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TURKISH MILITARY NUDGES ITS GOVERNMENT TOWARDS WAR

 

Paper No. 628                                                 10.03.2003

By K.Gajendra Singh

An American led war on Iraq appeared more than likely, when USA and UK urged on 7 March an early vote on a new resolution in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) which would give Iraq until March 17 to disarm.  But France, Russia and China, the other 3 veto holding powers, rejected the move, categorically stating that the move would be opposed. 

Earlier the UN chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix had stressed in his report to the UNSC that no evidence had been found of biological and chemical weapons and that Iraq had made "substantial" progress such as by destroying the Samoud 2 missiles.  He pointed out, "We are not watching the breaking of toothpicks - lethal weapons are being destroyed.  " Both Mr Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, questioned the value of some of the intelligence reports provided to them (by USA and UK).  They, however, admitted that Iraqi cooperation had increased of late perhaps because of the threat of force. Mr. Blix underlined that to complete the inspections properly "even with a proactive Iraqi attitude, it would not take years, nor weeks, but months. 

"But to conduct  successful military operations against Iraq, unexpected help came from  Turkey's powerful armed forces, who on March 5  nudged its hesitant government to reintroduce the motion in the parliament which will allow US troops and planes use of its bases to open a northern front against Iraq.  A motion supported by the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) with 2/3rd  of deputies in a 550 member parliament, was lost on 1 March, when nearly 100 ruling party members voted against it.  This stunned USA and slowed down its preparations for its war on Iraq.  Its ships have been waiting at Turkish ports to unload military hard ware for transfer to the war front in south east of Turkey. 

In spite of staging displays from Romanian and Bulgarian air bases for attack on north Iraq, a war on Iraq without Turkish support will be much more than 'tough' as US military commanders have admitted. The motley, squabbling and unpredictable crowd of politicians and leaders of peshmargas and other fighters from north Iraq, who are  with USA, can be good for some harassing raids but not for fighting a difficult and unpredictable war, as experience in Afghanistan has shown. 

Being a member of NATO since early 1950s, Turkey's armed forces have very close relationship with the US military brass.  Turkey is heavily reliant on IMF, controlled by USA, to bail it out of its current acute economic problems and ease the weight of massive external debts.  This is a fail safe position for Turkey.  If USA carries out a short and quick war successfully, Turkey would play a major role in the reshaping of Iraq.  If in the unlikely event of a peaceful solution of the problem, Turkey would have won enough brownie points with USA. 

In another week of fast moving developments, on which depends fate of  Saddam Hussein and future of Iraq, on March 5  Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov after meetings with British prime minister Tony Blair and a press conference in London with British foreign secretary Jack Straw, went to France.  At a joint press conference in Paris, the foreign ministers of Russia, France and Germany declared their opposition to another resolution in the Security Council, which USA and UK have introduced to give legal cover to the war.  Later US secretary Colin Powell pronounced Iraq guilty and asserted  US right to disarm it by force.  Next day the Chinese weighed in with the 'old Europeans 'in the game of diplomatic brinkmanship.

Turkey's Chief of General Staff ( CGS) General Hilmi Özkok issued a statement on 5 March extending its support to  the government in "its option to open a second front against Iraq in the event of war (which) would shorten the conflict and minimise casualties.  "Turkey's support of the US would also reduce the harm to its economy.  " At the same time Gen Ozkok clarified that it was the right of the parliament to reject the proposal to station US forces in Turkey as part of the build up against Iraq.  But "the Turkish armed forces' view is the same as the government's," He further explained that the military had not made public its views earlier to avoid the impression of trying to influence the vote.  " If we had expressed our views, it would have amounted to pressuring the parliament for the approval of the resolution," he said. "It wouldn't have been democratic. " Gen Ozkok pointed out that the Iraq problem was a vital and multilateral issue having political, social and legal dimensions.  He continued, "It is said that 94 percent of the people say no to war. This is wrong.  100 percent of people have said no to war and are against it.  We, as soldiers, know the violence and dimensions of war and who oppose the war most.  It is obvious that we will suffer major damage whatever Turkey's move if a war starts. Turkey can face political, economic, social damage and also a damage to its security."

