On the road to Ankara
[Editor’s Note: When I post these dispatches from Christopher I will correct any obvious spelling mistakes, but I will not alter the content in any way, nor change the grammar. I will keep my edits to a minimum, and after this I will not be commenting.
ANKARA — After almost 14 hours of traveling, I’ve landed in Ankara, ahead of schedule. It’s been a mad dash to Turkey’s capital, sort of like what the 3rd Infantry Division is trying to do regarding Baghdad, but without the bullets.
Flying into Ankara is a weird experience. From the air, it looks a little like a poorly planned SimCity 3000 creation, with great swaths of undeveloped land, broad freeways and masses of residential areas with identical apartment buildings and similar-looking single-story houses. This
isn’t surprising, really. Like Washington, D.C., it’s pretty much a made up city. When Ataturk chose Ankara as the capital of the newly-born Turkish Republic, the town was a sleepy, dusty village of about 20,000. He chose it because a) it was far away from the old capital of Istanbul and connotations of the old Ottoman Empire, and b) it couldn’t be easily threatened by Western gunboats as Istanbul can be.
Ankara, in late March, is also cold. It’s still winter here, and I thought it would be spring weather. I didn’t pack for this, so I had to buy a new coat today. Luckily the Turkish Lira is weaker than the peso, so a very nice winter coat cost me the equivalent of $30.
My old friend Aykut is here, too, and the reunion has been good if a little bittersweet. Turkey’s tourism business has been bad — non-existent, practically — as shown by the fact that none of my flights have been anywhere near full. He’s a professional tour guide and his wife is a school teacher, two positions that don’t pay that well. Business has been off since last year when the war drums began tuning up, and his household is in dire straits.
We went for coffee at a small cafe in the neighborhood where we met an old friend of his, a journalist I’ll call Mehmet, as I don’t want to reveal his real name. He’s an old hand in Kurdistan, having been there nine or 10 times, and he knows the former Iranian ambassador to Ankara. He’s going to try to get us the process for a visa into Tehran stepped up, which would cut days off our trip into Kurdistan. The alternative is to rely on the good nature of Turkish troops — usually a losing proposition — around Silopi to let us through into Iraq, or go through Syria, which I’ve heard is also problematic but doable with the proper incentives. (Draw your own conclusions.) A trip to Damascus might be required.
Mehmet covers the diplomatic business of Ankara and the United States and Turkey are apparently in negotiations over the role of the Turkish military in northern Iraq. The Turks are trying to hold out for Turkish command, while the Americans are insisting on an allied command structure. How the negotiations go will determine how the Turks enter Iraqi Kurdistan — the hard way or the easy way. If it’s the hard way, with the Turks under their own command, the KDP, based in Kurdish nationalism and no friend of the Turks, will resist with guns and guerilla tactics, spawning a war within a war. If they go in under U.S. command — the Turks will never accept a British commander over their forces; too many bad memories of Gallipoli and the Sykes-Picot Agreement — it will go easier, and the Kurds will likely behave themselves and not make a dash for Kirkuk or Mosul with their respective oil fields.
Turkey’s top military man, Gen. Himli Ozkok, however, said yesterday that the Turks won’t go further into Iraqi Kurdistan without a U.S. presence, which is good news. And BBC is reporting that 1,000 paratroopers of the 173rd are dropping into the region, perhaps as a backup for the PUK’s push against Ansar al-Islam on the Iranian border.
But the region is rife with conspiracy theories. Aykut said that if I went out and asked the people on the street, half would say the United States committed 9/11 so it could go after Iraq. (Interestingly, almost half of Americans — 45 percent — believe Saddam was personally behind 9/11.) Turkey is also rippling with an anti-Bush sentiment. Turks like Americans and sometimes, even America. But more than 90 percent oppose this war and a similar percentage absolutely loathe George W. Bush. Aykut sheepishly admitted he hoped the war would go badly so Bush would lose in 2004. I made him feel bad when I reminded him that many Iraqis and Americans would die if it went too badly.
Mehmet also said that the Turks, Iranians and Syrians were coming to an “understanding” regarding Iraqi Kurdistan. The upshot is that Iran and Syria would get Turkey’s back if it moved on the Kurdish enclave in defiance of America’s wishes. Iran would even send in its own troops, he said, if the Turks invaded unilaterally. I have no idea if this is true, but Stratfor had something on this not too long ago claiming the exact same thing. Either conspiracy theories are contagious or perhaps there’s something to this rumor. Time will tell.
Finally met J., my would-be traveling companion on this adventure. He’s a former marine from the first Gulf War, a photographer and a paramedic. All of which could come in quite handy. Plus, he has cool toys: night vision goggles. He has the open face of a California guy, although he was born in New Jersey. He seems a level-headed chap, and promised he wouldn’t decide to ditch me if the Iraqis carted me away. He’s going to be the liaison with any U.S. forces we come across and will be doing some photography, once I show him how to work the digital camera.
Tomorrow, the Syrians.