Terrorism and Borders
by Edward Graham
The Middle East is a region that is no stranger to conflict. However, for most this has meant the inevitable antagonism between Israelis and Palestinians. Recently though, most eyes have turned away from the Occupied Territories and looked north towards Syria and her neighbor Turkey. Over the last week relations between these two countries have gone from bad to worse. What started as diplomatic posturing has led to military maneuvers and threats of imminent war.
There are numerous reasons behind this situation, but focus lately has been on Turkeys on-going struggle against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist group that Ankara has accused of being supplied by Damascus. During the 14 year conflict between the PKK and the Turkish military, this accusation against Syria has been made repeatedly, but never has it led to a situation that involves foreign leaders shuttling between the two capitals or to military build-ups along borders.
That is, however, the current situation. Damascus and Ankara have been visited primarily by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but with diplomatic messages or phone calls coming from Washington, Moscow, Brussels, Baghdad, Tehran, Riyadh, Amman and Kuwait City. The message has been the same throughout, find a diplomatic solution before the military posturing becomes all too real.
Mubarak has taken perhaps the most active role, starting his mission meeting with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and then flying back and forth between Damascus and Ankara in an attempt to mediate between the two parties. "Egypt looks to Syria as a sisterly Arab country and to Turkey as a friendly Islamic country," states Egyptian Foreign Minister, Amr Moussa, "Talks between President Mubarak and his Turkish counterpart Suleyman Demirel will focus just on the Syrian-Turkish crisis. We hope that Egypts good offices would succeed in defusing the crisis. President Mubarak will go to Turkey as a representative of the Arab side and Chairman of the Arab summit that calls for peace in the region."1 Prince Sultan of Saudi Arabia said decisively that "the efforts made by both King Fahd and President Mubarak would help in defusing the crisis."2 Syria, apparently playing up to Mubaraks position, has called for Arab support and invoked the memory of the joint Arab military operation in 1973 against Israel as a model. "We affirm that the current challenges require the Arab nation to achieve real and effective solidarity like the one which we witnessed in October 1973," stated the Syrian al-Thawra daily newspaper.3
Many governments in the region have begun to make their voices heard on this issue. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has been quoted as saying that any aggression on Turkeys part against Syria would be considered an attack against Libya as well, threatening that Turkish business interests in his country may be hurt. The Iraqi Parliament has accused Turkey of "irresponsible and haphazard statements." Iran has offered its role as Chair of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and close ties with Syria to aid in any mediation between Ankara and Damascus. Kuwaiti Emir Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah has also carried out telephone conversations with both Syrias al-Assad and Turkeys Demirel. In a statement carried in the Kuwaiti press al-Sabah called on both sides to practice restraint and resolve their differences through negotiation. And the Jordanian government as has echoed the mediation call, but also emphasizing its willingness and other governments' responsibilities to help in resolving the situation.
Both the United States and Russia have made similar statements in recent days. U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin issued a statement, saying that the U.S. had "concerns about the possibility of this moving in a negative direction." While the United States has "expressed understanding in the past for Turkeys position on this matter, let me be clear: We very much dont want this to go to the next step because in this case it would be a grave risk of a much larger conflict."4 Turkey is, of course, a NATO ally of the United States and Europe, the members of which do not want to see this sort of conflict develop involving other members. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying "[I]n Moscow we are worried by the situation developing between these two countries in a region so close to the southern borders of Russia and the CIS. We appeal to the leadership of Turkey and Syria to show restraint and start a political dialogue as quickly as possible with the aim of halting mutual accusations to improve bilateral relations and the situation in the region as a whole."5 Russia is a long time supplier of arms to Syria and the idea of being called on to support Syria against Turkey and her NATO allies might put the Kremlin in a very difficult position.
While many believe that this is relatively new problem between Turkey and Syria, it has roots both in history and modern politics. Relations between Ankara and Damascus have been cold since the creation of the Turkish state when, in 1938m the French colonial government ceded to Turkey the region known as Alexandretta to Turks and Hatay to the Syrians. Since 1984, however, this relationship has been further strained by constant attacks against Turkish citizens by the PKK, which Turkey claims is trained in and funded by Syria and Lebanon. While Syria, of course, denies this charge the Turkish military has often raided deep into Iraqi territory to attack PKK cells, which Damascus takes as implied threats of the same happening on Syrian land.
