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IRAQ: U.S.-Turkey Relations

Author: Sharon Otterman
March 31, 2003
This publication is now archived.

How strained are U.S.-Turkey relations?

They are very strained. The Bush administration was stunned by the Turkish Parliament's March 1 decision to deny the United States the use of its territory in the Iraq conflict. The assistance of Turkey, a long-time U.S. ally and NATO member, had been assumed--perhaps too much so, experts say. In a second vote March 20, the United States received belated permission to use Turkish air space. But even this move falls far short of minimum U.S. expectations that it be allowed to use Turkish air bases against Iraq.

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Why did Turkey refuse to allow the United States access to its bases?

Experts cite many reasons. Public opinion in Turkey, which is solidly against the war, was certainly a key factor. But there were also other issues. Experts say Turkish lawmakers misread the Bush administration, and thought that they could prevent the war or gain billions of dollars in aid with delaying tactics. The strategy backfired on the Turks.

Another key problem was disarray within Turkey's majority political party, the Justice and Development Party. In the end, the party voted down a deal that had finally been agreed upon by U.S. negotiators and its own leaders. Finally, some experts say the Bush administration could have done a better job of courting Turkish support.

What was the original deal?

The informal deal had three major points: First, the United States could base up to 62,000 troops in Turkey temporarily on their way into northern Iraq. Second, the United States could use Turkish airbases and Turkish airspace. Third, the Turks would receive $6 billion in direct aid, which could be leveraged into sizable loans to defend the faltering Turkish currency.

In addition, the agreement would have allowed Turkey to send 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers into an area in Iraq not more than 18 kilometers from the Turkish border to set up camps to handle displaced persons, according to Morton Abramowitz, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey. This aspect of the deal, however, set off considerable fears among Iraqi Kurds of deeper Turkish intervention in Iraq.

What happened after the Turks rejected the deal?

The United States took back their offer of financial assistance and shifted their position on the issue of Turkish troops in northern Iraq. Senior U.S. officials began urging Turkey to keep its troops out. Turkey did not agree; in fact, on March 20, the Turkish parliament passed a law that would allow thousands of soldiers to enter northern Iraq.

Are the two countries trying to mend fences?

Though tensions are still high, they seem to be trying. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will travel to Turkey this week to talk about war developments. The Bush administration has also included $1 billion in its war budget for assistance to Turkey--though that money still must be approved by Congress.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, is sounding a bit more conciliatory about the prospect of sending soldiers into northern Iraq. He said March 30 that Turkey had no plans to act unilaterally in Iraq. He is still saying, however, that he reserves the right to use his troops to respond to security threats.

Why is there tension between Turks and Kurds?

The Kurds are a stateless group of about 25 million people united by ethnicity and language who hail from an area spanning eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, western Iran, and parts of Syria and Armenia. Nationalist movements among Kurds have been met with severe repression in Turkey and Iraq, and thousands of civilians have been killed. More than 30,000 people in Turkey have died in an ongoing civil war with the Kurds in the last 10 years alone, according to Turkey experts.

Why are the Turks against an independent Kurdish state in Iraq?

The fear is that an independent Kurdish state will serve as a model to encourage secession by Turkey's Kurds. Since the 1991 Gulf War, the Kurds have had a more-or-less autonomous area in northern Iraq free from Saddam Hussein's rule.

Does Turkey have a claim on Iraqi territory?

Not a legal claim, but a nostalgic one. The Turks in one form or another ruled Iraqi territory for more than a thousand years, from 833 to the early 1920's. When the Ottoman Empire was broken up by the victorious powers after World War I, the Turks claimed that Kirkuk and Mosul in northern Iraq were part of their national territory. The Turks eventually agreed to cede the land to the British, who created the modern state of Iraq. Some Turkish feelings of ownership over the land remain.

Do Turks still live in Iraq?

Northern Iraq is home to the Turkomen minority, a Turkic-speaking group with between 500,000 and 1 million people that has ethnic and cultural ties with the Turks. Turkey is currently supporting the Turkomen leadership in their quest to be recognized as one of the official opposition groups in Iraq, which in turn would give the Turks more sway in a post-war Iraq. In addition, a desire to protect the Turkomen from Kurdish aggression may be one excuse Turkey could use to send its troops into Iraq in the current conflict.

Why else would Turkey send its troops into Iraq?

The main leaders of the Iraqi Kurds have told the United States they will stay out of Kirkuk and let U.S. troops capture its oil fields. Some Kurdish soldiers, however, have told reporters that they are eager to get to Kirkuk as soon as possible, as it is a historic home of the Kurds that Saddam Hussein kicked them out of. If the Kurds move on Kirkuk, it could cause intervention from the Turks, experts say. The Turks have also said they will enter Iraq for humanitarian reasons: meaning, to prevent an overflow of refugees across the Turkish border. Turkey is also very concerned about members of a Turkish separatist terrorist group, the PKK, or Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan, who have fled across the border. In fact, Turkey experts say it regularly sends thousands of soldiers into Iraq to hunt PKK suspects down.

Did Turkey offer its support in the 1991 Gulf War?

Yes, and it has allowed coalition forces enforcing the northern no-fly zone to fly from its territory for nearly a decade. It has also been very supportive in the recent war on terror. Since September 11, it has provided military support, tracked suspect financial networks, and been a major participant in the International Security Assistance Force, the peacekeeping force that operates in Afghanistan. That's why the most recent break in the relationship is such big news to Turkey experts. "It might sound hyperbolic, but it feels like 10 years of improving relations have just gone down the drain," Abramowitz said.

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