Iraq: No to war in Iraq – Turkey, US imperialism and the popular anti-war mood

The Bush administration suffered a serious blow to its war plans against Iraq after the Turkish parliament rejected, on Saturday 8 March, a draft law allowing the deployment of some 62,000 US troops to Turkish bases. Although the Turkish parliament vote did produce a majority in favour of the war proposal – of 264 to 250 – it fell four votes short of the required majority of deputies present. The decision provoked an angry and bitter response from Washington. It also provoked, in Turkey, a crisis for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), whose leadership had attempted to force through the cynical deal.

No to war in Iraq.

Turkey, US imperialism and the popular anti-war mood

The surprise decision by parliament caused shock waves on the Turkish financial markets, provoking a plummet in the value of the currency, the Lira, and in the stock markets. It sent bond yields soaring.

For the mass of Turkish people, however, the blocking of US war plans is seen as a tremendous victory, an example of real ’people’s power’. To many, Saturday’s vote – which at root reflected the huge opposition to war amongst Turkish people – marked a "break with the politics of the past" (International Herald Tribune, 5 March), which was dominated for decades by the same class of corrupt careerist politicians and the huge influence of the military tops.

Opinion polls have shown consistently that over 90% of Turkish people are opposed to the war. Anti-imperialist sentiments are strong and growing. Given that the AKP was elected last November as a result of an unprecedented rejection of the establishment parties, and has present itself as a ’champion’ of the poor and working people, there is also general disgust that the AKP should have ever put the resolution to parliament in the first place.

The outrage expressed by the Whitehouse at the vote result just goes to show the real attitude of the Bush administration towards the ’democratic process’ they claim they want to introduce into the Middle East. When Turkey dares to thwart imperialist war plans, albeit in the limited form of parliamentary democracy, the superpower immediately demands this is not good enough and so the vote must be taken again until the ’right’ outcome is reached! Colin Powell would have said as much when he telephoned the Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul, last Sunday, to demand a new motion is brought the parliament.

The vote has forced US military planners to desperately undertake "reshaping tactics".

Military’s "reshaping tactics"

So sure had the US administration been of approval that war ships laden with tanks and supplies were waiting, ready to start unloading, off Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. But the Turkish parliament vote now means they have to turn back. The decision also throws into disarray the plans for troop mobilisation, as the 1st and 4th Infantry Division were also were also awaiting deployment from bases in Germany and Texas.

Although the rebuff to US military plans in Ankara will by no means prevent a war, the Washington timetable for an invasion in Iraq has now been thrown into question. The British Independent (4 March) speculated, "America admitted yesterday that the war due to begin as early as next week might have to be put back by at least a month because of Turkey’s refusal to allow US ground troops to deploy there."

The Independent goes on to say, "Though some officials in Washington still cling to the hope that the Ankara parliament…will reconsider its decision, Pentagon planners are considering whether to activate a ’Plan B’ for an invasion."

Troops and equipment may have to be re-routed to the Gulf, which is already the scene for invasion plans. One option for the US military is to bring their forces by air to northern Iraq. This however involves great distances and time and is more risky.

The Independent speculates that any US force sent to bases in eastern Turkey would be "more a holding one than offensive, its size unlikely to exceed 20,000 according to analysts."

The US military hope this would suffice to block Kurds fleeing from the Iraqi army and to secure oilfields around Kirkuk and Mosul. "But the American force would not be enough for a big strike."

Washington is still arguing that the Turkish government puts a modified version of the deal to parliament. The Bush administration hopes that the economic consequences of a failed aid and loans package, plus the expectation of being kept out of the post-Saddam Hussein carve up of Iraq, will be enough to persuade enough deputies to vote yes, a second time around.

AKP in difficult dilemma

AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while expressing "respect" for popular opposition to US war plans, reportedly "told his parliamentary supporters yesterday to reconsider their opposition to the deployment of US troops" (British Financial Times, 5 March 2003)

But Erdogan and the party leadership are in an extremely difficult situation. On the one hand, last Saturday’s vote has put in jeopardy the US war compensation package of a $6bn grant convertible up to $24bn in cheap US-guaranteed loans. Equally important, for the AKP, the vote outcome threatens to cut Turkey out of any real say in a post Saddam Hussein Iraq.

