Turkey: Key Player in War on Terrorism

Following Sunday's reports that the U.S. might not be allowed to launch strikes from Saudi Arabia, Turkey will likely be asked to become a more critical partner and a pivotal player in the war on terrorism.

The only country with borders in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, Turkey has long been a valuable ally. But diplomats and officials say a variety of factors now make it the perfect foundation for U.S. support in the Muslim world, and a potential base of military operations.

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Less optimistic Turks note that several factors prevent them from playing a prominent role in the coalition. The economy is in crisis, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's government is judged by many to be weak and passive, and powerful Islamic groups have warned against becoming too involved.

Nonetheless, Turkey is the only Muslim member of NATO — a source of considerable pride here. Turkey also has the second-largest army in NATO, runs an extensive intelligence operation in the region and operates a wide network of well-kept military bases.

Many average Turks want to help the U.S. effort.

"We know the pain of terrorism, and what they lost," said Orhan, a newspaper vendor in Istanbul’s Taksim Square who was eager to share his opinions with a reporter. "These are fanatics, not Muslims. They must be stopped."

While Turkey has yet to publicly grant the U.S. unlimited use of their air bases, there's no doubt the Bush administration's intensifying interest makes that a possibility.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem last week met in Washington with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. He even chatted a few minutes with Vice President Dick Cheney.

The next day, Turkey's all-powerful National Security Council ruled it would offer the U.S. "every required support" in the fight against terrorism.

Turkey's recent history certainly makes it a natural ally in the anti-terrorism campaign. More than 30,000 have been killed in Turkey's 17-year war with the Kurdistan Workers' Party(known by the initials PKK), and struggles against some 40 other groups continue.

"Turks have experienced the pain of terrorism as much as anyone in the alliance," noted an official in Turkey from a NATO country. "They are eager to demonstrate their resolve."

Turkey also has a unique bilateral relationship with the United States, a fact that became clear in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks. The U.S.-Turkish bond is fueled not only by strong common interests, but by both countries' sometimes prickly relations with Western Europe.

"From issues like human rights to trade to the role of the military in foreign affairs, the Europeans can be even more arrogant with the Turks than they are with the U.S.," said one diplomat.

That opinion is widely shared by average Turks.

"The U.S. was with us in our war against terror while the Europeans invited our enemies for tea. It's time to return the favor," said a shoe salesman in Istanbul's Beyoglu district.

Turkey also serves as a valuable example to the moderate Muslim world of a country that can be both Islamic and pro-Western. The Turks have already used that leverage to build support for the anti-terrorism campaign among the Central Asian republics of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, all of which speak Turkic languages.

Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer last week also called Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak to discuss the crisis. Turkish officials privately admitted, however, they will likely have limited influence on the Arab states, many of whom view their non-Arab religious brethren as too pro-Western and not attentive enough to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But Turkey does have a special relationship with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, whose support for the U.S. effort is also critical. Musharraf lived in Turkey for several years during his youth, speaks fluent Turkish and has a picture of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, hanging in his office.

Still, Turkey's problems should not be overlooked.

Many Turks worry they will become the target of Usama bin Laden's terrorist Al Qaeda network if U.S. attacks are based here. Turkey still struggles against the PKK, and Turks dread a return to more violent times.

The secular government coalition of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit also faces a continued and significant challenge from pro-Islamic groups, some of whom have already warned against Turkey's involvement in the coming campaign.

Religious newspapers have railed against Turkey's expected involvement in the coming crisis, trumpeting headlines like "There's No Will — and No Way." But even the Islamists have been careful in their criticism.

Most religious Turks are far more nationalistic than their Arab and Central Asian counterparts. The concept of the Turkish nation is a very strong one, and at least for now criticism of a war on terrorism could be translated as support for any of Turkey’s 40 terrorist groups.

Turkey's biggest challenge will likely be an economic one. The country is trying desperately to recover from a staggering currency crisis earlier this year that devastated millions of families and thousands of businesses.

Turks also remember the estimated $3 billion they lost as a result of sanctions on Iraq imposed during the Gulf War.

Despite those obstacles, Ecevit said in a television interview on Sunday that Turkey had a long-term commitment to the war on terror. Groups like the Taliban "aim to export its regime" to other Central Asian states, he said, posing a major threat to Turkey.

With Turkey's economic revival betting on a boom in business with countries such as Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, that’s not something Ecevit and the leadership here can allow to happen.