The Turkish government has called on Syria to stop aiding PKK terrorists, shut down training camps in Lebanons Bekaa Valley, and to extradite PKK chief Abdullah Ocalan, who is believed to be residing in Damascus. Comments coming from Ankara have grown worse since the end of September. Turkish Defense Minister Ismet Sezgin has warned of "strict responses" to anyone believed to be supporting the PKK. "Endurance and patience have limits, we say that we have reached the limit," said Sezgin, adding that after several warnings to Syria prior to recent events, "we used diplomacy again. We are trying to fulfill the requirements of diplomacy. Whatever possible will be done if there is no diplomacy."6
Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz has made several speeches outlining his beliefs about Syrias sponsorship of the PKK and other groups. "Syria does not only receive the PKK terrorism with open arms, but also other terrorist organizations. Syria is the terrorism center of the Middle East, it is a country where all terrorists seek shelter,"7 stated Yilmaz on Turkish television. President Demirel has issued numerous warning to Syria of final chances to act as Turkey sent over 10,000 troops to its southern border and cancelled all leave for those already stationed there. During Mubaraks last visit, Demirel made clear that Turkeys demands were the deportation of Ocalan from Syria (not necessarily to Turkey), stricter measures to control cross-border raids by the PKK, and end to Syrian funding of the PKK, the removal of training camps for the PKK in the Bekaa Valley, and immediate Syrian recognition of Turkeys sovereign borders. Figures estimate that 29-37,000 people have been killed during the PKK's 14-year insurgency against Ankara.
For their part Syria has restrained from overt military action, preferring to call upon Arab neighbors to help negotiate with Turkey. However, the situation around the crisis has a very different spin in the Syrian press and public opinion. While easily accepting the governments claim that Ocalan is not in Syria, opinion has turned to the "true" reasons behind recent activities. Damascus has openly accused Israel of being the instigator of recent problems. Citing the 1996 defense agreement between Israel and Turkey, Syria has accused the Netanyahu government of trying to undermine the Middle East peace process and accused Ankara of being in collaboration with Israel to destabilize the Syrian government. Israel has recently begun a project to upgrade the Turkish air forces as part of the 1996 treaty. In response to increased Syrian activity near the Golan Heights, Israel has ordered all exercises near its borders with Syria stopped and the army put on a inconspicuous, but alert level or readiness. Iran and the League of Arab States expressed similar views of Israels role in the matter.
Along with Israel, the United States and her NATO allies also received blame for the crisis. The Syrian press has called Turkey an anti-Arab alliance that included "the Zionist Entity (Israel), America and Britain, who are conspiring and spying against the Arabs." "Converting Turkey to a base to implement American strategy would not serve Turkish interests with the Arabs now and in the future,"8 stated the al-Thawra newspaper.
Along with such accusations are references to Turkish dam projects along the Euphrates River, which Syria claims are designed to strangle Syria into compliance with Ankara.
The mood on either side of the border differs from day to day. The Turkish stock market plunged nine percent on the day of Turkeys military maneuvers, but recovered the following day. The Turkish Sabah newspaper has said that Syria must bow to Turkish demands or "pay the price," while at the same time running pictures of Hafez al-Assad accompanied with the title "the Head of the Snake." Commentator Hasan Cemal has said "There is no middle way. Those who expect Turkey to step back are deluding themselves."9
Cross border trade between the two posturing nations appeared to continue as normal, though. "Four hundred vehicles cross the border from both sides every day. The tension has not had even a minor effect on the functioning of the border," a Turkish border guard said. "If the crisis turns into war, then of course this border will be closed."10 Demonstrations against Turkey have sprung up sporadically on the Syrian side of the border, but Turkish drivers returning to Turkey say they have seen no sign of increased military action in Syria.
Public opinion in Turkey differs. "Critical days," was the headlines for the Turkiye daily. Meanwhile the daily Aksam ran stories of how the Turkish military could be in the Bekaa Valley in 30 minutes if need be. "War is coming," an engineer in Ankara said, "if the Syrians continue to support anarchy, Turkey will have to act. We dont like war, but we are not afraid."11 A driver who makes the daily run to Syria said, "I dont want war, nobody wants it. If a war starts we will die of hunger because we earn our livelihoods through this business." While a border guard stated "Everybody thinks Turkey can defeat Syria in 24 hours so nobody is concerned about it." Turkish Defense Minister Ismet Sezgin has responded to such comments, "I dont believe it will come to that."12
Both nations now find themselves in a difficult position. Turkey stands to lose any support or relations with the Arab world it once enjoyed. Syria faces military defeat again from the a non-Arab nation. Israel is in a dangerous position where Syria may attempt to strike at the Golan Heights, using difficulties with Turkey as an excuse. If Israel is drawn into conflict with Syria, the delicate balance of peace in the Middle East would be shattered. The United States would find itself having to support Israel and a NATO ally in Turkey, while possibly facing allies across the line in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. A conflict of this nature could allow Iran or Iraq the necessary excuse to resume direct hostilities against Israel. Old alliances could be both renewed and shattered simultaneously across the region.
Direct intervention by either the United Nations or the Organization of the Islamic Conference is necessary to mediate this period beyond what President Mubarak can do himself. However, both NATO and the League of Arab States will attempt to swing public and political opinion to their respective members, further exacerbating a situation which is already beyond a logical stopping point
This piece was written by Edward
Graham, President, Middle East Information Network.
The ideas or opinions written here do not necessarily reflect those of the Middle East Information Network, its officers or donors.
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