Stay Out...Or Maybe Not?

Until well after the eleventh hour, it seemed that yet another U.S. ally had lined up with countries refusing to assist in the war on Iraq. But on March 20, the first day of the fighting, the Turkish Parliament reversed its earlier stance, voting 332-202 to grant overflight rights to U.S. planes en route to the war's northern front in the Kurdish region of Iraq.

In the same session, Parliament passed a second resolution authorizing Turkish troops to enter northern Iraq to create a buffer zone the government said was designed to deliver "humanitarian aid" to Kurdish refugees. Most observers believed it was intended to stem the flow of Kurds into Turkey as well as to curb any Kurdish moves toward declaring an independent state in the midst of the war. Ankara held out until the following day before granting access to Turkish airspace as it negotiated with Washington over its desire to establish a beachhead against a possible move for Kurdish independence.

By press time, Turkish soldiers were reported to have massed along the border, waiting for orders to enter northern Iraq. "The authority to make war in Iraq has passed to the Turkish government," Muharrem Sarikaya cheered in Sabah (March 21). Tercüman's Cengiz Candar disagreed (March 21), saying that with the passing of the overflight resolution, the Turkish government had, in fact, transferred its authority to the military.

Opening up Turkey's airspace fell far short of Washington's original request for the deployment of 62,000 U.S. soldiers in Turkey—a request that Ankara had flatly rejected on March 1. Turkish lawmakers tried to undo what they had gambled away—a substantial aid package, promised by the United States in return for Turkish assistance in the war. The debt-ridden country had been promised up to US$30 billion in cash and loan guarantees as compensation for letting U.S. soldiers deploy on its soil, but Turkish lawmakers could not be swayed.

Ankara's defiance had stunned the United States and opened up a deep rift between the longtime allies. Turkish politicians, in turn, were flabbergasted by the U.S. refusal to offer monetary aid in return for military assistance, as agreed upon on March 20. Sabah (March 21) quoted former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis: "We thought that America was compelled to get our support. We never believed that America had a Plan B. We were badly mistaken."

Many commentators blamed incoming Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's new government for Turkey's ill-advised change of mind. "The memorandum was brought before Parliament as a half pregnancy," snapped Cengiz Candar in Tercüman (March 20). Candar lashed out at lawmakers who consider themselves competent negotiators but "politically act most clumsily." According to Gungor Mengi, writing in Vatan (March 20), "Turkey lost this war....We lost everything."

The breach with the United States could have lasting repercussions. Milliyet's Hasan Cemal scolded (March 20) the Islamist government for being "incompetent," and warned that Turco-American relations had been "badly injured." That might be an understatement, for this could turn into the biggest crisis between the two allies in the past 50 years.