Watch CBSN Live

Partial Turkish OK: Too Little, Too Late

In his latest Diplomatic Dispatch, CBS News State Department Reporter Charles Wolfson says Turkey's approval of the U.S. using its airspace in the war on Iraq may be too little, too late.

It wasn't until well after the bombing of Baghdad had begun that the new Turkish government finally gave the OK for the American military to use Turkish airspace for overflights. The decision will be helpful to the war effort but it may turn out to be a case of too little, too late.

U.S. military planners are now able to move men and equipment into Northern Iraq by flying over Turkey, and strike aircraft and cruise missiles can use the same air corridors to hit their targets. This will be important in taking the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul and the Iraqi oil fields nearby. But Turkey's decision came too late for the U.S. to launch the war plan it preferred: a coordinated strike, crossing into Iraq from the North and the South at the same time in the drive towards Baghdad.

Publicly, senior Bush administration officials are pleased some agreement for cooperation was finally reached but are expressing what one called "disappointment" with the new government in Ankara; privately many are furious with Turkey's unwillingness to lend more support and lend it sooner.

Why has it been so difficult to gain Turkey's cooperation? First, there is a new and somewhat inexperienced government now in control in Ankara. Its strategy was to head off a military confrontation because there is virtually unanimous opposition to America's war against Iraq among the Turkish public. Thus, weeks ago, Turkey's political leaders visited others in the region and then called a meeting of regional officials in Ankara, the aim of which was to convince Saddam Hussein to cooperate with U.N. inspectors, thus avoiding war. Obviously, that wasn't successful.

From their point of view, Turkish leaders had good reason to work for a peaceful outcome. The 1991 Gulf War hurt Turkey's economy badly, they had to deal with thousands of refugees fleeing Iraq and the U.S. did not keep all its promises of aid.

This time, in exchange for allowing American troops to use Turkish territory for temporary bases as a jumping off point into Iraq, Turkish leaders were determined to get Washington's assurances in writing for both a large economic aid package and for nailing down what was required in terms of supporting the military effort. Turkey also wanted Washington to agree to let Turkey send some of its own troops into Northern Iraq, ostensibly to prevent Kurdish refugees from again crossing into Turkey. Washington refused to accept this as a helpful idea.

All this took a lot of time to negotiate. When a deal was finally done with the ruling political leaders several weeks ago, the Turkish parliament rejected the deal -- which called for $6 billion dollars in aid -- by a narrow margin.

Overhanging all the discussions between Washington and Ankara was a question Turkish politicians (along with many others, for that matter) kept asking the Bush administration: why should we publicly declare our support for a war which you have not yet publicly said you are definitely going to wage? They didn't want to risk political exposure at home before President Bush did the same.

"Politically, they blew it," said one administration official. "They kept drawing out the negotiations. Maybe they didn't understand there was no Plan B (to get U.S. troops into Northern Iraq) or maybe they didn't understand the administration's seriousness." As time ran out and the military operation began without them, Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, gave Secretary Powell the overflights OK by telephone, the last of three conversations in two days, according to a senior State department official.

Bush administration officials are upset and lawmakers on Capital Hill cannot be expected to rubber-stamp future requests for aid packages for Turkey. The best Ankara can hope for now is that U.S. and British troops are able to take Kirkuk, Mosul and the northern oil fields without too much difficulty.

And, if they really want to help their cause, Turkey's leaders -- military and political-- should heed the advice of a senior administration official who was asked about Turkey's ongoing interest in sending troops into Iraq: "It would be a big mistake if they do," the official said.

When the smoke clears from all this, it's very likely to turn out to be lose, lose for Turkey. Which is too bad for a country counted on as a NATO ally and a friend.

By Charles Wolfson