Turkey’s Position in the Iraq Operation: Bridge or Barrier?

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Sebnem Udum
March 26, 2003

When the US plans on Iraq started to unfold, a simultaneous debate began on Turkey’s position in the operation. Turkey’s status as a NATO ally and a strategic partner of the United States in the Middle East and its location north of Iraq make it key to the operation in Iraq. For a swift and decisive operation, military strategy foresees a northern front, for which Turkey’s cooperation is critical. Turkey could serve as a launching point for the allied operations with its territory, bases, and airspace. However, Turkey did not endorse the US demands for material and political support at once and in full. The United States wanted to send its troops to the northern front via Turkey; however, the Turkish Parliament rejected the motion to allow the deployment of up to 62,000 US troops in Turkish territory. Then, the United States needed to use Turkish airspace for the northern front. This time, negotiations were marked by uncertainty and tension. The underlying reason for Turkey’s ambivalence is that it is caught between its political priorities and strategic relationship with the United States.

Turkey and the United States became strategic partners in the 1990s regarding security matters, particularly in the Middle East. However, Turkey’s perceptions of the threat posed by Iraq have been considerably different from those of the United States. First, Turkey’s relations with Iraq were shaped by circumstances that either forced Saddam Hussein to cooperate with or that allowed him to apply pressure on Turkey: For example, when its relations with Syria deteriorated in 1982, Iraq tried to maintain smooth relations with Turkey as it was the only remaining outlet for the transportation of its oil. On the other hand, as a reaction to the dispute on the allocation and use of the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which originate from Turkey and flow through Iraq and Syria, Iraq (and Syria) provided safe haven and aid to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party, renamed as KADEK-Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress in April 2002), which carried out a separatist insurgency in southeastern Turkey since 1984 by using terrorist tactics against security forces and civilians. Iraq’s policy of relegating the Turcomans from a constituent ethnic group to a minority status[1] also upset Turkey. After the Gulf War of 1991, although Iraq remembered Turkey’s cooperation with the United States and the West, it wanted to preserve what had remained from its trade relations due to the sanctions, and pursued a balanced policy.

Second, Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and missile capability have been potential risks rather than urgent threats to Turkey, because what makes potential threats concrete is political intent rather than technical capability. Turkey relies on its military power–which ranks fifth in the world–and the NATO collective security guarantee to deter threats from the Middle East. Turkey’s threat perceptions of Iraqi capability assumed urgency when the US administration officially asked support in an operation for a regime change in Iraq, because Turkey lacks the systems to defend against attacks by missiles or WMD. Thus, on the basis of Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty,[2] it asked for the implementation of the NATO security guarantee, and thus the deployment of relevant facilities on its soil, such as missile defense systems, surveillance aircraft (AWACS-Airborne Early Warning and Command Systems Aircraft), and equipment and material against chemical and biological weapons. However, Turkey felt increasingly vulnerable when its demand led to prolonged debates and rifts in the Alliance.

Turkey based its official Iraq policy on three main pillars: maintaining the unity of Iraq, using Iraq’s resources for all the Iraqis, and including within Iraq the Arabs, Kurds, and Turcomans.[3] The United States does not necessarily uphold such a policy, nor do its plans for the aftermath of the operation signal trends that will overlap Turkey’s priorities. As an initial response, the Council of Ministers sent the Turkish Parliament a motion to allow the deployment of up to 62,000 US troops in Turkey and sending Turkish troops to Iraq. The underlying reason for Turkey to support the coalition is to have a seat at the table where Iraq’s future is shaped. Without such a position, it would have to deal with threats to its security and economy in the short- and medium-term as it did in the 1991 Gulf War.

Turkey has been suffering from the impacts of the Gulf War for more than a decade. It incurred a $30 billion-a-year bill due to the drastic decline of trade and tourism income, the cost of shutting down the Iraqi oil pipeline, loss of border trade due to the sanctions regime, the outflow of foreign investors from an unstable region, and sheltering 500,000 Iraqi refugees.[4] Moreover, separatist terrorism reached its peak when PKK militants infiltrated from the border through the refugee flow. A de facto Kurdish state started to flourish in northern Iraq, which Turkey perceives as a threat to its social and territorial integrity. The details of this perception will be given later in this piece. Thus, when the United States asked Turkey’s cooperation in a military operation, Turkey decided that this time it does not have the luxury of bearing similar or worse consequences without being properly equipped to prevent or to deal with them.

In return for its support, Turkey put forward a list of conditions that included the deployment of defense capabilities in its southeastern border with Iraq, economic aid to make up its losses from the war, a belt of Turkish troops at the Iraqi border to control the refugee flow with an equal status to those of the US military, and partnership with the United States in overseeing the distribution and re-collection of sophisticated weapons to the Iraqi opposition groups in northern Iraq.[5] However, Turkey’s negotiations with the United States produced guarantees that fell short of satisfying Turkey’s concerns.

On the economic front, even the debate of war affected Turkey’s already fragile economy. Interest rates rocketed, increasing Turkey’s debts, and destabilizing economic balances. This condition is hard to overcome without an injection of resources into the economy. Thus, Turkey asked the United States for economic aid. The US offer included a package of grants and low-interest credits amounting to some $30 billion; however, it was withdrawn after the defeat of the motion.[6]

Domestic factors were also significant in Ankara’s position towards the operation. Constitutional provisions stipulate parliamentary approval for decisions on military operations. Turkey is a democracy, and the government needed to convince a public that overwhelmingly opposes the war. Turkish people were also hurt by the satirical cartoons in the American media depicting Turkey as a country willing to open up its territory for material gain, referring to the negotiations over potential US economic aid. The government could not effectively make the case to the public that its choice is not between war and peace, but rather about minimizing the impacts of the operation on Turkey. The government remained slow in taking a clear stand on the issue as it was occupied with other critical issues at the same time, such as European Union membership, the Cyprus question, and complying with the International Monetary Fund’s requirements for the economic program. There was lack of coordination between the prime minister, the party leader, and the president. Last but not least, the National Security Council (NSC) refrained from advising the government before the parliamentary vote, recalling that Turkey is a democratic country. The constitutional role of the NSC has been contested particularly by the European Union as being undemocratic since the status of the military and civilian members are equal. The Chief of General Staff, Gen. Hilmi Özkök, since the assumption of his post, has affirmed that the military’s role is to implement the security decisions taken by the civilian authority, and has been cautious about this attitude before the vote as well.

