The Turkish Dilemma

Will they or won't they? That's what Washington asks about Turkey's joining in a military campaign against Iraq. The last time Ankara went along with such a venture, in the gulf war, it paid a hefty price. Sanctions cost $40 billion in lost trade. A flood of Kurdish refugees fueled a guerrilla war by the separatist Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK. Saddam lost the war--but as Turks see it, so did they. "We don't want those experiences again," says Defense Minister Sabahattin Cakmakoglu.

There may be little choice. If the United States indeed acts against Saddam Hussein, it must be able to use Turkish air bases. As a NATO member (and economic ward of the IMF), Ankara has ample reason not to say no. But it has equally compelling reasons not to say yes, either. Persuading the Turks to aid in any strike against Iraq is going to be a hard sell, concedes a senior NATO official in Brussels. Clearly, the pressure is on.

Turkey has many fears about a second conflict with Saddam. The biggest is that it might lead to an independent Kurdistan. Whether the dictator survives or falls, Kurdish separatists could be emboldened. Ankara got the upper hand in 1999, when it arrested the terrorist leader Abdullah Ocalan. Using a mixture of careful diplomacy and such hearts-and-minds projects as building schools and hospitals, it has since worked to foster good relations with Kurdish groups that control northern Iraq--with surprisingly good results. Masoud Barzani, head of the Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDP, has condemned the terror tactics of the PKK and claims to want nothing more than "a federal solution for the people of Kurdistan within a democratic Iraq." Just in case, Turkey maintains an Israeli-style buffer zone to keep out guerrillas (and more refugees). It's an uneasy peace, but preferable to the anarchy that followed the gulf war.

Now comes the prospect that America may try to use Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, allied with Shiite rebels in the south, to unseat Saddam, much in the same way as they used Afghanistan's Northern Alliance to topple the Taliban. "This will lead to genocides and drag the whole region into disaster," says Ozdem Sanberk, former Turkish under secretary for Foreign Affairs.

Officially, the United States has not decided upon any action against Iraq. Unofficially, low-key military and political preparations are already underway. Within weeks of the September 11 attacks, the U.S. Air Force requested Turkey's permission to enhance its radar and communications capabilities at the Incirlik air base in eastern Turkey, from which NATO planes patrol the no-flight zone over northern Iraq. And over the last month, sorties from Incirlik have been cut down to just one a week. The reason: "to get the Iraqis in the open and moving," according to one well-placed military analyst in Ankara. A small U.S. delegation led by Assistant Under Secretary of State Ryan Crocker discreetly visited northern Iraq recently, ostensibly to check on efforts to reconcile feuding Kurdish groups and observe the progress of an oil-for-food aid program. But they were also sounding out the Kurds' readiness for military action. According to sources with knowledge of the talks, both the KDP and other Kurdish groups voiced "serious reservations."

Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, one of the few world leaders to have a personal relationship with Saddam, will soon arrive in Washington for "extensive consultations." Bush administration hawks are likely to find him a tough nut to crack. Ecevit is close to Turkey's politically powerful military, and adamantly opposed to any military adventures outside Turkish territory. Ecevit was also one of the first politicians to visit Saddam after the gulf war. He seems convinced, according to a Western diplomat who has spoken to him extensively on the matter, that Saddam can be won over by diplomacy and business ties rather than by brute force.

That's just what the Turks have been trying to do. Trade with Iraq has rebounded to an estimated $1 billion annually, much of it semilegal oil trading by Kurd-ish groups. But official trade with Baghdad is also flourishing. Turkey reopened the railway to Baghdad in July, and last month the Turkish Oil Exploration Co. signed a deal to start drilling in the Kirkuk region, controlled by Baghdad. A 148-member trade delegation headed by Kursad Tuzmen, Turkey's deputy minister for Trade, visited the Iraqi capital last month, potentially opening more commercial ties.

Thus the Turkish dilemma. For pragmatic and political reasons, Turkey will resist any military action against Iraq. On the other hand, it depends too heavily on American and NATO good will to rule it out. The solution, for now, seems not to commit. "The Turks are going to wriggle all the way," predicts the diplomat close to Ecevit. One likely scenario is for the Turks to quietly make common cause with European leaders wary of Washington's warlike stance. Another is for Ankara to plead for time on Iraq while lending staunch support elsewhere--for example, eventually taking leadership over the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. The problem is that Washington is not likely to stand patiently by. Not saying no could well be construed as a tacit yes by a U.S. administration determined to act as it deems necessary. And for Turkey, that could mean gulf war II.

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