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Missed chance for Turkish second front blamed on both sides

ANKARA, Turkey—Well before Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush Administration understood the strategic importance of this moderate Muslim country that bridges Europe and Asia.

"Turkey is indispensable," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told an American-Turkish Council meeting in March 2001. "The United States understands that well."

But maybe the United States didn't understand Turkey and its problems.

With the intense fighting in Iraq, and no second front pushing in from Turkey to ease the way to Baghdad, many wonder what went wrong in negotiations with the NATO ally that U.S. officials had been lobbying since October.

Going into the Iraq crisis, Turkey had some basic needs: To maintain strategic alliances with the United States and the European Union, which it hopes to join by the end of the decade; to protect its battered economy; and to guarantee there is no trouble with the Kurds in northern Iraq.

It is failing on all fronts.

From the chill in Secretary of State Colin Powell's voice on the subject of Turkey to the disparaging comments by a U.S. administration official who said the Turks used "rug-merchant-style" bargaining in the negotiations over U.S. troop movements, it is obvious that U.S.-Turkey relations are pained.

U.S. officials blame Turkey's failure to make its territory available as a staging area into northern Iraq on a new and inexperienced Turkish government that reflected the deep public discomfort over removing Saddam Hussein by military force. They say the Turkish bargaining style seemed more about money than strategic needs.

Turkish officials, meanwhile, resent the U.S. negotiators' hard lines and attitudes, and feel that the Americans lacked sensitivity to Turkey's main anxiety—that U.S. support for the Kurds in neighboring Iraq might lead to an independent Kurdish state that would stir up separatist Kurds in southeast Turkey.

As Tugce Ozbalas, 21, a biology student at Ankara's Middle East Technical University put it, "After Sept. 11, America has not been sensitive to the problems of Turkey. There is a big problem with terrorism in (eastern Turkey), but America doesn't care."

Turkey has insisted on its right to send troops into Kurdish-held areas of northern Iraq. But two European Union countries, Belgium and France, have threatened to blackball Turkey from the union if it sends troops in unilaterally, said a NATO diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Turkey missed the boat on $30 billion in aid it would have received if it had granted the United States permission to stage a second front from Turkey. Turkey agreed only to permit overflights for U.S. warplanes and this week President Bush proposed an $8.5 billion aid package.

And Turkey still fears that U.S. plans to give greater representation to the Kurds in a post-Saddam Iraq could lead to the creation of a powerful, rich Kurdish state that would trigger unrest among Kurds within its own borders.

"Turkey is no more an important strategic country," wrote Gungor Uras, columnist for the Milliyet newspaper in Istanbul. While the Turkish media has hammered new Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan—the head of the Islamic-based Justice and Development Party—for such rookie mistakes as failing to properly count his votes in Parliament on the troop movements proposal, the public has been more supportive.

"If you look at the two most recent (regional) elections, his party has picked up 50 percent of the votes, which is higher than in the general election," said Behic Gurcihan, vice president of the SESAR strategic studies institute in Ankara.

Americans may have recognized the breadth of antiwar sentiment in Turkey, but missed how important the fear of a Kurdish state plays in Turkish politics. A March 1 poll conducted by SESAR showed 69 percent of the 980 people surveyed thought Turkish troops needed to enter northern Iraq.

Commentators have noted how much anti-U.S. opinion hardened after Turkish security officials leaked to the local press photographs of Americans meeting with Kurdish opposition leaders. Said Gurcihan: "People asked, `How could our main ally not be looking out for our interests?'"

This made it easier for Turkey to withstand American pressure for help opening a second front. The Americans' attitude didn't help, Gurcihan said. "The U.S. thought Turkey was a fish on the hook and acted in an arrogant way once it realized it couldn't get Turkey to do what it wanted," he said.

Huseyin Bagci, an Ankara commentator and political scientist, said U.S.-Turkey relations are too important to let deteriorate. Ankara needs Washington's financial and political muscle; Washington needs a moderate Muslim ally that is not antagonistic toward Israel.

But that doesn't mean the two countries understand or even like each other, he said. "They are like a married couple that share the same bed, but have different dreams," he said.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.