A prickly ally: Turkey drives a hard bargain

Washington’s impatience at Ankara’s delay in agreeing to its plans to use Turkey as the base for a second front against Iraq illustrates how hard a bargain the Turks are driving, how dependant the United States is on bilateral deals and also how close we are to war. Officials in Washington appear furious that the delay in moving the Army’s 4th Infantry Division through Turkey may delay the war’s possible start from early March to later in the month. With 94 percent of the Turkish population saying that it is against war in Iraq, Ankara’s tough stand appears to be its only option, even at the risk of alienating the country’s chief ally. If Ankara gets the money it wants, it will be able to sell the war to its population, on the basis that Turkey’s interests are protected. Also, if the Americans are forced to make other plans, the government will be able to tell the people that it did not give in to pressure to aid in the war effort. The bargaining also shows how much more pressured Washington feels as it prepares for its second war against Iraq. Things were different in the autumn of 1990, after Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait. Then, the United States mobilized a huge international coalition against Iraq, in which only a few countries stayed out. The UN Security Council endorsed action against Iraq fully. Also, the Americans made no plans to invade Iraq from the north, and that part of the country was still very much under Saddam’s control. The United States led an occupation force into northern Iraq only after Saddam crushed a Kurdish uprising that followed Iraq’s defeat in Kuwait and resulted in a mass exodus of refugees. This gave the Kurds a de facto autonomous region that they have ruled since, much to Turkey’s discomfort. So, in 1990 Turkey was not in a strong position. First, it had to cope with the sudden influx of a million refugees in muddy camps on its borders, in a region that was already in a state of emergency because of the uprising by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Iraq, at the time, was also Turkey’s main trading partner and the source of the oil which flowed through the lucrative pipeline linking Iraq’s oil fields at Kirkuk with the Turkish port of Iskenderun (Alexandretta). Turkey was so wary of imposing UN sanctions on its neighbor that only a few days after the embargo came into effect, and when no more ships were arriving in Iskenderun to load Iraqi oil, that Ankara loudly announced it was shutting down the pipeline. Turgut Ozal, the man who almost single-handedly had dragged Turkey toward closer ties with the West, was president. The government was run by his party. It also helped Turkey that Ozal had become a personal friend of President George Bush, who paid a visit to Greece and Turkey in the summer of 1991, during which Ozal was once again able to sell its importance as an ally to Washington. By now, American and other troops were using Turkey on their way into and out of the Kurdish enclave in Iraq, and allied planes were using the Incirlik base at Adana as their base for flying patrols over the UN-imposed no-fly zone in northern Iraq. The reluctant ally, Turkey, had become a pillar of the international intervention in Iraq. Since then, Turkey says the embargo has cost it some $40 billion in lost trade. On this basis, Ankara set down its demand for a written commitment by Washington for some $92 billion (according to the Financial Times yesterday). The Americans are offering $4-6 billion in grants and another $20 billion in loan guarantees. Turkey’s arithmetic, however, does not take into account the massive amount of smuggling that has been going on over the past 12 years, especially of crude oil and diesel. The Associated Press reported in September that nearly 600 tanker trucks loaded with crude from Iraq passed through the Habur border post daily. Turkey’s other concern, that it block the autonomous Kurdish area in Iraq from gaining some kind of international recognition, is not something that Washington can guarantee and still rely on the Kurds’ help against Saddam. So Turkey has focused on what it does so well: bargaining.