Turkey's Tug of War

In the Country with Two Fronts

Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Shroeder and Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul
Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in Copenhagen, Dec. 13, 2002 (Photo: Patrick Kovarik/AFP).

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his Turkish colleague Abdullah Gul must really understand each other right now. Neither Schröder nor Gul wants a war against Iraq, and their voters don’t even want to send soldiers to join Washington’s armed forces. But serious differences account for why Ankara is in a much more uncomfortable position than Berlin.

Turkey has a common border with Iraq. And that is why people living between Mardin and Sirnak (and not between Munich and Stuttgart) are now hoarding plastic tarpaulins, which are supposed to protect against Saddam Hussein’s poison gas. Furthermore, Turkey is a poor relation indeed, compared with Germany. It needs America’s billions the way an addict needs his fix, because the country has been in a dependent relationship with the United States for much too long. 

America’s possible war places Ankara in a dilemma, and for the moment there is no apparent way out—unless Washington abandons its plans for war. This NATO member country is in a strategic position for U.S. operations against Iraq. In addition, the U.S. military is demanding free access to Turkish airports, harbors, railroads, and highways. The wish list is so extensive that former Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit has warned of an American “occupation” of Turkey.

But the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), represented in Parliament with an overwhelming majority, must not let itself be driven by Ecevit. The AKP is primarily a populist party, which knows that almost 90 percent of Turks reject a war. Second, the ruling party has Islamic roots. Its grass-roots supporters look on a war against Muslims as sinful. Moreover, the Social Democratic opposition is against the war, which leaves the AKP very little room to maneuver. Therefore, Parliament will vote against U.S. troops by a wide majority and deny Washington the use of most airports, with the exception of the base at Incirlik, widely used during the Gulf  War.

For Gul, the prospect of saying an outright “no” could place him in a delicate situation—and that is where his situation again resembles that of the German chancellor. Behind closed doors a few days ago, Gul made it clear that Turkey would not burn its bridges with Washington; it cannot afford to do so. That is why Gul is now on the road visiting his Arab neighbors in Syria, Egypt, and Jordan. He wants to show his people at home that he has done everything possible to avoid a war.