"Hafiz al-Asad Should Be Careful"
by Daniel Pipes
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This article draws on a study, "The Quiet Crisis: Turkish-Syrian Relations," prepared by Daniel Pipes and Adam Garfinkle for the Central Intelligence Agency, November 1989.
There is a hostile feeling from the Turkish people not against the Syrian people but against the regime in Syria, and I believe that Hafiz al-Asad should be careful.
Relations between Turkey and Syria are bad and getting worse. The two sides differ on a wide range of issues, violence flares up frequently between them, and the absence of a negotiating process imbues their problems an explosive potential.
Yet it is easy to overlook Syrian-Turkish tensions, and Westerners generally do. Damascus and Ankara do not engage in loud polemics but for the most part maintain surprisingly cordial relations on the formal level. Violent acts on Syria's part have usually been small-scale, away from the cities, and carried out by proxies. In Western bureaucracies, those responsible for Turkey tend to see it as a far region of NATO, while those concerned with Syria devote their attention mainly to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Things are worse in the U.S. government, where Turkey lies within the jurisdiction of the European bureau and Syria in the Middle Eastern one; accordingly, Syrian-Turkish difficulties fall between two administrative stools.
We shall survey the current state of Turkish-Syrian relations, then speculate about their future course.
Syria and Turkey differ over a wide range of issues. The Asad regime has three main grudges against the Republic of Turkey: it claims the Turkish province of Hatay, it wants to prevent Turks from controlling Euphrates River waters, and it fears Turkish membership in the Western alliance. For their part, Turks worry about Syrian smuggling, border incidents, and (most important) Syrian support of terrorist groups.
Hatay and beyond. The Syrian leadership does not fully accept existing Syrian frontiers with Jordan, Israel, or Lebanon; it would be almost too much to ask that it accept the borders with Turkey. Damascus foremost claims the Turkish province of Hatay (formerly known as Alexandretta), a region that became Turkish in 1939 as the result of a Franco-Turkish deal on the eve of World War II, when the French controlled Syria. No Syrian government has accepted that agreement and, every evening, the weather map on Syrian television shows Hatay as part of Syria. With similar regularity, Syria's United Nations delegation each year demands Hatay's return. The Syrians also have occasionally articulated aspirations to a territory about the size of England that lies south of the Taurus and Anti-Taurus Mountains. These territories became part of the Turkish republic in 1921, again as a result of a Franco-Turkish agreement.
These hints aside, Damascus avoids pressing a public claim to Turkish territory. A Turkish television interviewer put it straight to Foreign Minister Faruq ash-Shar' in mid-1992: "On the one hand, you talk about Turkey's territorial integrity and good-neighborly relations and on the other your maps show Antakya and Iskenderun as Syrian territory. Don't you think that there is a contradiction here?" Here's the completely meaningless reply he got: "I believe that such misunderstandings between our countries will be resolved through political and economic cooperation and the atmosphere of mutual trust we are trying to build. It is necessary to establish lasting cooperation between the two countries. I believe that we can thus solve all the problems that exist between Turkey and Syria."
Though theoretical and distant, Syrian claims to Turkey's territory underlie many of the tensions between the two countries, and specifically the Syrian campaign of terrorism. Ali Oncu, a Turkish journalist, summed up a widespread Turkish suspicion: the Syrians support anti-Turkish activities "to fragment Turkey so they can annex Hatay."
Euphrates River waters. When the Atatürk Dam, the fifth-largest dam in the world and the capstone of Turkey's giant Southeast Anatolia Development Project (GAP), began filling in November 1989, the Turkish government gained the ability to control how much of the Euphrates River waters would flow into Syria (and beyond it to Iraq). Ankara had committed itself in July 1987 to provide at least 500 cubic meters of water a second and it has on balance fulfilled this obligation. Still, the Syrian government blames many of its electricity and agricultural problems on the Turkish dams. The dams also constitute a new lever of power with major political implications. Simply put, Ankara can now threaten to withhold water from Syria, a prospect that Turkish politicians have been known to relish in public. (Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel was quoted in 1992 as saying that "The water is ours on this side of the border and theirs on the other side.") In times of relative drought especially (such as that which afflicted the region in the mid-1989), this gives the Turks extraordinary power. Second, because many Turks fail to understand the logic wherein they pay for Arab oil, but Arabs pay nothing for "Turkish water,"the day may come when they demand some form of payment for the water Syria receives. Third, the Syrians have directed some small-scale sabotage efforts against the dams (circumstantial evidence suggests that the eleven PKK members captured in December 1988 infiltrating from Syria intended to attack the Atatürk Dam); some day, the Syrians could conceivably deploy military force against the waterworks.
