Monitor archives:
Copyrighted material

Turkey May Face Civil War For Backing U.S. Iraq Attack

by Gretel C. Kovach

Catch-22 for Turkey: risk of civil war or economic disaster
(PNS) ISTANBUL -- Greenpeace and Turkish activists scaled a government cultural center in downtown Istanbul last Thursday and unfurled a massive banner: "No to War." Aside from perhaps Baghdad, the protesters could hardly have chosen a more sympathetic staging ground.

According to a poll taken in late January, 94 percent of Turkish citizens oppose a war in Iraq. Both major parties in Parliament and Turks of all walks of life fear that an attack against their southeast neighbor could intensify economic woes during the worst recession in modern history, and re-ignite war with separatist Kurds.

But the protest in Taksim Square ended after just 90 minutes, when fierce winds ripped down the anti-war banner -- a metaphor for how outside forces have overwhelmed pro-peace sentiment in Turkey.

Some 38,000 U.S. combat soldiers are poised to enter Turkey to form a bulwark on Iraq's northern front. Parliament took the first step toward allowing this larger group on Feb. 6 by voting 308-193 in a closed session to allow 3,500 American soldiers to upgrade critical airbases.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP), with its moderate Islamist orientation, spent last month reaching out to like-minded anti-war Arab neighbors. But the JDP worked to "give peace a chance," as the Prime Minister stated on national television recently, only as long as it dared.

Though the JDP swept into power last November on a populist platform, defying America was never an option. "Because of Turkish dependency on the U.S. at this time, Turkey could not say no," says Ilter Turan, a former University of California at Berkeley professor currently teaching at Bilgi University in Istanbul.

Behind-the-scenes American arm twisting and open goading by the army generals said to represent the true ruling power of Turkey forced JDP leaders to foist American war plans on Turkish voters. Turkey's secular army generals threatened to organize a constitutional overthrow of the JDP if needed, according to one U.S. intelligence officer in the region: "They made it clear that if the ruling party didn't fall into line, there wouldn't be a ruling party anymore. And it worked."

The economic anxieties that ushered the JDP to power also worked to override anti-war sentiment. After the first Gulf War, Turkey lost more than $10 billion from lost trade with Iraq and tourism. Today, Turkey is dependent on periodic IMF infusions, and only last week secured U.S. assurance of a multi-billion dollar aid package to cushion economic fallout from a war in Iraq.

"If Turkey even tries to shun the U.S., it will face immediate economic disaster," wrote Ilnur Cevik in a Turkish Daily News editorial.

Equally troublesome to Turkey is the prospect of a strengthened Kurdish presence in northern Iraq. Turkey fought a 15-year civil war against Kurdish separatists in its southeast regions at a cost of 30,000 lives on both sides and a million or more displaced.

JDP leaders sold their incremental acquiescence to American war plans by emphasizing that Turkey needed to remain part of the equation in northern Iraq, ensuring that Iraqi Kurds don't revolt and set a bad example for their Turkish brethren. Tens of thousands of Turkish soldiers are already stationed inside Iraq, and more are on the way.

Turkey could stand to gain from supporting the U.S. war in some important ways. America will lobby the European Union to admit Turkey, its first Muslim member, if Turkey cooperates on Iraq. The United States is also prepared to arm Turkey against Saddam with early warning aircraft and Patriot missiles -- with or without NATO's blessing.

Turkey's economy could also benefit from lucrative contracts to help rebuild Iraq, and from a reopened cross-border oil pipeline shut down in 1991.

Yet for now, supporting America has painful consequences for the JDP. Their fundamentalist Islamic supporters are categorically opposed to a war against another Muslim country. "Now even the women in veils are saying that the JDP is just like all the rest," says Bahar Ocal Duzgoren, a human rights activist and writer.

The threat of hostilities across the border may already have provoked Turkey's militant Kurdish factions, who are threatening to end their three-year cease-fire and wage an even more ferocious war all across Turkey.

"They are talking about a return to violence," says Kerim Yildiz, director and co-founder of the London-based Kurdish Human Rights Project. "We are horrified. It could be even worse than before."

A renewed civil war in Turkey may fulfill anti-war protesters' darkest fears, but is unlikely to derail American war plans. "This is an internal problem, and Iraq is another issue," said a spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Ankara.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor February 17, 2003 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.