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Turkish Decision to Send Peacekeeping Troops to Iraq

October 7, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Turkey decides to send peacekeeping troops to Iraq. Gwen Ifill has that story.

GWEN IFILL: Seven months after spurning a U.S. request for help in the Iraq War, Turkey’s parliament reversed itself today, voting to allow its government to send troops to help the U.S.-led reconstruction effort. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s cabinet approved the motion yesterday, before sending it on to the parliament.

CEMIL CICEK (Translated): We will not remain there permanently. We hope that peace and stability will come to the region soon, and that we can return in less than one year.

GWEN IFILL: The details of any new deployment, including the number of soldiers involved, or their destination, remain unresolved. Turkish officials have previously mentioned sending as many as 10,000 soldiers. They have also expressed hope the new deployment will ease tensions with the U.S., Which reached a historic low after Turkish lawmakers refused to cooperate with the war plan last March. In Washington, the Bush administration welcomed Turkey’s decision to help with peacekeeping in Iraq. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher:

RICHARD BOUCHER: We are confident that a Turkish contribution could further the process of achieving stability in Iraq for the benefit of the governing council and the Iraqi people, and we’ll be working with the governing council as well as with the Turkish government on the details of that contribution.

GWEN IFILL: The United States has offered Turkey $8.5 billion in loans to help repair its struggling economy, but that aid has been contingent on Turkey’s help with Iraq. Turkey, a NATO ally, shares a 218-mile border with Iraq. During the 1991 Gulf War, it allowed the U.S. to use its military bases to launch air strikes. And after the war, U.S. planes enforcing the no-fly zone over northern Iraq were based there. But a key part of the Pentagon’s war plan earlier this year was thwarted, when Turkey denied U.S. troops access to Iraq through that border. In Iraq today, news of a Turkish deployment was not so well received. Some members of the U.S.-appointed governing council today rejected the idea of having Turkish soldiers on Iraqi soil.

MOUWAFAK AL-RABII (Translated): We believe any interference from a neighboring country, either North, South, West or East, is unacceptable. This interference is unacceptable. This interference will jeopardize both Iraq and that country.

GWEN IFILL: That statement is a reflection of the history of tensions between Iraq and Turkey, its former ruling power and neighbor to the north. Some Iraqis fear that once on their soil, Turkish troops will renew efforts to suppress Kurds who might seek autonomy in both Turkey and Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: For more on what’s behind today’s vote in the Turkish parliament, and how it might affect U.S.-Turkish relations, we’re joined by Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkish studies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and Heath Lowry, professor of Ottoman and Modern Turkish Studies at Princeton University. Mr. Aliriza, how significant is the parliament vote really?

BULENT ALIRIZA: Well, it clearly is welcome news for the U.S. government because there aren’t too many countries whose parliament has actually approved the dispatch of troops. So this is good news from that point of view. What it will actually come to the point of actually sending troops to Iraq remains to be worked out between the two governments.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Lowry would you agree with that?

HEATH LOWRY: Yes, I think it’s important. It’s also –domestically I think it’s important in Turkey because for the first time, the ruling AK Party which is an Islamic oriented party and its leader put, Erdogan, in the case of Erdogan put his personal credibility on the line to actually get the March 1 vote that you referred to earlier reversed and did so in rather spectacular terms.

GWEN IFILL: Explain to us, those of us who last checked in on this Turkey situation, at that at the spurning of the U.S. request last March, explain to us what changed in these seven months.

HEATH LOWRY: Well, first of all, there was a new prime minister. Erdogan has always been the head of this party but he was prohibited from running for parliament in elections last November. Therefore when his party swept to power with close to two-thirds majority in parliament, he was not elected to parliament nor was he allowed to be prime minister. In his place, a close associate, Abdullah Gul, was prime minister and most observers I think in Turkey feel certainly in retrospect that it was partially his failure to really put his personal credibility on the line behind the passage of the resolution at the beginning of March that allowed up to close to 100 members of their party group to defect. Clearly what has changed in the past seven months is that with the bi-election, Erdogan became prime minister and in this instance seems to have put his personality credibility right out front and held his party votes together.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Aliriza, this isn’t just about … it’s certainly partly about his personal credible but it’s about something broader than that too I would imagine which is what else does Turkey hope to get in the wider western world in exchange for their cooperation?

BULENT ALIRIZA: Clearly, the desire to repair the relationship with the U.S., which was damaged by the March 1 vote, is the primary motivation although when you look at the text of the resolution that was approved by the national assembly, what is stressed is Turkey’s desire to play its role as a regional power in the reconstruction of Iraq. That gets us back to the same point. The U.S. is the occupying power. The U.S. needs help in Iraq. And clearly the help is going to be needed primarily in the military sector although the Turks are stressing their desire to help Iraq recover politically, economically and otherwise. We are at the beginning of this process, we need to stress Turkey still hasn’t worked out the details relating to the dispatch of troops. Mr. Erdogan actually said that if parliament approved the resolution, it would put him in a better and stronger position in negotiations with the U.S., what is now waited — are negotiations to work out the details.

