In his quest for 12,000 Turkish troops to back up the American military in Iraq, deputy US defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz went to Ankara in late July to talk turkey with Turkey’s military chiefs. The generals’ reception was frosty.
The American official broke the ice in his forthright way by warning the military chiefs that if they remained passive and failed to reclaim their lost positions of influence, their current situation on the fringes of government decision-making would become irreversible.
Wolfowitz, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington and Ankara, was giving tongue to the general consensus in both capitals that the Turkish military is rapidly losing its traditionally strong role in the shaping of modern Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies.
Just before the Iraq War, Bush administration war planners refused to give credence to the intelligence reports that suggested Turkey might refuse US troops passage through its territory and the use of Turkish military bases from which to open a second war front in northern Iraq.
They were also caught unawares by the discovery that Turkey’s military chiefs were in league with the government leaders’ policy of making up to Europe at the expense of American interests. The new winds began blowing from Ankara last November, when the Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development party that grew from Islamic roots came to power.
Prime minister Erdogan has since signaled that the decision to send Turkish troops to Iraq must wait until parliament returned from its summer recess on October 1. He appears to be continuing his game of playing hard to get with Washington.
Some officials in Washington hold that the Turkish military needs a strong leadership figure to correct Ankara’s pro-European-Islamic tilt – not a lightweight like Ozkok.
However, the Turkish chief of staff cannot be held responsible for the opinion gaining ground in such European capitals as Berlin and Paris that their Muslim minorities can be steered away from radical Islam if they support the moderate and pragmatic Islamic government in Ankara.
That kind of thinking is alien to the prevailing mindset in Washington. The Bush administration’s hardnosed war on global terrorism and campaign to overthrow the Saddam regime in Iraq have angered most of the Muslim world and placed Turkey’s generals on the horns of a dilemma. They have had to choose between their traditionally close ties with America and joining their government’s march toward Europe. The Iraq war simply accelerated a change of course already in motion.
Nonetheless, the docility shown by Ozkok and his fellow generals is surprising. Without a murmur, they are yielding much of their clout in the making of national policy and subordinating the military machine to an elected government dominated by Muslim politicians – even on strictly operational and logistical military matters.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, Erdogan and Ozkok have agreed that the army chief will take charge of the coming reforms relating to civilian oversight of the military. The so-called “seven reforms package” was promulgated to meet European Union demands to reform Turkey’s ruling structure as one of the preconditions for EU membership.
Key reforms affect the powers of the National Security Council (MGK) which were formerly advisory and will henceforth hand down orders to the chief of staff of the country’s armed forces.
Some other changes –
The MGK will have a majority of government-appointed civilian members rather than military men.
The Council’s general secretary may also be filled by a civilian for the first time from candidates proposed by the prime minister.
The MGK will convene only every second month instead of monthly and its decisions reported to the deputy prime minister – a relatively powerless post. The council had formerly met at the pleasure of Turkey’s generals and its decisions were passed on to the Ankara government for implementation.
The Turkish defense budget, including the military’s expenditures, will be drawn up henceforth in consultation between the chief of staff and the office of the accountant-general, a civilian agency, instead of being drafted by the military chiefs and rubberstamped by the government.
The general view in Washington was that, even after the Turkey armed forces’ standing had been reduced at the behest of Brussels, Turkey would still make a 12,000- troop contingent available for Iraq. American and Turkish officers had reached an advanced stage in their discussions and set locations for the Turkish deployment.
The American Plan A was for the Turkish force to hold the front line – like in the Korean War half a century ago – and bear the brunt of the fighting against Saddam’s guerrillas and their allies in the Sunni Iron Triangle of central Iraq. That had little chance of acceptance in Ankara. Anyway, the Kurds have now been inserted into that turbulent sector.
Plan B would have deployed the Turks in the Baquba region as a buffer police force between Baghdad and the Iranian frontier.
That plan is unlikely to go down with the Turks. This region is heavily infiltrated by Iranian agents and the Erdogan government will be reluctant to spoil the Ankara-Tehran relations that have improved markedly since the present Turkish government came to power.
However the dispute over where the Turkish force should be deployed may be as much a pretext to avoid sending any troops at all as the delay for parliamentary sanction.
Ankara would probably be unable to resist an offer to position its troops in the Kurdish or Turkmeni regions of northern Iraq. That is not on offer. But before giving Washington a definite yes or no, Ankara will want to check first with the Europeans to see if its chances of admission to the EU will be harmed by the deployment of Turkish troops in Iraq.
A senior US source told DEBKA-Net-Weekly: “The Bush administration and the Pentagon may be optimistic about the chances of Turkish soldiers going to war in the iron triangle, but US Central Command OC General John Abizaid, is not. He and US commanders cherish the painful memory of Ankara’s dithering before the invasion of Iraq and the resulting 10-day prolongation of the war.
“If US field commanders knew for sure Turkish troops with their considerable counter-insurgency experience were on the way, morale would lift among the troops. But I’m sorry to say that no one can be certain those troops will arrive.”