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    Middle East
     Jul 27, 2006
Turks want a hard bargain with the US
By M K Bhadrakumar

The conflict in Lebanon is beginning to have an immediate effect on Turkish-US relations as Washington is in great need of involving Ankara in a lead role in Lebanon.

Turkey's credentials are unmatchable - its geographical location bridging Europe and the Middle East, being a Muslim country with secular background, a long-standing member country of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and least of all, its profound Ottoman legacy in the Levant.

And Turkey won't let such a rare opportunity pass without extracting maximum mileage. It has not been often in the post-Cold War era that Washington has felt beholden to Ankara. Turkey feels it has every right to expect a quid pro quo from the

United States. Turkey knows that its US "partner" is finding itself in a very tricky position in the Middle East, and has hardly any friends of substance in the region on which to rely.

The pro-US Arab regimes (such as Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) are cowed at the sight of the rising tide of "Islamism" in the region. Isolated from their own people and worrying about their own survival in a maelstrom, they are hardly in a position to reciprocate the US largess they have enjoyed all this while, even when Washington needs them most.

Turkey has been keenly watching the charade of the US and its "allies" in the Arab world and, with the shrewdness of a good bazaari, estimating the price that it must demand when Uncle Sam remembers Ankara. Nothing ever pleases Turkey like a big haggle. And Ankara can now look forward to a really big haggle - nothing less than a Kurdish scalp in northern Iraq.

US President George W Bush is personally handling the haggle from the Washington end. He called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday for a second telephone conversation within three days, to set the ball rolling. According to a White House spokesperson, Bush told Erdogan, "The United States will work with Turkey to deal with this terrorist threat" from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

The leaders in Ankara noted with satisfaction Bush telling Erdogan that the US understood the "urgency and seriousness" of the matter of curbing the activities of the PKK from its sanctuaries in northern (Kurdish) Iraq directed against Turkey.

The Turkish side revealed that Bush informed Erdogan about necessary instructions having been already issued by him for working with Turkey in fighting the PKK's terrorist activities, and of the Iraqi government also having been given a "strong message" by the US administration to this effect.

Erdogan expressed satisfaction that Washington had already initiated military-to-military discussions with Turkey as regards "concrete steps" that are to be taken against the PKK, which Ankara wants to prevent from stirring unrest, let alone thoughts of independence, among Turkey's large Kurdish population.

Other senior US officials swiftly followed up on Bush's telephone conversation. On Saturday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called her Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, to convey a similar message. According to Anatolia news agency, Rice told Gul that the US would do "whatever necessary" in curbing the PKK and that Washington wouldn't allow the present situation to continue. Gul voiced the Turkish expectation that a "meaningful and visible" outcome was needed.

Matt Bryza, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs in the State Department, later told reporters, "Bear with me here for a little while, and you'll see, I think, some more concrete results [against the PKK] shortly. Part of that will come through the [US-Turkish-Iraqi] trilateral process, but there will be other ways that you'll see us moving against the PKK." He didn't give details.

But Turkish television reported that at the military level, discussions were already under way in Ankara and Baghdad between the US and Turkey about "concrete steps" to be initiated against the PKK.

Turkey says that up to 5,000 PKK militants operate out of northern Iraq to attack targets inside Turkey. In the month of July alone, PKK militants killed 25 Turkish security personnel. Turkey was particularly incensed that the US remained impassive to its requests to do something about the spurt in violence from the PKK's camps in northern Iraq, and instead kept insisting that Ankara shouldn't undertake "hot pursuit" of PKK militants in Iraqi territory.

Turkish frustration over the US stance has been quite visible in the recent weeks. As a senior political observer, Oktai Eksi, wrote in the establishment daily Hurriyet, "Actually, when we look at the policies that have been followed by Bush, who violates international law every day, we see that no country except the US and Israel has the right to defend itself ... Our experience shows that we're the US's strategic partner when it suits them, but it hems and haws when we ask for its support."

Turkey even resorted to some brinkmanship when Erdogan asked the Turkish General Staff to plan and prepare for a possible cross-border operation into Iraq. A wave of "anti-Americanism" swept over the Anatolian heartland even as Erdogan warned that PKK activities had gone "beyond the limits of tolerance".