GWEN IFILL: This isn’t a done deal exactly. But I want to get back to the economic point for a second. There is $8.5 billion in loans attached to this reversal. How powerful an incentive was that?

BULENT ALIRIZA: We need to be careful here. Both sides have actually stressed that the possible dispatch of Turkish troops is not tied to the $8.5 billion in loans. There is a condition attached to it which was attached by Congress, which is that Turkey needs to cooperate but that was not specified as military cooperation. Both sides are at pains to say that the U.S. is not paying for the dispatch of Turkish troops with $8.5 billion in loans.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Lowry, let’s talk about public opinion for a moment. The Turkish public opinion has not changed fundamentally from last March, which is to say there was an overwhelming opposition to the idea of Turkey getting involved in Iraq. In Iraq there doesn’t seem to be any overwhelming welcome mat being laid down for this deployment either.

HEATH LOWRY: No, I think you’re right on both counts. However, in the first instance at the time of the parliamentary vote on the 1st of March there were literally tens of thousands of anti-war protesters in the streets of Ankara, the capital. Polling showed that anywhere between 90 and 95 percent of the electorate in Turkey were opposed to Turkey’s involvement in the war. Today, polls are not quite so spectacular. I think 60 to 65 percent oppose what is happening today and more importantly even though everyone knew the vote was coming today, there were no demonstrations or significant demonstrations in Turkey opposed to it. So, that may be a slight but not insignificant change. In the case of Iraq, as your report noted, there is no clear indication that the Iraqi Governing Council is ultimately going to support the idea of Turkish troops at all.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about those Turkish troops for a moment, Mr. Aliriza, because it seems that the part that is yet to be worked out which is where those troops go is key. The Sunni Triangle, where so much of the conflict is still going on is exactly where you don’t want Turkish troops, is that correct?

BULENT ALIRIZA: Well, let’s eliminate the part of Iraq where the Turks really want to be, which is northern Iraq. For understandable reasons the U.S. does not want Turkish troops in northern Iraq because that would complicate the relationship with the Kurds.

GWEN IFILL: You say understandable reasons. Explain to us what you mean by that.

BULENT ALIRIZA: Well, because the Iraqi Kurds have been opposed to Turkish intervention in the North. There is a residual force of about 3,000 Turkish troops from the late 1990s which the Kurds want removed. There are PKK Kadek separatists based in northern Iraq that the U.S. and Turkey have been negotiating over. And although the Turks would very much like to be stationed just beyond their border in northern Iraq the U.S. does not want them there because it would exacerbate the relationship with the Kurds who have been the most reliable element in the picture for the U.S.

Secondly, the U.S. really needs help in the Sunni Triangle. The hope is that the 67,000 Turkish troops that may be sent there would help stabilize the situation. But given the fact that not only Kurds but non-Kurdish members of the governing council have been opposed to Turkish intervention, this really has to be worked out between Washington and Ankara what we need is a stable relationship between Washington, Ankara and the Iraqis, both Kurds and non-Kurds that accept the idea of Turkish intervention and frankly we’re not at that point in the negotiations between Washington and Ankara and it may not be as easy as one hopes.

GWEN IFILL: You just touched on an interesting point. Does this agreement or this vote today, does that automatically heal the breach between Washington and Ankara?

BULENT ALIRIZA: No, in fact I’ve argued for a long time that Turkish-American relationship was a relationship born in the Cold War that really needed redefinition. The redefinition is now taking place in the heat of battle, as it were, with Iraq forcing both sides to look at what they agree and what they disagree on. You know, the dispatch of troops by themselves will not solve it. In fact, it can create a scenario in which there are Turkish casualties which heighten sensitivities in Turkey and may even exacerbate Turkish-American relations but that’s the pessimistic scenario; the more optimistic scenario is they will contribute to the stabilization of Iraq and that will help U.S.-Turkish relations in the long run.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Lowry, do you embrace the optimistic or the pessimistic scenario?

HEATH LOWRY: I’m not certain. One thing I would like to add here is that I think that there are some indications coming out of Ankara that they’re not all that enthused by being in the Sunni Triangle or so-called triangle and are talking about being adjacent to it slightly North and West, that is below the Kurdish zone but not in the really hot zone. I think that at one level, today is a kind of giant step not so much in patching back together Turkish-American relations but possibly in mending Turkish military and U.S. military relations, at least the first step in that direction.

GWEN IFILL: Does it make a difference, Professor Lowry that at least there is a shared culture between the Turkish troops and the Iraqi troops on the ground there?

HEATH LOWRY: Certainly. On one side there is a shared culture and there is a shared religion. However, on the other side there’s a shared history. As your opening piece pointed out, Iraq was a province of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years. Iraqi nationalism does not glorify that long page of their not all that distant history. So part of … well, on one level Kurdish members of the Iraqi national or governing council may be opposed to any kind of Turkish presence, this may resonate in the wider Sunni and Shia communities of Iraq and even beyond the borders of Iraq into other areas of the middle east as well.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Heath Lowry and Bulent Aliriza, thank you very much for joining us.

HEATH LOWRY: Thank you.