Turks wary of war in back yard


Neighbor: Many support Saddam Hussein's ouster but say the United States must help during the economic and social upheavals that might follow.

March 27, 2002|By Russell Working | Russell Working,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ANKARA, Turkey - At his shop in the ancient citadel of this busy capital city, Satilimish Sutchuoglu and three fellow carpet sellers gather to drink tea and trade forecasts of economic doom, their fortunes linked to decisions made in far-off America.

Tourists, who provide most of the merchants' bread and butter, have been scarce since Sept. 11 in Turkey, a secularly governed Muslim country that straddles Europe and Asia. And if the talk from Washington is to be believed, things could get worse just as tourist season is about to start.

Vice President Dick Cheney visited Turkey - a NATO ally - last week to discuss the possibility of forcing Saddam Hussein from power in neighboring Iraq. Though such a war might free the world of a tyrant, some small-business men here say it would be a debilitating blow to an already tottering economy.

"I haven't lost my hope yet for the tourist industry, but if a war happens, then we'll run into a disaster," Sutchuoglu says. "I would hate to see a war because I know we won't have any business."

Turkey supported the United States from the Cold War to Desert Storm, and it has allowed U.S. jets to patrol no-fly zones in Iraq from Turkish air bases. But talk of a campaign to unseat Hussein has drawn denunciations across the political spectrum in a country that lost billions of dollars in trade with Iraq and slipped into an economic crisis after the Persian Gulf war.

But unless the United States is ready to risk losing the backing it has long enjoyed from Turkey, it might give some thought to winning over its old ally.

There is no love lost between Turkey and Iraq, and Ankara shares America's worries about Hussein's reported attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction. And even as Ankara insists that no attack is yet warranted, officials hint they might grudgingly come around if the United States addresses their economic and political concerns.

"Our export revenue from Iraq was $5 billion annually" before the gulf war, says Sinan Aygun, president of the Ankara Chamber of Commerce. "Multiply that by 12 years, and we have lost about $60 billion. For the sake of being on better terms with the U.S., we ended up being on really bad terms with Iraq. We lost a good neighbor and trading partner."

Progressive for region

Even in hard times, Turkey is a lively, progressive country compared with the lawless former Soviet states to the north or to its impoverished and repressive Middle Eastern neighbors to the south and east. Despite a spotty human rights record, it has an elected government and is proud of grafting a secular constitution onto a country whose population is 97 percent Muslim.

Officials finger prayer beads during interviews while sitting under giant portraits of the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk. Urban streets are lined with Internet cafes, Renault automobile dealerships and Paul & Shark Yachting apparel outlets. Street-side peanut vendors talk passionately about Turkey's hopes to join the European Union, and stylish young women look through the lingerie at Version stores.

Yet Turks fear that despite their Western orientation, their concerns won't be taken seriously if a new war breaks out. During the previous war, Turkey, which imports most of its oil, was cut off from cheap Iraqi oil, contributing to its economic downfall. Only recently did Iraq resume transshipping oil to Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

Privately, many Turkish officials acknowledge they would be better off without Hussein in power - as long as any war is short and clean. Ilnur Chevik, editor of the Turkish Daily News, has urged Turks to stop clinging to hopes that the United States will rule out an attack. In an interview, he said that despite its skittishness, Turkey could benefit from a regime change in Iraq.

"We will have this problem," he says. "As long as Saddam is there, the Americans won't lift sanctions. As long as the Americans won't lift sanctions, we can't have a proper business relationship with Iraq. Is the continuation of the status quo in the interests of Turkey or not? It isn't. But what to do about it?"

If the United States were to attack Iraq, Turkey would try to keep its soldiers out of the fight, officials say, though that might be difficult if Iraq moves troops north toward Turkey. Rather, the nation could lend support by allowing America to launch air and land attacks from its soil.

Opposed to Kurdish state

In return, Turkey would demand that a post-Hussein Iraq remain a single state, says Seyfi Tashan, director of the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute at Bilkent University here. The fear is that it could split into three parts if the nation is divided between the Shiites in the south, the Sunni in the center and the Kurds in the north.

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