Morton I. Abramowitz, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey during the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War, says the decision by the Turkish government and parliament to send peacekeeping troops to Iraq is a “big advance” in relations between Washington and Ankara. The relationship cooled considerably after parliament in March voted down a U.S. request to use Turkey as a jumping-off point for invading Iraq.
He says that the United States, to win Turkey’s agreement, made a commitment to help disarm some 3,000 separatist extremists based in northern Iraq. Abramowitz also warns that the accord is an agreement only “in principle” and details on deployment have yet to be worked out.
Abramowitz, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on October 8, 2003.
Turkey’s parliament on Tuesday overwhelmingly voted to send peacekeepers to Iraq. The same body last March turned down an American request to let U.S. troops use Turkey as a jumping-off point to invade Iraq from the north. How do you assess this latest move?
It is a significant development, although we’ll have to see what actually happens. A number of specific details of any deployment still have to be resolved. This permits the government in principle to send the troops. It is a big advance, and I think it has come about for a variety of reasons.
First, there is a recognition that Turkey wants to have influence on neighboring Iraq, what happens there, and its reconstruction and political make-up. If Turkish troops get involved, if they contribute to stabilizing Iraq, that— strategically, in the long run— is important to Turkey. Second, Turkey has a very important proximate objective, which is to get rid of the PKK [the Kurdish Workers Party, which is on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations]. Now known as KADEK in northern Iraq, it has forces of about 3,000 that are the remnants of the PKK’s war [with Turkey in the 1980s and ’90s]. They are still active, and Turkey remains very much concerned about them. The Turks saw [the decision to deploy peacekeepers] as a way of getting the Americans involved in trying to get rid of these 3,000. There was a good deal of negotiation on this point, and my understanding is that the Americans have committed themselves to use all means to destroy KADEK or to get them to surrender. There is no time period on this, and Americans clearly don’t want another little war in Iraq. They have enough on their hands and will probably try to find ways to get them to surrender.
The other major point of this troop effort is to restore harmony with the United States, to make it clear that Turkey is a valuable ally. Over the long run, through a variety of ways, this would be of great use to Turkey in a variety of areas, including its economy and finances. Moreover, the government felt that, after two months of discussions, failing to approve a deployment would be catastrophic for U.S.-Turkish relations.
What about the internal Turkish opposition?
There is much opposition within Turkey to Turkey doing this. The sentiment against is not as widespread as it was in March [against letting U.S. troops use Turkish territory], when a war in Iraq was expected. Then, 95 percent or so of Turks were against. That had an impact on the voting in the parliament. Today, there is still a sizeable portion against [sending peacekeepers]. It is about 60 to 65 percent by the polls. But there is no war going on, and people are prepared to give the government slack here. Even though there are still voices within the government that would prefer not to do this, the government mustered overwhelming support, unlike the March vote. [The October 7 vote was 358 to 183.]
What about Iraqi opposition to Turkish troops on its soil?
As far as I can understand, the Iraqi opposition is still significant, by and large. The Iraqis apparently do not want Turkish forces in there. I think the Americans will likely overcome that position. The Iraqi Kurds certainly would prefer Turkish forces not to come in. But in the end, they will probably accept it. There is some danger when they come in. They have to come down through northern Iraq. There has to be a secure logistics line for them. And although I don’t think the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] or the KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party], the two principal Kurdish parties, are going to start a war with the Turks, there’s always a possibility of some violence. It is going to be up to the Americans to be sure that violence does not occur.
There are also many people in Turkey who feel the deployment is very dangerous, not only that the troops might be in a dangerous area, but also that the concerns of the Kurds might lead to incidents and violence. One thing that is very important, and not yet settled, is where the Turkish forces will be stationed. They clearly will not be in northern Iraq, where there is a majority of Kurds. But where they will be is among a variety of matters yet to be decided by the two sides. So, there will be discussions between the United States and Turkey on this point. We just had a delegation in Turkey to work out this PKK/KADEK problem that was headed by the State Department’s anti-terrorist chief, Cofer Black.
New York Times columnist William Safire, who is very interested in the Kurdish situation, suggested that the Turks might travel to Iraq by boat. Do you think this is possible?
They would have to go through the Suez Canal to do that. It would be a long, long trip. I think the Turks would prefer to go overland.
Is the $8.4 billion U.S. loan to Turkey that was recently announced a payoff for this decision by the Turks?
No. The United States at the beginning of the war promised a loan of $1 billion or so to Turkey, even though the parliament had denied U.S. permission to launch an attack from Turkish territory. The $8.4 billion grew out of that original loan. There has been some concern in Turkey about some of the congressionally inserted provisions. But clearly, the loan will help the Turkish economy and serves as a way to smooth the path to the deployment. But let’s be clear: the U.S. troops had already been turned down when this loan was first introduced in Congress as part of the administration’s emergency spending request in March.
If the U.S. troops had been approved by the Turkish parliament last March, how much would Turkey have gotten?
They would have gotten as much as $24 billion in loans.
So that’s a big difference.
It’s a huge difference. And one of the reasons that many in the Turkish elite were aghast at the March parliamentary vote was that they felt that [the loans] would have been a major support to the Turkish economy, which over the past year has been in a very, very shaky position. The economy has recently improved.
What does “improved” mean?
There has been significant improvement by most economic indices. There is a lower rate of inflation, lower interest rates, increased growth, and the Turkish lira has strengthened. While Turkey is not out of the woods because of its huge debt, the economic situation is far better than it was 18 months ago. Basically, most people believe the economy has improved because the government has seriously carried out its commitments to the International Monetary Fund.
How good are the Turkish forces? Would they be useful in Iraq?
Yes. Turks have had a lot of experience abroad. They started with Korea [in the 1950s], as a major support to the United States forces in charge of the United Nations command. And they have been in many, many countries. I would expect them to be disciplined and effective. I think there has always been a historical concern that, since the Ottomans had run Iraq for a long time, the feelings between the Arabs and Turks were not very good. In 1991, that was one reason that Turkey did not want to send forces to Iraq— there are many reasons, but a principal one was that they felt for historical reasons it would not be good to have Turkish forces there.
Are the Turks still concerned about the Turkmen minority in northern Iraq?
Yes. Initially, there was American concern that the Turks were using the Turkmens as a vehicle for increasing their presence in northern Iraq and establishing a major influence and presence in the area, and making sure no Kurdish state would emerge. But although the Turks remain concerned about the Turkmens, that effort has significantly diminished. There has apparently been some change also in the Turkmen leadership that has made the ethnic issue in northern Iraq a little less explosive and relations with Iraqi Kurds more satisfactory. While there still is a serious ethnic problem, the Turkish rhetoric about the Turkmens seems to have abated.
Some people have suggested that since the Turks are Sunni Muslim, their troops would best suited for duty in the Sunni areas around Baghdad. Do you agree?
That is the way U.S. officials are thinking, that they would put [Turkish troops] somewhere in or around the Baghdad triangle, significantly away from northern Iraq. I don’t know if the fact that they are Sunni will shield them from military attacks by the insurgents.