Politics & Policy

Understanding Turkey’s Compulsions

Washington needs to hold Ankara's hand.

Only two military generals in history have used military power to create a modern state, then transformed their newly minted countries into representative democracies before going on to became the first democratically elected presidents of their nations: George Washington and Kamal Ataturk. So it is all the more perplexing why Turkey, the Muslim world’s only successful experiment in democratic self-rule, chose to crinkle America’s war plan in Iraq. The Turks now face financial — and perhaps political — ruin for stubbing the toe of their most reliable ally during the last half century.

By turning down Washington’s request to station up to 70,000 U.S. troops in Turkey near Iraq’s northern border, Ankara looks increasingly on the wrong side of George W. Bush’s “you’re either with us or against us” war mantra. Had Ankara agreed, the U.S. basing would have been used to launch ground assaults through Kurdish-controlled areas on the strategically important oil enclaves of Mosul and Kirkuk. Al Qaeda affiliated terrorist training camps near the Iranian border would have also been more easily eradicated.

Striking from the north would have enabled allied forces to strategically encircle Baghdad and thereby lessen the risks of Saddam’s Republican Guard and Fayadeen commandos launching chemical or biological attacks against allied troops. Ankara’s begrudging agreement to permit the U.S. narrow over-flight corridors as the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division steams toward Baghdad from Kuwait is probably too little too late. Those same troop deployments are now being hastily flown in from Jordanian airfields and captured air bases in western Iraq.

So why is Turkey vacillating between policies that could ruin it financially and those that satisfy a narrow domestic military and political lobby? Ankara’s decisions can be characterized as a complex mix of differing strategic military priorities on the one hand, and the bungling of an inexperienced government made up of Islamists unaccustomed to the lever arms and responsibilities of power on the other.

The stakes, sadly, could not be higher. Faced with enormous economic stresses — $145 billion in foreign debt (with a staggering $93 billion due this year), skyrocketing inflation, a collapsed currency and stock market, and stalled manufacturing, textile, and tourism industries — Ankara could have used Washington’s $6 billion direct-aid package with another $24 billion in long-term loan restructuring from the International Monetary Fund to cushion the war shock to its fragile economy.

That Turkey’s military was willing to withstand such overwhelming financial pressures by withholding critical support for the U.S. proposal is less a function of fears that a postwar Kurdistan could be born in northern Iraq, engendering similar separatist tendencies in southern Turkey, than it is of deep misgivings about the ongoing role 70,000 American troops would have played in the region.

Turkish military calculations about the troops’ strength needed to combat a dilapidated Iraqi army that even the Turks knew they could defeat didn’t square with the magnitude of troop deployments and technological capabilities the U.S. had proposed to base in southern Turkey. Translation: The Turks believed Washington had already set its sights on Tehran, and possibly Damascus, for post-Iraq military operations and was casing the battlefield for those theaters.

U.S. economic aid, no matter how significant or structural in its nature, wouldn’t do much good for the Turkish economy if the entire region was a cauldron of fire for years to come, Turkish military arguments went. But with less than $4 billion left on its IMF credit facility and negotiations to extend further credits dependent on reducing government expenditures, springtime bankruptcy will soon become the overriding consideration for the Turkish army as it struggles to find the resources for maintaining proposed troop deployments in northern Iraq.

Not to mention what might happen if Syria makes a bid to assist Baathist Republican Guard units by fighting a rear guard action against U.S.-captured and controlled airbases in western Iraq. Concerns are mounting that with or without Damascus’s knowledge, civilian-clad Hezbollah guerillas armed to the teeth with C4 explosives and suicide-mission orders are being infiltrated across Syria’s long border with Iraq.

Combine Turkey’s unclear military view of its national interests with a diplomatically inexperienced government and a picture emerges of an already politically hobbled and militarily confused nation at a precipice.

Politics tells an important part of the story. Pressure on Turkey’s minority opposition leaders from European Union bigwigs France and Germany during the Turkish parliament’s first vote on Washington’s aid-for-bases proposal showed just how politically naïve Turkey’s Islamists were.

The more experienced opposition took the wedge Jacques Chirac was driving into the trans-Atlantic alliance as an opportunity to negotiate a French policy reversal by offering to reconsider moving up the timetable for Turkey’s admission as a full partner to the European Union. Still smarting from the last set of unfulfilled promises for massive economic stimulus made by a Bush (41) administration during wartime, the opposition decided the local deal was a better long-term victory for returning them to power than relying on U.S. promises again.

Their near unanimous opposition to the U.S. proposal during that infamous first vote called by then-Prime Minister Abdullah Gul sank the deal, blackened the faces of the ruling Islamist party and handed Chirac a snickering Trojan Horse victory. Not a bad day’s work for Turkey’s saboteurs.

Still, Turkey remains the political model for the Islamic world to emulate. Its economic ruin is not an option Washington can pursue to cow Ankara down. The Bush administration needs to hold Ankara’s hand while its new government learns the ropes and decides who its friends are. That is what real allies do in times of war, and the U.S. must shoulder this responsibility.

Economic stability is a vital domestic pressure point Washington can help with right away. The U.S. should quietly, but firmly, support the immediate restructuring of Turkey’s 2003 IMF debt repayments to relieve the near-term financial pressure on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.

Giving Erdogan some breathing room to make reasoned political decisions free of domestic or European coercion is the best way for him to sell support for the U.S. at home. And the $1 billion Bush asked for in his war-budget request from Congress should be approved and sent to Ankara as a stabilizer as soon as possible.

Militarily, Turkey’s geostrategic concerns in the region are valid if it can demonstrate that the same adventurism the Turkish military believes resides in Washington’s future plans has not crept into its own military thinking. To prevent misunderstandings, both sides should agree to be sensitive to the magnitude of initial troop deployments in the region — the U.S. so it does not appear the war monger preparing for steps B and C, and Turkey so it does not inadvertently provoke Kurdish sensitivities of a backdoor takeover, either of its people or of northern Iraq’s oil fields.

Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, Turkey’s army chief, and to a lesser but important extent, Erdogan, should publicly delineate in exact terms the limits on Turkish army actions in northern Iraq now that deployments seem inevitable. He and Erdogan should agree to formulaically coordinate command and control with U.S. forces, and Kurdish forces under U.S. control, that are already in theater. Then, Erdogan should be invited to Washington to publicly embrace his political and military positions under the spotlight of a White House press conference.

These steps would restore confidence to Turkish financial markets and reduce the probabilities of a catastrophic state failure no one can afford.

Mansoor Ijaz is chairman of Crescent Investment Management, a New York private equity investment firm focusing on national-security technologies, and serves as a foreign affairs and terrorism analyst for the Fox News Channel.

Mansoor IjazMansoor Ijaz is an American hedge-fund manager and venture capitalist. He is founder and chairman of Crescent Investment Management Ltd, a New York investment firm that operates a proprietary trading ...


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