When Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit arrives in Washington, DC this week to meet with President George W. Bush he will come bearing a symbolic gift: a replica of a 16th century Koran, beautifully embroidered and written with real gold lettering. The original of this Koran comes from the Topkapi Palace Museum, once the seat of the Ottoman Sultans who ruled the Muslim world for over four centuries.

Buried since the First World War, the Ottoman Empire is no longer. Yet, the heirs to the Empire’s legacy, Turkey’s Republican military and political leaders, are firmly convinced that history is again calling them to center stage. In the wake of September 11th, these leaders hope to join the “war against terrorism” so as to take an active role in the reshaping the region. Thus far Turkey has been supportive of the military campaign in Afghanistan. But while President Bush may refer to the current war as a “crusade,” Ecevit ‘s gift of a Koran indicates that Turkey may have it’s own interpretation of the region.

Bush’s aides are sure to have done their homework in studying Ankara’s point of view before the leaders meet. They will aim to keep Mr. Bush on message, not only to avoid further verbal blunders, but also to keep Turkish geopolitical ambitions in check. If Bush has his way, the discussion will therefore center around certain key topics: Turkey’s present financial troubles, its huge foreign debt and military dependence on US technology, as well as its regional rivalries with Greece, Iran and Russia.

The Core of Turkey’s Regional Concerns: Iraq’s Territorial Integrity

Prime Minister Ecevit will undoubtedly raise the issue of Iraq’s “territorial integrity,” especially as the country seems to be a possible next target. Despite recent reassurances to the contrary from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the Pentagon’s leading hawk, Turkish leaders remain uneasy. “Perhaps US ambitions to topple Saddam Hussein will not result in an immediate attack” remarked former Turkish chief of staff retired General Dogan Gures last week. “But in unofficial talks, US envoys keep asking my advice on the pros and cons of such a military strike.” When questioned in the press, Ecevit continues to reiterate that Turkey will preserve, at whatever price, its present borders with Iraq.

With an eye toward unofficial US concerns, Turkish chief of staff, General Huseyin Kivrikoglu, as well as Prime Minister Ecevit have both indicated in public statements that Ankara is more concerned with preserving territorial integrity and borders than it is with the survival or downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. “Of course, the United States may have its own concerns” Ecevit told reporters recently. “And we are committed to … discussing such efforts jointly with the United States particularly regarding Iraq.” Nevertheless, Ecevit will express his worries that any US operation against Saddam could encourage uprisings in the mostly Kurdish northern areas of Iraq bordering Turkey, and prompt the formation of a Kurdish state in that region. Such an event could pose a serious threat to Turkey’s unity by provoking Turkish Kurds to rebel for greater autonomy in the Kurdish-dominated southeast, bordering Iraq.

Prior to Ecevit’s departure, a delegation of US senators visited Ankara allegedly to discuss whether Turkish leaders thought the fall of Saddam might actually help solve their Kurdish problem. Their logic was that the survival of an undemocratic Saddam regime was in fact increasing rather than squelching Kurdish desires for independence. Ecevit did not agree. “We definitely can’t accept that,” Ecevit remarked, adding only that on Kurdish aspirations for independence, “we will never allow that'”, regardless of Saddam’s status.

Sympathy for Saddam or Apathy for Kurdish Claims?

During the upcoming meetings, Bush will host the only NATO leader who over the years has not disguised his differences with the US position on Iraq. In 1990-91, Ecevit was working as a journalist and he visited the Iraqi leader in Baghdad twice while the then Turkish President Turgut Ozal was busy advising the US president for a full-scale invasion of Iraq, backed by a strong Turkish land support from the north.

Ecevit’s stance toward Saddam Hussein has occasionally earned him sharp criticism from political foes who have publicly denounced him as “Saddamist.” Yet, Ecevit’s outlook on the Iraqi leader seems to have changed during his ascent to power in the late 1990s, a transition which some analysts attribute specifically to his military briefings during his prime ministry as well as to his growing desire for US and NATO allegiance.

Nevertheless, fifteen years of internal conflict with the insurgent Kurdish guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has left the Turkish government cautious about the possible birth of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Ecevit remains highly skeptical that Iraq can maintain its territorial integrity should the Saddam regime collapse under prospective US strikes.

Many believe that Washington will turn to Turkey for advice before it makes any move on Iraq. Some Turkish analysts, such as Sami Kohen, argue that inaction would be the worst advice for Turkey to give. “Until recently Turkey has urged for the status quo to continue.” Kohen remarked. “Yet, it becomes ever apparent now that the status quo is not in Turkey’s best interest,” he observes. In Kohen’s view, Turkey runs the risk of being excluded from decision-making in the future if it does not engage and assist US interests.

On the other hand, Ecevit’s Kurdish critics see Ankara’s unwillingness to get involved in an operation against Baghdad as having less to do with concerns for “territorial integrity” than having to do with keeping Saddam in his place. These critics point out that Iraq “hardly preserves any of its territorial integrity as Turkish troops frequently launch cross-border operations and strike Northern Iraq in countless air raids,” according to one leading Kurdish intellectual, Umit Firat. “Turkey indeed fears the replacement of Saddam Hussein by a democratic regime that could grant northern Iraqi Kurds broader freedom, and in turn present a legitimate model for Turkey’s Kurds.”

