- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 16 (UPI) — This could have been Turkey's proudest moment. The stars and planets had come together to present Turkey with a golden opportunity to resolve its financial, its geopolitical and its great regional problems, all in the same brief moment of time.

By now, the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division could be rolling through the wild country south of lake Van to the Iraqi border, ready to roll down and force Saddam Hussein's wretched forces to divide and meet a second front. Cruise missiles and U.S. warplanes and an aerial conveyor belt of cargo aircraft and combat helicopters could be streaming through friendly Turkish airspace.

Turkey's proud tradition of 50 years of NATO loyalty would have been upheld, and the country would have maintained a special place in America's friendships. Moreover, some $28 billion in cash and credits would have been on their way into the empty Turkish treasury, providing the financial cushion that the new government sorely needs.

At the same time, Greek and Turkish Cypriots could be getting ready to vote in a referendum on the United Nations peace plan that could finally have ended their island's 29 years of partition. Rauf Denktash, the obdurate Turkish Cypriot leader, rejected the plan and refused to let his people vote (and all the signs that they would have voted Yes).

With the U.S. and European Union and the U.N. all urging a deal, Denktash could probably not have resisted the further pressure that could have put upon him to settle by the Turkish government and Turkish military. The Turks applied such pressure in December, but since then, distracted by the crisis over Iraq, they failed to do very much at all. And the wily old Denktash knows very well when his Turkish patrons — the only ones who recognize his tinpot self-proclaimed statelet — are seriously telling him it is time to deal.

The Turkish Cypriots are not the only ones who will suffer from the Denktash decision, and from Turkey's indecision. In fact, young Turkish Cypriots will start leaving the country for Istanbul, to get by roundabout routes to the Greek Cypriot half of the island, where they can apply for Republic of Cyprus passports that will qualify them to live and work anywhere in the EU.

But Turkey's own hopes of joining the EU have been significantly harmed. The EU does not want to take in only half an island, with a Berlin Wall-style border running through downtown Nicosia that is guarded by Turkish troops. In Europe, Turkey is blamed for failing to deliver Denktash. An EU spokesman noted last week that the legal situation was that Turkey could now be seen as occupying a piece of EU territory with its troops.

And the new Turkish prime minister, Recev Tayyip Erdogan, can forget about any lingering Franco-German gratitude for his country's part in hampering the American war machine. That was plain last week, when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish separatist leader who launched a guerilla war that cost 30,000 lives, had not received a fair trial, and should be tried again. Turkey, which had commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment as a way of mollifying EU concerns about its human rights record, was furious all over again.

All this means that Turkey's bid to join the EU's prosperity club, always an uphill struggle given EU concerns about taking in a poor and Islamic state that will soon have the EU's largest population, looks increasingly forlorn. To have simultaneously offended the United States and the Europeans and thrown away a much needed $28 billion, mist be some kind of record for incompetent statesmanship.

And it could get worse. There are ominous signs that the Turkish military is gearing up to complicate the war on Iraq even further with a military incursion of its own into the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq. Vast convoys of military trucks have been rolling to the border, and the Kurds fear the Turkish generals are planning to wipe out the remnants of the PKK Kurdish guerillas, and to prevent Iraqi Kurdistan becoming the nucleus of an independent Kurdish state — and thus a dangerous magnet for Turkey's own Kurds.

Barhim Salih, prime minister of the Kurdish enclave in Northern Iraq, in Washington Friday urged the Bush administration to ensure that the Turks stayed out, warning "it will create havoc." Other Kurdish leaders are vowing to fight the Turks if they cross the border — and the Turkish parliament's own decision precluded the presence in the region of U.S. troops that could have controlled the potential for Turk-Kurd clashes.

So far, the new Turkish government has done almost everything possible against their own national self-interest. If their army takes advantage of the Iraq war to invade the Kurds, it will be a march of self-destructive folly. It may not be too late. Premier Erdogan has called a special session of parliament Sunday that may - or may not - finally give the U.S. permission to send both its troops and warplanes across Turkish territory. The prospects look slim. The tragedy is that Turkey's prospects could all have been so different and so hopeful.

(Walker's World — an in-depth look at the people and events shaping global geopolitics — is published every Sunday and Wednesday.)

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