The US-Turkish talks were dominated by Turkey’s threat perceptions from northern Iraq. Turkey insisted in maintaining a military presence in the region to protect its security interests. Turkey’s chief concern is that after the war, the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdish groups in northern Iraq would take advantage of the power vacuum and establish an independent Kurdish state. Turkey is worried that these groups would take over the oil-rich provinces in northern Iraq to attain economic independence, and start “ethnic cleansing” against the Turcomans, who form the majority of the population in some of the northern Iraqi provinces. Suffering from PKK separatist terrorism for 15 years, Turkey is alarmed that such a state could provoke the Kurds in Iran, Turkey, and to a lesser extent Syria to secede. Turkey assumes that separatist terrorism in Turkey would resurrect; it had ended after the capture of the PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan in 1998. Thus, Turkey perceives a Kurdish state or even a loose federation of Iraq as a disruption in the regional balance and an open invitation to conflict and instability. The interests of Turkey and the United States clash at this point, because the United States needs the Kurdish opposition groups to fight against the forces of Saddam Hussein, and Turkey gets the impression that the United States prioritizes Kurdish interests over those of Turkey. The silence of the United States towards the anti-Turkish demonstrations in northern Iraq right after the defeat of the motion disappointed Ankara to the extent that Turkey started to doubt its strategic partnership. The United States, on the other hand, wants to keep the Turkish military away from northern Iraq, worrying that the Turks and the Kurds could clash and undermine the original US plans. In fact, Turkey has maintained military presence in northern Iraq since 1995 to fight against PKK terrorism. Turkey underlined that it does not have a claim on the area and that its sole purpose is to prevent threats to its security.[7]

Turkey seemed to reconcile its security priorities and partnership with the United States after the parties agreed on the presence of the Turkish military in northern Iraq to stop the refugee flow. Turkey’s policy after the operation will focus on the restructuring of Iraq. The operation has set a precedent that would allow countries suffering from terrorism to “pre-emptively” strike the state supporters of terrorism. For regional stability, Turkey wishes to work with the United States for a new Iraq that is not going to harbor regional or international terrorism.

Turkey and the United States have common interests about the aftermath of the Iraq operation: Neither of them wants to see regional instability created as a result of a power vacuum. Both of them uphold the unity of Iraq, a central government and the well-being of the Iraqi people. The Iraq crisis has highlighted the differences between Turkey and the United States in attaining their objectives, but the commonalities will eventually encourage the allies to cooperate.


[1] Ret. Gen. Armağan Kuloğlu, “11 Eylül Sonrasında Değişen Dengeler Çerçevesinde Türkiye’nin Irak Politikası (Turkey’s Iraq Policy in the Framework of the Changed Balances),” ASAM Strategic Research Report, ASAM, January 23, 2003, <http://www.avsam.org/irak/analiz/5_analiz.htm>; H. Tarık Oğuzlu, “The ‘Turcomans’ as a Factor in Turkish Foreign Policy,” Turkish Studies, Vol. 3, No.2 (Autumn 2002), p. 143.

[2] Article 4 of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty states, “The parties will consult together, whenever in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.” Source: NATO Basic Texts-The North Atlantic Treaty, NATO Official website, http://www.nato.int/docu/basictxt/treaty.htm.

[3] Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül’s remarks, “Kriz Nasıl Aşıldı? (How was the Crisis Overcome),” Milliyet, March 22, 2003, http://www.milliyet.com.tr/2003/03/22/son/sontur04.html.

[4] See The Economist, 20 October 1990; The Middle East and North Africa 1994 (London: Europa Publications Ltd., 1993), pp. 874, 877; Foreign Policy Bulletin (formerly: Dept. of State Bulletin), Vol. 1, No. 6 (May-June

1991), pp. 23-24; Zvi Barel, Ha’aretz, 15 July 1994, cited in Amikam Nachmani, “Turkey in the Wake of the Gulf War: Recent History and its Implications,” Journal of Modern Hellenism, Vol. 15 (1999) (Abridged Web version) http://www.geocities.com/turkordusu/gulfwar.htm.

[5] Interview with Vice Prime Minister, Mr. Abdüllatif Şener, NTMSNBC, February 25, 2003, www.ntvmsnbc.com/news/203402.

[6] Interview with Turkish State Minister for Economy, Mr. Ali Babacan, Eko-dialog,-NTVMSNBC, March 7, 2003. http://www.ntvmsnbc.com/news/204846. Statement by Secretary of State, Colin Powell: “Powell: Mali Yardım Önerisinin Süresi Doldu (The Offer of Economic Aid Has Expired,” Hürriyet, March 18, 2003, http://www.hurriyetim.com.tr/haber/0,,sid~1@w~342@tarih~2003-03-18-m@nvid~244286,00.asp. The United States is working on a $1 billion grant, which can be transformed into an $8.5 billion credit. “8.5 Milyar Dolarlık Kredi (The 8.5 billion USD Credit),” Milliyet, March 26, 2003 (WWW-Version).

[7] Remarks by Turkish Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gül.

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