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Play Ethnic Card to Win Turkey Over

March 12, 2003|Svante E. Cornell

Among the many components that have not yet come together to facilitate a U.S. invasion of Iraq, some are impossible and others improbable. But one crucial step -- winning permission for U.S. forces to attack from Turkey -- is eminently doable.

So far, our blandishments to the Turks have not been sufficient to quell the political opposition in the Turkish parliament. But there are several things the Bush administration still can do to seal the deal with Turkey. It's vital that U.S. officials do them now, because without Turkey, the U.S. won't be able to invade Iraq from the north. With just a southern invasion, it would be difficult to minimize U.S. losses as well as civilian deaths.

The U.S. already has addressed most of Turkey's concerns. To offset the damages to the Turkish economy resulting from a war, it has promised a major aid package. To allay apprehensions about a power vacuum or a Kurdish state in northern Iraq, it has granted the Turkish military the right to send troops into the area, which incidentally also helps the U.S. because it would not have to allocate troops to police the area.

But the administration forgot one thing: Turkish public opinion.

More than 90% of Turks are against a war, though not because they have any love for Saddam Hussein or because the war will kill many innocent Iraqis. Instead, their opposition is rooted in pragmatism: The last time the U.S. waged war against Iraq, it spelled disaster for Turkey. Trade with the Middle East imploded. Tourism collapsed. Half a million refugees entered Turkey. The terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, based itself in the chaos in northern Iraq and scaled up a war against Turkey that killed 35,000 people.

Many Turks feel the same might happen again. Simply put, this war can't bring Turkey much good, though it can hurt the country very badly. And knowing this, many in the Turkish parliament just could not muster the courage to vote for a war.

There is, however, a community of Turkmens in Iraq, closely related to the Turks; they speak a language as close to Turkish as British English is to American. The 2 million Turkmens (among an Iraqi population of 24 million) live mainly in northern Iraq around the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. They have been equally maltreated by Arabs and Kurds over the last 50 years and failed to win representation in the exile group planning to govern Iraq after Hussein's removal.

Turkmens aspire to a representation in the next government commensurate with their population. They want the same rights as the other peoples of Iraq, hardly something contrary to Washington's interests as an honest broker in post-Hussein Iraq.

So what? Well, if the administration -- preferably through a high-ranking official such as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell -- stated that the U.S. would support equal rights for the Iraqi Turkmens, large numbers of Turks could suddenly feel that there is something good coming out of this war. Their ethnic kin in Iraq would, for the first time, be given rights.

This has been hinted at by lower-ranking officials, including U.S. Ambassador to Turkey W. Robert Pearson. But if the secretary of State said so, it would give the reluctant Turkish politicians a perfect excuse for voting for the war: They would be supporting rights for the Turkmens in Iraq.

Had the administration made this simple statement weeks ago, it would probably have avoided the current mess. But it is not too late -- yet.

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Svante E. Cornell is deputy director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

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