Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Turkey Cautiously Moving toward "Normalizing" Relations with Iraq

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Turkey Cautiously Moving toward "Normalizing" Relations with Iraq

Article excerpt

From the moment that Saddam Hussain's forces invaded Kuwait, the Turkish government decided to oppose strongly the Iraqi action and to side with the US and its Western allies.

President Turgut Ozal joined the anti-Saddam front promptly and without hesitation, cutting off all contacts and trade ties with Turkey's southern neighbor and implementing the UN-sponsored sanctions, including the closing down of the Kirkuk-Yumurtalik oil pipeline. During the hostilities, the Ozal administration allowed the US to use its base facilities in Turkey not only for transit to the war zone but also for air raids against Iraq, in spite of domestic opposition. And, after the war, the Turks cooperated closely with the US and other allies for the return of the Kurdish refugees to their homes in northern Iraq, despite fears that coalition protection of Iraq's independence-minded Kurds might lead to political unrest in eastern Turkey.

Second Thoughts About Iraq

Now, 10 months after the start of the Gulf crisis, and three months after the end of the war, Turks are having second thoughts about their future policy towards the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussain. There are, in fact, indications of a shift in their attitude towards Iraq, and on Western policy in the Gulf as a whole.

Ozal, unlike his critics, is not sorry about the line taken by Turkey all through the Gulf crisis. He still defends it, firmly believing, as do many other Turks, that this was the right policy. Turkey opposes armed aggression on principle, supports the United Nations, and supports the US and other NATO allies. Ozal also considered Saddam as a threat to the whole region, including Turkey itself. In taking such a stance, however, Ozal also hoped that the US-led coalition would eventually win the war, and that Turkey would benefit from it.

Indeed, Turkey was on the winning side, but it suffered huge economic losses by fully implementing the sanctions, and it failed to receive the financial support which was promised by friendly European and Gulf nations. Moreover, at the end of the day, Turkey was confronted with the Kurdish refugee problem, which assumed dangerous domestic political dimensions.

All that is the background to the Ozal administration's new attitude. The Turkish president was very hopeful, along with US President George Bush, with whom he has been in constant touch by phone, that shortly after the war Saddam would be toppled. This did not happen, and, according to Turkish intelligence estimates, it will not happen soon.

So, Ozal believes, the time has come to deal with Saddam, whether one likes him or not.

Thus, the Ozal administration, which had ignored Saddam throughout the past 10 months, is renewing "contacts" with his regime. The visit of Iraqi Vice-Premier Tariq Aziz to Ankara was scheduled on June 12 and 13 as the first such contact.

The Iraqis had sent feelers as early as March for a resumption of normal relations with Turkey, but Ozal declined. Then, late in May, Tariq Aziz expressed to former Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, now leader of the Democratic Left Party, Iraq's disappointment over Turkey's lack of response. Aziz said the Iraqis were ready to "let bygones be bygones and start anew in our relationship."

Ozal seems now to agree. He calculates that the war and the crisis already have cost Turkey between $4 billion and $7 billion, and that the continuing economic embargo against Iraq is adding to that bill. …

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