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Middle East: Is Turkey Becoming A More Aggressive Neighbor?

Prague, 4 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- When Turkey successfully forced Damascus last month to withdraw its support for Turkish-Kurd rebels, Ankara was sending two messages to its regional neighbors.

Analysts say the first was that it is serious about rooting out cross-border support for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Ankara accused Damascus of aiding in the rebels' battle for a Kurdish homeland in southeast Turkey.

The second was that Ankara is ready to back its demands with the use of its powerful military if diplomatic efforts fail.

Alan Makovsky, a senior analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in Washington, D.C., says these are strong signs that Turkey is emerging as a more assertive regional power.

"Turkey is emerging as a more assertive power after a decade of rather passive, status quo oriented foreign policy. Turkey has emerged economically and militarily as a much stronger power in the region. It is also a (power) that after fighting (the PKK) in northern Iraq on a steady basis since 1991 feels more battle tested. I don't think you are going to see an aggressive Turkey, a Turkey looking to expand its borders, but you do have a Turkey that will be more willing to assert its prerogatives and use the threat of force to defend its interests."

During last month's crisis with Syria, many observers were uncertain whether Ankara was bluffing in its threats to use its army if Damascus did not agree to evict PKK leaders and fighters from Syrian soil. Ankara dispatched extra troops to its border region with Syria as Cairo and Tehran scrambled to mediate a peaceful solution.

But Damascus's almost immediate agreement to Ankara's demands -- after just 15 days of crisis - showed that Syrian leaders, at least, took Ankara's threats seriously. Syria evicted PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and said it would forbid the PKK from using its territory for training or propaganda purposes.

Analysts say that Turkey's threats were convincing because it has been steadily building its armed forces as its economy has expanded. Turkey's army now includes some 200 modern F-16 fighter jets and around 1,000 M-60 tanks, a stockpile believed to be far more powerful than Syria's aging Soviet-era weaponry.

Makovsky believes Damascus found Ankara's threats all the more convincing because Turkey's military in recent years has formed informal ties with Syria's arch-enemy, Israel.

"First and foremost (Ankara's success with Syria) was a tribute to Turkey's policy of building a close relation with Israel. I think (Syrian President Hafez) Assad was afraid of a two-front war if he got into (a fight) with the Turks and I think that made the decision very easy for him. He knew that he was not (strong enough) for that and it became very clear very early that he was going to do whatever was necessary to avoid hostilities."

But even if Ankara can credit its success in the crisis to its military strength, Makovsky says Turkey should consider itself lucky it did not have to carry out its threats. He says it is hard to know what military action Turkey could have taken that would have been effective enough to force Syria to meet its demands yet still be acceptable to the international community.

Two other regional powers seriously concerned by the prospect of a conflict were Egypt and Iran. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi both rushed to Ankara during the crisis.

Sabri Sayari, director for the Institute of Turkish Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., says that Cairo wanted to be sure no new Middle East conflict broke out just as the Arab-Israeli peace process begins progressing after months of deadlock.

"It is not in Egypt's interest to have another major crisis boiling in the Middle East ... for regional stability. There was a worry that, yes, this would lead perhaps to an enlargement of the conflict, with Israel coming in, and I think that at least the public statements from the Arab world pretty much put the blame on the Turkish-Israeli alliance."

Iran, which has a good relationship with Syria, may have played a more directly self-interested role.

Makovsky says Tehran was eager to prevent Turkey from setting a precedent for any new cross-border incursions against the PKK beyond its already regular incursions into northern Iraq.

"Iran has its own problems with Turkey. Turkey suspects Iran of also harboring (the) PKK and I think the Iranians wanted to prevent Turkey from taking strong action over this issue. They don't want any precedents that Turkey is going to be doing hot pursuit actions across all the borders where there is support for the PKK. There was a little bit of a self-protective mechanism in all this."

But if Turkey is showing itself to be more ready to back its foreign policy with military threats, most analysts believe that the combination may be limited to the issue of the PKK.

Sayari says that Turkey regards the PKK as an internal matter and thus PKK operations in neighboring countries are an extension of its own domestic concerns. That, he says, makes the recent Turkish-Syrian crisis an exception, not a rule. Professor Sayari:

"I don't think Turkey will be using the same kind of tactics against others, for example, on Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. I think the whole crisis clearly showed that Turkey has the means to assert its force when it needs to do so and many people in Turkey have been saying for years now that Turkey had to something about Syria. So the Syrian situation is probably an exception to the general trend."