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Turkey says No

Jeremy Salt … or will it finally be yes?

These have been interesting times in Turkey. In early February the Grand National Assembly — the parliament — met and refused to support the government’s recommendation to allow 62,0000 US troops into the country so that a second front against Iraq could be opened across Turkey’s borders. The Americans would also have been given the use of Turkish ports and air bases. Tied into the bill was a second recommendation that the Turkish army be allowed to cross the border into northern Iraq and set up a 12 kilometre deep buffer zone to absorb an expected flood of refugees. That went down too. More MPs voted for the recommendations than against — 264 to 250 with 19 abstentions — but the legislation needed a simple minority to pass and it feel just short of the numbers required.

This decision of the Parliament stunned the Americans. Negotiations between themselves and the Turks had begun weeks before. The vote was postponed twice, apparently because the ruling Justice and Development Party (the AK Party) was not confident that it had the numbers. The government had negotiated a compensation package of $26 billion, nearly $20 billion of which would given as a loan, thus easing present straitened financial circumstances but plunging the country into even greater foreign debt. The recommendation in favour of allowing in the Americans did not mean that the government supported this war. It did not support it at all but its thinking was guided by several certainties — that the Americans were going to attack come what may and that Turkey was going to be caught up in the consequences whatever decision it took. Consequently let the Americans in — so went the logic — the war will be shorter, our costs will be partly underwritten and we will have some say in the reconstruction of Iraq once the shooting stops.

This pragmatic evaluation was not shared by the general public. Opinion polls showed 94 per cent of the people against. A mass rally in Ankara the day the vote was taken underlined the cross-sectional nature of the opposition. Women in head scarves were there alongside unionists, students, musicians and representatives of various professional associations. Still, it seemed far too optimistic to believe that the parliament would turn down a recommendation imposed on the country by the United States, Turkey’s strategic partner over the past five decades. When the votes came through early in the evening it seemed at first that the recommendation had been passed, and it was five minutes before the Speaker ruled that it had actually failed.

But this was not the end of the story. The view of the military was always going to be significant. It was known that the generals were not in favour of an American attack on Iraq either, but at the meeting of the civilian-military National Security Council the day before the vote was taken they made no recommendations of its own. Perhaps they had been assured by Prime Minister Abdullah Gul that the legislation would pass. When it did not, the Chief of the General Staff, General Hilmi Ozkok, waited four days before issuing a statement declaring that the recommendation to allow in the Americans had had the support of the military as a choice between bad and worse. Ozkok’s remarks, in an atmosphere of speculation about a second vote being taken, were very significant given the high standing of the military in the eyes of the public. They seemed sufficient to win enough deputies over for the vote to pass.

But could the government risk putting forward the legislation again, given the fact that parliament had already spoken, given the immense public opposition to the war, and given the divisions within cabinet over the issue? One road block which had to be shifted was the status of the leader of the AK Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He had been banned from entering parliament because of a conviction for anti-secular activities (the reading of a poem). On gaining power, the AK party amended the constitution so that Erdogan could become an MP. The week after the parliamentary vote on March 1 by elections were held at Siirt, in the heart of the Kurdish southeast, where Erdogan had recited the poem that got him into trouble. The result was a strong victory for the AK party leader. Within the week he was expected to enter parliament, take over the prime ministership from Abdullah Gul and form a new cabinet from which the strongest opponents of Turkish involvement in the war on Iraq were expected to be dropped. The elections were barely over before Erdogan was engaging in fresh discussions with the American ambassador on Turkey’s interests in northern Iraq and what the US was prepared to do to protect them. A second parliamentary resolution giving the US a reduced level of support (basically air transit rights) was scheduled to be discussed a few days later. It was a measure of American confidence, or arrogance, and certainly disrespect for Turkey’s Parliament, that even before the second recommendation was put to the vote US military equipment was being moved across Turkey from the Mediterranean port of Iskanderun. However, a number of ships loaded with war material — including Tomahawk missiles — were ordered to sail towards the Persian Gulf through the Suez Canal.

If one overriding concern of the Turkish government was how the country would weather the coming storm financially, another was the possibility that in the chaos following the American attack the Kurds of northern Iraq would seize the moment to declare their independence. The Kurds have been seeking a federalist structure which would preserve the autonomy they have managed to establish since the end of the gulf war, but no one can predict how events will unfold once the shooting starts. The Americans themselves do not seem to have settled yet on a clear plan for the reconstruction of Iraq. Turks and Kurds have been involved in continuing negotiations but their mutual fears and suspicions are never far from the surface. On the Turkish side there is visceral opposition — especially within the military — to the creation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq which it is feared might give the separatist movement amongst Turkey’s Kurds a new lease of life. In view of all the probable complications it could be argued that standing back and letting the Kurds do what they like on their side of the border would be the most sensible option but intervention seemed much more likely.