These points will have been driven home hard to the AKP by the US administration, and may convince some AKP deputies to pledge to vote yes a second time. It remains to be seen whether Erdogan decides to submit a new motion to parliament. It has been suggested he may opportunistically wait until he takes over as prime minister after his expected election to parliament this coming weekend in a by-election.

On the other hand, AKP deputies are sensitive to the powerful anti-war mood in society. The AKP election victory swept away the old political establishment last year and there is a widespread feeling that its MPs should represent the ’ordinary people’. No doubt not a few AKP deputies fear the loss of their seats, if the party is seen as being in cohorts with the US.

Winning a huge AKP majority was a surprise for the AKP leaders and not an entirely pleasant one, at that. With a huge majority come huge expectations. Workers and the poor have big expectations in the AKP’s promises to deliver a better life. They also feel the government should take a firm stand against US imperialism’s war drive.

The group around the Erdogan wing of the AKP want to collaborate with the US as much as possible. But Erdogan’s position could also be fatally undermined should he lose a second vote. Even if a yes vote were passed on a second reading the government would be hugely discredited and it would be placed in direct opposition to the mass of Turks. It could even spell the end of the government, despite its large majority.

Whitehouse furious

The Whitehouse is furious that after spending months negotiating with Ankara, hammering out an agreement, the AKP leadership has proved unable to sell the rotten deal to parliament.

Despite enormous domestic opposition to war on Iraq, the Turkish ’moderate Islamic’ government had been quite willing to acquiesce to US demands that the country becomes a front-line state in the war. As an indication of the stage of war plans, Turkey has closed its border with Iraq and stopped all traffic crossing the frontier.

The US was prepared to go a long way in making concessions with Turkey because it was desperate for Turkish bases in order to launch a northern front against Saddam Hussein. As the only Nato member to share a border with Iraq, Turkey is a key strategic ally for the US. Last week, media reports said that the Iraqis have 12 divisions on the front line with Iraqi Kurdistan, amounting to at least 120,000 troops. It is believed that the regime will seek to defend Mosul and Kirkuk. Mosul is a largely Sunni Arab city that has provided many officers for the Iraqi army – one of Saddam Hussein’s power bases.

But the war for ’thirty pieces of silver’ approach of the ruling Justice and Welfare Party received a first serious rebuff on 27 February when the Turkish parliament decided to postpone voting on the extremely controversial deal. With pubic opinion deeply hostile to any US-led war, the ruling party put off the vote.

Last Saturday’s no vote shocked AKP leaders, who had expected their deputies to fall into line. The debate was held in secret but it is reported that tempers were extremely high, and that one deputy even suffered a heart attack. Despite arm-twisting, at least three AKP ministers and around 50 AKP deputies cast against the motion.

The AKP is deeply split over the issue of war. Despite pro-deal ministers spending many hours attempting to persuade the cabinet to support the bill, the Deputy Prime Minister Ertugrul Yalcinbayir openly called for a no vote.

Dissenting deputies, including President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, have argued that the government should wait for a UN resolution authorising the use of force before taking a vote in parliament.

But if they are unsure of a vote outcome, the AKP government and the US administration may try to circumvent the parliament. According to press reports, the US has been unloading military equipment in south-eastern Turkey and moving it by road towards the Iraqi border despite the Turkish parliament vote.

Pressure from the general population against war is the key reason for the vote outcome. Opposition to war is extremely high, running at around 94% according to polls. It is reported that many AKP deputies first tasted the real deep anger of Turkish people opposed to war following a decision on 6 February by parliament to allow US military personnel to begin preparing bases and ports for the use of the US forces.

During last weekend’s crucial parliamentary debate, up to 100,000 anti-war protesters rallied in central Ankara. This was one of the largest demonstrations in the capital city for years. Demonstrators chanted, "We do not want to be soldiers for America". Significantly, it is reported that the protest was mainly made up of trade unionists and Left organisations.

The vote is a big personal blow to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who along with the Prime Minister, Abdullah Gul, was the most enthusiastic supporter of the deal with the US.

A highly risky route

But why did the ’moderate Islamic’ AKP government, elected on landslide only four months ago with promises to represent the interests of working people and the poor, decide to take this highly risky route?

