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1 April 2002

The US twists arms in the Middle East

Dan Plesch reveals that, in return for supporting a new Gulf war, Turkey could get Iraqi oilfields

By Dan Plesch

Many countries have spoken out against the Bush administration’s plans to overthrow Saddam Hussein, but it would be a mistake to suppose that they will in fact cause trouble if the bombs start to fall. Washington has a long record of bringing its allies into line.

Take Turkey. Its prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, continues to oppose publicly the idea of attacking Iraq. But there is every reason to believe that the US has already offered control of Iraq’s northern oilfields to Turkey in return for its support in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is what informed sources in Washington tell me; and it is confirmed by press reports of what Richard Perle, an influential adviser in the Bush administration, said while he was in Ankara with the vice-president, Dick Cheney.

The oil-rich Mosul area has been disputed since the collapse of the Ottoman empire at the end of the First World War. The British drew the maps and invented the states that exist today. Turkey disputed the British decision to give the Mosul province to the new Kingdom of Iraq, but finally accepted it in a treaty signed in 1926.

The issue remained dormant until Iraq, under Saddam, attacked Iran in the mid- 1980s. Weakened by the war, Saddam invited Turkey to crush Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. At this time, a total collapse of the Iraqi state seemed entirely possible and Turkish interest in the oilfields revived, particularly in the Turkish media. Yet when George Bush Snr raised the “Mosul option” in the wake of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the government in Ankara declined the “invitation”. It feared an Arab backlash against redrawing the borders and it was not anxious to acquire more territory populated by Kurds.

In 1995, however, 35,000 Turkish troops attacked the Kurds in northern Iraq, an act ignored by the British and US governments who had made much of their protection of the Kurds from Saddam Hussein. As the Turkish troops withdrew, President Suleyman Demirel said: “The border on those heights is wrong. Actually, that is the boundary of the oil region. Turkey begins where that boundary ends. Geologists drew that line. It is not Turkey’s national border.”

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He retracted these statements after Arab protests. But Turkish interest has continued, and today the Turkish national oil company is drilling new wells in the Khumala field as part of a UN-sanctioned oil-for-food programme. Turning this commercial presence into a guaranteed supply of cheap oil, courtesy of a new puppet regime in Baghdad, may be the carrot that the US is offering Turkey. It would go some way to compensating for the decade-long loss of trade with Iraq that has damaged the Turkish economy.

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But oil is not the only, or even the biggest, lever that the US has over Turkey. It also funds half its IMF and World Bank loans.

As it happens, the US is now less reliant than it was on Turkish airbases, as it is taking over huge former Soviet airbases in Bulgaria and Romania. But Turkey’s army has a reputation for brutal effectiveness, and the US would like to make use of it. Turkish forces are already serving in Kabul, and are set to take on a greater role. Such power-projection fits into the nationalist objectives that Turkey has pursued in the Caucasus and Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

One US option in Iraq – an alternative to the more commonly mentioned options, including an invasion through the Gulf and support for internal uprisings – is to seize one or more airbases in the country and use these to launch commando and larger ground-force raids. Such “in-country” bases are essential for special forces operations, as proved to be the case in Afghanistan – you cannot perform effective missions on day trips. And this is where the Turks come in: their forces could help to secure a main operating base inside Iraq. If, in the process, they crush Kurdish “terrorists”, Washington will not complain.

The real objective of the US in Iraq is to destroy the idea that anyone can fight America and get away with it. For US conservative strategists, this was Bush Snr’s strategic failure in the Gulf war. Once the US has bases in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan, military operations against Iran, next on the list of “axis of evil” countries, become more viable. This approach to the axis of evil may seem too reckless to take seriously, and there is no certainty that the Americans will pursue it, but we should not underestimate the White House’s determination to destroy its enemies.

So what should Britain and Europe do? In the short term, if Europe offered more economic support, Turkey could afford to be more flexible and independent in handling Washington’s demands. In the longer term, Europe should remove its dependency on Gulf oil, which leaves it reliant on the US military’s ability to control supplies.

Wind, solar and fuel-cell technology could provide our energy and transportation needs. If we developed them, we would have freedom of action in the Middle East and be able to form a policy more independent of the US. As we plan for 2010 and 2020, energy independence offers a far more practical and – to use a fashionable phrase – “asymmetric” strategy for reducing the sources of conflict and increasing our power than an attempt to compete with the Pentagon by creating a European army.

Dan Plesch is senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of Sheriff and Outlaws in the Global Village (Menard Press, £5)