Turkey, US deepen military cooperation
President Obama’s decision to pull out all U.S. troops from Iraq by Dec. 31 never meant Washington would lose interest in that country. To the contrary, with the Iranian shadow over the region, the American interest in this predominantly Shiite country will continue by necessity.
Washington has strong military assets in the Gulf region where it is deepening its strategic cooperation against Iran. Saudi Arabia, of course, looms large there. But any military interest in Iraq, and especially northern Iraq, automatically involves Turkey.
Washington learned this the hard way in March 2003 when the Turkish Parliament refused to allow a U.S. invasion of the region from eastern Turkey. That caused shock waves in Washington but was also instructive for American officials. The message was simple.
It showed Turkey could not be taken for granted anymore by its key ally as it might have been in the past. The fact is that Turkey over the past decade gradually gained the critical strategic and economic mass that enables more independence on foreign policy issues as we see today.
There was also recrimination in Turkey over the refusal to allow the U.S. Marines through in 2003. While most Turks believe Parliament acted honorably, the Turkish military and quite a few senior diplomats felt a strategic mistake had been committed.
They argued, and still do, that the refusal to let the marines though ensured Turkey would have no military foothold in northern Iraq against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK. Former Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Basbuğ continues to make this point, pointing to an organic link between today’s strong PKK presence in northern Iraq, and the decision by Parliament not to allow the marines through.
This debate is for the history books now, but there were lesson for both sides in all this. As we already said, the message for Washington was “don’t take Turkey for granted anymore.” As for Ankara, the message was, “No matter how self-confident you are, you cannot have it all your way so you have to cooperate with your allies on key issues.”
The lessons appear to have been learned. Turkish-U.S. ties are progressing on the basis of more equality than we had in the past. In the meantime Turkey has decided to give its allies critical support, as seen when it said it would host the radar systems for Washington’s missile defense shield against Iran.
The U.S., for its part, seems to realize it has to cooperate more concretely against the PKK, and hence the Obama administration’s decision to lend unmanned Predator drones, not to mention other military assets, to Turkey in the fight against this terrorist group.
The increasing cooperation between Ankara and Washington was also evident in remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the weekend when she was asked by NBC’s David Gregory if the U.S. would still be committed militarily to keep Iran out of Iraq once US troops were pulled out.
“We may not be leaving military bases in Iraq, but we have bases elsewhere. We have support and training assets elsewhere. We have a NATO ally in Turkey,” Clinton responded revealingly.
It is also interesting to note the lenient and understanding position the U.S. is taking on Turkey’s current incursions into northern Iraq against PKK camps. On the surface it may seem there are tensions between Ankara and Washington over issues like Israel and Iran, but the factual evidence points to increased military cooperation.