ISTANBUL — The sprawling Incirlik Air Base in remote southern Turkey serves as the passageway for 70 percent of the air cargo bound for American troops in Iraq. By land, the Habur Gate — a dust-blown checkpoint — is used to ship construction materials, food, fuel and other non-lethal items from Turkey into Iraq.
As the U.S. prepares to pull out of Iraq, Turkey is likely to play an important role, both as a strategic ally and as a route through which to transfer troops and equipment out of the country.
Turkey has unique advantages over prospective alternative exit points in Kuwait and Jordan. It is less likely than its counterparts to be hostile, and is advantageously located to remove troops and materials north of Baghdad.
“Turkey is going to play a pivotal role in the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq,” said Stephen Flanagan, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
But several issues stand in the way of a smooth Turkey-aided U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, not least some apparent last-minute maneuvering by elements in the Ankara government to force the Obama administration's hand on the sensitive issue of the Armenian genocide.
During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama pledged to officially designate the 1915 killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks as genocide. Many Armenian-Americans, who are descendants of the victims and survivors, have long sought such a declaration.
But as president, Obama is hesitating, fearful of alienating Turkey when U.S. officials badly want its help.
The Turks have warned that an official U.S. statement would imperil Turkey's help not only on Iraq, but other security issues such as Afghanistan, and Iran.
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Meanwhile, the U.S. withdrawal plans proceed. The Iraqi-U.S. security pact, which took effect Jan. 1, calls for American troops to withdraw from Iraq’s cities by June 30 and completely pull out troops by 2012 — a timeline that could speed up if Obama keeps to a campaign promise to have troops out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office.
Perhaps the biggest strategic obstacle is the question of how to move personnel and equipment out of Iraq, according to testimony by a GAO managing director.
Massive bases will have to be dismantled and carried out of the country, making troops vulnerable to insurgent attacks on the open road. There are about 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and six years' worth of materials.
It remains unclear how much gear would be left behind and turned over to the Iraqis.
Turkey and the U.S. have officially begun preliminary talks on the use of Turkish soil for the transfer of American troops, arms and other logistic equipment in Iraq, diplomatic sources said.
"We are ready to discuss any request that may come from the United States and, speaking frankly, we would be pleased to extend our support and help on the issue," Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said at a conference in Istanbul in February.
The relationship between Turkey and the U.S. has not always been so warm. In 2003 Turkey refused to open a northern front against Iraq from its territory, provoking a chill in relations between Ankara and Washington.
Today, however, the military partnership has regained strength and Turkey’s importance extends far beyond logistics. The International Crisis Group maintains that when the U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq, the Kurds will become increasingly dependent on the federal government and neighboring states such as Turkey and Iran.
“The real contribution to the withdrawal would be to help stabilize the north,” said Henri Barkey, chairman of the International Relations Department at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
“As we withdraw, Iraqi Kurds are going to become increasingly nervous," Barkey said. "We need the Turks to engage with the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] and provide them psychological and, to some extent, physical support.”
Tensions have been rising between the KRG (the official ruling body of the predominantly Kurdish region of northern Iraq) and Iraq's central government. The U.S. has long been a close ally of the KRG, and as the U.S. military relinquishes its security role to the Iraq army, unresolved political issues are likely to exacerbate such tensions, complicating American plans to withdraw and leave behind a tenable security situation.
“It’s really the relationship between Ankara and Erbil (a Kurdish city in Iraq) that is most crucial in giving confidence to the KRG that they are not surrounded by enemies in all directions,” Barkey added.
In the past year the relationship between Turkey and the KRG has improved, from mild mutual hostility to co-dependence. The KRG now depends on Turkey economically while Turkey relies on the KRG to fight the militant Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, whose secessionist tendencies have put them in conflict with the Turkish government.
“They have been fighting the PKK for decades and haven’t been able to defeat it. I think they realize its time to look for an alternative approach. Just repeating ‘Bad Kurds, bad Kurds’ is not going to solve the problem,” Barkey said.
The PKK launches attacks on Turkey from its bases in northern Iraq and Turkish forces routinely bomb these areas in response. Iraq, Turkey and the United States have begun to coordinate efforts to fight the PKK.
Turkey’s importance to the U.S. extends more broadly to its role as a regional ally that may help to fill the political vacuum that has the potential to form when the U.S. withdraws. Any withdrawal plan that creates a political vacuum also invites intervention by Iraq’s neighbors to shape the nation’s internal evolution in accordance with their own security considerations. In such a case, Turkey would be an important regional counterweight to the influence of Iran and Syria, with whom lines of communication have been replaced by mistrust.
“I think it’s very much in the U.S.’s interest to have a close consultation with Turkey about what our plans are and how the U.S. and Turkey can work together to help ensure a positive future for Iraq,” Flanagan said.
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