TURKEY'S DECISION to side with the United States and the West against Iraq has won unqualified praise abroad, but the country's rediscovered role in world affairs has also raised a number of uncomfortable questions -- both internal and external. Chief among these questions, perhaps, is the price of this support.
The Turkish government's initial estimates put the cost at over $3 billion dollars in lost trade with Iraq as well as transit fees accruing from the tanker trade and the twin pipelines from Iraq's Kirkuk oil fields and Turkish terminals on the eastern Mediterranean.
World Bank officials in Ankara suggest that these figures are slightly exaggerated, a sort of opening salvo to draw attention to Turkey's plight. But the rude truth remains that losses are losses, and that they will be high -- over a billion dollars on the current-accounts deficit from the rising price of oil alone.
Some compensation has been offered. The Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, as well the European Community, have promised unspecified amounts of aid as a means to deflect the economic blow to Turkey. For openers, Turkey will benefit more from the Southern Region Amendment, which allows for the transfer of slightly outmoded U.S. weaponry to some NATO member countries, rather than simply junking it. Although such a transfer of hardware has been on the table for some time, State Department officials in Ankara and Washington confirm that new impetus has been given to the SRA assistance program to Turkey in light of recent events. What Turkey itself wants, though, is more trade and not aid, according to President Turgut Ozal.
"Certain restrictions such as in the area of textiles might be lifted in North America, the EC and Japan," Ozal told me last month. "This way, Turkey will be more integrated in the Western world and it will make it easier for us to pass this difficult period."
Greater sales of Turkish T-shirts, bed-sheets and ready-wear may make textile industry folks in Istanbul happy, but there are bigger prizes to be had.
The first is that Turkey, the forgotten NATO partner in the heady days of glasnost and the lessening Soviet threat, has reemerged as a key country in terms of global security -- to the point of being the preeminent candidate for a new "policeman" of the Middle East.
That new, putative role is not without delights and dangers, as witnessed by America's last proxy flatfoot in the region, the late shah of Iran. During his tenure as the regional counterbalance for Iraq's pretensions of leadership in the Gulf, the shah enjoyed unprecedented support from the United States. But the internal dynamics of his high profile led to his ouster and the establishment of Khomeini's Islamic Republic -- and all the virulent anti-westernism associated with the concept of "Iran" today.
It is exceedingly doubtful that the internal dynamics of Turkey could lead to such an outcome. Although Islam is to be reckoned with as a social force, its role in Turkish society is fundamentally different from that enjoyed by the imams and mullahs of any other Muslim country. On a visceral level, the Turks have had an aversion to being associated with the Arabs -- and thus Islam as an Arab religion -- since the days of World War I when the Arabs sided with the British against the Ottoman Turks. This "stab in the back" by fellow Muslims greatly assisted Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in declaring that the secular Republic of Turkey would be oriented toward the West and not the East.
Secondly, Turkey is a democracy and not an "imperial monarchy" as styled by the shah. Despite a somewhat patchy record in the way of human rights and three military coups since the foundation of the republic, pluralism thrives. Opposition parties have already taken issue with Ozal's stance, accusing him of despotism and adventurism in going along with the Western boycott with such enthusiasm. They have raised their voices in protest over Turkey's more active stance -- most recently, the president's request to parliament for the discretionary authority to send troops abroad and to allow foreign troops to be stationed in Turkey.
"There is only one reason Ozal is doing this," said a seasoned political observer in Ankara, "A deal has been cut with Washington."
Just what the deal might be allows for much speculation, which no doubt will continue next week when Ozal is scheduled to meet with President Bush. But throughout Turkey there is a growing sense that the nation's "reward" for timely solidarity with the West will be permission to swallow up the oil-rich Kurdish province of Mosul in northern Iraq.
"This crisis will end, and Saddam will not be around anymore," said a very high government official close to Ozal's thinking. "Then the next crisis in the Middle East will begin, possibly with the redrawing of maps. Turkey intends to sit at that table as a full partner."
