At a time when the world is debating the legality and morality of America’s determination to invade and occupy Iraq, the Turkish parliament’s rejection on March 1 of a motion allowing US troops to deploy in Turkey on their way to northern Iraq was widely seen both as a major act of anti-American defiance from a state which has recently seen a (vaguely) Islamist government win power, and as a considerable blow to the US’s war plans. Both these perceptions are, however, quite mistaken, and as Crescent goes to press it appears that, one way or another, the decision is unlikely to be carried through.
For one thing, the defeated motion was in fact sponsored by the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP), led by Recep Tayyeb Erdogan, and its defeat came as a considerable blow to the party. The JDP, an avowedly secular party which is based on the moderate wing of the old Welfare party, which was banned for being Islamic, holds 363 seats in the 550-seat parliament, and an informal vote within the party had suggested that only about a dozen members would oppose the government motion. Instead, 98 did. The motion was still passed by 264 votes to 250, but — because of 19 abstentions — failed to meet the constitutional requirement of achieving a majority of those who participated in the vote.
At the same time, the impact of the vote on the US’s war plans may be considerably less than reported, as it later emerged that the Turkish and US militaries were cooperating on the establishment of US bases in Turkey in preparation for its attack on Iraq despite the government’s defeat in parliament.
The result was greeted with joy by Turkey’s people, virtually all of whom are strongly opposed to Washington’s aggressive plans. It was this public opinion that evidently persuaded many members of parliament that it would be good to be seen to be opposing the motion, even though (or perhaps because) it appeared certain to be approved. This is as much true for the opposition, dominated by the secular and pro-Western Republican People’s Party (RPP) as the rebel JDP members.
The result was an intense embarrassment for the new government of prime minister Abdullah Gul, which had argued that Ankara has no choice but to support the US, as the war is inevitable in any case and that Turkish interests can best be served by cooperating with Washington. The government had agreed a $30 billion ‘compensation’ package with the US, widely seen as a bribe to ensure Turkish support, at a time when the country is facing economic recession and a massive budget deficit. It is also concerned about the future of the Kurdish areas in northern Iraq, where it fears the Kurds may attempt to establish an independent state. The defeated motion would also have approved the deployment of 40,000 Turkish troops into northern Iraq to ensure that did not happen.
The fact that the JDP government, based on unprecedented strength in Turkey’s parliament, was pushing such an unpopular policy was itself a severe blow to its standing and credibility, even before it lost the vote. After its defeat, it finds itself in a lose-lose situation. It would still like to go ahead with the policy, and ministers and officials have spoken of possibly re-submitting the motion for a second vote in the expectation that this time it will pass. A number of JDP members who voted against the motion, with the intention of making a point rather than imposing a defeat on their own government, have indicated that this time they would support the government. The fear, however, is that if the government were defeated for a second time, its position would be untenable and it would be forced to resign.
Two days after losing the vote, Gul announced a series of revenue-raising measures to try to reduce the budget deficit, including increases in direct taxation. No-one could fail to make the connection with the possible loss of the $30 billion promised by the US in return for Turkish support. Many Turks had been critical of the openly self-interested basis of the government’s dealings with the Americans, and had celebrated its parliamentary defeat as showing that, in the words of one jubilant Turkish demonstrator outside the parliament building after the result was announced, "Turkey cannot be bought, even for $30 billion."
When and if the motion is resubmitted for a second vote, Gul may no longer be prime minister. Recep Tayyeb Erdogan, the JDP’s chairman and real leader, was elected to Parliament in a by-election in the south-eastern city of Siirt on March 9, opening the way for him to take over as head of his party’s government. He had not been able to take part in the November elections, which his party won so overwhelmingly, because he had earlier been banned from politics for being too Islamic, but the JDP government reversed that ban once in office. His victory in the Siirt by-election was a foregone conclusion — unofficial figures suggested the JDP candidates received 85 percent of the votes cast — but he probably did not expect to take up the reins of the government that he has been running indirectly in such difficult circumstances.
The likelihood of the motion being resubmitted were increased on March 5, when the Turkish military, widely recognised as the genuine power in Turkish politics, despite the country’s well-established electoral system, announced that it favoured the government’s failed motion. It had previously not expressed an opinion either way, leaving the JDP government to do the dirty work, and probably pleased to see JDP having to bear the consequences of an unpopular policy.
In fact, the relevance of a government policy on the issue has been thrown into question by the realization that the Turkish military is working with the US on unloading military equipment despite the vote. The parliamentary motion allowed for over 60,000 US troops to deploy in Turkey and cross the border into Iraq in the event of an American attack. The US’s 4th Infantry Division was earmarked for that operation. Officially it remains aboard transport ships off the coast of the southern Turkish port of Iskenderun. Turkey’s NTV television station revealed on March 5, however, that troops and equipment were being landed at Iskenderun and were moving in convoys towards the Iraqi border, despite the parliamentary vote.
The general staff of Turkey’s military responded by saying that deployments were not part of preparation for war against Iraq, but part of a previous agreement allowing US troops to modernise Turkish bases. It was widely recognised at the time that the modernisation accords were intended to allow the US to make logistical preparations for a possible attack on Iraq, and it appears that the Pentagon, with the cooperation of the Turkish military, may be planning to use them as a cover for deploying ground troops and heavy equipment into Iraq out of Turkish bases even if official permission is not granted by the Turkish parliament.
The Turkish media have also been reporting a wide range of other steps taken by the US to prepare for operations in the north of Iraq. The Radikal newspaper reported that an agreement had been reached to rent a section of the airport in Gaziantep, in southern Turkey near the Syrian border. The paper also said Turks and Americans were close to a separate deal on Mersin port, about 80 miles west of Iskenderun, and that a US Embassy official responsible for disaster control was looking for houses and warehouses for rent in Silopi, a town just north of the Iraqi border.
Suleyman Karaman, director of Turkish railways, told the newspaper that talks were continuing on terms for the US to use the rail network for transporting troops and equipment. In a round-up of the US preparations, the newspaper also said that deepening and renovation efforts were under way at six ports, and that 750 American soldiers were working on the modernisation of the airbase at Batman, near the Iraqi border. Contractors said, however, that the modernisation work had slowed after parliament’s vote against the deployment.