War Drums in Ankara What Turkey Wants From Iraq -- and the US

The Turkish parliament has granted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the right to order a military strike in neighboring Iraq. It's potentially a blank check for a new Iraq war -- but for now, the war drums are a way to underline Turkey's demands.

By Jürgen Gottschlich in Istanbul


Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, second from left, votes with ministers during a debate in Turkish parliament on Wednesday.
AFP

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, second from left, votes with ministers during a debate in Turkish parliament on Wednesday.

The words "War Drums in Ankara " were emblazoned across today's front page of Radikal, the center-left Turkish daily. A few hours later, the Turkish parliament reached a historic decision. For the first time since the invasion of Cyprus in 1974, the parliament has authorized a government to send troops into a neighboring country.

With an overwhelming majority of 507 votes (out of 550), the delegates to the Turkish Grand National Assembly handed the government a blank check, valid for one year, to order the army to conduct operations in northern Iraq.

Only 19 parliamentarians from the Kurdish DTP Party voted openly against the measure. Prime Minister Erdogan had insisted on an open vote. "The world should see how our parliament feels," was Erdogan's official reason, but the real intent was to shine a spotlight on the Kurdish faction.

The Erdogan government had expected for days that all the remaining parties would vote in favor of military action. "Our patience has come to an end," Erdogan said on the day before the vote, summarizing the general mood. "If Iraq wishes to prevent a Turkish military campaign, it must take clear action against the PKK," the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party. Iraqi Kurds, in particular, Erdogan said, must "build a wall between them and the PKK." The threat of military action triggered a wave of hectic diplomatic activity in both Washington and Baghdad.

A Strategic Mess for America

US President George W. Bush has switched to crisis management mode. Over the weekend, Under Secretary of Defense Eric Edelman, a former US ambassador to Ankara who knows Turkey well, and Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried met with senior Turkish government officials. Bush himself emphasized in public on Wednesday that sending troops to Iraq would not be in Turkey's best interest. But the truth is that nothing could be worse for American interests than a new battle front in the only stabilized part of Iraq.

Trouble has been brewing for a while, though. In the past few weeks alone, 30 soldiers have died in attacks and direct military clashes with PKK militants. "We can no longer tolerate the fact that the United States and the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq have done nothing against the PKK and still want to prevent us from attacking the PKK camps in northern Iraq ourselves. If this means that relations with the United States will suffer, then that is something we will have to accept. We are prepared to pay the price," said Erdogan.

Ankara's irritation with the US and the Iraqi government extends beyond their tolerance of the PKK. Turkey is also incensed over a decision by the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, which, after years of debate, voted to recommend to the US Congress that it classify the 1915 massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide, a term Turkey strictly rejects when it comes to defining the pogroms of the time.

If the US Congress accepts the resolution, Turkish General Chief of Staff Yasar Büyükanit said in an interview over the weekend, "military relations between Turkey and the United States will never be the same." Washington is apparently taking Ankara's threat seriously. An ultra-nationalist party, the MHP, is already calling on the government to close both the US air base at Incirlik in southern Turkey and its borders to Iraq.

Both actions would deal a severe blow to US troops in Iraq. The Pentagon processes close to 70 percent of its entire re-supply effort through Incirlik, and at least a quarter of the gasoline the US Army consumes is brought into Iraq on tanker trucks from Turkey. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Pentagon is already looking into alternate routes through Jordan and Kuwait, despite the fact that both would be inconvenient and dangerous.

For Bush, a great deal hinges on whether he manages to convince his Kurdish allies in northern Iraq to curtail the Kurdish-Turkish PKK's attacks in Turkey, at least temporarily. Turkish government spokesman Cemil Cicek said yesterday: "Our hope is that we will not have to use this motion, but it is clear that an invasion will follow the next spectacular attack by the PKK."

What Turkey Might Do

The Turkish army denies having prepared an invasion plan, but three military options have been discussed in the media. The most comprehensive is an advance by about 20,000 troops to a line about 40 kilometers (25 miles) across the border, the goal being to create a buffer zone in northern Iraq designed to prevent PKK militants from making any further raids inside Turkey. A second option would involve a temporary invasion to attack PKK camps in northern Iraq and destroy the guerillas' logistics, then withdraw to Turkish territory. A third option would be to amass more troops along the Turkish side of the border and launch air strikes into northern Iraq.

For now, the war drums are mainly intended to put the necessary weight behind Turkey's political demands. Erdogan is aware of the costs of invading northern Iraq. Ambassadors from the European Union nations were summoned to the foreign ministry in Ankara this morning to listen to Turkey's position.

But the key political meeting will take place on Nov. 5. Erdogan still plans to sit down on that day with President Bush, although a handful of hardliners in his own party have pushed him to cancel the meeting. Officials in Ankara no longer believe that Bush has the power to dampen congressional enthusiasm for the Armenian genocide resolution, but Erdogan wants to hold Washington to its promise that the US Army and Iraqi Kurds will move against the PKK in northern Iraq. If he returns from Washington empty-handed, though, the prime minister will hardly be able to hold back the Turkish military.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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