Forget Iraq:

All eyes are on Iraq these days, but conventional wisdom holds it’s just the first step of the Bush administration’s larger push to gain hegemony over the international oil and gas industry. Two factors could stand in the way of the US grand plan though: Central Asia and Europe. A microcosm of this battle is quietly being fought now in Turkey, and in many ways the outcome could determine the future of the entire region.

Turkey enjoys a uniquely strategic geographical position, smack at the crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe; more importantly for the Bush administration, Turkey borders Iraq. Speaking in Ankara recently, US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said, “Obviously if we are going to have significant ground forces in the north (of Iraq), this is the country they have to come through. There is no other option.” And it’s clear the US aims for more than simply carrying out air-strikes from Turkish bases, as it did during the 1991 Gulf War. This time, the Pentagon wants to dig in deeper, using Turkey as a staging area for ground attacks into Iraq, and potentially beyond.

Turkey’s central role in an attack on Iraq goes a long way in explaining the massive US military build-up currently taking place in southern Turkey. It also explains the Bush administration’s about-face in dealing with Turkish AK Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan: after being unceremoniously snubbed on his first visit to Washington last year, Erdogan was suddenly given the White House star treatment a few weeks ago, complete with a presidential press conference and exclusive meetings with top government brass, not to mention a pledge for billions more dollars in military and financial aid, and US backing for a new multibillion dollar International Monetary Fund bailout.

Ironically, this flurry of cash-for-cooperation activity from the States coincides with the European Union’s historic first steps to invite Turkey into its fold. At a recent EU summit in Copenhagen, the fifteen EU countries agreed to open membership talks with Turkey in 2005, on the condition that it clean up its human rights and economic acts in the meantime. At that point, Turkey would have to begin the mammoth task of adopting roughly 80,000 pages of EU law, a process that could take at least a decade and transform every aspect of Turkish society in its wake.

But there’s a more urgent change Turkey will have to make. According to EU High Representative, Javier Solana, “If it is to take its place in Europe, Turkey must also play a role in the European defense project.”

And that’s where things get tricky. The Western military industrial complex is basically split in two distinct groups: the Franco-German dominated European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co (EADS), and the US-dominated “Big Six” (including Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, among others). This distinction is important given that the sides tend to compete in important global conflicts (the US pumping weapons into Pakistan while the French arm India, for example). So if the US decides to attack Iraq (let alone additional countries after that) against the wishes of other NATO partners, for example, could the ensuing rift place Turkey literally between Iraq and a hard place?

Another crucial factor is the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) project, a pipeline which would partially run through Turkey, thereby providing Ankara with revenue from millions in annual transit fees. Critical to the Bush administration, BTC would help a handful of US companies seize control over the massive Caspian oil reserves, sidestepping the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) on the way.

Energy analysts say the BTC project is unworkable, and environmentalists warn of potential catastrophic risks. Not surprisingly, Russia, Armenia, and Iran are rattling sabers and pushing for a different route, enraged at the prospect of losing control over Caspian oil to the US. Significantly though, US companies tied to the Bush administration are poised to reap huge profits from BTC (among others, Vice President Cheney’s Halliburton is a finalist for the Turkish segment of BTC, while National Security Advisor Rice’s Chevron has been involved in the BTC consortium).

The quagmire is further exacerbated by matters internal to Turkey. Even though Erdogan’s AK party swept to power in this November’s elections, a past conviction for “inciting religious hatred” forbids him from assuming the role of prime minister. To make matters worse, the Islamist image of Erdogan’s party is at odds with the more secular stance of Turkey’s military (leading to noisy disagreements about matters such as the right for women to wear headscarves in public), a significant conflict given that Turkish generals are an independent lot and have staged three coups since 1960. And then there are opinion polls showing most Turks strongly opposed to helping the US in any attack against Iraq, despite the Bush administration’s financial incentives and friendship offensive.

The trans-Atlantic battle over Turkey came to a head at this month’s EU summit in Copenhagen. Buoyed by Erdogan’s flashy visit to Washington, Turkish representatives at the Copenhagen summit threatened to boycott European products, or even dump the EU and join NAFTA, if they did not receive their preferred date for membership talks. Meanwhile, high-profile US pressure on the EU to create a special fast-track for Turkey may have scored PR points with Ankara, but cut little ice with EU members. European External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten, for example, laughed off the Bush administration move as a cheap stunt, akin to EU members trying to score Latin American bonus points by pressuring the US to make Mexico its 51st state. The upshot was that Erdogan’s attempt to play the States against Europe backfired: Turkey received a 2005 date for conditional membership talks even though it had pushed for one far earlier.

The crucial question now is what path Turkey chooses to take. Erdogan can gain personal status and billions in monetary injections for the Turkish military and government by allowing the US full access to Turkish soil in its attack on Iraq; the danger is that he could anger both the Turkish people and the EU in the process, not to mention see Turkey flooded with refugees, as happened during the first Gulf War. Erdogan can support the Bush administration in its fight to secure the Caspians for US oil interests, thereby earning oil transit income, but also risking environmental devastation and the wrath of neighbors such as Russia and Iran. The other option is to bite the bullet and begin the long-term, painstaking process of bringing Turkey into line with EU standards. The first option is profitable in the short-term, and the second offers societal integration in the long-term. The first option requires war, and the second pursues community-based peace.

But of course, Turkey is in good company – the US has quietly stepped up its military support of Georgia, Azerbaijan and other countries in the region crucial to its desired control over Caspian reserves. One thing is clear: the support these countries give, or don’t give, the Bush administration in its oil-based pursuits/terror war will be critical in determining the stability of Central Asia and beyond.