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 Sunday, 12 January, 2003, 10:49 GMT
Analysis: Turkey nervous as war looms
US F-16, Incirlik airbase
Turkish airbases would be vital to any air campaign
In the run-up to a possible war in Iraq, BBC News Online is running a series looking at regional neighbours' opinions. Here, regional analyst James Ker-Lindsay examines Turkey's position.

Turkey is facing up to the fact that it will soon have to make a tough decision about its involvement in a possible war in Iraq.

Ankara would very much like to sit this conflict out.

Much as Turkey may want to avoid war, Ankara is heavily dependent upon US support

On the economic front, the country is coming out of its worst recession since 1945 and a war is likely to cost the government more than $10bn.

The US has offered to help out but the amount being discussed is only between $4bn and $5bn.

Apart from the damage war would do to the important tourist industry, foreign investment would almost certainly be hit and a likely increase in oil prices would damage the country.

Similarly, cross-border trade with Iraq, which has been gradually built up over more than 10 years, will suffer enormously.

Deeper considerations

But opposition to a potential military strike runs deeper than economic considerations.

On the military front, there are fears that if Iraq does have weapons of mass destruction then Saddam Hussein might be tempted to aim them at Turkey, the nearest Nato member.

Kurdish refugees
Millions of Kurds could be displaced in a war
A dossier produced by the British Government suggests that Iraq may still have missiles that could easily reach into Turkey.

Armed with chemical or biological warheads, these weapons could inflict many thousands of casualties.

Then there would be the problem of refugees.

In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, more than half a million Iraqi Kurds fled north into Turkey, placing an enormous strain on the country's resources.

It is unlikely Ankara would be as willing or able to extend such support this time around.

Another major problem confronting Turkey is the question of its Kurdish minority. For 15 years, Ankara fought a brutal war in its south-east provinces to prevent the Kurdish Workers Party from establishing a separate Kurdish state in the region.

Although that conflict has now come to an end, Turkey still remains fearful that the establishment of a Kurdish homeland in Iraq would almost certainly lead to a renewal of Kurdish moves towards separatism.

Support for US

Even the powerful military, which retains a close link with the US, has made its opposition to a war in Iraq widely known.

This has provided one of the few areas of direct agreement between the generals and the new government.

But, much as Turkey may want to avoid the complications of a war, Ankara is heavily dependent upon US support, both direct and indirect.

Turkish special forces soldier
Turkish troops are already operating inside Iraq, according to reports

It is difficult to see how the government could refuse to offer the US the use of military airbases.

At a time when Turkey is still dealing with its disappointment to secure a date for the start of accession talks with the European Union, US ties remain crucial.

But Turkey also knows that it cannot passively offer support and then sit back and watch events unfold.

Fears that a conflict could be used by the main Iraqi Kurdish opposition parties to forge a Kurdish state will almost certainly lead to a Turkish military incursion in northern Iraq.

According to reports, there are already more than 5,000 Turkish troops in northern Iraq, and that Turkey is steadily building up its forces in the region.

This raises the prospect of Turkey being pulled into a longer-term war in the region.

Secession threat

A few months ago the leader of one of the main Iraqi Kurdish parties threatened that Turkey would face severe and bloody consequences if it did try to prevent the Iraqi Kurds from seceding.

Such threats would be unlikely to deter Turkey. In fact, they might only serve to increase Turkey's feeling that intervention is needed.

Turkey does not want to run the risk of being seen as an imperial power in the region

Both Iran and Syria would view any Turkish invasion of northern Iraq with suspicion, and Turkey could well find itself bearing heavy criticism from Arab and Muslim states that would see Turkey as little more than a tool of US policy.

Even worse, many in the region will see any intervention as a crude attempt to secure control of the oil fields of Northern Iraq.

Such a perception will almost certainly lead to accusations that Turkey is attempting to reconstruct the Ottoman Empire.

It was with this in mind that Abdullah Gul, the Turkish prime minister, recently visited a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Syria, Egypt and Jordan, to sound out regional attitudes to a potential war.

Turkey does not want to run the risk of being seen as an imperial power in the region.

Beyond the region, Ankara is also all too aware that such an impression would also raise European Union fears about the consequences of accepting Turkey for membership in the future.

James Ker-Lindsay is an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute and executive director of Civilitas Research based in Cyprus.

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