Turkish Scholar Meliha Altunisik Looks at War in Iraq

By Ziad, Homayra | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Turkish Scholar Meliha Altunisik Looks at War in Iraq


Ziad, Homayra, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


On Feb. 5, the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC hosted a talk by Scholar-in-Residence Meliha Altunisik, an associate professor at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. Dr. Altunisik's research is on the triangular relationship between Turkey, the U.S., and Iraq. As debate over the impending war on Iraq has been raging in all quarters of Turkish society, her speech addressed the prevalent attitudes toward the war within important political categories: opinion makers (academia, media, civil society organizations); foreign and security policy elites; and the general public.

Turkey's opinion makers are deeply divided on the issue of war, said Altunisik. The small fraction who favor Turkish involvement base their support on the "inevitability thesis." Because war is bound to take place, they believe, Turkish participation will both prevent negative diplomatic consequences for the government and ensure a place at the table during post-war reconstruction. They argue that Ankara cannot afford to alienate a major ally who grants the country significant economic and political support. Furthermore, they claim, maintaining the status quo in Iraq is detrimental to Turkish political and economic interests.

On the other hand, Altunisik continued, the anti-war contingent firmly believes that "Turkey should not be fighting someone else's war." Opposition does not lie in any loyalty to Saddam Hussain. Rather, it revolves around the very real issues of negative economic consequences, possible loss of fighting men, and threats to Turkey's territorial integrity, both through an influx of refugees and the potential post-war creation of an independent Kurdistan. Interestingly, according to Altunisik, both factions among the opinion-makers decry the specter of Iraq as a pressing security threat.

The stance of the security and policy elite is more complicated, she continued, and stems directly from Turkey's bitter experience during the first Gulf war. "The popular reading," she explained, "is that Turkey failed to bargain effectively in 1991-and paid dearly." Economic losses, not including indirect costs, were estimated at $4 billion to $6 billion, and many analysts blame 1991 for the recent and severe crisis in the Turkish economy. Washington failed to compensate Turkey for damages; even worse, Altunisik noted, promising business opportunities in post-war Kuwait failed to materialize, as those were largely monopolized by American enterprises. An influx of 500,000 Kurdish refugees from Iraq further exacerbated the situation in the first Gulf war, as Turkey was unprepared to handle the resulting economic and security consequences.

Today, Altunisik told the audience, bleak alternatives again have rendered the government in favor of involvement. This time, however, there is a push to secure a "sincere commitment" of repayment and aid from the United States.

The negative economic effects of a possible war already are evident in southeastern Turkey. Foreign investment is bound to fall, and rising oil prices will impact the oil-importing country. An audience member representing the Turkey Industrialists and Businessman's Association added Turkish businesses and investment banks have estimated potential post-war economic damage at $14 billion to $15 billion in the first year. Direct costs would arise from a drop in tourism, which is 15 percent of the economy, and loss of pipeline income. …

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