Why send troops where they're not welcome?

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The Independent Online

"Come to my shop," shouted the shopkeeper in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar last Saturday. "I cheat less than the others." English football fans may feel differently about Turkey, although anyone who was in the city at the time of the match would have encountered only courtesy and general agreement that the result was fair.

Turkey's problem at the moment is not with the English but the Americans. Pressured into making a commitment of troops to Iraq before this week's UN vote on a new resolution, Ankara is struggling to make sense of a decision it knows to be wrong but cannot avoid.

For, make no mistake about it, Turkish public opinion remains as totally opposed to sending its own troops to Iraq as it was to letting American troops go through Turkey to invade Iraq in the first place. The reason is not just the fear that a post-invasion Iraq will fragment into different parts, opening the way to a Kurdish separatist state that would arouse the Kurds in eastern Turkey. It is that the Iraqi embroilment takes Turkey in the opposite direction its citizens want, away from their dream of European membership and into the dangerous waters of an East-West confrontation.

The fissure that has opened up between Washington and Ankara is nothing short of astonishing to anyone who has become used to the closeness of these two Nato allies in the past. It certainly seems to have taken the US administration by surprise, particularly Donald Rumsfeld, who had seen Turkey as a natural instrument for remaking the Middle East after the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

America's determination to get a major Turkish commitment to Iraqi security owes as much to a desire to restore that past alliance as it does to the occupying powers' urgent need for help on the ground. Getting Turkey on board helps to pre-empt the new UN resolution and to enable Washington to say that it has an Islamic country in agreement. It is also anxious to get Turkey back into the role of its natural ally, this time in the Middle East rather than against Russia.

Which is precisely what most Turks do not want. Opinion polls show anti-Bush sentiment in the country running as high as 90 per cent. The reaction to last week's decision by the Turkish parliament to vote in favour of sending troops was greeted with an excruciating lack of enthusiasm even by papers supporting the government.

So why has parliament, and the governing party, having shocked everybody by its willingness to say no to Washington before the invasion, been ready to vote yes this time? The simple answer is that it feels it has no choice. To refuse the United States once could be described as a moment of madness. To refuse it twice would be like a declaration of war.

Money of course plays a part. Turkey was offered over $10bn in aid and soft loans last time round. There is an unspoken understanding that the money is still there. But the principal reason is once again the Kurdish question. If there is to be a post-war settlement of the country, Turkey feels that it can't afford to turn down an opportunity to participate in the decisions. A force of 10,000 deployed in Iraq would certainly give it a seat at the top table. In addition to which, the US has promised help and direct action to crush the PKK Turkish Kurd separatists operating out of northern Iraq.

That, of course, is why the Kurds in Iraq and the Iraqi Governing Council on which they have some third of the seats don't want to see it happen. The Kurds in Northern Iraq have refused to allow Turkish troops to move through their territory. The council has come out with the strongest objections to the deal, and the Shias have expressed a singular lack enthusiasm for seeing their old imperial masters back in the saddle.

So a country that doesn't want to do it is set to send troops to a country that doesn't want to have them, all at the behest of a US administration that insists on overruling their objections. It's madness. It's even more mad when you consider that, on any dispassionate view, the emergence of a viable democratic Iraq needs the wholehearted commitment of its neighbours. Turkey may be right to suspect that the Iraqi Governing Council's declaration that it doesn't want troops from any of its neighbours is really aimed specifically at it. But there is an obvious truth in the view that what Iraq needs is the commercial and diplomatic backing of Jordan, Turkey, Syria and Iran, not their military engagement.

But so long as the Bush administration holds to an ambition to remake the region through Iraq, its position there will remain fraught. Confrontation, and the demand for regime change in Syria and Iran, is hardly conducive to good neighbourly relations. Nor will the collapse of the road-map make it easy for Jordan or Saudi Arabia - or any Islamic country for that matter - to be seen as agents of US policy.

As a country, Turkey does generally cheat less than others. If anything it is too straightforward in its nationalism. But on this occasion Ankara would be better dissembling and, having voted in principle for sending troops, stretch out the negotiations over implementation to the point where the whole exercise loses force or gets wrapped up in wider international deployments following a new UN resolution.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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