Divided into four parts after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the region is home to 12 million former Ottoman Kurds, now mostly living in southeastern Turkey. An additional two million Kurds live in northern Iraq, one million in Iran and fewer than one million in Syria. The PKK, which declared war against Ankara for Kurdish self determination in 1984, built rear bases in northern Iraq and recruited guerrillas from among the Iraqi Kurds. The PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, based his headquarters in the Syrian capital, Damascus, throughout 15 years of bitter armed conflict. During the war, particularly after the abortive Kurdish uprisings which followed the Iraqi defeat in the Gulf War in 1991, PKK influence in northern Iraq grew considerably. In response, Ankara felt compelled to extend its operations deep into northern Iraq. Turkish forces staged countless cross-border operations, the biggest in 1996 when Turkish troops inflicted around 2,000 PKK casualties. This 1996 incursion considerably undermined The PKK’s fighting force and strategic balance.

Having left behind 30,000 deaths and a devastated countryside, the armed conflict between the PKK and Turkey reached a de facto stand-still in 1999 when Abdullah Ocalan was extradited from Damascus and handed over to Turkey by the Kenyan police under apparent US supervision. After a brief trial at which Ocalan was condemned to death, the PKK leader was placed in the Imrali Island prison in maximum isolation. Since then, Turkey has suspended Ocalan’s execution pending the outcome of Ocalan’s lawyers appeal to European Human Rights Court for “a fair trial.”

The Turkoman Equation in Northern Iraq

Despite deep concerns over Iraq’s territorial disintegration, Ankara has reportedly considered a multi-ethnic equation for northern Iraq in which the Turkoman population would become part of an autonomous administration, if the present status quo were suddenly destroyed. In Ankara’s view, such an approach would safeguard Turkey’s greater influence in the region in the aftermath of a collapsed Saddam regime.

The issue was raised during Ecevit-Saddam meeting of 1991, in which Ecevit probed Saddam’s opinion of Turkoman and Kurdish autonomy. According to Turkish journalist Derya Sazak, Saddam only responded: “We are ready to fight for Qirquq.”

Mostly populated in and around the oil rich Qirquq and Mousul areas in the north of Iraq, Turkomans comprise around five percent of Iraq’s total 24 million population. Ever since the 1924 division of the former Ottoman territory between Iraq and Turkey, the ethnically Turkic Turkomans of Iraq have kept close ties with Ankara. Since the 1991 declaration of the no-fly zone north of 36th parallel, the region is under “Operation Provide Comfort” which has strengthened Ankara’s access and ties to resident Turkoman leaders. Ankara has used these increased ties to counter-balance the activities of the rival Kurdish factions of Mesoud Barzani’s KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) based in Salahaddin in the northwest of the zone and Jalal Talabani’s PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) based in Suleymaniyah in the northeast.

It was based on these ties and counterbalances that former Turkish president Turgut Ozal based his aspirations during the Gulf War during which he strongly encouraged the elder Bush to march all the way to Baghdad. Ozal’s hope was that once Saddam fell, Turkish ground forces could quickly march to Mosul and Qirquq, thereby winning a channel for Iraqi oil to flow to Turkey’s refineries. However, Turkish military leaders believed that the military risks of betraying the borders and pursuing Ozal’s ambitions far outweighed the perceived oil returns on such an action. Since Ozal’s death in 1993, Turkish military and political leaders have shelved his schemes of invasion of northern Iraq. Yet they have kept an ever-watchful eye on developments with the Turkomans in the region.

Financially Hamstrung

Whatever ambitions Ecevit might have for playing a deciding role in reshaping the region will be severely hamstrung by Turkey’s current economic woes. It is these same woes which have already prevented Ankara from keeping the promise to send special troops to Afghanistan to take part in the future reshaping of Kabul. Ecevit’s recent explanation was simply that “the costs of deploying overseas troops exceeds Turkey’s planned defense budget.”

Nevertheless, the Turkish chief of staff announced this week that Turkey will deploy 261 troops for the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force). Initiated by Britain, the ISAF comprises of forces of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Turkey, Belgium, Portugal, Austria, Finland, Sweden, Rumania, Norway, Greece, and New Zealand. The ISAF coalition will provide oversight in establishing the emergent administration in Afghanistan, and Ankara has not concealed an ambition to take over ISAF command when Britain’s turn expires in April.

“Turkey is prepared to provide assistance for rebuilding the Afghan armed and police forces,” Ecevit remarked. However, such plans may be trapped in Turkey’s growing financial difficulties. “To assume a greater role in Afghanistan, we will ask not only for a forgiveness on our $5 billion military debt but also for military aid,” Ecevit told journalists prior to his January arrival in Washington.

Since the market crash of last February, the Turkish economy has shrunk by 40 percent. Per capita income has dropped by almost one third. Ankara’s best hope is that its recently increased geopolitical value, post September 11th, may bring the country some additional economic opportunities. In this effort, Ecevit will be tirelessly making the rounds. On his itinerary are meetings with: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Secretary of Treasury Paul H. O’Neill, Secretary of Commerce Donald L. Evans, International Monetary Fund Director Horst Köhler and World Bank President James Wolfensohn. Instead of seeking new loans to add to Turkey’s already whopping $120 billion foreign debt, Ecevit will most likely look for a reduction in US tariffs on Turkish exports, particularly textile products. Some 100 business leaders who will accompany Ecevit will also be looking for increased cooperation from US firms.

For now, the region’s fragile status quo will probably remain. And in all likelihood, both Bush and Ecevit will keep the discussion, or at least the public face of it, tied to issues of finance.

How to cite this article:

Ertugrul Kurkcu "Turkey’s Ecevit," Middle East Report Online, January 15, 2002.

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