Accessibility links

Middle East: Mubarak Attempts To Defuse Turkey-Syria Crisis

  • Charles Recknagel

Prague, 7 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak faces a tough challenge in his efforts to calm Turkey's anger over Syria's alleged backing of rebel Kurds in southeast Turkey.

That anger has recently escalated, with Turkish leaders making allusions to possible military action.

Mubarak is in Damascus today after stopping in Ankara yesterday, where his mediation bid received a lukewarm welcome. Independent Turkish reports say Ankara merely handed Mubarak six tough demands for Syria to stop supporting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought Ankara for autonomy since 1984.

The tensions are complicated by other long-standing disputes, including ones over water and territory. Still, analysts say Mubarak's effort is the international community's best hope for an early diplomatic end to the Turkish-Syrian standoff.

William Hale of London University's School of Oriental Studies says Turkey hopes Egypt -- which has good relations with both sides -- will be able to successfully pressure Damascus to break with the PKK.

"I think the main ... tool that the Turks have (are their) various friends in the Arab world, especially Egypt and Jordan....They are probably keen to try and get the Egyptians to ... persuade the Syrians to stop supporting the PKK."

Turkey for years has accused Syria of allowing PKK fighters to train in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. It also says PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan (eds: pronounced Odzhalan) has a safe-haven in Damascus. Syria denies the charges.

Sabri Sayari, director of the Institute of Turkish Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., says Ankara chose to bring the long-standing dispute to a head now due to recent efforts by PKK leaders in Damascus to seek more international support.

"The Turkish officials see greater activity by the PKK to make itself politically recognized internationally and the leader of the group, Mr. Ocalan, has been very active in recent months attracting international visitors to his place in Damascus."

But if Turkey hopes to muster international pressure on Damascus, it may have chosen a poor time to do so.

London University's Hale says that the flare-up of tension is more likely to scare away Turkey's friends than rally them.

"The point that the Turks have to consider is that this is rather poor timing from the international point of view. To the extent that the United States after a long delay is trying to get the Middle East peace process working again, neither they nor Israel want to push Syria into a defiant or uncooperative situation."

Since the crisis broke, Washington has called for restraint from both sides. Israel, which has informal military ties with Turkey, has reduced patrols on Syria's flank to distance itself from the dispute. Most countries in the region have criticized Ankara for threatening Damascus. The Arab states are irked by Turkey's military ties with Israel, established in 1996. Iran accuses Israel of fanning Turkish-Syrian tensions to weaken Syrian President Hafez Assad. Analysts predict there will be no easy solutions to the conflict because it also includes two of the Middle East's most divisive issues: water and land.

Turkey and Syria, along with Iraq, are locked in a bitter dispute over what the two Arab states say is Ankara's unequal use of water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, whose sources are in Turkey.

Sayari says Syria might give up supporting the PKK for more water or land, but Ankara would reject such bargaining.

"From the Syrian point of view there is a quid pro quo, namely they might be willing to end their support for the PKK if Turkey agrees to take a step or two back on the water issue. (But) the Turkish officials just don't want to see that kind of equation ... so there is a difficulty in terms of how this thing can be negotiated."

Syria also lays claim to the Turkish border province of Hatay, which was ceded to Turkey in 1938 after colonial rule by France. Turkey refutes this claim.