The US side still remained impassive and kept reiterating its opposition to any Turkish armed incursions into northern Iraq and blandly counseled that Turkey must handle the problem in coordination with Iraq's government.

Meanwhile, Turkish anger rose to a crescendo when it transpired that top PKK brass had shifted from northern Iraq to Baghdad, and even opened an office in the Iraqi capital right in the US line of vision.

Turkish commentators had no difficulty sensing that Washington was deliberately "punishing" Ankara for its last-minute decision in March 2003 not to provide a land corridor for the US invasion of Iraq.

Lebanon: All change
Then came the Lebanon conflict. With that, the kaleidoscope abruptly shifted and new patterns began appearing in the sights in Washington. Overnight, a need arose for Washington to locate its long-lost Turkish ally. Washington factored that Turkey had been developing a highly nuanced neighborhood policy in the recent past, especially since the present government came to power in 2002.

Turkey was the first country to host a Hamas delegation after the Palestinian elections catapulted the latter into office in the Palestine Authority. Turkey argued against the US-Israeli policy of imposing an economic boycott of the new Hamas government.

Turkish-Iranian relations warmed up perceptively in the recent period. The two countries worked out better coordination in curbing Kurdish militancy. The two leaderships held a series of meetings.

Gul drew attention to the vast change in the climate of Turkish-Iranian relations when he told Fikret Bila, a top Turkish commentator, in April, "There is no comparison between Iran and Iraq as independent countries. Iran is a genuine country. With its history, culture, diplomacy, it is a powerful country from every angle. It is a country that has diplomatic capability. It is bound to find a solution [to the nuclear standoff] through diplomatic means. Iraq had a leader [Saddam Hussein] who couldn't even be reached for passing on a message. Iran is not like that."

Gul was stressing that Turkish soil wouldn't be available for any US adventurism directed against Iran. Actually, Turkish interests will be very badly hit in any US move to impose economic sanctions against Iran. It is estimated that 70,000 Turkish trucks transit through Iranian territory annually, ferrying goods to and from the Central Asian region. Turkey imports US$3.5 billion worth of Iranian gas annually. Turkish-Iranian trade is expected to touch $6 billion this year, and more than a million Iranian tourists visit Turkey annually.

The Turkish government charted out an independent foreign policy also with regard to Syria, the Caucasus and the Black Sea region. Even with regard to the conflict in Lebanon, Turkey openly differed from the US stance and called for an immediate ceasefire as the need of the hour.

Erdogan has been closely consulting his Iranian and Syrian counterparts over the Lebanon crisis at a time when Washington wishes to isolate those two countries and pillory them as the promoters of Hezbollah.

It is indeed a measure of the huge loss of influence of the US in the Middle East region in the past two to three years that Washington has been compelled to invoke the long-forgotten strategic partnership with Ankara.

Turkey has been invited as a key participant in the foreign ministers' conference co-hosted by Italy and the US in Rome on Wednesday. Gul promptly announced that he would attend the meet, which brings together all important countries that might have a say in the Lebanon crisis - the US, Britain, Russia, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, apart from representatives of the World Bank, the European Union and the United Nations.

Turkey is already being mentioned as a likely actor to lead any International Stabilization Force (ISF) in southern Lebanon.

It is not lost on Turkey that there is a link between Bush's new conciliatory attitude with regard to the PKK militancy that is bleeding Turkey and Washington's acute need of a dependable ally with regional standing (vis-a-vis the Arab side as well as Israel) and the military and diplomatic capability to undertake a difficult mission in southern Lebanon.

If the proposed ISF is indeed an interim measure that will almost certainly lead, as has happened in Afghanistan, to the eventual entry of a full-fledged NATO force in the Levant, there is no better country than Turkey to facilitate the transition. (Turkey played such a crucial role in Afghanistan.)

Indeed, it is only Turkey, arguably, that can act as a bridge in a transition holding such a profound symbolism in civilizational terms. After all, the soil of the Levant is soaked with the blood of Crusaders, and if and when NATO wades ashore from the eastern Mediterranean into the Levant, that will be a poignant moment in modern history, which is bound to stir up the Muslim consciousness.

Given such a heavy dependence of the US on its Turkish ally in the coming months, it will be utterly fascinating to watch how Ankara bends Washington to its will apropos the Kurdish problem. There are several tricky dimensions to the unfolding spectacle. The crisis over Lebanon has of course made Turkey's generals relevant once again for Washington. This comes at a time when Turkish generals have gradually restored their status in Turkish politics.

