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Turkey: Many Obstacles Hinder Contacts With Neighbors

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Turkey has repeatedly vowed to increase economic and political ties with its immediate neighbors Iraq, Iran, and Syria in an effort to end years-long relations of neglect and mutual distrust. But the road towards a rapprochement between Turkey and the three Arab states is proving to be full of pitfalls. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports.

Prague 22 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- On Monday (19 March), a delegation of Turkish businessmen and trade officials ended a week-long tour of Arab capitals aimed at boosting economic ties with Iraq and Jordan.

Led by Foreign Trade Undersecretary Kursad Tuzmen, the 400-strong delegation signed business contracts reportedly worth over $250 million with Iraqi and Jordanian companies.

Tuzmen was the second high-ranking Turkish official to visit Iraq in less than six months. Last October, State Minister Tunca Toskay went to Baghdad for talks with the Iraqi leadership.

Tuzmen's recent Middle East tour was organized by the Turkish Union of Exporters. Before it began, he publicly complained that Turkey's commercial exchanges with Iraq, Iran, and Syria represent a mere 8 percent of its foreign trade. He said Ankara was committed to boosting economic relations with its immediate neighbors.

Some progress has been made. A railway link connecting Syria to Iran through Turkey was reopened last week after having been idle for 10 years.

Also last week, Turkish Energy Minister Cumhur Ersumer was in the Syrian capital Damascus to attend the inauguration of a new electric line linking Syria, Egypt and Lebanon. Construction of the regional power grid -- which will include Turkey and Jordan as well -- is due to be completed within a few months.

Ankara's relations with its Arab neighbors significantly deteriorated during the 1991 Gulf War. NATO member Turkey was the first regional country to join the U.S.-led international coalition to drive Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait.

But since then, Ankara has said it is steadily moving towards rebuilding ties with Baghdad. Although Turkey continues to enforce UN sanctions against Iraq, its businessmen have become increasingly critical of the embargo, saying it is detrimental to Ankara's economic interests.

Pinar Bilgin teaches international relations at Ankara's Bilkent University. She says Turkey's goals regarding Iraq do not fundamentally differ from policies pursued by other countries eager to restore links with Baghdad.

"Turkey has always been very careful not to break ties with its immediate Middle Eastern neighbors. These [ties] were damaged during and in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War. Now Turkey is using the opportunity created by the international environment to strengthen ties that were weakened as a result of the Gulf crisis."

Turkey is among the countries that has suffered most from the embargo imposed on Saddam's regime.

Prior to the Gulf War, Iraq was Ankara's fourth largest trading partner and its main crude oil supplier. Trade volume between Turkey and Iraq was estimated at $2.5 billion a year.

Since then, the two countries' annual trade has plummeted to around $800 million. Most of that falls under the UN's oil-for-food program, which allows Iraq to export oil and import goods for humanitarian purposes.

Turkish officials say that sanctions against Iraq have cost their country $40 billion in lost revenue. They are determined to return trade volume between the two countries to its pre-Gulf War level.

A pipeline running from Iraq to Turkey was reopened in 1998 to pump Iraqi oil to the Mediterranean port of Yumurtalik under UN supervision. The volume of oil imports would increase were sanctions to be lifted.

Erik Jan Zurcher chairs the Turkish Studies Department at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He says normalizing relations with Iraq would help Turkey solve its ongoing problems with the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, which uses northern Iraq as a refuge.

But Zurcher says a total rapprochement between Ankara and Baghdad is unlikely to occur soon:

"[The Turks] would like to bury the [Kurdish] issue with Saddam Hussein. They would much prefer Iraq to be a normal state in the Middle East, without embargo, without any threat to its existence. But Turkey is in a financial crisis, which it will try to overcome with the help of the [International Monetary Fund] and the World Bank. And it is trying to get up to $25 billion in financial assistance from the West. So it is in no position at the moment to antagonize the United States."

The Kurdish question has also caused Turkey problems with another of its Arab neighbors, Syria. The support given by Damascus to PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan brought the two countries to the brink of war three years ago.

But since Ocalan left Syria, both countries have signed an agreement on security cooperation that has opened the door to a thaw in relations.

Still, relations between the two countries continue to be marred by two major problems. Syria, along with Iraq, has accused Ankara of monopolizing the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris by building dams on the two rivers, which have their sources in Turkey and flow down to Syria and Iraq.

Syria also claims ownership rights over the southern Turkish province of Hatay, which is often depicted as Syrian territory on Syrian maps. Hatay was briefly administered by Syria in the mid-1930s before becoming independent and eventually being given back to Turkey prior to World War Two.

In an interview with Turkey's private NTV television channel last month, Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara said that although Ankara and Damascus may need "several years" to settle the Hatay issue, this should not preclude a political reconciliation.

Turkish-Syrian relations have improved somewhat since President Bashar al-Assad took over last year following the death of his father. But military cooperation between Turkey and Israel, Syria's arch-enemy, remains a bone of contention between Ankara and Damascus.

Turkey's relations with Iran have also been strained over the Kurdish issue. Ankara has long accused Tehran of supporting PKK fighters and militants of the Hizbullah radical Islamic group.

Like Syria, Iran is very critical of the military cooperation between Turkey and Israel, which it sees as a threat to its security. Tehran also says that Turkey and neighboring Azerbaijan might be tempted to exert influence over the 20-million-strong ethnic Turk minority settled mostly in northern Iran.

Turkey and Iran have nonetheless vowed to boost economic ties and strengthen relations. Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem visited Tehran last month and pledged that what he described as "occasional problems" between the two countries will be solved. Cem also said Turkey will start importing natural gas from Iran in July.

Still, analysts say that for the time being Turkish-Iranian relations are unlikely to improve significantly. Bilgrin says:

"[Both countries)] have restated their determination to strengthen economic relations quite recently. But it is very difficult to say something about the future course of their relations because we've been [through this] before with Iran. I'm not sure actually if both countries want to strengthen their relations. We've stated our determination to strengthen ties [before] and then nothing came out of it in the end."

Analyst Zurcher likewise does not believe that a Turkish-Iranian rapprochement is possible in the immediate future, primarily because of the ideological differences that separate the two countries.

"For the secular establishment in Turkey, Iran is an ideological threat. In their eyes, Iran is a kind of nightmarish scenario of what could happen to Turkey if they allowed it. I think that is nonsense, but that is a picture that is very much alive with the secular establishment in Turkey. They think that if things go wrong in Turkey, it will become a second Iran. They feel that Iran is out to destabilize Turkey." Zurcher believes that competing economic and strategic interests in the states of the former Soviet Union are another obstacle to an improvement of Turkish-Iranian relations.

"There is competition [between the two countries], primarily in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Iran supports Armenia. Turkey supports Azerbaijan. Iran has its own claims in the Caspian Sea and the oil fields there. Turkey and its allies -- Azerbaijan primarily -- have great expectations of that Caspian oil. Turkey tries to influence the Central Asian republics, and so does Iran. Iran is moving closer to Moscow in its Central Asian policies. Turkey acts as a local representative of the United States' policies in many cases."

Analysts agree that Turkey's foreign policy agenda will long remain dominated by its relations with the United States and the European Union. Earlier this week, Ankara pledged to implement much-awaited legal reforms that it hopes will pave the way for its entry into the EU.

In Ankara, analyst Bilgin says that Turkey has set integration into the Western world as a priority of its foreign policy since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. She says this basic tenet has remained unchanged.