Turkish claims to the region are as good as Iraq's to Kuwait -- historically documented but tenuous and, according to all codes of international behavior, totally unacceptable. But there is the unacceptable and the unthinkable -- and the creation of an independent state of Kurdistan is just that for the Turks.
"A separate, independent Kurdistan is simply not on," said the government source, "We cannot accept that eventuality." He noted that it would be easier to see Iraqi Kurdish leader Mesut Barzani as a member of the Turkish parliament than as the head of an independent state.
Officials in the Turkish Foreign Ministry stress the inherent dangers of such an adventurist program. They note that the invasion by the Turkish army in Cyprus in 1974, mounted to protect the Turkish minority there and prevent the island's "Anschluss" with Greece, made Turkey an international pariah for years. Anschluss between Turkey and oil-rich Mosul, these sources point out, would forever scratch Turkey's pretensions to membership in the European Community -- if indeed any chance of revitalizing the stalled application for full membership still exists.
"No one is fooling themselves that our position in the Gulf crisis has heightened our possiblities for a quick or even eventual entry into the EC," said Ambassador Riza Turmen, the director general for multilateral affairs at the Turkish Foreign Ministry, "but it has at least temporarily halted the gradual unraveling of Turco-EC ties over the past year."
But while professionals like Turmen resist the idea of absorbing Mosul on any terms, others -- especially people in the street -- are calling out in an increasingly loud voice that Turkey must somehow be rewarded for her solidarity with the West against Saddam. The EC's very indifference to Turkey is somehow liberating: Ankara has nothing to lose from taking a share of a disintegrating Iraq, and everything to gain -- at the very least, oil independence, and possibly status as a minor exporter.
"Mosul is ours," said an Ankara taxi driver, reflecting the view held by such instant sources. "Damn, it will give us a chance to try out new weapons."
One obvious complication in this scenario is the fact that in addition to being oil-rich, Mosul province is also filled with militant Kurds. But far from being a negative factor, the idea of taking control of the area would give the Turkish military the opportunity to crush the PKK, or Kurdish Workers' Party. The Marxist group, with headquarters in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, operates from bases in northern Iraq and has been responsible for over 3,000 civilian and soldier deaths in Turkey over the past five years. No matter how friendly Kurdish leaders like Jalal Talabani and Mesut Barzani may try to be as the head of putative state of Kurdistan, Turkish military men know that by definition any independent state would become an even bigger safe-haven for Kurdish guerrillas operating across Turkey's southeastern border.
Then there is the ill-understood Kurdish factor within Turkey itself. Despite periodic -- and very real -- stories of Turkish suppression of a separate, Kurdish identity, the fact remains that of all the countries where the world's 30 million Kurds reside, Turkey is heads and shoulders above the rest in terms of offering a modern identity. That this identity is cloaked in terms of being a "Turk" may seem strange or offensive to many outsiders (and Kurdish nationalists), but the fact remains that most ethnic Kurds in Turkey are fully assimilated into the world's one, Muslim, secular democracy.
"Turkey could be a beacon of modern Kurdishness if she wanted," said an ethnic Kurdish member of parliament, in reference to a possible annexation of the Mosul region. "Issues like local autonomy would have to be considered, and much more leeway given to such things as Kurdish-language radio and the press, but steps have already been taken in those directions over the past decade. And given a real democratic choice, there is no question that most Kurds in Iraq would prefer participation in a pluralistic country like Turkey than to belong to the expanded, traditional one-man rule of clan life that now pertains."
Thus, coupled with an oil bill that could devastate the economic gains made over the past 10 years, and given the prospect of co-opting Kurdishness in one fell swoop, the absorption of Mosul may create the sort of temptation -- or compulsion -- too attractive to resist.
If the boundaries of Saddam's Iraq survive the showdown with the United States -- and few think that it can -- this is a moot point. But failing that, the world can watch out for a bigger, more important Turkey.
That is the Turkey that President Ozal wants.
Thomas Goltz, recently stationed in Turkey, frequently writes for The Washington Post.