Turkish President Suleyman Demirel continues a visit to Israel today. He is due to travel to the Palestinian Authority and Jordan tomorrow for talks with Yasir Arafat and King Abdullah. As our correspondent reports, Demirel's visit comes at a time of change in Middle Eastern politics. Israel has a new government and Syria is becoming increasingly vocal in its calls for reaching a peace accord with Israel.
Prague, 15 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Turkish news media has speculated that an Israeli-Syrian rapprochement could lead Damascus to relocate some of its military forces away from the border with Israel to Syria's border with Turkey, the largest and militarily the strongest country in the region.
Demirel told the Israeli daily "Maariv" yesterday that a Syrian-Israeli rapprochement would not bother Turkey -- quite the contrary. In his words, "We know that peace with Turkey would not be made at the expense of relations between Israel and Turkey." He added that it is hard to imagine Israeli-Turkish relations -- already excellent -- being any better.
Bilateral trade reached $730 million last year and is expected to nearly triple by next year to $2 billion. Tourism is also booming. Nearly a quarter of a million Israelis visited Turkey last year.
In the military sphere, Israeli pilots train in Turkish air space and Turkish military aircraft are allowed to fly over Israel during exercises. The Turkish and Israeli navies have held joint exercises. Israel is currently refurbishing 50 F-4 Phantom war planes for the Turkish air force.
Turkey's relationship with Israel has annoyed some Arab states and some Israeli Arabs. When Demirel prayed yesterday at Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque -- Islam's third-holiest shrine -- Palestinian protesters outside denounced Demirel as a traitor and an infidel and clashed with police.
Demirel told the Turkish Daily News yesterday that the Arab world perceives Turkey's relations with Israel "as a display of enmity toward Syria." But he insists relations with Israel are bilateral ties based on the mutual interests of the two countries. He insists that they are not aimed at any third country and do not constitute an alliance. He says "mutual interests have brought Turkey and Israel together, and there is no Syrian dimension in this relationship."
Turning to the difficult relationship between Ankara and Damascus, Demirel says Turkey can solve its problems with Syria without Israeli involvement.
Similarly, Israeli President Ezer Weizman says good relations between Turkey and Israel are very important for regional peace and stability.
Turkey has a common border with two Arab states -- Syria and Iraq -- both of which have exacerbated the historically tense situation in Turkey's Kurdish-inhabited southeast through support for Kurdish insurgents.
Until last autumn, Syria had been harboring Turkey's most wanted man, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan. Damascus permitted the PKK to use Syria as a base for insurgent operations against the Turkish military in southeastern Turkey.
Syria -- a close Soviet ally during the Cold War -- no longer poses a significant military threat in the region. The country -- with its police-state mentality -- has increasingly lagged economically behind most other countries in the region. For example, only this week Damascus announced plans to establish a cellular telephone network, albeit a modest trial system.
In addition to Syria, the PKK has also used northern Iraq as a base. Turkey has responded by repeated military incursions into Iraq. Earlier this year, Baghdad threatened retaliation against Turkey for allowing its airbase at Incirlik, near Adana, to be used by U.S. aircraft patrolling the northern no-fly zone. But so far, Baghdad has not gone beyond rhetoric. However, in 1991, after the end of the Gulf War, Iraq turned against its Kurds, sending them fleeing en masse to Turkey in scenes reminiscent of this year's exodus from Kosovo.
Demirel told the Turkish Daily News yesterday that "a new regional order is in the process of establishment" in the Middle East. He says this new order will reshape the relations of countries in the region to their benefit. He says the Turkish-Israeli relationship should be respected by this new regional order since -- in his words -- "these two strong states, Western-oriented with free-market economies, share the same democratic ideals."
The Turkish president says Damascus's support of terrorism has hampered bilateral relations in the past. But this week he told Israeli journalists that relations between Ankara and Damascus have improved and -- as he put it -- "we can no longer say that Syria backs terrorism, at least for now."
In a separate pre-departure statement quoted by Turkish state-run television (TRT), Demirel commented on Turkey's dispute with its Arab neighbors over its use of the waters of the Euphrates River before it reaches Syria and Iraq.
Demirel says the water issue should assist in furthering cooperation instead of causing distrust and tension among the countries. He says Turkey -- with a population of more than 60 million -- "is not a country rich in water." He added that "the rapidly increasing population in the Middle East makes it imperative that projects on prudent use of water resources should be implemented."
Interestingly, Demirel made water a centerpiece of his visit to Israel, claiming in Jerusalem yesterday that Turkey could solve Israel's chronic water shortage by sending huge water-filled plastic balloon-like containers hauled by tug boats across the Mediterranean Sea. He noted that a project already in place to supply Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus with water also could supply Israel with 80 million cubic meters of water a year and a new effort could yield 4 billion cubic meters annually in the future.
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Sermat Atacanli recently told RFE/RL that Turkey has no intention of using water as a political weapon.
Turkey's longest common border is with Syria. Relations, always troubled, reached a low point last autumn when Turkey threatened to invade Syria unless Damascus expelled Ocalan. Damascus persuaded Ocalan to leave the country, putting an end to the Turkish saber rattling and clearing the air for an improvement in bilateral relations with Ankara.
Last March, a Syrian deputy prime minister for economic affairs went to Ankara in the highest-level visit by a Syrian official to Turkey for more than a decade in a joint bid to improve commercial ties. The head of the Turkish Foreign Policy Association, Seyfi Tashan, recently told RFE/RL that Ocalan's capture "has strangely improved relations with Syria ... clearing the atmosphere." Tashan said:
"So there is a possible ground for the improvement of Turkish-Syrian relations now, after Ocalan has left and provided that Syria maintains its obligation under the agreement reached."
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Atacanli says the impasse in relations with Syria may be coming to an end, having been -- in his words -- "very problematic" during most of the 1980s and 1990s, particularly for having harbored Ocalan, a wanted terrorist, for almost 14 years.
Tensions eased after Syria ordered Ocalan to leave. Turkish and Syrian officials then met in the southern Turkish city of Adana, where they concluded an agreement setting out principles for the future relationship.
Atacanli says the Adana agreement seems to be working well. But he says it needs to be improved in terms of the Syrian approach to it. As he put it, "The worst is over between Turkey and Syria."
Atacanli calls for cautious optimism in Turkey's relations with Syria:
"I think one needs to be cautiously optimistic about the future of our relations. Terrorism and Syrian support of terrorism were the greatest obstacle in improving our relations. This seems to be over now, and I don't see why we shouldn't go forward in reconciliation with Syria. After all, we are neighbors and such an improvement in relations would benefit both countries and peoples."
Another issue marring Turkish-Syrian relations is Syria's refusal to come to terms with its loss of Antakya and the surrounding Hatay province to Turkey in 1939. Syrian maps continue to show Hatay as part of Syria. Last year, then Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz used a visit to the province to denounce Syrian claims on Hatay.
Although Atacanli insists that Hatay is not an issue, western diplomats say Hatay -- with its sizeable Syrian-Arab population -- certainly remains an issue for Syria.