The new Turkish government has performed a spectacular about-face with respect to US war plans for Iraq and its post-Saddam aftermath, thereby dropping a large monkey wrench in Washington’s Iraq strategy.
Ankara’s turnaround may have started out as huffing and puffing for better terms on the eve of the war. However, with dramatic suddenness, the ploy – if that’s what is was – appears to have gone too far. The Bush administration is confronted with the threatened collapse of the Turkish-Kurdish keystone of its war plan. This latest development, discovered by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources in Washington, Ankara and Tehran, brings to crisis point almost two years of painstaking work on putting together the complicated political and military arrangements for the conduct of the war in North Iraq.
Before the war is even launched – and as Saddam Hussein looks on from Baghdad – America’s war allies are already at each other’s throats over the post-war spoils, i.e. the control of government in Baghdad and Iraq’s oil riches. The newly-elected Gul government in Ankara is displaying a combativeness unfamiliar to the American diplomats who negotiated the war pacts with former prime minister Bulent Ecevit.
Serious cracks have consequently formed in the past week in the wall of US-Turkish arrangements and understandings for defining Turkey’s role in the assault on the Saddam regime and in post-war power-sharing for Iraq’s northern oil fields and its two oil cities, Kirkuk and Mosul. Also in tatters are the understandings on the future of Kurdistan, laboriously hammered out in months of diplomatic wrangling among US, Turkey and Kurdish leaders – who first had to be pacified. These understandings, like the future of Iraq’s Turkomen minority, are now up in the air.
On the ground, the Turkish 2nd and 3rd Corps, deployed along and across the Iraqi border to fight Saddam’s troops, are instead exchanging hostile glares with the pro-American Kurdish armies of Massoud Barzani and Talal Jalabani.
At some points, the two armed camps have taken up combat positions.
Senior Turkish officials in Ankara – and at least one senior Western source in Kurdistan – described the situation in northern Iraq to DEBKA-Net-Weekly, shortly before we published, as an explosive charge waiting to flare into a Turkish-Kurdish military clash. Such an eruption would have the effect of disabling the vital northern flank of the American warfront.
According to a Turkish military source in the field, “In a few short days, the once firm northern front against Saddam has degenerated into a Turkish-Kurdish standoff. The confrontation with Saddam Hussein has dropped to second place.”
A Western source was calmer: “The Bush administration will have to spend the next few weeks in arduous diplomatic wrangling to arrest the slippage. The effect on the war’s timeline and outcome will be significant.”
An American source on the spot, in an attempt to play the crisis down, said: “It is very understandable that the closer we come to military action, the more demanding the various coalition partners will be. They are naturally posing fresh terms for their participation, whatever they may have signed with Washington, even in secret documents. Now, we’ll have to get down to renegotiating the last details with the Turks.”
But when we asked him how long re-negotiation would take, and whether it would necessitate another postponement of the offensive against Iraq, he admitted that, as things stood now, further delay was in the cards.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that the eve-of-crisis situation on Iraq’s northern front is what brought General Tommy Franks, head of the US Central Command and designated war leader, rushing to Washington this week. His mission was officially described as briefing President George W. Bush and his top security advisers on military preparations for the war.
However, the news he brought the White House was grave enough to warrant urgent decisions on at least four fresh problems:
1. The military tension between Turkey and Kurdish is crippling and must be defused.
2. Turkish divisions in northern Iraq may have to be re-deployed in the light of the new setback.
3. Rethinking will be needed to establish who controls Iraq’s northern oil fields and the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk.
4. The fresh deals and arrangements Washington needs to renegotiate with the Turks and Kurds will have to be made compatible with understandings reached with Tehran.
Before approaching these decisions, US policy leaders will be updated on the following developments, as revealed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly:
A. At the beginning of this week, the two Kurdish chiefs, Talabani and Barzani, informed US and Turkish field commanders they were henceforth barring the passage of Turkish troops though the Kurdish areas that cover most of northern Iraq. They also demanded the evacuation without delay of all Turkish commando and tank forces already inside Iraq to behind the Turkish frontier.
B. The Turks countered by laying Kurdistan to siege, halting traffic from Turkey into the territory, as well as drastically cutting down on the food convoys from Turkey to Kurdistan. Kurdish products are no longer allowed into Turkey. Travelers wishing to enter Kurdistan must go round through Syria or Iran.
C. Barzani, who arrived in Ankara for talks with Turkish leaders on Wednesday, January 7, was greeted according to our sources with “stony faces and blunt military threats”, such as: “The Kurds had better beware of making enemies,” and “Any wrong move will prompt Turkish military reprisal.”
D. Turkey has been constantly pouring troop reinforcements into northern Iraq. A heavy concentration has been posted on the Turkish-Syrian frontier, to keep Syrian forces from coming to the aid of the Kurds and fend off possible Kurdish terrorist operations in southern Turkey.
E. High-ranking American officers, including General Franks, who went to Ankara on troubleshooting missions, asked Turkish army chiefs how deep their divisions meant to advance into northern Iraq. The same question was put to Turkish field commanders. They replied that their orders were to keep moving forward – even as far as Baghdad.
British defense minister Geoffrey Hoon received the same answer when he arrived in Ankara Wednesday, January 8 to try and mediate the dispute.
F. Turkish leaders informed Washington they were tearing up all the understandings concluded on the disposition and management of the northern oil fields and oil cities. A Turkish government team of experts, including lawyers and oilmen, had been instructed to rummage through Ottoman Empire archives for the deeds and certificates affirming property ownership in the two cities, the oil fields and other parts of the region. Turkish officials said they were certain they would find legally-binding documents proving Turkish ownership in the oilfields before World War One. If these properties are not restored, the Turkish army will fight to regain them.
G. Prime Minister Abdullah Gul, whose Islamist Justice and Development Party won a landslide victory in the November 3, 2002 election, made the rounds of Middle East capitals last week to drum up Arab support for Turkey’s new stance on the Iraq war.
Western diplomats, probing for the immediate trigger of the Turkish volte face, reported to Washington two reasons cited by their Turkish sources: One, they were dismayed when they saw the leadership role the Americans assigned Kurdish representatives at the conference of Iraqi opposition leaders that took place in London last December. They also took note of Kurdish tribes making advanced political and military preparations for the foundation of an autonomous Kurdish state. Ankara believes the Kurds are on course for much more than self-rule, independence, which no Turk will countenance.
Two, A secret American move which the Turks like even less than Kurdish independence. This move will be revealed in the next article in this issue.
Before the crisis is over, Ankara will most probably backtrack on its most extreme demands. But the process will be time-consuming.