What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, the coalition government of Bulent Ecevit in Turkey had risen to the forefront of U.S. regional allies in the Middle East, contributing heavily to America’s Afghan campaign. Today, Washington is deadlocked with Ankara, now led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), over the next phase in its war on terrorism: military action against Iraq.
For American policymakers, Turkey represents an important component of a probable battle with Baghdad. Ankara’s cooperation is the key to an effective northern front in the event of war, and would allow the U.S. to base and deploy ground troops directly into northern Iraq during the conflict.
But the AKP appears to have other ideas. It has made no secret of its opposition to military action against Saddam Hussein, and is now playing hardball with the Pentagon, hedging on providing permission for the United States to use Turkish bases as part of its war efforts. All this notwithstanding a generous $26 billion combination loan/aid package currently being proffered by the Bush administration.
Ankara’s anxiety is understandable. For one thing, many Turkish policymakers worry that U.S. military action could bring with it a massive refugee crisis, reminiscent of the one that accompanied the 1991 Gulf War. Such a humanitarian challenge would sorely strain Turkey’s struggling economy, and, possibly, even the AKP’s hold on power.
For another, officials in Ankara fret over the potential power vacuum that might follow Saddam Hussein’s overthrow — a development that might prompt either the fragmentation of northern Iraq or the rise of violent separatism among Turkey’s own restive Kurdish minority.
Still, the benefits of an alliance with Washington should far outweigh the drawbacks of any U.S. military action. First, post-war Iraq could be a much-needed economic boon; the generous aid package now being offered as an inducement for Ankara’s support would do much to cushion the Turkish economy from the effects of a war next door. And Turkey’s politicians have every reason to anticipate that in the longer term, a liberalizing, pro-Western Iraq would prompt a rapid regional economic turnaround.
Second, Washington has in recent weeks distinguished itself as an ally committed to Turkey’s defense. In response to a deadlock in NATO over the need to protect its only Middle Eastern member, the United States has made an unequivocal commitment to the defense of its regional ally. This, compounded with Ankara’s own security precautions — which include the deployment of forces into Northern Iraq as a hedge against Kurdish separatism and renewed terrorism — goes a long way toward guaranteeing Turkey’s security.
Finally, unlike their counterparts in Riyadh and Tehran, officials in Ankara are not apprehensive about the fallout from regime change in Baghdad. Quite the opposite, in fact; some Turkish strategists already appear to be planning for an expanded Turkish regional role in a post-Saddam Middle East.
All this, however, is contingent on Turkey’s near-term support for American efforts. Turkey is undoubtedly an important piece in the Pentagon’s puzzle — without Ankara’s approval, the U.S. would be forced to explore other, more costly, military options for its Iraq campaign, such as the airlifting of infantry from distant U.S. bases or Navy ships in the Persian Gulf. But the United States has made clear that it plans to engage in military action against Iraq. Whether or not it cooperates with these efforts, Turkey will be directly impacted by the impending campaign. And without agreement with Washington, Ankara might be forced to weather a second Gulf crisis without any financial buffer.
But economics are only part of the equation. The political fallout from Ankara’s continued intransigence could prove to be even more damaging. With lasting discord on what the White House views as a paramount strategic issue, the Bush administration might be prompted to rethink the future scope of its partnership with Turkey. And even if a deal is struck soon, as now seems likely, the long-term effect of this incident on U.S.-Turkish ties will hardly be positive.
For the AKP, now beginning to navigate the Middle East’s turbulent political waters, asserting an independent foreign policy is doubtless at the top of any international agenda. But in perpetuating its current stalemate with Washington, the AKP runs the risk of becoming a victim of its own success — with the quality of the U.S.-Turkish partnership in the balance.