Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Philadelphia Bulletin: Turkey, Syria to Cooperate

by David Bedein

After decades of enmity, Syria and Turkey have launched a strategic cooperation agreement. This month, the two neighbors signed an agreement meant that included cooperation in the defense and military sectors. The accord also saw the removal of restrictions along the border between Syria and Turkey.

“The brotherhood that exists between our people has been lifted to the political level with joint Cabinet meetings to be held between our two governments,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said. Officials said the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan regarded Syria as part of Ankara’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy. They said Ankara and Damascus have decided to establish what was termed a high-level strategic cooperation panel.

“Turkey is your second country and the people of Turkey have opened their arms to welcome you without the need for a visa,” Davutoglu said.

At a joint news conference on Sept. 17, Davutoglu and his Syrian counterpart, Walid Mualem, agreed to lift customs on trade between the two countries. They said trucks that shuttle between Syrian and Turkey would be exempt from taxes.

“This is the biggest demonstration of cooperation, solidarity and mutual trust,” Mualem said.

However, Bulent Alireza, a senior researcher at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies commented that “the increasingly close relationship with Damascus, combined with the recent strains in the relationship with Tel Aviv, seems certain to raise additional questions about a possible change of direction in Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East.”

In 2009, Syria and Turkey launched its first military exercise. The exercise took place along the border.

The analysts said the Turkish military has not been enthusiastic over cooperation with Syria. Syria has long been seen by the Turkish military as a haven for the Kurdish Workers Party, which has been conducting a long time insurgency operation against the Turkish government.

Some senior Turkish officials said Syria has drafted plans to offer asylum to Kurdish Workers Party operatives. They said the Syrian offer, praised by neighboring Turkey, would demand that the PKK agents renounce violence and surrender their weapons.

“Our fight against the terrorist organization would be affected a great deal if some of these Syrians quit the organization and climb down the mountain,” Turkish Chief of Staff Gen. Ilker Basbug said.

In a briefing on Sept. 22, Basbug said the PKK contained an estimated 1,500 Syrian fighters, or more than one-third of the total insurgency force. He said Syrian members of the PKK were based in Iraq’s Kandil mountains.

The Syrian offer was announced by President Bashar Assad in mid-September. Assad said Syrian members of PKK could be allowed to return home if they renounce membership in the insurgency group.

“Do not expect that it will be all over soon,” Basbug said. “There are no magical formulas.”

View the original article in the Philadelphia Bulletin

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