Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
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March/April 2002 

In a War Against Iraq, Can the US Depend on Turkey?
by Thomas Patrick Carroll
Thomas Patrick Carroll is a freelance writer and former officer in the Clandestine Service of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Many Turks were uneasy about their nation's involvement in the 1991 Gulf War, and some even advocated neutrality. But there were also those who were not in the least averse to participating in the war, most notably the late President Turgut Özal. In fact, Özal was positively gung-ho at the prospect of opening a second front against Saddam in northern Iraq, with Turkish tanks rolling into Baghdad to meet US forces coming up from the south. In the end, he was unable to realize his audacious plans, mostly because of opposition from the ever-cautious Turkish military, but his support (both moral and practical) for the United States never faltered. And throughout the Gulf War, Özal strongly advised the Americans to continue the fight until Saddam himself was brought down.

These days, however, opinion in Turkey has changed. Few Turks are eager to see America expand its war on terrorism to include a military assault on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and virtually no Turkish leader wants to participate in such an operation. When Secretary of State Colin Powell recently said the US was "examining a full range of options on how to deal with Iraq . . . the most serious assessment of options that one might imagine,"1 shudders rippled across the entire Turkish political spectrum. Today, there is no Özal.

Ankara's skittishness is not by any means indicative of sympathy for Saddam, nor is it a sign that Turkey is having second thoughts about its close, 50-year-old alliance with the United States. Rather, the Turks are hesitant because they dread the military, strategic, and economic repercussions that an invasion of Iraq might bring, repercussions many Turks are convinced their country would be left to deal with alone.

Reaction in Turkey to September 11

The Turkish government swiftly condemned the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as did most states throughout the civilized (and much of the not-so-civilized) world. In the days that followed, as it became clear that the carnage in New York and Washington was the work of radical Islamists, political leaders and opinion-makers throughout Turkey (a country 99% Muslim) began to reflect on what the attacks meant and what the proper response should be. Over the course of these public discussions, two themes emerged.

The first, and most widely heard, was that "Islam is not terrorism." From the secular left (Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit of the Democratic Left Party, Deniz Baykal of the Republican Peoples Party), to the nationalist right (Deputy Prime Minister Devlet Bahceli of the Nationalist Movement Party), to the Islamic right (Recai Kutan of the Contentment Party, Tayyip Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party), there was broad agreement that "terror has no religion," and Islam per se was not the problem.

The same point was made elsewhere, of course; indeed, it was almost commonplace in the weeks following September 11. But it took on special significance in Turkey, where many of the ruling elite (including Kemal Atatürk, the revered founder of the Turkish Republic) have traditionally seen Islam as a source of reaction and backwardness. Atatürk and his political progeny, after all, believed that civilization was synonymous with Westernization. Thirty years ago, before the rise of political Islam in Turkey, few in the Turkish political class would have gone out of their way to defend the beneficence of Islam. Today, they do.

The second theme, somewhat related to the first, was that America must not let its zeal for justice escalate into a "clash of civilizations," clearly referencing Samuel Huntington's influential work.2 Unlike the first, however, this theme was a bit more localized on the political spectrum - one did not hear much of it from the Islamic right.

The idea of a clash between the Islamic and Western civilizations is anathema to the ideology of the modern Turkish Republic, because it presupposes a bifurcation between Islam and the West that Kemalism explicitly rejects. Since its founding in 1923, the key idea behind the Turkish Republic is that Turkey is (or at least can be) a Western nation with Islamic piety, a country in which Islam can live under a secular government and coexist with a Western-style civil society. For Turkey, a true civilizational clash between Islam and the United States (the core Western state in Huntington's model) would be the ultimate tragedy. From this perspective, President Bush's early statements that America's foe was terrorism, not Islam, were reassuring to the Turks.

Into Afghanistan

When America narrowed its focus to Afghanistan, theoretical talk about terrorism and the nature of Islam died down in Turkey, and Ankara pledged its support to the war effort. The Turks sent several hundred troops to Afghanistan to join in the peacekeeping force, and offered to take over in-country command from the British this coming Spring. While Turkey's military assistance was valuable, more important to Washington was the political message sent by the presence of Muslim Turks working hand-in-hand with their American allies on the ground in Afghanistan.

The United States did not wait long to show its gratitude. In January, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a $19 billion loan to rescue Turkey's battered economy, with another $10 billion in the pipeline. The IMF action was due, in no small part, to support from United States, and Prime Minister Ecevit thanked Vice President Dick Cheney for America's help.

