ANKARA, TURKEY -- Seven weeks into the Persian Gulf crisis, Turkey has emerged as a vital link in the Western military buildup around Iraq and the U.N. trade embargo imposed to press President Saddam Hussein to withdraw his forces from Kuwait.
President Turgut Ozal's cooperation with the U.S. military deployment and his government's enforcement of the trade ban despite Iraqi blandishments have shattered Turkey's traditional refusal to get involved in Middle East disputes. In return, Turkish officials said, Ozal is likely to seek an increase in U.S. military aid and compensation for trade losses when he confers with President Bush in Washington on Tuesday.
More broadly, Ozal and his government have portrayed their active role in the concerted Western effort as a reminder of Turkey's strategic importance despite the warming of U.S.-Soviet relations and questions about the future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. "They're glad to be back in the limelight," commented a diplomatic observer.
Turkish officials made it clear that their own security interests also dictated joining the mobilization against Saddam. Turkey shares a mountainous border with northern Iraq in an area where Kurdish rebels have been a long-term problem for both nations.
"I can be quite frank with you. For us, Saddam Hussein's coming out of this unscathed would be very, very bad," a senior Turkish official explained.
The Ankara government early on welcomed 14 U.S. F-111 bombers to Incerlik Air Base near Adana, about 400 miles west of the Iraqi border, an ideal jump-off point for air strikes. The F-111s and four U.S. F-16 fighters that routinely rotate in and out of the base were joined this week by 20 more F-16s from Spain, ostensibly on exercises but likely to remain in the ring of U.S. air power around Iraq, according to a knowledgeable source.
Seeking to make the U.S. warplanes' presence more meaningful, Ozal obtained special parliamentary authorization Sept. 5 for the government to allow Incerlik and other Turkish NATO bases to receive foreign forces and be used for military action against Iraq. The president has told visitors the measure was designed to show Saddam that Turkey, despite its tradition of staying out of Arab quarrels, is clearly part of the Western mobilization against Baghdad.
The parliament also voted authority for the government to station troops abroad. But despite reports that two frigates and several divisions of the 520,000-man Turkish army have been readied for duty in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, Defense Minister Safa Giray said Tuesday that the government has made no decision to join the multinational force there.
Nevertheless, the Turkish army has reinforced deployments along its side of the Iraqi border, raising troop levels in the area to more than 80,000 men backed by tanks and warplanes. As a result, Saddam has been forced to keep nine Iraqi divisions on his northern flank, drawing almost 10 percent of his army away from the southern border with Kuwait and nullifying most of the manpower advantage obtained by his recent peace accord with Iran.
Turkey's most visible contribution to the U.N. economic embargo was shutting down two pipelines that carried 1.6 million barrels of Iraqi oil across Turkish territory to the Mediterranean. Rusdu Saracoglu, the Turkish Central Bank governor, estimated the decision will cost Ankara $300 million over the next year in lost transit fees and will deprive Iraq of billions of dollars in oil revenue.
In addition, Turkey has cut off $1 billion in annual exports to Iraq and Kuwait as well as construction and trucking contracts worth $400 million a year, Saracoglu said in an interview. Perhaps most important, diplomatic sources observed, the Ankara government has refused to allow use of Turkish territory to violate the embargo despite encouragement from Baghdad described in the Turkish press as "bribery."
Taha Yassin Ramadan, Saddam's first deputy prime minister, met with Ozal here only three days after the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait to try to head off Turkish cooperation with the embargo. But according to Turkish and diplomatic sources, Ozal came away furious because of Ramadan's high-handed attitude and his decision to wear a pistol on his hip during the meeting.
In a second attempt to win over Turkey, Iraqi Oil Minister Issam Chalabi met with Turkish Minister of State Isin Celebi in late August at the Habur border post. A senior Turkish official said Chalabi offered repayment of $750 million owed to Turkey by Baghdad and up to $1.2 billion in free oil, but he was turned down.
"I'm sure there are mule trains going up over the mountains, but in terms of anything significant, we don't see it from here," a diplomat said.
Although Turkish officials expressed understanding that there can be no direct compensation for Turkey's resolve, they said Ankara expects its stand to reflect favorably when Turkish causes come up in Congress or the European Community.
"Okay, now we have given some proof that we are part of the West," said Seyfi Tashan, director of the Foreign Policy Institute, a privately funded think tank.
Ozal already has written a letter to Bush asking for U.S. intervention to plead Turkey's case with the European Community. Ankara has sought increased links to Europe and, ultimately, EC membership. But its membership application was turned down this year and officials were told to expect a decade's delay.
Saracoglu, the Central Bank governor, said the Iraqi crisis has demonstrated that Turkey is likely to become a stronger influence in Middle Eastern affairs. To exercise this influence decisively, he added, Turkey needs to modernize its armed forces, particularly armored divisions equipped largely with Korean-era M48 tanks.
"In the medium term, Turkey will play a stabilizing role in the gulf, and it will play this role better if it has an army equipped with modern weapons," he said. "I think this is the U.S. role."
Turkey, a NATO member, has in recent years received about $500 million a year in U.S. military aid. But despite promises from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the European Community, Saracoglu said, Turkey has yet to receive any compensation for losses in the crisis, expected to reach $5 billion over the next year if the standoff continues.