What happened on March 1, 2003?
The Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum seems to have united Ankara, Baghdad and Tehran against the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Although Turkey and Iran have been cooperating in Syria recently, the three countries do not see eye to eye on various issues, and it is no secret that Turkey has been uncomfortable with the growing Iranian influence in the region – especially in Iraq – over the last decade.
Notwithstanding the spirit of this coalition, there is an ongoing public debate in Turkey in the form of regret at the failure of the March 1, 2003, Resolution regarding U.S. use of Turkish soil for its war against Saddam Hussein. Those with regrets argue that Turkey would have been able to shape the course of developments in northern Iraq to its own advantage had the motion passed in parliament.
Such observers also suggest that Turkish policymakers should now seize the opportunity – after missing it twice before during the first and second Gulf wars – and demand the handover of Mosul and Kirkuk according to the Ankara agreement of 1926.
Leaving aside the inconsistency of simultaneously promoting Iraq’s territorial integrity and harboring imperial designs, perhaps we’d better revisit the debates in the wake of the 2003 war before romanticizing the past.
To begin with, the Turkish public was strongly opposed to the war in Iraq, primarily because it lacked international legitimacy. The U.S. administration under George W. Bush failed to justify its reasons to topple Saddam and the reports presented at the time by United Nations Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix provided little evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. When Bush failed to gain support from the U.N., he relied on a coalition of the willing instead to launch the operation. His erstwhile European allies, Britain’s Tony Blair, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar, each soon paid a high electoral price for their commitment to the United States.
As Turkey’s then-Chief of General Staff Gen. Hilmi Özkök said at the time, “Turkey had to make a decision between bad and worse.” From the start, neither the government nor the military was enthusiastic about Turkey’s involvement in the Iraq War; both were aware that Turkey was not capable of preventing the war on its own, yet they did not want to risk alienating the U.S. either.
To some at the time, the only way to maintain control of the political developments in northern Iraq would be to take part in the U.S.-led military operation.
But looking back, it would be way too hypothetical to say Turkey would have succeeded in determining the course of the war in northern Iraq had it allowed U.S. troops to use Turkish territory to open a northern front. Turkey and the U.S. engaged in tough negotiations to clarify ambiguous terms prior to the signing of the memorandum of understanding. Still, the operation presented risks: The motion would have permitted the deployment of roughly 80,000 U.S. soldiers and 250 U.S. war planes, as well as the use of 13 airports and five seaports. The legal procedure to regulate the presence of foreign soldiers on Turkish territory was not clear at all.
The Pentagon also sought to limit Turkey’s capabilities in the field, proposing that the Turkish army would only be able to fire in northern Iraq in self-defense. Moreover, the U.S. was determined to supply anti-aircraft artillery to the Iraqi Kurds while also avoiding setting a date for the collection of these heavy weapons.
Without question, the U.S. invasion of Iraq produced dire consequences in the Middle East, upending sectarian balances. But if the Turkish parliament had passed the March 1 bill, Turkey would have authorized an attack against a Muslim state and would have shared complicity in the Abu Ghraib scandal and the brutal killings of Sunnis in Talafar and Fallujah.
Both the Gulf War and the Arab Spring showed that there is actually a thin line between following a proactive foreign policy and political adventurism. Reviving historical claims in the absence of solid international backing would only alienate Middle Eastern countries that have always been suspicious of Turkey’s imperial ambitions.
It is a critical time for Turkey to read the changing power dynamics in the region and revamp its strategies to avoid being bypassed. In the meantime, it ought to rely on smart diplomacy and steer clear of unnecessary escalation that could harm the country’s credibility and prestige.