Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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February 19, 2003

US Reported Seeking Alternative to Turkish Reliance in Conflict With Iraq, But Also Fails to Note That West-Turkish Rift More Over Pan-Turkism

Analysis. With input from GIS Station Ankara and other sources. Some key US Defense Department and White House planners are looking at ways to bypass reliance on Turkey in the anticipated conflict with Iraq as a result of what is being term by some Washington officials as “attempted blackmail” by the Turkish Government over demands for what were terms “totally unreasonable” financial terms for Turkish base support for the war. There has been, in many quarters, growing disillusionment with Turkey by that country’s staunchest allies within the Bush Administration and the US Department of Defense (DoD) in recent months after Turkish demands with regard to Iraq, and also over Turkish intransigence on the question of a Cyprus settlement.

While US officials focused on the Turkish financial demands, however, the real sub-text of the Turkish dilemma appeared to be more connected with the pan-Turkist revival in many quarters in Turkey, rather than the money. In some senses, it is almost as if the financial demands were meant to be outrageous so as to put the rift into a plausible context. However, Turkish sources and GIS Turkish specialists say that the current problem has more to do with long-simmering pan-Turkism than anything else.

Turkey has, for decades, and almost since the end of World War I when the framework of the Ottoman Caliphate ceased to dominate the Middle East, been able to refuse to accept the “territorial legitimacy” of Iraq’s borders. Northern Iraq had been part of Turkey proper, not part of the Arab Caliphate. If the US successfully creates a “new Iraq”, post-Saddam Hussein, it will effectively “legitimize” Iraqi borders, removing forever the chance of the restoration of northern Iraq to Turkey, and ending the prospect of a return of the northern oilfields, such as Kirkuk and Mosul, to Turkey.

This underlying aspect of Turkish reluctance to support the US is not discussed, nor appreciated in Washington, even by Turkey’s principal supporters, such as Richard Perle, Chairman of the Defense Policy Board which advises the US Defense Secretary.

But now, over what appears to be merely the financial demands by Turkey, and over the fact that Turkey — which official Washington feels “owes” the US for its unqualified support in the past on issues such as European Union membership — there is now the very real possibility that US-Turkish relations may have reached, or are approaching, a watershed, and that the days of unwavering US support for Turkey may be coming to an end.

One US source told GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily: “There seems to be the unrealistic impression in Ankara that Turkey is absolutely indispensable to any US plans with regard to Iraq, and that this is the time to get the US to pay for Turkey’s economic follies of the past decade. We have contingency plans which do not include Turkey; indeed, we began planning with regard to Iraq at a time when the Turkish political situation was in chaos, and we have kept those plans in mind throughout.”

The leader of the ruling Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP), Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on February 18, 2003, warned the US that Turkey would not automatically support a war on Iraq and that it needed specifics on how much financial compensation it would receive if it went to war. This is despite the fact that the Turkish Government has made extensive plans to participate in the war so as to achieve specific military goals against Kurdish bases in northern Iraq during a Coalition war against Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein. The US has had severe misgivings about Turkish intentions in such a war, fearing that Turkish national goals — defeating Turkish Kurds inside Iraq and possibly securing control over the northern Iraqi territory and oilfields — would diminish the efficiency of a war against Saddam.

Turkey delayed a vote on February 18, 2003, on whether it would allow major US force deployments to be based in the country. The Turkish Government made it clear that the vote and the approach were based on the fact that a meeting on February 14, 2003, between Turkey’s Foreign Minister and Economic Minister with US President George W. Bush about increasing the aid package made clear the limits of US aid to Turkey. 

Mr Erdogan said: “Our American friends should not consider the decision made by parliament on modernizing bases and ports means we have set off on an irreversible path of support.”

In the past, Turkish stubbornness has always been met with US compromise, but senior US sources said that the time had come to draw a line on Turkish pressures. The United States had offered some $6-billion in grants and $15- to $20-billion in loan guarantees. The Turkish Government’s demands had substantially exceeded that offer, and there appeared to be no realization by Turkish officials even by late on February 17, 2003, that Pres. Bush would not compromise on the matter. A Turkish Foreign Ministry under-secretary on February 17, 2003, delivered a revised list of “proposals” to the US Ambassador in Turkey. 

GIS sources said that the Turkish revised demand was for $12-billion in grants; the US had countered with $10-billion, but Pres. Bush had put that on hold pending a UN resolution on the US of force against Iraq. This was now increasingly unlikely to happen, given intimations that the French Government — if not the Government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) — would veto such a resolution in the UN Security Council.