkish public against a war with Iraq, it is difficult to give the U.S. a clear green light.
As unnamed U.S. officials were quoted in newspapers hinting that Turkey's indecisiveness about the degree of cooperation with the U.S. might endanger the long-term bilateral strategic relationship, Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul sent a letter to President George Bush on January 16, reminding him that Turkey stood by the U.S. during the Korean War and the operations Bosnia and Somalia and would again cooperate with Washington. Moreover, Turkey has been a key ally in Afghanistan peacekeeping and its Incirlik airbase has been home to Operation Northern Watch, in which U.S. and British aircraft patrol the Iraqi no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel. Gul added the caveat, however, that final approval for participation in a war with Iraq would have to be granted by the Parliament.
Gul is well aware that getting on the wrong side of Bush, who strongly values loyalty, would mean losing U.S. backing for key issues that affect Turkey. The United States has been very supportive of Turkey's EU accession and a solution to the Cyprus issue, and the continuation of this support will be essential over the next couple of years. With an $86 billion foreign debt and $91 billion domestic debt, Turkey is dependent on America to avoid an Argentinean scenario, and this reality limits its room to maneuver. Indeed, even if Turkey did not fully cooperate militarily with the United States, it would nonetheless still bear the economic burden of the war-and there would be no economic compensation. Gul realizes that if Turkey hopes to have a portion of the reconstruction contracts and a say in the post-war configuration of Iraq, it must be one of the countries that form part of the U.S.-led coalition and assume part of the burden of war. Consequently, when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers visited Ankara on January 20th, he received assurances that the Turkish government has, in principle, agreed to allow U.S. air and ground forces to use Turkey as a staging point for military strikes against Iraq.
Gul, therefore, is engaged in a two-track diplomacy-cooperating with the United States in preparing for a possible war while at the same time doing all he can to prevent such a war from breaking out. Earlier this month, Gul visited Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iran, urging them to collectively convince Saddam to comply with the weapons inspections. He then hosted the foreign ministers of these countries for a follow-up meeting in Istanbul on January 23. Gul, and his party chairman and the likely next Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have continued their diplomatic initiatives in Davos, including in a private meeting with U.S Secretary of State Colin Powell. Turks now believe they have a historic opportunity to avert a war that could be used by Al-Qaeda and other militant groups to claim that the United States is wantonly "shedding Muslim blood"-setting off a chain of terrorist attacks against the U.S. and its allies.
Of course, the short-term concern for Turkey is the impact of the war on its already devastated economy. Turkey claims to have incurred up to $100 billion in losses as a result of the Gulf War in 1991 and the subsequent embargo on Iraq. Initial estimates indicate that a second war with Iraq would cost Turkey anywhere between $28 and $100 billion (considering the indirect costs). While Washington considers these figures too high, it is willing to come up with an assistance package that may range anywhere between $4 and $15 billion. In addition to new, bilateral assistance from the United States, Turkey also hopes to get American support to restart its IMF program. Turkey's $31 billion IMF economic bailout program has been on hold since October, after the previous government reneged on market reforms. With around 18 percent of Turkey's 67 million people living below the poverty line (and a per capita income around $2,160), Turkey faces the very real possibility of an economic and social collapse without the IMF package.
A more strategic concern for Turkey is the likely power vacuum in a post-Saddam Iraq. Even if the war were quick and successful, creating a democratic Iraq would be a Herculean task. The two main Kurdish groups-the KDP and the PUK-do not have a good history of cooperation and the outbreak of a civil war cannot be ruled out. If Iraqis will decide to create a federal system, then the Turks would hope for a geographically based federation, so that the Turkomen, who are the third largest ethnic group of Iraq, would have a proper say in government and the management of the Kirkuk oil fields. If Iraq becomes an ethnically based federation, however, then the Turkish fear is that KDP leader Massoud Barzani will dominate the north-and Barzani's embrace of Kurdish nationalism may not give the Turkomen a fair say in the political and economic life of the region.