Turkey Walks a Tightrope Over Iraq Issues


Jan 17, 2003

This commentary originally appeared in Newsday on January 17, 2003.

With a possible war with Iraq looming, U.S. relations with Turkey, a key ally in the Mideast since the end of World War II, have moved to center stage. In any military operation against Iraq, Turkish support, both political and military, will be crucial.

But the overwhelming victory by the Islamist Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP) — the Justice and Development Party — in the November 2002 parliamentary elections has raised questions about Turkey's political future — and its reliability as key strategic ally.

Some observers worry that the AKP might abandon Turkey's traditionally strong pro-Western stance and adopt a more "Islamic" foreign policy. Such fears, however, ignore both the evolution that has taken place within the AKP in recent years as well as the reasons for its electoral success in the November elections.

AKP leader Recip Tayyip Erdogen and Prime Minister Abdullah Gul represent the moderate wing of the Islamic movement in Turkey. In recent years, the party has moved increasingly toward the center. While it seeks greater freedom for religious expression, it does not advocate the creation of an Islamist state and has promised to respect Turkey's secular orientation, anchored in the constitution. It also favors Turkish membership in both NATO and the European Union.

Domestically, the AKP has earned a reputation for clean and efficient government at the local level. Polls show that many Turks voted for the AKP not because it is Islamist, but out of disenchantment with the failure of the mainstream political parties to deal effectively with Turkey's political and economic problems.

In its first few months in power, moreover, the new AKP government has shown itself more willing than its predecessors to address Turkey's internal and external problems. It has quickly passed long-delayed legislation designed to improve Turkey's human rights situation and made the opening of membership talks with the EU a top priority.

On Cyprus, too — a major obstacle to Turkey's EU ambitions — the AKP has adopted a more flexible position than its predecessors. As a result, for the first time since the 1974 Turkish invasion of the island, there is a realistic prospect that the Cyprus issue may be moving toward resolution.

And Erdogen also has vowed to continue the rapprochement with Greece, Turkey's traditional rival, that was initiated under the previous Bulent Ecevit government. To underscore this point, Erdogen made Athens his first stop on his swing through European capitals after the November elections.

Good relations with Washington are also a top Turkish priority. But differences over Iraq have complicated efforts to put relations on a firmer footing. The Bush administration would like to use Turkish territory to open a second front in any U.S.-led military operation against Iraq. However, the Turkish public is overwhelmingly opposed to an attack on Iraq and the new AKP government has balked at approving the use of its territory for any U.S.-led land invasion.

Even the normally pro-U.S. Turkish military, which has a critical voice on all issues related to Turkish security, has been hesitant about endorsing any deployment of American troops on Turkish soil.

Turkish opposition, however, has little to do with Islam or sympathy for Saddam Hussein. Turkey suffered severe economic losses in the first Gulf War as a result of its support for the United States, and many Turks are concerned about the economic impact of a new war at a time when the country is going through its worst economic crisis in decades.

Many Turks are also worried that a military operation against Iraq will lead to the emergence of an independent Kurdish state on Turkey's border, rekindling separatist pressures among Turkey's Kurdish population.

The new AKP government has agreed to allow a 150-man U.S. survey team to inspect Turkish facilities and ports that could be used in a possible war with Iraq. However, under the Turkish constitution, any stationing of large numbers of U.S. troops on Turkish territory would need to be approved by the Turkish parliament.

Turkey's hesitant stance highlights the importance for the Bush administration to obtain broad international support for any military operation against Iraq. The more international support the United States has, the easier it will be for the Turkish government to justify allowing its bases to be used for any Iraq contingency.

Conversely, a go-it-alone strategy against Iraq could complicate relations with Ankara and undercut the prospects for developing a new strategic relationship with the AKP government.

F. Stephen Larrabee is a senior political scientist at RAND. He has taught at Columbia University, Cornell University, New York University, the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Georgetown University and the University of Southern California. Before joining RAND, served as Vice President and Director of Studies of the Institute of East-West Security Studies in New York and was a distinguished Scholar in Residence at the Institute from 1989–1990. Also served on the U.S. National Security Council staff in the White House, as a specialist on Soviet-East European affairs and East-West political-military relations.

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