The government is indeed very wary about letting foreign troops on its territory to attack a ’fellow’ Muslim country and understands that such a move is deeply unpopular amongst the Turkish population. However a number of powerful economic, strategic and political factors were also pushing the AKP leaders to go for the ’best’ of poor options, as the leadership saw it.

They believe that a war against Iraq will go ahead, with or without Turkish support. By allowing the US forces access in Turkey will mean that a war against Iraq can take place simultaneously from north and south and that therefore the war would more likely be short and decisive. They hoped this would mean less damage to the Turkish economy and its trade in the region.

If US forces continue to be denied access to Turkish territory, the AKP fear this would mean a longer war. This would push up oil prices, causing enormous damage to the oil importing country. The longer a war continues, the bigger would be the effects on the Turkish tourist industry and also much greater numbers of refugees could spill over from Iraq, destabilising Turkey and putting its chronically sick economy under greater pressure. The ruling class well remembers the half a million refugees that spilled over from Iraq during the first Gulf War.

Supporting the US is seen by the Erdogan wing of the party as the best way to have an influence in a post-Saddam Iraq. The regime is terrified that the fall of Saddam Hussein’s rule could unleash secessionist movements by the oppressed Iraqi Kurds. This would act as a huge spur to the dreams of a homeland by Turkish Kurds.

Plight of the Kurds

Since the 1999 capture of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Turkish Kurdish separatist guerrilla force, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), there has been relative quiet in the east and south East Kurdish areas of Turkey. Ocalan and the PKK leadership have given up demands for an independent Kurdistan and dropped the ’Marxist’ phraseology use previously to win support (and changed the name of the party to the Congress for Freedom and Democracy in Kurdistan).

However continuing poverty and oppression in Kurdish areas has led to a renewal of fighting between Kurdish armed groups and the Turkish army in recent weeks. So, as well as open haggling with the US for more economic aid, the Turkish government wanted the US to allow it to deploy its troops in northern Iraq, to prevent any Kurdish uprising and to block a mass movement of refugees.

This of course is anathema for the Kurds. Kurdish leaders in Iraq told the British Independent newspaper last week that they "now fear they have been sold out." The rotten and corrupt leaders of the Kurds in the semi autonomous zones of north Iraq are belatedly crying out against cynical dealings between the US and the Turkish state. A Kurdish leader, Hoshyar Zebari, asked if "the purpose of the impending US-led war was ’to liberate Iraq or is it to lead to the domination of the Kurdish people, who are 25% of the Iraqi people?" (Independent, 28 February).

Once again, the Kurdish people and their demands for self-determination are being scarified for the interests of Western imperialism and local powers. On three separate occasions over the last three decades, the Kurds have been stabbed in the back by US imperialism.

From living for several years under limited self-rule inside the US and British imposed ’no fly zones’ in Iraq, the Kurds now fear they will come under Turkish oppressive rule. To many it is hardly much more tolerable than rule under the despot Saddam Hussein. After all, the Turkish state has conducted a brutal war against Kurds for decades, killing tens of thousands, causing huge numbers of refugees and raising whole Kurdish villages.

The US administration now faces a dispute between two ’allies’ who "loathe each-other". The Kurds expect that the US will attack the Saddam Hussein regime in Baghdad and the Turkish army will attack them. In response, Hoshyar Zebari has warned that if Turks invade "there would be clashes".

According to the Financial Times, "The Kurdish-dominated enclave is seen by Ankara as a potentially dangerous cauldron of Kurdish nationalism". Ankara also has its eye on the oil rich cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, which are inside northern Iraq.

Kurds fear that even in the absence of a deal between the US and Ankara, the Turkish army could move into northern Iraq once a war begins. The Turkish forces last invaded the region in the mid-1990s, and even though the army later returned, garrisons have been left behind. Furthermore the Turkish government may cite the oppression of the ethnic Turcoman population in Iraq as a pretext to invade.

The US envoy to last week’s Shalahaddin conference of Iraqi opposition groups in northern Iraq chose his words very carefully when discussing the Turkish and Kurdish dispute. A Kurdish official pointed out that according to Khalilzad the Kurds were ’friends’ of the US while the Turkish state was an ’ally’.

