Regime Change in Iraq: Repercussions for Turkey

 By Cengiz Candar

Special to the Western Policy Center

For many experts on the U.S.-Turkish relationship, the "acid test" concerning this relationship is likely to come with the long-awaited American military campaign in Iraq aimed at ousting Saddam Hussein's regime.

Whether such an operation will ever take place is still an open question. Yet it remains the focal point of the divergence of interests between the United States and Turkey. Otherwise, bilateral relations appear to be exemplary.

Bilateral relations in the military and political spheres reached their peak with the 1991 Gulf campaign against Iraq. Because of the policy adopted by then Turkish President Turgut Ozal, the strong cooperation between Turkey and the United States during the U.S.-led Gulf War opened a new page in relations between the two NATO countries, whose alliance over the past half century has had its ups and downs, stemming primarily from the Cyprus problem and tensions in Turkish-Greek relations.

During the post-Cold War period following the Gulf War, U.S.-Turkish relations have undergone a structural change. In 1991, with the aim of diversifying the relationship and making it more significant, a new concept called "enhanced partnership" was promoted. This involved five major areas of cooperation: energy, economic and commercial relations, regional cooperation, Cyprus, and defense and security cooperation.

As two close allies, Turkey and the United States are consulting each other in the fight against terrorism, in containing regional conflicts, and in preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Joint activities being carried out by the United States and Turkey in Bosnia and Kosovo within the context of the SFOR and KFOR peacekeeping operations, as well as in northern Iraq, are important examples of their regional cooperation.

Iraq is one area where there has been effective and significant cooperation between the United States and Turkey over the past decade. After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Turkey exhibited solidarity with the United States by halting Iraqi oil exports through Turkey and by permitting U.S. air strikes on Iraq from Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey.

This bilateral cooperation continued with "Operation Provide Comfort," which provided humanitarian relief and protection for Iraqi Kurds in the wake of the 1991 Iraq campaign, and continues today with "Operation Northern Watch," through which U.S. and British planes based at Incirlik enforce the no-fly zone in northern Iraq above the 36th parallel and prevent Saddam Hussein from having authority over the region. Turkey's cooperation with the United States is essential to Washington's policy toward Iraq and to the implementation and success of the U.N. embargo against Baghdad.

The events of September 11, while reshaping Washington's global strategic considerations, led the White House to give Iraq even higher priority in the American strategic outlook. The U.S. administration, ostensibly, is committed to removing Saddam's regime, a factor that has strengthened Turkey's geopolitical value even further. When assessing this situation, Turkish policymakers, including the influential military top brass, have emphasized that the "enhanced partnership" between the two countries could be elevated to the level of a "strategic partnership."

Nonetheless, the perception that the September 11 attacks strengthened Turkey's geopolitical value cannot dispel the equally important perception that Turkey will be in a precarious position if an American-led military operation against Iraq takes place.

On one hand, Turkish authorities, above all the military, are keen to cooperate with the United States in order to preserve the newly attained closer bilateral relationship and develop it even further. This is especially imperative in view of the U.S.-guided, IMF-supervised, strict economic program underway in Turkey, which is designed to overcome the gravest economic crisis in the country's history.

On the other hand, Turkey's highest officials, ranging from Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit to Chief of the General Staff General Hüseyin Kivrikoglu, have never missed an opportunity to voice their dissent regarding the possibility of an American military operation against Iraq. Turkish objections to such an operation have, at times, been publicly stated and have, at times, been muted, but they have never been totally withdrawn.

An analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) entitled Turkey's New Optimism states: "The Turkish prime minister has no doubt noticed that the proponents of the Iraqi option inside and outside the U.S. administration have been arguing quite convincingly that Turkey is an essential component in the successful conduct of an Iraq operation. However, Turkey's support of the United States in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein is far from assured. Although the Turkish factor is surely only one of many considerations currently being weighed in Washington, it is obvious that, parallel to all other possible consequences, a move against Saddam would test the strength of the U.S.-Turkish alliance."

The Turkish government quickly condemned the attacks of September 11 and backed the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan. In addition to Ankara's rhetorical support for Washington, which is considered significant since Turkey is the only member of NATO with a predominantly Muslim population, Turkey permitted the U.S. to use the country's bases and airspace, and shared intelligence with Washington in conjunction with the Afghanistan campaign.

However, Ecevit has repeatedly indicated that cooperation with the United States against Iraq would be beyond the limits of Turkey's solidarity with Washington. As early as October 2001, when the U.S. military strikes on Afghanistan were in their initial phase, Ecevit, in an interview with Turkey's Star TV, expressed his view on this matter bluntly.

When the interviewer asked Ecevit where Turkey would stand if the U.S. intervened in Iraq militarily, the prime minister responded: "An operation against Iraq would not be right. Turkey cannot accept this. This operation may lead to Turkey's dismemberment. It also will disrupt all the balances in the Middle East . . . .We do not want any intervention against Iraq whatsoever. As I have stated, it will create many dangers." He added that the Turkish viewpoint on this issue had been conveyed to Washington "at every opportunity for months and years."

In a CNN interview on October 16, 2001, Ecevit said that Turkey saw no reason for attacking Iraq. He said that such an attack would destabilize the Middle East and could lead to the partitioning of Iraq, which could create problems for Turkey's "independence or territorial integrity." On November 7, 2001, he stated even more bluntly on CBS that Turkey "would not support" U.S. action against Iraq.

