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Turkey key to Middle East conflict,
says foreign policy researcher
February 16, 1998

With Arab countries voicing reservations and outright opposition to a U.S.-led strike on Iraq, the United States and Saudi Arabia have warned Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that he alone will be responsible for the consequences if he refuses to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Yet, despite that show of solidarity between the United States and the Saudis, it is uncertain whether the Saudi government will let the U.S. use their bases for logistical purposes during air strikes on Iraq.

"If this proves to be true, the question is will the United States turn to Turkey," says Jeffrey Lefebvre, director of the Middle Eastern Languages and Area Studies Program, and an expert on American foreign policy and international politics in the Middle East.

Since the early 1980s Pentagon contingency planning for U.S. military intervention in the Persian Gulf has centered on Turkey.

"All you have to do is look at a map," says Lefebvre, the recipient of two Malone faculty fellowships, sponsored by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations.

The Incirlik airbase is located in the southern part of Turkey. "It allows the United States to cover targets in the northern part of Iraq and it makes it more difficult for Iraq to defend, because they don't know if the attacks are going to come just from, say, a Turkish base, carriers in the Gulf, or from cruise missiles launched from an American submarine in the Red Sea," he says.

The United States used the Incirlik airbase during the 1991 Gulf War and continued to do so after the fact, to fly aerial surveillance missions to protect Kurdish areas in northern Iraq. So if U.S. troops were to launch a strike against Iraq, would they be able to use Incirlik once again.

Not necessarily, Lefebvre says. "The Turks find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place," he says.

Given their rejection from the European Union late last year and resolutions passed by neighboring Arab states that the Turks feel were aimed at them, "you have a country that is feeling isolated from their neighbors," says Lefebvre, who is working on a book about the transformation of U.S. security policy in the Gulf after World War II. "They may feel the United States is the only country they can rely on."

But if called on to provide the U.S. with logistic support, the Turks must ask themselves if it is wise to further isolate themselves politically in the region, he says.

"If they were to decide it would be in their best interest to improve relations with their Arab neighbors, particularly to the south, then they should not allow the U.S. to use Incirlik," Lefebvre says.

However, if the Turks were to prohibit the United States from using their airbase, the Clinton administration possesses a number of levers it could employ to bring them into line, he says.

One is a promise made by President Clinton to Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz this past December, to help Turkey in its efforts to become fully integrated in the European Union.

Lefebvre says the Turks he spoke to on a 17-day trip to Turkey in January would like to see the crisis resolved diplomatically.

Given the host of political problems the Turkish government must sort through, this is not the time to force Turkey to prove itself to the United States, he adds.

"A heavy-handed U.S. approach will only breed resentment and may even lead the Turkish government to declare its opposition to U.S. policy in the region," he says.

Luis Mocete.