Gul seeks peace as US advances

On the surface, Ankara and Washington appear to be dragging into a crisis over Iraq. In reality, neither, for different reasons, can afford a catastrophe. In the final analysis, Turkey cannot offend its main Western ally and the majority shareholder of its biggest international donor – the International Monetary Fund. Across the Atlantic, the United States cannot risk losing a staunch ally in a particularly volatile part of the world. Allies always compromise in the end, do they not? Recently, Ankara has been increasingly dragging its feet over making a firm commitment to provide military support for a US-led military campaign to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. In return, Washington has been increasingly wary of Turkish zig-zagging and wants to see a clear Turkish position – now. Several bigwigs have been traveling between Ankara and Washington over the past weeks trying in vain to broker a deal. Wait, say the Turks, risking American war plans. As if to amuse himself with Washington’s apparent plans to hit Baghdad before spring and only a few weeks before chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix presents his report to the UN Security Council (on January 27), Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul has just toured Syria, Egypt and Jordan «to end the Iraqi crisis peacefully.» Wrong targets, wrong timing, wrong mission. One could not possibly end the Iraqi crisis peacefully in meetings with Assad, Mubarak or King Abdullah – and three weeks before Mr Blix’s report. All the same, Mr Gul may have a point in his reference to Iraq’s future. «Iraq is like Pandora’s box,» he said in Damascus. «This box should not be opened.» His cryptic language was a warning to Washington: If you have a hidden agenda over the fate of Iraq, we have our contingency plans too. A Turkish-American conflict over Iraq’s future shape and governance is an unlikely nightmare scenario but not altogether nonsense. Privately, the Turks are increasingly concerned about a large US military presence on Turkish soil and/or transit into Iraq – something that could effectively put an end to the Turkish military’s leverage on Iraqi Kurds. True, Ankara is deeply suspicious about Western plans for northern Iraq. But that only partly explains why the Turks are testing the patience of President George W. Bush and his entourage. Having lost tens of billions of dollars in trade revenue in the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991, the Turks are now being extra cautious not to suffer again – and at a time when the economy has begun to pick up after a tormenting financial crisis. That is precisely why the US Treasury Department’s deputy undersecretary, John Taylor, had to fly to Ankara immediately after his Christmas break, along with Marc Grossman, his counterpart at the State Department. Unfortunately, Mr Taylor’s was a difficult bargain. Turkey calculates its potential economic losses at anywhere between $25 billion and $60 billion, depending on how long the entire military operation and its repercussions last. The Americans, on the other hand, are considering an aid package worth $5 billion in five years. Turkey also demands a partial write-off of its $5 billion military debt to the US plus transfer of military equipment. The US response to these requests is not yet clear. Apparently Ankara and Washington are having problems over bad timing. The Americans are anxious to conduct site surveys and reconstruct some of the air bases on Turkish territory so as to make them fit for a war against Iraq. They want to do the work now. But the Turks keep on telling them (a) not to expect a quick decision, (b) not to expect concrete promises until initial results of UN arms inspections are clear, and (c) to devise, in the meantime, a realistic assistance package should Turkey agree to support the US. However, Turkish indecision is causing disappointment in Washington, especially at the Pentagon. Turkish support is vital for any US war plan. It is imperative that the southern front from Kuwait must be supported through the northern front. Therefore, the US is anxious to quickly win a Turkish nod to use Turkish air bases, ports and military facilities. Time is running out and the Turkish prime minister is touring Arab countries to seek a peaceful solution – something that does not fit into the American timetable of reinforcing Turkish facilities and deploying its own troops. All the same, realpolitik dictates a deal. Turkey is reluctant because it genuinely does not want a war on its doorstep. It is reluctant because it wants to get the maximum from its ally in case it has to be dragged into the war. It is also reluctant because it fears its main Western ally could have a secret agenda in post-Saddam Iraq. At the same time, the Turkish economy is too dependent on its alliance with the US – and so is its entire military doctrine. The Turks never forget how their American friends helped them on numerous critical matters including the 1999 capture of Turkey’s most wanted man, Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan. Barely three weeks before Mr Blix’s report, no one in Ankara knows what level of US assistance Turkey may get in return for what level of Turkish support for President Bush’s war on terrorism. But hands will be shaken eventually. That’s what allies are for.

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