Differences over the Iraq conflict are fueling a rapid deterioration in relations between the United States and Turkey. The Bush administration is livid over Ankara's refusal to grant temporary basing rights for American troops and now is reportedly contemplating punitive political and economic measures against Turkey. Meanwhile, Turkish leaders, angered by the White House's perceived high-handed behavior, are unapologetic. Bilateral tension could increase in the coming days, as Turkey prepares for possible military action in northern Iraq.
The Turkish parliament's March 1 vote against US basing rights set the current confrontation in motion. [For background information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly supported the proposal to grant US forces the temporary use of Turkish military facilities. Nevertheless, the failure of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) to solidly support the measure in parliament was a major factor in the measure's defeat.
Following weeks of debate, Ankara finally granted permission for US bombers to use Turkish airspace for strikes against Iraq. However, Turkey maintained its refusal to give US forces access to Turkish air bases and ground facilities. From Washington's point of view, the Turkish decision offered too little, too late.
Bush administration officials privately blame Erdogan for what they view as a debacle, saying he failed to enforce party discipline on the AKP, which dominates the Turkish legislature. Some analysts believe Erdogan's lack of leadership experience played a significant role in recent developments, which have already resulted in Turkey losing an aid package from Washington worth $6 billion. However, there is also speculation in Washington over whether Erdogan harbors a hidden Islamist agenda. The AKP's political origins are linked with Islamic activism. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives].
In addition, the actions of Turkey's influential military establishment has left US strategic planners fuming. Many in Washington believe Turkish generals should have brought more pressure to bear on MPs to approve US basing rights. The ensuing controversy, many US policy makers believe, could end up scuttling decades of close military cooperation between the two countries. Indeed, some in Washington say that strategic ties between the two countries could suffer long-term damage.
Pentagon planners are now scrambling to readjust tactical and strategic plans concerning northern Iraq. Prior to the March 1 parliament vote, the US attack blueprint called for American troops to move into northern Iraq from Turkish bases. US officials also were counting on Kurdish militia, known as peshmerga, to attack Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's military and to assist the US forces in securing northern Iraqi oil fields around Mosul and Kirkuk.
At present, Washington is concerned about the possibility of Turkish-Kurdish hostilities. Many Turkish officials are concerned that Kurdish separatists may try to establish an independent state amid the anticipated collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Moreover, US military planners reportedly have obtained information about contacts between Iran and Turkey, raising concerns that Tehran and Ankara might attempt to partition Iraqi Kurdistan and secure the oil fields for themselves.
The falling out between the Bush administration and Erdogan's government stands to hurt Turkey far more than the United States, experts in Washington say. The Bush administration appears willing to implement punitive action against Ankara. In the defense sphere, Washington may reduce Turkish participation in US-led ballistic missile defense programs. The Bush administration may also lean on Israel to curb or stop existing military cooperation.
In the diplomatic realm, US support for Turkish membership in the European Union is likely to diminish. Washington also will be less likely to side with Turkey against Greek claims in the Aegеan Sea, or on the Cyprus partition issue. In addition, the Bush administration may consider reopening the US debate on recognizing Turkey's slaughter of Armenians in 1915 as genocide. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In the area of economic cooperation, some US experts believe Washington may reevaluate its commitment to the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. At the very least, the Bush administration will not feel inclined to lend further assistance to Ankara in the event of another economic crisis. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Turkish leaders appear undaunted by the prospects of US retribution. A large share of the country's political elite believe the Bush administration has acted in an arrogant manner. "I do not find it right that the United States behaved unilaterally before the process in the United Nations Security Council ended," the Anadolu news agency quoted Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer as saying March 20.
Turkish political analysts assert the United States bears a large share of the blame for the crisis in bilateral relations. "What was the United States' mistake? Actually it made many," political analyst Taha Akyol wrote in the Milliyet daily March 26. "First of all it was a mistake to even begin this war. Clearly it [the Bush administration] planned it poorly."
The Bush administration "made many blunders in its meetings with Ankara," Akyol continued. "When Turkey was on the verge of agreeing to a set of terms [to grant US basing rights], the next day the US inexplicably threw these terms out and started again from scratch. As a result a crisis of confidence ensued. What's more, even our public thinks we handled this issue badly. However, we don't want anti-US sentiment to take hold in Turkey."
In the coming days, attention will be focusing on possible Turkish action in northern Iraq. Washington has warned the Erdogan government against any unilateral movement of large numbers of Turkish troops into northern Iraq. On March 25, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said Ankara sought to cooperate with the United States on northern Iraq, but cautioned that "Turkey will make its own decision on the issue if it thinks there is such a need," the Anadolu news agency reported.
Hilmi Ozkok, the chief of Turkey's general staff, indicated a small Turkish force has been deployed in northern Iraq primarily as a defensive measure to prevent instability from spilling over into Turkey. Ozkok insisted that Turkish operations were being coordinated with US planners. "All necessary initiatives will be launched to prevent any misunderstandings," Ozkok told Anadolu, adding that Turkey had no "aim of fighting or occupation" in northern Iraq.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation. He often visits Turkey.