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Back to School
With Omer Taspinar
Brookings Institution

Friday, March 7, 2003; 10:30 a.m. ET

Should the Turkish government allow the deployment of 62,000 U.S. troops on their soil? How strategically important is the country in the event of a war against Iraq? What is the image of the United States in Turkey today?

Omer Taspinar, visiting fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, was online to discuss Turkey's possible role in a U.S. led war against Iraq and the country's current political climate.

This discussion is part of the washingtonpost.com Brookings Forum on Iraq series.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

San Antonio, Tex.: What is the dynamic that causes Turkey to give up so many advantages by deciding not to cooperate with the U.S. in the war with Iraq?

Omer Taspinar: The easy answer is public opinion. 94 percent of Turks are against a war in Iraq. It was therefore very difficult for the Turkish lawmakers to ignore such a clear signal. Also, in the collective memory of Turks, the First Gulf War in 1991 led major economic, political and military problems. The cost in lost trade, tourism, foreign direct investment was enormous. According to the Turksih Military, the no-fly zone area established in northern Iraq after the 1991 War became a safe haven for Turkey's own Kurdish separatists. The war between the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party)and the Turkish military only ended in 1999 with more then 30,000 deads. All these factors weigh heavily in saying "no" to yet another war in Iraq.
Moreover, the Turkish MPs were very offended by the way the impression that the US was buying off Turkish support emerged. So they wanted to prove that what is at stake is more than money.

San Antonio, Tex.: If Turkey allows basing of U.S. forces, what would be the role of the Turkish military in the war, and what specifically would the Turks want to accomplish by participating in the war?

Omer Taspinar: The Turkish army is primarily concerned about the Kurdish question and the territorial integrity of Iraq. They are also concerned about a potential humanitarian disaster and a major refugee problem as was the case with the Kurds in 1991. Participating in this war, with the United States, would give Turkey some leverage over the post-Saddam scenarios in Iraq. Turkey wants the Turkmen minority in Iraq to be represented in any future central government, and its presence in Iraq as a US ally would help that. Finally staying out of this war would bring severe economic costs to the Turkish economy. Only cooperating with the US would bring much needed financial compensation.

Rockville, Md.: I am not sure I understand why Turkey is opposed to creating a Kurdish state in what is now the Kurdish enclave in Iraq. It seems to me that Turkish Kurds resent their minority status in Turkey. If a stable and democratic Kurdish state were created in Iraq, Turkey's Kurds would presumably be eager to emigrate there. After all, this would be a country where Kurdish language, culture, customs etc are dominant. I understand that Turkey would not want any incursions into Turkey from a Kurdish state but surely that issue could be dealt with through a non-aggression pact of some kind. It seems to me a Kurdish state would go a long way towards eliminating Kurdish resentment towards Turkey that arises at least in part because of statelessness.

Omer Taspinar: Turkey is concerned that a Kurdish state in northern Iraq would fuel Kurdish separatism in Turkey. Turkey wants to find a solution to the Kurdish question in Turkey and in Iraq in the framework of a unitary state. Even the concept of federation becomes problematic in the eyes of the Turkish establishment. On the other hand, the viability of a Kurdish state in Iraq or in Turkey is questionable . Such a state would be surrounded by enemies such as Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. These are all countries opposed to an independent Kurdish state because it would fuel separatism in their own territories. Moreover, a Kurdish state would unavoidably be landlocked and unable to trade freely with such neighbors.

Branson, Mo.: Mr. Taspinar:
Is the question of American troops on Turkish soil about money or political considerations? Are the Turks trying to gain control of the northern Iraqi oil fields?

Omer Taspinar: I would say last week's vote shows that its more about military and political considerations. Turkey is not interested in the oil fields of northern Iraq. The Turkish concern is about the Kurdish factions of N. Iraq trying to invade Kerkuk and Mosul and monopolize the oil revenue of N. Iraq. Such a fait accomplit would be not acceptable to Ankara. This is why the presence of US troops in guarding these two cities is such a major issue for Turkey, that may even lead to a reconsideration of last week's NO to US troops.

Springfield, Mo.: I get the sense the Bush Administration wants the Turks on board to prove that they appeal to Muslims as well as Westerners. But isn't Turkey viewed with some suspicion in the Arab world, as a past colonial overlord and close ally of Israel?

Omer Taspinar: Turkey is indeed perceived by important members of this administration as a model for the Middle East. In their eyes the country represents hard to find attributes such as : Muslim, democratic, secular and pro-Western. Yet, in the eyes of the target audience, as you mention in your question, Turkey's secularism comes at the expense of democracy. So the Arabs not only see in Turkey a former Imperial master that turned its back to Islam but also an imperfect democracy. They cite the Kurdish problem, the influence of the Turkish military in politics as major problems.
Of course, the Turkish reaction to such Arab views is that the Arabs would be very happy when they would have as much democracy as in Turkey.