So much for Bush and Blair’s ’moral’ mission to free Iraq from tyrannical rule and to bring democracy to the peoples of the region!

These events go to show once again that the impoverished Kurdish people can have no faith in imperialism and the local powers, which will use the Kurds as mere pawns. Nor can the Kurdish people have any trust in the right wing and tribal based Kurdish leaders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) or the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which have controlled northern Iraq since 1991.

These parties have deliberately sown illusions amongst the Kurdish people in the ’good’ offices of US imperialism, who will ’liberate’ Iraq from Saddam Hussein. The PUK and KDP leaderships pathetically appeal to US imperialism to save them from Turkish oppression (the two same powers that hatched a plan at the expense of the Kurds).

These parties are prepared to deal with anyone as long as it shores up their positions. In 1996 the KDP collaborated with Saddam Hussein against the PUK. Then, a year later, the KDP worked with the Turkish army against the PKK.

The Kurdish masses can only rely on their own strength, working hand in hand with the Turkish working class and the working people of Iraq and other neighbouring states, to resist the manoeuvrings of imperialism, to fight for self-determination and to fight the rule of capitalism.

Economy faces disaster

The US is still trying to pressurise the Turkish government to carry through authorisation for US troop movements in Turkey.

As well as dangling a total of $30bn in front of the AKP government, the US has been taking up Turkey’s case in relation to the negotiations over the future of the divided island of Cyprus, and also Turkey’s attempt to join the EU.

In another key field of the economy, Washington has offered to help support Turkey in its protracted negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over a stalled $16 billion loan package, without which it may go bankrupt.

The AKP government, which swept to power on a populist agenda opposing cuts in the public sector, on pensions and on unemployment benefits, as well as pledging to cut taxes, desperately needs the IMF to soften its demands. In return for support for the US attacks on Iraq, the regime would want the superpower to pressurise the Fund to take a more lenient line.

The possible loss of a $24bn US package, intended to ’compensate’ Turkey for the economic fall-out from an Iraq war that seems certain to go ahead, would be a hammer blow for the fragile economy.

Turkey’s public finances are weighed down by a huge debt of around $100bn. In 2001, the economy suffered a 10% contraction in national output, making it the worst recession since 1945.

The AKP government had hoped the US money-for-war deal would cover the country’s financial shortfall this year and also allow it to avoid making painful budget cuts. But following the parliament rejection of the deal, the AKP government has announced $2bn worth of tax hikes and cuts. The highly unpopular fiscal measures were introduced on 3 March as part of a budget approved by the IMF. The government claims the measures are to limit financial markets disappointment over the possible loss of US compensation if there is a war. Turkish workers will see that they are being punished for not agreeing to the dirty deal with US imperialism. As the Turkish daily newspaper, Hurriyet, remarked this week, "They [the AKP government] could not get the money from Bush so they are taking it from the people instead."

As well as this, the delay in the next $1.6bn IMF instalment has added 10% to real interest rates. If continued, that trend could lead to a default in domestic debt servicing, threatening social and political unrest and crisis.

No doubt the AKP leaders will put this unpalatable economic diagnosis to those party deputies that voted last week against the war deal with the US, in an attempt to force a change of heart.

Would this be persuasion enough? A war, short or prolonged, and with or without a deal between the US and Turkey, promises to very painful, even disastrous, for Turkey’s economy. A pro-government business group, the TOBB, estimates a short war in Iraq will cost Turkey a minimum $16 billion over the next year. Tourist income could halve to $5 billion. The possibility of high oil prices, falling trade and rising debt services could cost the country a further $11 billion. This will hit the already impoverished masses, which currently have to live on an average annual income of US $2,090.

The AKP will well remember that twelve years ago, the Turkish people overwhelmingly opposed their country’s involvement in the first Gulf War. The then government of Turgut Ozal ignored the popular will and gave backing and aid to the US. This led to the end of his government and the disastrous economic consequences of the 1991 war pushed the Turkish economy into a tailspin.

