Washington’s plans to attack Iraq have been dealt a blow by the Turkish Parliament’s refusal to allow U.S. soldiers to deploy in Turkey. The vote surprised both Ankara and Washington, and has officials in both capitals scrambling to arrange another vote. The outcome is the result of confusion in Ankara, but the United States must share the blame. Washington is paying the price for its neglect of a key ally.
Turkey will play a key role if and when the invasion of Iraq begins. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the U.S. based aircraft and soldiers in Turkey. This time, military planners envisioned a two-pronged thrust from the north and the south. Some 62,000 U.S. troops, along with armor, would move in from bases in Turkey to seize as much territory as possible while strike fighters and helicopters attacked key Iraqi targets. The first objective would be the oil fields in the north, then the forces would move south to more important population centers.
The vote will not affect overall U.S. troop strength because Kuwait has offered to host the troops originally intended for deployment in Turkey. But the absence of a northern flank could have a significant impact on the outcome of the war, as Iraq will be able to concentrate its forces in the south. U.S. planners had also hoped that a rapid conquest of territory in the north would prevent Turks and Iraqi Kurds from fighting for control of the area.
Turkey views a war against Iraq through the prism of its own Kurdish independence movement. Ankara’s greatest concern is that Iraq’s Kurds will seize Iraqi territory, declare an independent homeland and then link up with fellow Kurds in Turkey and Iran, redrawing the map of the Middle East. The prospect is not mere fancy. Kurdish factions in northern Iraq can reportedly mobilize about 70,000 lightly armed troops, and the U.S. hopes to use them to open a fifth column in Iraq.
To ensure that the Kurd’s dream remains just that, the Turkish government has demanded that the U.S. guarantee that there will be no Kurdish state in Iraq after a war. Ankara has also demanded that any Iraqi Kurds armed by the U.S. during a war be disarmed afterward in the presence of a Turkish military officer.
There was more to last week’s vote than the fear of an independent Kurdistan. A vast majority of the Turkish public opposes war. Turkey was hard hit by the economic fallout of the last Persian Gulf War, and those memories have not receded. In addition, there is resentment of what is seen as U.S. heavy-handedness. High on the list of grievances is the view that Washington is responsible for Turkey’s economic hardships, which have been exacerbated by the country’s adherence to the strict austerity package imposed by the International Monetary Fund. Cognizant of the need for a sweetener, Washington and Ankara negotiated a $15 billion aid package that would help Turkish parliamentarians overcome their squeamishness toward a vote in favor of U.S. deployments.
If Turkish lawmakers were showing their contempt for the U.S., the government’s behavior only added to the confusion. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party is more a collection of factions than a unified group. Prime Minister Abdullah Gul took a head count before the vote and thought he had enough supporters to get the resolution through Parliament without demanding that party members back the government. He miscalculated. Defections increased — news of Iraq’s decision to destroy missiles occurred during the debate — and the final tally was 264 votes in favor, 251 against.
Normally a mere majority would have won passage, but the Turkish Constitution requires that it be a majority of all those present. With 17 legislators abstaining, 267 votes were needed. Thus the resolution fell three votes short.
The outcome is a positive one for Turkish democracy, but it poses difficulties for U.S.-Turkey ties. The immediate economic costs are likely to be high. Uncertainty about future U.S. willingness to help Ankara will now compound war worries. Washington may now be less inclined to give Turkey input into future decisions affecting Iraq or the Kurds. Ankara may also have lost U.S. good will that would have been helpful in future negotiations with the European Union or the IMF.
Prime Minister Gul was originally reluctant to schedule a second vote as the U.S. requested. He, along with other pragmatists, feared that it could split his party into moderate and radical factions and undermine its ability to govern. Nonetheless, U.S. pressure has encouraged an about-face: Turkey’s foreign minister has indicated that the government would ask for a second ballot. Expect a little more arm-twisting from the government, and an eventual approval of the resolution.
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