NEWS

Turks angry at their gov’t over war

The Turks are angry with the pictures of a war they almost unanimously oppose. Anti-war (anti-American) protests are a daily event. But, fearing yet another financial crisis, they are angrier with their own government, which more and more of them see as «a bunch of rookies» that bungled talks with the United States by delaying too long. The Turkish public mindset on America’s war on Iraq may look paradoxical, but it isn’t. The Turks oppose the war – for religious, ideological and, mostly, humanitarian reasons. But they also oppose their government’s zigzagging in talks over cooperation with America – for purely economic reasons. Apparently, they have a point. Their government’s choice was not between good and bad; it was between bad and worse. And the inexperienced rulers, it seems, have gone for the worse. By the time the Turkish government eventually bowed to American pressure and allowed the United States to use Turkish air space in its war against Iraq, it was too late to earn the country’s fragile economy a good $6 billion in American grants and up to $24 billion in loan guarantees. Turks now ask their leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, if he was going to help the United States with their war all along, why did he not do so in time and at least win some compensation in return? Despite a belated Turkish move to grant permission for US overflights, the collapse of talks with Washington for broader military cooperation and, linked to that, a sizeable chunk of financial assistance, had more impact on financial markets last week than the war itself did. On Monday, Turkey’s lira currency posted a record low at 1.746 million to the dollar – an 8.71 percent loss since March 1, when Turkey’s Parliament rejected the US request to set up a northern front against Iraq from Turkey’s southeastern border. Stocks plunged, bond yields soared and Turkey’s sovereign debt slumped. As a result, investors think credit risk in Turkey this year and next has significantly risen. That calls into question fiscal targets and a rollover risk some analysts think is very high. This year Turkey must service more than $90 billion in domestic and foreign debt. A mere 10 percentage-point rise in bond yields will increase the Treasury’s interest burden for the entire year by $8 billion to $12 billion. Annual bond yields have already come close to 70 percent against a government target of an average 35 percent for the whole of 2003. To bridge the gap, the government has announced new taxes worth some $9 billion. Mr Erdogan, who rose to power on solid pledges of a better living standard for the poor, has said there may be more taxes. All that may just bring more suffering to a nation that has hardly recovered from a financial crisis which only two years ago chopped off one-third of their per capita income. But Mr Erdogan talks sense when he compares war in Iraq to a fire in his neighbor’s house and warns the Turks that the flames could spread to their own home. Forget all the financial figures; the political risk associated with Turkey’s position on the Iraq war has the potential to spark devastating financial chaos. There is every reason to believe that Turkey’s delayed move to pave the way for American warplanes to bomb Iraqi targets and to airlift troops into northern Iraq will fall short of relieving tensions with its main Western ally at a time when a separate decision by Ankara to send troops into northern Iraq raised fears of military confrontation with US-allied Iraqi Kurds and even with American forces. Turkey, which has already stationed several thousand soldiers a short distance inside northern Iraq, said its troops would enter the area to prevent an influx of refugees across its borders, but gave no date for an incursion Washington opposes and Iraqi-Kurdish groups threaten to fight. Despite several warnings from the US, NATO and European leaders, Turkey’s military looks determined to have some control over events on its borders. It is the link between US troops and Kurdish groups that alarms the conservative Turks who hold political sway in Ankara and see northern Iraq as a hotbed of Western manipulation threatening Turkish interests. Most of all, they fear Kurdish factions making a bid to control or secure a stake in the oil fields of Kirkuk and Mosul that could provide the financial basis of what Turkey has declared a casus belli – an independent Kurdish state. History certainly helps explain part of the Turkish policymaking mindset. Britain and its allies drafted a treaty shortly before the foundation of the modern Turkish Republic in 1923 that envisaged the partition of the Anatolian heartland and possible creation of a Kurdish state including southeastern Turkish areas. The plan was later abandoned but, in Turkey, not forgotten. Is it any wonder why Ankara has not even bothered to reply to repeated British requests for overflight rights for their own warplanes for attacks against Iraq? All the same, it is the American military, not the British, for which Turkey became a major hurdle. Similarly, it is the American military the Turks are now risking a confrontation with. Under an identification of friend and foe (IFF) system used in the war, US military aircraft flying over Iraq would recognize friendly forces by means of special electronic and other codes assigned to them and any military unit lacking these might become a potential target for air raids – and that might inadvertently include the Turks. It will certainly be a most volatile and dangerous situation on the ground in northern Iraq, where there is every risk of «unwanted hostilities» between otherwise allied forces. Every shot fired in the no man’s land zone will push Turkey further toward political isolation.