A generalised struggle

Only a few months after a famous polling victory, the AKP has run into a serious collision with the working class of Turkey. A US war against Iraq, especially if the Turkish government is seen as openly collaborating on this attack, can provoke widespread opposition. This can spill onto the streets and become a generalised struggle against the imperialist war, the AKP regime and also Turkey’s ongoing economic and social problems. The AKP could divide in a number of directions under this ferocious pressure. However, the governing party, in a desperate bid to keep power, may also rack up anti-Kurdish propaganda and hysteria as war breaks out, hoping to block opposition with an aggressive nationalist appeal.

The Turkish working class has a long record of proud struggle. In recent years, provoked by the economic collapse (in 1999 the exchange rate regime had to be abandoned and the lira was devalued), mass opposition demonstrations took place in Turkish cities and towns. This rocked the establishment. However the trade union tops refused to develop this into a clear workers’ struggle with an independent class programme. In fact the largest protests were organised by ruined small traders and middle class people. Given the inchoate social forces involved, this struggle inevitably petered out. Mass anger and disillusionment with the policies of the neo-liberal government transferred to the political arena. This saw the annihilation of the parties that had ruled for decades and the coming to power of the AKP.

Erdogan’s party however offers no solution to the Turkish working class. Despite its moderate Islamic ideology and attempts to portray itself as ’pro-poor’ the party is in essence no different to the establishment parties it so decisively routed. The AKP leadership is pro-market and pro-western. Like all previous governments, the AKP also pursues a local imperialist policy, in an attempt to increase its dominance, power and influence in the region. This is clearly evident at the present moment in relation to the Kurds.

No to war, imperialism and capitalism

Only a socialist alternative can offer a way out for the Turkish working people. This requires building a mass workers’ party that stands on an independent class programme – fighting against cuts, neo-liberal policies and capitalism. It also must resist populist Islamic ideas, like those of parties like the AKP, which offer false hope for the impoverished masses.

The workers’ movement must also fight the trap of Turkish nationalism, which is likely to be whipped up by the government as a pretext to invade northern Iraq. Some of the main political parties have already made chauvinist noises over the television scenes of Iraqi Kurds burning the Turkish flag at plans, agreed with the US before the failed vote in the Ankara parliament, to send around 40,000 Turkish troops to Kurdistan areas of northern Iraq. There is also a serious danger to the working class from the far right, such as the neo-fascist Grey Wolves – a force that may try to extend its base again on the basis of a chauvinist appeal targeted against the Kurds.

An end to wars and ’emergencies’ in Turkey can only come about through an anti-capitalist struggle that also allows for the right of self-determination of Kurds.

Turkey faces a potentially explosive situation as war looms. In a situation of sharply declining government support, street protests and continuing economic crisis, the powerful Turkish army may be tempted to take action.

The generals have always played a big role in Turkish political life and see their mission as securing a secular, free-market and pro-western state. The army tops enjoy a large slice of the wealth of the country and all the prestige and power that goes with it. They are opposed to the influence of Islamic forces, and in 1997 were behind the removal of the country’s first ’Islamic government’. But the military brass is even more opposed to working class struggles and the spread of socialist ideas.

Since the inception of the modern Turkish state in 1923, there have been four military coups. The bloodiest occurred in 1980-1983, following several years of workers’ struggles. This represented a serious defeat of the workers’ movement – the terrible legacy of which the working people of Turkey still bear.

A serious military intervention or coup is not a likely prospect in the medium term, however. The class balances of forces are on the side of the working class, which makes up a big part of the population of 67 million.

Nevertheless under pressure from the army chiefs there can be attempts to erode the limited democratic, civil and human rights working people have won.

The military is already using its muscle to try to force an acceptance of the US war demands. Under intense pressure from the US administration, the Turkish military head, General Hizmi Oztok, appeared on national television after the 8 March vote. He declared the country had no other option but to allow US troops onto its territory.

In the long run, on the basis of severe social and political crisis, unless the working class builds its own mass parties and fights for a socialist society – free of wars, imperialist influence and economic crisis – the forces of ultra reaction will attempt to once again take power and to destroy all semblances of working class organisations.

Armed with a socialist programme the working class of Turkey can lead society in another direction. Given the key geo-strategic position of Turkey (as a gateway to Europe, Asia and the Middle East), a successful socialist change in society would of course act as an immediate and enormous spur to the struggle to end capitalism all across the region.

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March 2003