- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

Just a month or so ago, Turkey and Saudi Arabia's relations with the United States and roles in the Middle East were as different as night and day. Turkey, a member of NATO, had managed to forge a close strategic partnership with the U.S. military dating back more than a decade. By contrast, the U.S.-Saudi relationship had been in decline for years. The fact that 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were Saudis and evidence that Saudi money funded a large portion of the network of madrassas throughout the United States and the Mideast that supported Osama bin Laden damaged ties with Washington. So, too, did revelations that Saudi Arabia was funding terrorist groups like Hamas. But, since the beginning of March, the Saudis have shown a willingness to quietly cooperate with the U.S. war effort in Iraq, while Turkey has repeatedly disappointed the United States when it came to supporting the military campaign.
Initially, it seemed only a matter of time before Turkey, the region's only democratic majority-Muslim state, agreed to permit U.S. forces to use its territory and airspace in a military campaign in Iraq. Turkey's incoming prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who took office just a few weeks ago had expressed support for granting U.S. planes the right to overfly his country in support of the military campaign in Iraq. Aside from Israel, Turkey was arguably Washington's closest ally in the region. Then, on March 1, the Turkish parliament narrowly rejected an American proposal to provide Turkey with a $15 billion aid package in exchange for overflights and the right to deploy 62,000 U.S. troops for the Iraq campaign on Turkish territory. The U.S. Army's Fourth Division had planned to send approximately 21,000 soldiers into northern Iraq in an effort to open a second front against Saddam Hussein. But, with Turkey unwilling to host U.S. troops, the U.S. military was forced to send the Fourth Division in from the south and jettison efforts to send in a large fighting force from the north. The one positive development was Turkey's announcement on Wednesday that it would not send more troops into northern Iraq thereby avoiding a major confrontation with Kurdish resistance forces that Washington wants fighting against Saddam Hussein.
The Saudis, by contrast, have quietly permitted thousands of U.S. troops to enter Iraq from their territory. The Associated Press reported last week, for example, that "thousands of U.S. troops have poured into the town of Araar, 60 kilometers (40 miles) south of the Iraqi border, and the garrison town of Tabuk, 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of the Jordanian border." In addition, U.S. forces have increased their presence at Prince Sultan air base, which U.S. and British forces have used to fly reconnaissance flights over Iraq for the past decade.
Saudi Arabia's ambiguous behavior may be the result of political calculations in a decades-old game of seeking to mollify the Wahhabis (one of Islam's most violent, reactionary sects and the dominant one in Saudi Arabia) while simultaneously maintaining a relationship with the United States. In Turkey, by contrast, the current political problem would seem to be caused by the political amateurishness of Mr. Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, which has only been in office since November. (This problem may have been compounded by some initial heavyhandedness on the part of U.S. diplomacy.) U.S. military planners and policy-makers will need to take nothing for granted in these evolving relationships.

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