  Ozkok went on to say, "It is a reality in the current stage that Turkey does not have the possibility and capability to prevent a war on its own.  In fact, this is the duty of not only Turkey, but also the whole world.  And, the whole world has to exert efforts to prevent this war.  We should also continue our efforts to this end.  I wish the war can be prevented." He noted that the same losses would be suffered whether or not Turkey participated in the war.  Turkey's losses would be compensated if it helped USA  .He believed that with Turkish participation the war would shorten it and unexpected developments would not take place if a front was opened from the north.  All these possibilities were discussed in the document signed by the two sides (Turkey and USA). Addressing the north Iraqi leaders, he said,  ''We have been with them in their most difficult days.  We did not mislead them or (and) we did not lie. Those who forget yesterdays, will be the bad architects of the future. '' "But, we cannot make our calculations by supposing that war will not break out.  We should evaluate our move in case of a war.  Unfortunately, our choice is between the bad and worse, not between the good and bad.  We should either totally stay outside or join the process by helping those who fight.  These two moves have been evaluated systematically in coordination with all the institutions and organizations for months," Gen Ozkok concluded.  The day after the statement some 50 trucks carrying US armoured vehicles left the Turkish port of Iskenderun, the first time US material has left Turkish ports, and headed to wards southeastern province of Mardin. Meanwhile, more than 100 Turkish military trucks from a mechanized infantry brigade headed towards the Iraqi border.

But there is still the grey position regarding another UN resolution, in view of massive public opposition to war with out UN sanction in UK, Spain, USA's most fervent supporters. Then there are daily peace marches and exhortation against war by his holiness the Pope and other Christian church leaders and their diplomatic efforts.  Turkish president Ahmet Sezer, a former head of the constitutional Court still insists on international legitimacy i.e. another UN resolution.  It is for this reason that USA, in spite of claiming a right to use force has circulated with UK and Spain another draft resolution as a fig leaf.

The New York Times commented the next day that the recent events "appeared to set the stage for a political struggle in which Turkish political and military leadership would push the Parliament against public opinion.  "The declaration by Turkey's powerful Gen Hilmi Özkok in support of the government would calm the masses and encourage the wavering deputies who had voted against or abstained on 1st March.  Many of them were of Kurdish and Arabic origin.  The vote was technically lost by 4 votes in a house of 550
cast under emotional pressure created by people massed outside the parliament. There were celebrations in the streets after the motion failed.  By now, the deputies would have a better appreciation of the consequences explained to them by the party and the business leadership.  Never colonized or ruled by others, Turks are a very proud and sensitive people.  Statements by US leaders flaunted as ultimatums specially from defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld ( which even staunch US supporter Spanish PM had frowned upon ), Powell and others and its leakage. Western media's description of the negotiations of agreements between Turkey and USA as carpet haggling upset many ruling party deputies, who represent conservative Muslim electorate  now  with an inbuilt anti US attitude. Many fresher deputies are not yet used to the American ways. A recent poll had indicated that  94% of the population was opposed to the war against a Muslim Iraq , with which traditionally Turkey had had the best relations among its neighbours.  Since the stunning rebuff in the parliament US diplomats have also gone about the task of mollifying the deputies in a more friendly way

A Turkish journalist described US tactics in this way " Now, Washington is talking to Ankara almost in a threatening fashion: 'If you let me open a northern front into Iraq I will let you intervene in the region.  Otherwise, you will bear the consequences. I will in any way hit Iraq and divide it.  Now you are either with me or against me.  And I warn you, there this whole Armenian issue and of course there are the Kurds, too. 'Turkey's powerful armed forces normally conveys its views at the regular National Security Council (NSC) in which it is well represented.  CGS along with the president and the prime minister is one of three centers of power.  He comes next to the prime minister in protocol.  NSC has been in place since the first coup in 1960.  It was further strengthened after the military interventions in 1971 and 1980.  But perhaps faced with public rallies against war in front of the parliament house even after more than 4 hour discussions in NSC on 28 February, the military brass (Pashas in Turkish ) did not wish to go against an emotional public and left it to the government and the parliament to decide the issue.  Unlike the 1991 Gulf war, in which Turkish president Turgut Ozal was very keen to open a second front against Iraq while the Pashas were opposed to it, with CGS Gen Torumtay even resigning on this question, it is just the opposite this time around .

Turkish politicians can be quite emotional and heedless sometimes.  In 1973, in spite of the military brass occupying the parliament galleries to express support for the post of the president of the  republic for  CGS Faruk  Gurler, who had offered himself as a candidate after resigning a day earlier, but the parliament had refused to elect him even after numerous rounds of voting. The equation between the armed forces and the new inexperienced AKP leadership with Islamic roots is uneasy, sometimes acrimonious and full of mutual suspicions.  A negative vote after the Pashas ( military brass) affirmation would have been terrible for their standing and prestige.  The Pashas are very thoughtful and methodical in their moves.  The armed forces are highly regarded by the Turkish masses; as an institution which cleans up the mess created by the politicians and then returns to the barracks.  The first coup in 1960 took place, when differences between the conservative ruling Justice party and the opposition Republican Peoples party established by Kemal Ataturk had created a total impasse in democratic functioning.  In 1971 it was forced to send a memorandum to avoid a colonels coup.  Prime minister Suleyman Demirel  was asked to resign and to let a cabinet of technocrats to carry out reforms and control the student unrest.  In 1980 thousands of Turks  had been killed in leftists and rightists strife and violence, with the political leaders blaming each other. They had almost abdicated political  responsibility by not electing a new president of the republic for months. In 1997 the military had forced Islamist prime minister Necemettin  Erbakan led coalition to resign as he was  refusing to take measures to curb growth of Madarsas and Islamic fundamentalism.  Demonstrations by his party members challenged the secular state.  Erbakan's Refah ( Virtue ) party had come with an agenda to Islamise the polity.