Observers of Turkey's "post-modern" democracy will take note that the Bush administration is improving its relations with the Turkish military just months ahead of the spring 2007 presidential race in Turkey in which the Islamist party headed by Erdogan is well placed to win. Equally, in August, incumbent liberal-minded Chief of General Staff General Hilmi Ozkok will retire. There is wide speculation that his successor may be more in the classic "Kemalist" mold. [1]

Washington has always taken in interest in who rules Chankaya (Ankara's seat of power). Turkey is far too important a regional power to be left alone.

Turkey will closely look for signs of how the Bush administration proposes to translate into practice its assurances of cooperation in curbing the PKK. Turkey will argue that the US should squash the PKK positions within northern Iraq by itself or give the Turkish military a free hand to do so.

But this has deep implications for the US military's working relationship with its Kurdish allies in northern Iraq. [2] Washington would have a difficult time "calming down" any Kurdish sense of betrayal by the US. The equations in Kirkuk are so complex that no one can pretend to be in control even as the region is hurtling toward a referendum on Kurdistan in the autumn of 2007.

Clearly, Cold War or no Cold War, the US needs Turkey as a military and political partner. Also, despite all the peace treaties Israel may have with Egypt and Jordan, Washington knows that Turkey is still the only meaningful partner of Israel in the volatile region.

Turkey, too, needs the US if the balance of forces in the region is not to be heavily upset by a stronger Iran that seems to be inexorably in the making. Turkey would like the US to curb Iranian ambitions, but not go to war with Iran.

Evidently, a lot of horse-trading becomes inevitable between Washington and Ankara. The US will want to see how Turkey leverages its influences with Iran, Syria and the Palestinian groups in stabilizing the ground situation in southern Lebanon.

Having said that, Turkey will be hard-pressed to distance itself from any US agenda of rolling back the Shi'ite empowerment in Lebanon, overthrow of the Ba'athist regime in Damascus or any confrontation with Tehran.

Turkey is heading for parliamentary elections in the autumn of 2007. The present ruling party hopes to put up a strong show, and will be particularly sensitive about the swings of public opinion. The fact is, Turkish public opinion has become overwhelmingly critical of the US and Israel. (Two days ago, an Englishman was beaten up in Istanbul by an irate mob that took him to be an Israeli.)

One of Washington's sincere friends in the Turkish media, Mehmet Ali Birand, warned on Tuesday, "We are passing through a very dangerous time. Events are pushing the Turkish society toward becoming more anti-US and anti-Israel ... If things continue this way, public anger will prevent the government from maintaining proper relations with either the US or Israel. We may return to an environment as in the 1970s when cars were burned in front of the American Embassy and huge protest rallies were held against Israel. Just look around. The number of rallies is increasing ... pointing to the anger and fury in the public opinion."

But Turkey also has vast experience in dealing with the US. Ankara knows Washington is as much aware as it is that the secret often lies in not seeking straightforward answers to each and every troubling question. Indications are that at high-level military-to-military contacts (sequestered from the pressures of public opinion) this year, it became apparent to all concerned that a modus vivendi is always possible between Turkish interests on the one hand and those of the US and Israel on the other - though no one may speak of any "axis" as such. Both Washington and Jerusalem can count on the Turkish military's morbid fear of "Islamism".

Thus, in essence, Washington hopes to play a "situational game" with several players at the same time. By virtually conceding reciprocity between Turkish concerns about the PKK menace and US concerns over the inferno in Lebanon, Washington is dealing one card to Ankara while securing a card for itself.

1. Kemalist Ideology, also known as Kemalism and Six Arrows, is based on Kemal Ataturk's six principles during the Turkish national movement. The principles were not defined as an ideology during the life of Ataturk, but formulated later on. Kemalism's politics are described as left-wing.

2. The Kurdistan region is an autonomous, federally recognized, political entity in Iraq. It borders Iran to the east, Turkey to the north and Syria to the west. Its capital is the city of Arbil. The Kurds have ruled themselves in northern Iraq since the aftermath of the Gulf War of 1991, when a "safe haven" was created to protect them from Saddam Hussein.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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