The prime minister did not change his viewpoint after receiving a warm reception at the White House from President George W. Bush in January 2002. The way he was received was interpreted as a reflection of Washington's confidence that Turkey would support a U.S. campaign against Iraq.

The February 1, 2002 issue of the Executive Intelligence Review, a Washington periodical, referred to Ecevit's January 17 press conference following his meetings with Bush and other U.S. officials. Commenting on the possibility of military action against Iraq, Ecevit said that ". . . a way out can be found, of course, and should be found, but I hope that it will not include a military operation, because such an operation could be catastrophic for Turkey, even if Turkey did not participate in it. [Turkey has] suffered a lot as a result of the Gulf crisis, the Gulf War, when Iraq was virtually divided into three parts, particularly two parts; one major part adjoining Turkey. And this has cost us a lot of money, a lot of lives, and we don't want the same thing to happen again."

On the eve of Vice President Dick Cheney's visit to Turkey in March 2002, the last leg of his Middle East tour to drum up support for an American drive against Iraq, Ecevit, speaking on CNN International, said that Ankara did not support a possible U.S.-led military operation against Iraq because it would harm the Turkish economy, discourage foreign investment, and ruin the tourism industry. He said that he would convey this view to Cheney during his visit.

The prime minister's statements did not come as a surprise to those who had observed his determined opposition to Özal's policy of cooperation with President George H.W. Bush in the war against Iraq in 1990 and 1991. Ecevit visited Saddam twice during that period as a member of parliament, and, as prime minister, he has been accelerating the normalization of relations with Iraq by sending an ambassador back to Baghdad and by promoting an increase in bilateral trade.

However, it would be wrong to believe that Ecevit's views on Iraq do not reflect, to some extent, the views of his coalition partners and many of his countrymen. The continuing U.N. embargo against Iraq is estimated to have cost Turkey over $30 billion, and it is widely believed to have contributed to the country's current economic crisis.

Moreover, although the 15-year-long government campaign against Kurdish separatists has ended, there are genuine fears in Turkey that a break-up of Iraq could have a domino effect.

To underscore this concern, General Kivrikoglu visited the Turkish city of Diyarbakir, near the Iraqi border, on November 9, 2001, and reiterated that Turkey was opposed to military action against Iraq. On more than one occasion, he has voiced the Turkish military's displeasure over signals coming from Washington on this matter. According to a Reuters dispatch on December 27, 2001, General Kivrikoglu said that "an independent Kurdish state would be on the agenda" in northern Iraq if military action is taken against Baghdad.

The Turkish military's position regarding the possibility of an American military onslaught against Iraq was also revealed by the secretary general of Turkey's influential National Security Council, General Tuncer Kilinç. He declared Turkey's opposition to such a campaign and emphasized in unequivocal terms that Turkey would intervene, in the event of a break-up of Iraq, in order to prevent the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. (Hürriyet, June 14, 2002)

Concern over a potential American military operation against Iraq has by no means been confined to the Turkish executive branch and military. Another voice of disapproval has come from one of the most America-friendly institutions in Turkey, the Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association (TÜSIAD).

TÜSIAD is the mouthpiece of Turkey's most prominent industrialists and business people, and is considered the most credible non-governmental organization in the country. TÜSIAD's chairman, Tuncay Özilhan, on December 26, 2001, said that the view of Turkish business people concerning a possible U.S. operation against Iraq had been shaped by the expected economic repercussions of such an operation. He said that Turkish business people did not approve of military action against Iraq at a time when Turkey's exports to Iraq were increasing. These exports, he said, were coming from southeastern Turkey, an important factor, at a time when the country generally needed to step up its production and exports. A military campaign against Iraq would not only have a negative economic impact on Turkey, but it would also cause a significant imbalance in the region politically, Özilhan added.

The three influential centers of power on the Turkish political stage, the executive branch, the military, and the business world -- which the U.S. has relied upon in its exclusive relationship with Turkey, are not enthusiastic about a potential U.S. operation to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime.

Turkish concerns are focused on two major points: security and the economy. Ankara is worried that an attack on Iraq might be followed by the dismemberment of Turkey's southern neighbor, which, in turn, might further aggravate Turkey's Kurdish question.

Turkey is also wary of the immense economic losses that such military action would entail. While Turkey is struggling to overcome its economic crisis, any military undertaking on its immediate periphery would have extremely adverse effects on an already very fragile Turkish economy.

Therefore, Ankara is hoping that the United States will not ask it to support a military operation against Iraq. Although Ankara has made clear that it does not wish to provide this support, it cannot refuse to give it without serious consequences.

As a result, it is entirely possible that, despite Turkey's strong reservations concerning the matter, the Turkish government could still do an about-face and follow Washington's lead on Iraq. Although Turkey's growing dependence on Washington may oblige it to do so, it will not prevent Turkish leaders from continuing to express grave reservations about U.S. intentions to target the regime in Baghdad.


Cengiz Candar is a columnist for the Turkish daily Yeni Safak and a political analyst for the Haberturk television news channel. The author of seven books, he was an advisor to the late President Turgut Ozal on Middle Eastern issues from 1991 to 1993, a lecturer on Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilgi University in Istanbul from 1997 to 1999, a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 1999, and a Senior Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace in 2000.