Cohen Begins Mideast Trip
He hopes to improve military ties with U.S. allies
By Jamie McIntyre/CNN
ANKARA, Turkey (April 17) -- U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen arrived in Turkey Friday on the first leg of a six-day, five-nation trip aimed at improving military ties with key U.S. allies in the Middle East.
Cohen's first stop is Turkey, a secular Islamic state and a NATO ally, which is interested in U.S. help to modernize its military.
Cohen told reporters en route to Ankara the U.S. would consider requests for arms on a "case-by-case basis."
Turkey plans to spend some $31 billion over the next 10 years on modernization, including $3.5 billion immediately for attack helicopters. Turkey would like to buy three more U.S. frigates for its Navy and would like to produce, under license, U.S. attack helicopters and tanks.
Although Turkey did not support the threat of a U.S.-led strike against Iraq in February, Cohen downplayed the suggestion that Turkey was a "reluctant ally."
"To the contrary, Turkey was very helpful with respect to their support for the United States objective in Iraq," he said. "They share the concern about Saddam, and they were very helpful to us."
Turkey did not grant the United States permission to launch offensive strikes from its base at Incirlik, where U.S. warplanes are based that patrol the northern no-fly zone over Iraq, but U.S. officials say there was never a formal request for such authority.
Cohen called Turkey "a dependable ally."
Cohen also downplayed any concerns about Turkey's domestic politics, in which the military has been playing an increasing role in the day-to-day governing of the country.
"To the extent that there's any internal division in Turkey or any other country, then obviously that is something for the Turkish government to resolve with its military. That's not something we would seek to interfere with," Cohen said.
The military since last year has led an open battle against the country's sizable Islamic movement, becoming increasingly involved in government business in the process.
Top military leaders say they are determined to wipe out radical Islamic activities which they believe pose a serious threat to the secular foundation of Turkey's government. Many fear the Islamic movement wants to install an Islam-based regime.
Cohen said he would press the case for a diplomatic solution to the long-simmering tension over Cyprus, which has kept NATO allies Turkey and Greece at loggerheads, and indicated this might be an opportune time to make some progress toward easing tensions.
"There seems to be at least some willingness to at least discuss this matter," Cohen said. "We would like to see Greek Cypriots not acquire the Russian missile, we have encourage the Turkish government to at least restrain the rhetoric with respect to what action they may take. And I think both countries now realize there is a danger in allowing the rhetoric to get too escalated."
Cohen said he "will try to urge that they exercise restraint," noting he will take the same message to both governments. Cohen visits Greece briefly next Tuesday.
Cohen said requests for military aid will be carefully reviewed.
"Each country obviously has its own security interests that they are entitled and need to protect. What our position is is that we will always be willing to evaluate what those needs are. We certainly don't want to contribute to any kind of arms escalation in the region, but a valid requirement on the part of either government will certainly be evaluated by the United States. We're hoping we can really prevail upon both countries to really try to find some solution to Cyprus and to the tensions over issues affecting the Aegean," Cohen said.
Cohen has meetings with Turkey's top military and civilian leaders including Prime Minister Ismet Yilmaz and President Suleyman Demirel.