I believe the new government in Ankara will be crucial as a litmus test for democratic maturity in Turkey. We will see if Turkey can be secular and democratic at the same time. And I hope the Arab world will be watching.

Harrisburg, Pa.: Presumably, most Turkish government officials do not wish to see a Kurdish state established bordering them. Yet, if they refuse to cooperate with American military requests, don't they lose leverage in requesting American assistance in preventing the creation of a Kurdish state? On the other hand, if they agree with American requests, do these officials face reprisals from the Turkish people, most of whom oppose a war with Iraq?

Omer Taspinar: That's exactly the dilemma faced by Ankara. A healthy balance would be to explain to the Turkish public opinion that there is nothing Turkey can do to stop a war in Iraq. And that our national interest dictates a pragmatic yes to US troops.

Istanbul, Turkey: Since Turkey and the U.S. have been allies for years I do believe that Turkey has to support the U.S. regarding their mutual interests. Only what I wonder is whether the U.S. prefers to help establish a Kurdish state in the long run dividing the region although this conflicts with the Turkish interests and threatens Turkey's security against terror which has cost us 30,000 innocent lives in the past.

Omer Taspinar: It is hard to understand why Turkey believes the United States wants to create a Kurdish state in Iraq. Washington knows very well that this is not acceptable for Turkey. The US has much more at stake at not alienating a NATO ally considered as a model country for the Middle East. The Kurds could easily be satisfied in the framework of a federation in Iraq. It would be Turkeys mistake to argue that even a federation is not acceptable in Iraq just because the idea of federation is considered dangerous in Turkey.

Ýstanbul, Turkey: Do you believe Barzani and Talabani when they say they are not really up to establishing a sovereign Kurdish state in North Iraq? Is it likely that those guys accept an administration that keeps them tightly bound to the central government of new Iraq. Or instead will they insist on a loose relation with central Iraq which in the future can be forgotten anyway? How will the U.S. stop a possible interaction between Turkey and Kurdish peshmerges? Thanks.

Omer Taspinar: There is no doubt that Kurds like any other ethnic group on earth would like to one day establish their own state. The question is not whether they want this. It is only normal that they desire to have their own state. The real question is whether they think such a state would be viable. Surrounded by enemies such as Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, I think such a state would be doomed from day one. This is why I believe Barzani and Talabani. They are nationalists, and there is nothing wrong with that. But they are also pragmatic. A federation is therefore a better solution for their dilemma.
The US can stop a confrontation between Turks and Kurds by putting its troops in N. Iraq and handing over the oilfields of the region to Baghdad after the war.

Rockville, Md.: Good morning,

Is it possible that Turkey sees the U.S. motives with suspicion? In 1991 Turkey was practically abandoned by the U.S. and the many promises the U.S. made were not kept; that's the reason the Turks wanted written guarantees that it would not happen this time. This has already happened to Afghanistan and Pakistan, so why would the Turks put 100 percent of their trust in the US this time?

Omer Taspinar: It is indeed true that many Turks see US motives with suspicion, just like the rest of the world public opinion. On the other hand, Turkey also needs US support in so many strategic areas from the European Union, to Cyprus and the IMF. This is why I believe there is now an inclination to reconsider last week's veto to US troops. There seems to be no good solution to this complex situation.

Somewhere: Turkey seems to be getting it from all sides. No EU membership, heavy pressure from the U.S. about bases, economic problems.

Is Turkey's secular government going to be in real danger over the next couple of years?

Omer Taspinar: Only if they manage to handle the economic problems right. They are lucky because there seems to be no other political alternative to them. If the Justice and Development Party manages to avoid (1)confrontation with the military, (2)lower the inflation rate and unemployment (3) pass pro-European Union democratic resolutions, they will easily win the next elections.

Alexandria, Va.: If -- or when -- this war starts, do you think Turkey is likely to re-think its position about offering support to the U.S.? And if it doesn't, should Turkey remain in NATO if it's not willing to shoulder the responsibilities of NATO membership?

Omer Taspinar: Turkey will have to rethink its position vis a vis US military presence sooner. The beginning of war would be too late. But no matter what Ankara decides at the end, the US would want still want to have good relations with Turkey. The geostrategic and political importance of Turkey as a secular Muslim democracy makes it a pivotal country for US foreign policy. Of course, Turkey will remain in NATO.

London, U.K.: When do you see the U.S. taking action against Iraq?

Omer Taspinar: A Northern front is crucial for a quicker military victory. So I think the US may decide to wait a couple more weeks for two reasons : (1)To convince the Security Council (2) To give Turkey some time to re-vote the resolution allowing 62,000 US troops in Turkey.

Thanks for all the questions.

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