But this story, unfortunately, does not end with agreement and harmony. Even before Ecevit's mid-January trip to Washington, dark clouds were gathering on the horizon.

Taking the Fight to Baghdad

From the moment speculation began to surface about a possible US military action to take out Saddam, Ankara let its discomfort be known. The suspicion that Turkey would end up participating in a military campaign (e.g., by providing American forces with a northern base of operations) strengthened the opposition, but it would have existed even if the Turks could have been assured they would sit out the war on the sidelines.

Part of this hesitancy flows from the Turkish Republic's long-standing, and quite healthy, prejudice against resorting to arms to solve regional disputes. There have been exceptions (e.g., the Cyprus invasion of 1974, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, northern Iraq today), but in general modern Turkey has gone to considerable lengths to avoid military adventures.

This tradition goes back to Atatürk, and its roots are not difficult to understand. For roughly the last century of the Ottoman Empire (including the 1919-22 Turkish War of Independence, which led to the founding of the Republic in 1923), the Turks suffered appalling military and civilian losses. In excess of five million Ottoman Muslims were killed in those 100 years, including 1.5 million in the Balkan Wars (1912-13), 1.2 million in eastern Anatolia (1914-21), and 1.3 million in western Anatolia (1914-22). There is no nostalgia for empire among Turks, no longing for the 'glory' of foreign battlefields. The Turks associate war with death and loss, and they have wisely tried to avoid it for the better part of eight decades.

But there is more to Ankara's reticence than its noninterventionist tradition. In particular, there are three areas of Turkish concern that the US must address before Ankara signs on to war against Saddam.

Military Concerns

Turkey has three hundred thousand troops in southeastern Anatolia, roughly in the region of the Turkish-Iraqi border. More significantly, since 1995 the Turkish military has maintained a large presence within northern Iraq itself - forty or fifty thousand troops in the beginning, somewhat less today. The northern border between Turkey and Iraq has become little more than a line on the map, and Turkish forces operate on both sides with almost equal ease. In northern Iraq, there are Turkish tank units, intelligence units, infantry, and more. And these are not part of Operation Northern Watch, the US/British/Turkish joint effort to enforce the no-fly zone. They are a unilateral Turkish contingent.

These Turkish forces are the only foreign political/military presence inside Iraq, and have become key to the stability of the Kurdish region. The Turks are in constant working contact with the two major Kurdish factions in the area, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, respectively. Turkish officers routinely mediate disputes between the two Kurdish camps, help the local populace devise practical daily arrangements, and so forth. The Turks are even providing training to both the KDP and PUK.

In light of this large force in northern Iraq, Ankara's military concerns are not difficult to understand. The chances of Turkish soldiers being dragged into any anti-regime fighting appear high, regardless of whether Ankara formally agrees to participate. To make matters worse, the Turks are far from convinced that America has thought through a sound military strategy for ousting Saddam, much less a practical plan for an acceptable post-Saddam regime. One Turkish official described Washington's Iraq policy over the past decade as a 'non-policy,' marked by threats and reaction. If the Turks are to agree to a military operation against Baghdad, the US will need to present a clear and realistic plan to support it. Otherwise, Ankara will assume America's non-policy remains the order of the day.

Strategic Concerns

Turkey fears Saddam's forcible toppling might lead to the fracture of Iraqi territory, especially if the Iraqi army (an important unifying institution in the country) is seriously weakened through a prolonged engagement with US forces.

Should a fracture occur, one natural fault line would be along the southern edges of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. A rupture there could undo all of Turkey's efforts at stabilizing the area, and perhaps even lead to the creation of a Kurdish state lying right up against Turkey's predominately Kurdish southeast. The consequences would be impossible to predict, but they could be disastrous. For example, in the past few years the Turks seem finally to have put down the bloody insurgency launched by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in 1984, an insurgency that claimed the lives of 35,000 people. In the chaos of a breakaway Kurdish region in northern Iraq, we could see the resurrection of the PKK insurgency and its goals of an independent 'Kurdistan' carved out of southern Turkey. And assurances that the Western world would never countenance a Kurdish annexation of Turkish territory are not believed by the Turks for an instant. This is especially true today, when there is such visible support in Europe for the Kurdish cause.

