Turkish military vital in Syria planning

Turkish soldiers stand guard at the border gate Cilvegozu in Reyhanly near Hatay province, July 21, 2012.

(AP) ISTANBUL — In 2003, Turkey barred U.S. forces from opening a northern front in the war against Iraq in a stunning rebuff to Washington that raised questions about whether the politically powerful Turkish military had undercut a civilian-led initiative to help the Americans. As Turkey and its allies mull possible intervention in Syria, the Turkish military, broken as a political force, is likely to move in step with the civilian commanders it once viewed with disdain.

Questions about the military of NATO member Turkey are critical to international debate about how to handle Syria, now locked in civil war, because any move by an allied coalition to impose a no-fly zone or a buffer zone to protect displaced Syrians from attack by regime forces would rely heavily on troops in Turkey, which shares a long border with Syria. Such intervention with a U.N. mandate does not appear imminent, but Turkey, which hosts about 80,000 Syrian refugees, says it is approaching the limit of its capacity to provide shelter on its side of the border.

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Turkey is also concerned that Kurdish militants are taking advantage of the chaos in Syria to organize there, deepening a threat to national security for Turkish officials who blamed a deadly bombing near the Syrian border on Aug. 20 on the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. In such a fragile context, the Turkish government and the military, which once sparred openly over the direction of the country, need each other and have forged a means of cohabitation — with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the boss — amid the traditional mistrust.

"What's really exited the scene in terms of civilian-military relations is that sense of hostility," said Soner Cagaptay, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "That's really new."

He said the two sides listen to each other in a way that they did not before, and speculated that the military could be "putting mild breaks" on the government in terms of what may be militarily feasible if the moment for intervention comes. Turkey's decision to open its borders to refugees, while lauded on humanitarian grounds, has drawn some criticism from some opposition figures who say authorities can no longer thoroughly monitor whether militants are operating in the area.

Hundreds of active and retired military officers are in jail on charges of plotting to overthrow the democratically elected government, which is led by pious Muslims suspected by opponents of seeking to dilute secular ideals imposed by Turkey's national founder, former army officer Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The arrests raised concerns about morale in the mostly conscript force as well as its effectiveness as a fighting force, but the new military commander, Gen. Necdet Ozel, is regarded as a cooperative professional untainted by alleged links to military coups over the decades.

The relationship was tense in 2003, when Turkey's parliament rejected a resolution that would have allowed American forces to invade Iraq from Turkish land in the campaign against dictator Saddam Hussein. Newly elected Erdogan had backed the resolution despite its unpopularity, while the military — still a big factor in Turkish politics — did not robustly support it, a factor that some analysts cited as contributing to its failure.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was in Istanbul earlier this month as part of efforts to coordinate Syria policy with Turkey, which supports the Syrian opposition and acts as a conduit for supplies to anti-Assad groups. Senior diplomatic, military and intelligence officials from both sides met last week to go over detailed operational plans for "the full range of contingencies," according to the U.S. State Department.