Conflicting statements coming out of Ankara concerning the US military’s possible use of Turkey’s airbases came as yet another episode in Washington’s efforts to increase pressure on Iraq to comply with UN weapons inspectors. On December 3rd, Turkey's Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said during a visit by US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz that Turkey would allow the bases' use – but only if the United Nations approved the use of force.
However, Turkish officials quickly backed away from Yakis’ statement, reflecting the sensitivity of an Iraq strike in one of Washington’s most important regional allies.
Anti-war sentiment in Turkey, like in most of the region, appears to be high. On December 1st, 10 000 people in Istanbul took to the streets to protest against a US-led war in neighbouring Iraq. Shortly after his party’s recent landslide victory in the recent Turkish election, party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would prefer a “peaceful solution” to this mounting threat. Turkish officials have been hesitant to support military action against Iraq or commit the use of Turkish territory or air bases, which analysts say are crucial to any US war effort.
The implications of a war with Iraq could strike a tough chord on many fronts, tough enough, some analysts say, to hit Turkey where it hurts most. Analysts predict the timing and duration of the war will play a role as well as the impact it is likely to have on the Turkish economy.
The most visible impact is expected to affect foreign currency revenues, as tourism is likely to slump while Turkey’s trade with both Iraq and the rest of the world would be affected. Trade with Iraq amounted to $1bn during 2000-2001, accounting for almost 15% of Turkey’s total trade volume, as well as shuttle trade, estimated at around $300-400m.
Turkey’s exports to Iraq totalled $710m in 2001 while imports from Iraq stood at $380m. Coupled with that, is a loss in tourism revenues to consider – a possible $8bn projected in 2003. Analysts point out this all depends on the war’s duration and whether it lasts past the winter season.
As if that were not enough, a war in Iraq would also put pressure on oil prices, in turn, affecting not only Turkey, but the global economy. Some analysts estimate that each one dollar increase in crude oil prices per barrel would raise Turkey’s oil import bill by close to $167m annually and speculate that the extra cost has already risen to $550m for Turkey since US President Bush named the “axis of evil” in January 2002.
Ankara also fears the flood of refugees and a revival of Kurdish separatism that could result from any conflict - which is why Turkey has taken precautions by readying a refugee camp in Northern Iraq, consisting of a multitude of tents and supplies provided by Turkey’s Red Crescent, as a preventive measure.
One toll Turkey is apt to pay is in its relationship with Iraq, recalling a speech given by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz in October 2002, is that Baghdad would consider Turkey a hostile neighbour if the US is permitted to use Turkish air bases for a military strike.
While Ankara vacillated this week as to if it would allow US forces to use airbases in Turkey, an ultimate refusal seems unlikely, since Ankara recognises the leverage Washington maintains in the financial arena with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), not to mention Washington’s billions of dollars in sales of military equipment to Turkey.