AKP leaders Recep Tayyip Erdogan and prime minister Abdullah Gul were then senior leaders in Refah.  Erdogan was a very successful and popular mayor of Istanbul , while Gul was minister of state for foreign affairs in Erbakans's government.  Both have now repeatedly disclaimed any connection with Erbakan's ideology.  They do not even meet him,  they say.  But because of reciting an Islamic poem some years ago, Erdogan was jailed and was not eligible to contest in November elections.  But after the electoral success of his party this legal disability has been removed.  Erdogan is expected to win the bye election in Siirt  Sunday 9 March.  He is then expected to replace Gul as the prime minister.  This will bring some cohesion and clarity in party's line of command.  Currently the party is speaking in different voices.

Turkey's highly fragmented polity now gives a dangerously misleading impression of stability. Yes, AKP government is the first single party government since 1987,  others were asymmetrical coalitions of parties with differing ideologies.  But the stability is only illusory. Turkey's d'Hont electoral system, based on the German pattern with a high 10% threshold, was selected to provide stability to governments.  In quirky election results, AKP got 2/3rd majority with only 34% votes, with the opposition Republican party, getting almost the rest with its 18% votes Other parties polling 45 percent of the votes have been wiped out and thus  remain unrepresented in the new 550-seat parliament. Ironically, independent candidates, polling only 1 percent of the total votes, have won eight parliamentary seats, whereas the DYP, with almost 9.5 percent of the votes, does not have a single deputy.

Although the AKP was the front runner in pre-election polling, even its leadership was surprised by the magnitude of its windfall. They were at best expecting to form a coalition government   When Erbakan became the first ever Islamist prime minister in May 1996 in a coalition government, in 73 years of Ataturk's secular republic, his party had won 160 seats with 21.4% votes.

The Pashas are not happy with the outcome of  the November election results and there have been verbal skirmishes between them and AKP leadership regarding symbolic Islamic wearing of scarf banned in public places, dismissal of military officers for Islamic tendencies and other matters.  But the Pashas have held their peace because of 2/3 majority of the ruling party

After the November elections, led by Erdogan, Abdullah Gul and others made a whirlwind tour of  USA and almost all countries of western Europe to ostensibly canvass for Turkey's entry into EU but also to establish their credentials with western leaders  and for their tacit support in not letting the Pashas send them packing again.  To begin with, EU leaders  were shocked at the overwhelming win of a party with Islamist roots but have now reiterated that a major requirement for Turkey's entry into EU would be  a diminished role for its armed forces in its political life. AKP's moderate leadership reiterates that they want to shape their party like Christian democratic parties of Europe.

Even before the real war against Iraq has begun, the international political architecture and structure is undergoing a tectonic shift with the US and UK with Spain etc on one side and France, Russia, Germany and China on the other. Turkey is an example where antagonistic parties, the armed forces and the ruling AKP with Islamic roots have joined ranks to protect Turkish interests. With sudden, almost absolute power and little experience of governance, the AKP leadership and party are in some disarray. For the parliament vote,  the leadership dared not issue a whip and in a replay of the revolt by ruling labour party MP's in the British parliament, nearly 100 AKP deputies joined with the opposition Republican Peoples party against the government motion.  The war has not even been declared, at least officially.

There is a nagging suspicion in the writer's mind that in the best post- Saddam Hussein scenario, if all goes according to the plan, US might strengthen Turkey's position as its strategic partner in the region with a beefed up Jordan with Israel to keep Palestinians in check. US, Israel and Turkey already have an old strategic relationship .After Egypt, Jordan is the next country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was created by the British and has survived with the support of UK and now USA.  King Abdullah's mother was  British national, while crown prince Hamza's mother was American national.  There has not been  much love lost between the Turks and the Arabs throughout history. Turks have still not forgotten "the Arabs betrayal " led by ' Lawrence of Arabia' in the first world war and  would be happy to  have a share in oil rich north Iraq, a region it was deprived off and joined with Iraq, after the collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1920s.  But this would be one war with unpredictable results and consequences, reigniting the Crusade vs Jihad confrontation .

(K Gajendra Singh, served as Indian Ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan in 1992-96. Prior to that, he served as ambassador to Jordan (during the 1990-91 Gulf war ), Romania and Senegal. He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies. E-Mail.gajendrak@hotmail.com)

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