The United States considered Turkey a key element in the war on Iraq. It wanted to send American troops through Turkey to strike northern Iraq. But this was rejected in a surprise vote last March by the Turkish parliament, reflecting widespread public opinion against the war.
That upset U.S. war plans and soured relations with Washington. In an effort to improve them, the Turkish government has offered to send its own troops as peacekeepers to Iraq. The United States has asked for as many as 10,000 troops to aid coalition forces.
The offer comes from a Turkish government, some of whose members have aroused military misgivings in the past because of their Islamist leanings. Its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was even banned from political activity for four years.
But there now appears to be a meeting of minds between the military and the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which has a large majority in parliament. Foreign Relations Deputy Chairman Saban Disli expects the troops to be sent: “If the government decides to bring it to the parliament, I think it will not be very difficult to get a favorable vote. Because the motive to go to Iraq is to contribute to peace, to contribute to the Iraqis' turning to normal life, I mean democracy. This time we are not going for war. We are going for bringing peace.”
The legislature is currently on summer break and will convene on October 1. Soner Cagaptay, an analyst of Turkey at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says despite some talk of acting earlier on the troop issue, it will not happen easily: “Some people were expecting that the government would call the parliament for an extraordinary session for a vote on deployment of Turkish peacekeeping troops to Iraq. I can definitely tell you that the government is not ready for that vote yet.”
Mr.Cagaptay says the government must move cautiously because it still faces considerable opposition in parliament:
“The government believes that it may have resistance within its own ranks, whether in the cabinet or among the AKP, the governing party, MP's in the parliament, who are not going to like the idea of Turkish peacekeeping deployment to Iraq. And remember, this is a government that has a two-thirds majority in the Turkish parliament, which means they have the right to pass any legislation they want. They don't need the support of the opposition. So it would be a great embarrassment for the Turkish government to take a motion to the parliament and to see it fail. To prevent that, they want to make sure that they have a favorable opinion toward this idea, before taking the motion to the parliament.”
On top of that, the Turkish public is not happy with developments in Iraq. Recent polls show they are mostly against troop deployment.
Mr. Cagaptay says people do not want to see Turkish casualties in Iraq: “People think that things in Iraq are getting worse by the day. This is what you see when you read the Turkish papers and what you hear when you listen to Turkish news. And as a result of that, people see a spiraling effect of terrorist attacks in Iraq, and they don't want to see an increase in the number of casualties, especially if Turkish troops are sent there.”
Meanwhile, Washington's latest policy shift to broaden the U.N. role in Iraq could make it easier for the Turkish government, says parliamentarian Disli: “That would help us a lot. If we are going to Iraq under the United Nations or NATO umbrella, of course, it will be much easier for us to vote favorably.”
Turkish leaders have not set U.N. approval as a condition for troop deployment, but there are other requirements. These include the number of Turkish soldiers needed, where they will serve and under whose command. Talks between U.S. and Turkish officials continue on these issues.
Even more important for Turkey is the question of Kurdish separatists. The Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK, later known as KADEK, has operated from bases in northern Iraq. The group launched its struggle for an ethnic homeland in southeastern Turkey in 1984. More than 30,000 people have died in the conflict, which was largely suppressed with the 1999 capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Last month, the Turkish parliament passed an amnesty law for KADEK militants to surrender, but not many have responded so far. The group, which is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations, recently called off its four-year long unilateral truce. Any resurgence of the rebellion could complicate Turkey's involvement in Iraq.
Turkish officials are concerned that the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime could lead to the break-up of Iraq and formation of a Kurdish state. But Henri Barkey, chairman of the Department of International Relations at Lehigh University and co-author of the book Turkey's Kurdish Question, says U.S. officials have promised to prevent that: “The United States has made very clear that in one way or another, the PKK will be dealt with in northern Iraq. It will likely have to give itself up and take advantage of the law that was passed by the Turkish parliament regarding the return of combatants. I don't see PKK/KADEK as a major threat to Turkey any more.”
Turkey wants to cooperate with the United States to shut down the PKK, but a joint operation in northern Iraq is doubtful. American officials have opposed a Turkish presence in northern Iraq since the war started. Where Turkish troops might go is still under discussion.
Hoshyar Zebari, the new Iraqi Governing Council's Foreign Minister, says he doesn't want Turkish troops anywhere in the country. Professor Barkey has a similar view: “I think the United States is desperate to bring in more troops to better control the situation and it's looking at any possible ally. Turkey being a NATO country and an old ally is a prime candidate. I do not think that any of the neighboring countries should send troops to Iraq because if Turks send troops, the Iranians will feel compelled to send agents and all kinds of other actors into the area just to make sure that they have a presence. If the Iranians do that, then the Saudis may be tempted to do it, and so on and so forth.”
But Turkey's foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, says his country is willing to send troops as pledged, while Prime Minister insists they will not sink into any quagmire in prolonged fighting there. Analysts say he may fear a greater quagmire in relations with the United States if Turkey once again balks at lending military support to the Iraqi effort.