Another fault line is along the Shi'ite region of southern Iraq. Some experts in Ankara's foreign policy establishment think a meltdown there might be even worse than one in the Kurdish north. Unlike the Kurds (who are clustered around the intersection of Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran), there is a Shi'a belt stretching all across the region, from Iran, to Lebanon, to the Gulf (Bahrain is 70% Shi'a), and Iraq (60-65% Shi'a). Some in Ankara fear that an exuberant Shi'ite eruption in southern Iraq could ignite a sympathetic response from co-religionists along that Shi'a belt, with dangerous and unpredictable consequences.

Economic Concerns

The third reason for Turkish concern is economic. Turkey is just beginning to pull out of its worst economic slump ever. Over the past two years, the Turkish Lira lost more than half its value against the dollar, inflation jumped to 70%, businesses closed, and over one million people (in a country of 66 million) were thrown out of work.

The Turks believe their already fragile economy would be further battered by an attack on Iraq. Tourism would suffer, for example, since few people want to take a vacation near a war zone. Trade with the Middle East would drop, and all the fears and uncertainties that come with war would undoubtedly dampen Turkey's domestic consumer demand.

In 1990, before the Gulf War, Turkey had $2.5 billion worth of annual trade with Iraq, making it Turkey's fourth largest trading partner. When UN sanctions were put in place after the war ended in 1991, trade between Turkey and Iraq fell practically to zero. Depending on which figures you choose to cite, Turkey has lost somewhere between $30 and $50 billion in trade because of the UN embargo. The Turks believe no other country cares about the hardships the embargo has caused them, hardships they have been left to shoulder alone. Ankara is in no mood to contemplate more economic misfortune caused by yet another conflict with Iraq.

Finally, the economic concern also has a more purely political, and even personal, side to it. Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's left/right coalition government is weak, held in place only by the lack of a credible alternative. According to one well-informed Turkish political observer, Ecevit is cognizant of the fragility of his government and fears it would simply be incapable of weathering the economic turmoil (and resulting political fallout) that a war would bring. Ecevit is an old man, and he knows his long and distinguished political career will end soon. He does not wish to go out in an ignominious vote of no confidence.

Policy Implications for the United States

Does this mean the United States can forget about Turkey's cooperation in the event of a military action against Baghdad? Not at all. The Turks highly value their close relationship with the United States, and remain among America's staunchest allies. But it does mean that if, in fact, Washington decides to depose Saddam by way of a military campaign, it would be well-advised to take Turkey's three concerns into account.

The first two, the military and strategic ones, must be confronted head-on. Close consultations with Washington and Ankara will be crucial, particularly with the Turkish General Staff. Washington should acknowledge that disintegration would be a catastrophe, and reassure the Turks of American commitment to a unified Iraq. And, of course, the mission and safety of Turkey's troops already stationed in northern Iraq must be given due consideration.

And make no mistake: if Washington and Ankara cannot come to an agreement on the military and strategic modalities, according to one Turkish Foreign Ministry official, Turkey will indeed decline to participate. In such a case, Ankara would likely allow the US to fly fighters out of Incirlik Air Force Base in southern Turkey, but no more than that. And if the situation in northern Iraq were to deteriorate during a war in which Turkey was not actively participating, Ankara would use its military muscle unilaterally to protect its national interests in the area.

There is also Turkey's work with the Iraqi Kurds to keep in mind. Anything affecting this (e.g., the US deciding to provide training for Kurdish forces, in addition to what Turkey is already giving) would cause concern in Ankara and would need to be discussed and coordinated beforehand.

The bottom line is that Washington must engage in careful, detailed, and thorough consultation and planning with the Turks. Given the long and close relationship between the US and Turkey, this is not a daunting task. It will not be easy, of course, but it can be done.

Turkey's third concern, economic disruption and worsening domestic hardship, can only be assuaged with action. The IMF loans were an excellent start, and more assistance is on the way. The US Department of State recently established an Economic Partnership Commission to explore ways of improving Turkish/American commerce and trade - e.g., establishing Qualified Industrial Zones in Turkey (exports from which would enter the US tariff-free), or easing US quotas against Turkish textiles. And the US could consider granting Turkey's request to forgive $5 billion worth of military loans.

If America decides to expand the war on terrorism to include military action against Saddam Hussein, Turkey would be a most valuable ally. While Washington cannot afford to take Turkey's cooperation for granted, a careful American policy of dialogue, engagement, and joint planning with Ankara will likely meet with success.


  1 Reuters, 7 February 2002.
  2 See Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

2002 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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