The Iraqi Kurds are just as visceral in their fears of Turkey which many regard as a greater danger to their future than Saddam Hussein. There have been angry demonstrations in the north, denunciations of Turkey and warnings that the peshmergas — the Kurdish guerillas — will resist the Turkish army if it crosses the border. The KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) and PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) now have perhaps 60,000 men under arms. Passions are high and the situation in the north could easily collapse into Kurdish-Turkish hostilities, perhaps a guerilla war that could go on for decades. An incident or two would be enough to set the whole combustible mixture aflame. This is why Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been so anxious to get reassurances from the US about Turkey’s involvement in the reconstruction of Iraq. Regarded until recently by the secular establishment as a fundamentalist wolf in sheep’s clothing, it is now clear that Erdogan is a very considerable asset for the Americans and pro-interventionist forces in Turkey.

Like the British before them the Americans may well be making promises to both Kurds and Turks that will be durable only for as long as it takes them to crush the Baathists, ‘secure’ the oil-fields and put in their own military administration. Then they can discard those promises they never intended to keep. They are deep into a duplicitous game in the north. Months ago they warned the Turks that if they did not help them bring down Saddam they would let the Kurds do what they want. They are still using the Kurds as a bargaining counter. They have given them weapons to be used in the struggle against Saddam but these same weapons could just as easily be used against the Turks in the struggle for an independent state. That is the message the Americans presumably want the Turks to hear. In this game of musical chairs someone must miss out if Iraq cannot be reconstructed as a unified state. As the weaker partner in these negotiations with the Americans, as an ethnic group which has been used up and betrayed repeatedly since the end of the First World War, Kurdish fears of another betrayal are probably well placed.

Another issue for the Turks is status of the Turcoman minority in the north, ethnic Turks with strong links across the border. Turkey will want to know that their rights will be protected in the new Iraq. More important, though, is the future of Mosul and Kirkuk in the oil-rich heartland of the north. When Iraq was created by the British after the First World War, the boundaries were carefully drawn to include the oil-fields of the north and access to the Persian Gulf in the south. There was no other logic to a country with such sharply accentuated ethnic and religious differences (predominantly Shi’i in the south, Arab Sunni Muslim in the middle and Kurdish Sunni Muslim in the north). As the main successor state to the Ottoman Empire the Republic of Turkey (established in 1923) claimed Mosul and Kirkuk for itself. Its case went to arbitration at the League of Nations in the 1930s. Not surprisingly it was Iraq’s claim — essentially the British claim — that was upheld. The loss of Mosul and Kirkuk has been a sore point ever since and now that Iraq is on the chopping board the fate of the oil-fields and the two cities sitting at their centre is on the agenda once more. What if the American plans (whatever they are) collapse? What if the country falls apart — is dismembered — and cannot be reconstituted as it was? Who picks up the bits and pieces?

Thus it can be seen that the big war may well trigger off smaller ones. A struggle for ascendancy in northern Iraq, and no doubt a confused situation in the south as the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, the stamping ground of ShiÌte thinkers and activists for centuries, fall under the control of the Americans. Ruling this region clearly is going to be an instructive experience for the Americans. The ties between the Shi’i of southern Iraq and the Shi’is of Iran and southern Lebanon are close. There is strong support for Hizbullah and for the Islamic movements struggling against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. There is deep antipathy to the United States for its support of Israel. The Shi’i might welcome the destruction of the Ba’thist regime but they are not likely to welcome an American governorate in its place.

Then of course there is the situation in Palestine. Ariel Sharon is widely expected to use the attack on Iraq as the screen behind which he can finish off the Palestinians while the world is looking the other way. Already, in the first few months of 2003 as if impatient to get on with the job, he had ordered a sharp escalation in attacks on the Gaza strip, involving the usual mixture of ‘targeted assassinations’, tank bombardments, sniper and undercover unit killings and the demolition of houses and workshops, and bringing the number of Palestinian dead since the beginning of the Aqsa intifada just over two years ago to almost 2000. What Sharon has in mind is doubtless what he thinks he can get away with. The minimum would be complete suppression of the Palestinians, the deportation (or killing) of Arafat, and the full reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Israel would then take the territory it wants and literally wall off the Palestinians. The maximum solution would include the transfer of the people, an option openly favoured by many within Sharon’s cabinet. Officially the American government would throw up its hands in horror at such a turn of events, but unofficially it would let it happen. For all we know both governments might already have agreed on full Israeli suppression of Palestinian ‘terrorism’ as part of the Iraq war package. There is not much to protect the Palestinians from anything the Israelis might choose to do. They have their own courage and they have the support of the Arab people. Under the impact of wars on Iraq and Palestine public fury is certain to spill over. How far and how wide remains to be seen but between them the United States and Israel are poised to bring down a servile Arab system that has served their interests well over the past forty years. Across the region and around the world, this war is clearly going to be massively destabilizing.

Jeremy Salt is associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University, Ankara.