Turkey in NATO. As a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Turkey is a formal ally of the United States. With Syria firmly in the Soviet camp until 1991, this placed the two states on opposite sides of the great divide. Even today, when Damascus seeks improved relations with the West, Turkey's American connection rankles. Statements by Syrian leaders point to their suspicion that Ankara (like Jerusalem) takes orders from Washington.
The prospect of Turkish-Israeli cooperation scares the Syrians greatly, and with good reason. Not only do the two states share important attributes as the two full democracies of the Middle East, but they also have similar problems with Syrian bellicosity. And as Turks become less reluctant to deal with Israel, the prospects of their cooperating vis-à-vis Syria increase.
Smuggling. Turning to Turkish problems with Syria, Turks intensely resent that their country has become an important transit route for drug trafficking between the Bekaa Valley and Europe. On a lesser scale, agricultural contraband across the Syrian-Turkish border also causes problems, as Syrians smuggle out agricultural goods to escape Syria's high tariffs and reach the Turkish markets where they can gain a better price. In past years, before Turkish border security was improved, as much value in cattle and expensive foodstuffs may have been smuggled across the border as was sent legally.
Border incidents. Syrian forces sometimes attack Turks without provocation and without apparent purpose. On 21 October 1989 at ten in the morning, for example, two Syrian MiG-21 fighter planes entered Turkish airspace in Hatay province and went straight after a crop duster belonging to the provincial Land Registry Directorate. The MiGs shot down this small (35-foot long) civilian airliner, killing all five people aboard. After destroying the plane, the fighters returned quickly to Syrian airspace. At the time of the shooting, the MiGs were more than 20 kilometers inside Turkish airspace; the plane shot down could not have possibly, in broad daylight, been mistaken for a military aircraft. The Syrian government subsequently apologized for the incident, saying it was an accident but did not pay compensation until a year and a half later. To Turks incidents like this seem inspired by pure malice. Other violence, however, is more directed, and to this we now turn our attention.
Terrorism became a major part of the Soviet-Syrian campaign against Turkey in the 1970s and is today the most important item on the Turkish agenda pertaining to Syria. Damascus has relied on several ethnic groups to prosecute its campaign of intimidation against Turkey, including Turks, Greeks, and Greek Cypriots. But Palestinians, Kurds, and Armenians have had pride of place in Syrian efforts against Turkey.
Palestinians. In return for Asad's help, anti-'Arafat Palestinian groups have on occasion done his dirty work in Turkey. For example, Abu Nidal's gang took part in the massacre at Istanbul's Neveh Shalom synagogue in September 1986. But the Palestinian role has been mostly indirect: not so much carrying out operations against Turks as training others who do; and (most helpfully) bringing the latter into contact with Damascus. George Habash's PFLP trained the Turkish group Dev-Sol and the Armenian ASALA in Lebanon and provided them with weapons; in return, members of these groups fought with the Palestinians, especially in 1982.
Kurds. Kurds mainly live in four countries (Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran), with the largest numbers (over ten million) in Turkey. From the establishment of the Turkish republic in 1923 on, Kurds have engaged in an off-and-on insurrection against the central government. In 1974 the Soviets sponsored a Marxist-Leninist organization of Turkish Kurds aiming to establish a separate Kurdish state in eastern Turkey sympathetic to the U.S.S.R. The Worker's Party of Kurdistan (PKK), led by Abdullah Öcalan (known as Apo) took an active part in the spiral of violence and terror that enveloped Turkey in the late 1970s; by the early 1980s, it had become the single greatest menace to Turkish domestic security. Today, after more than ten thousand deaths, it controls substantial parts of eastern Turkey, especially at night.
The PKK has since 1979 relied heavily on Syrian help. Öcalan in that year approached Palestinians in Syria for aid, training, and connections, all of which they supplied. By 1980, Öcalan had become a client of the Syrian regime, and of Hafiz al-Asad's two brothers, Jamil and Rif'at, in particular. In 1982, the PKK proved its mettle by fighting Israeli forces in Lebanon and was rewarded with a large camp in the Bekaa Valley which became its headquarters. In 1991, Öcalan claimed to have "hundreds of camps" in Lebanon; and a reporter did witness that Palestinians and Turks used PKK facilities. At the same time, Turkish police suspected that Dev-Sol operatives worked on contract for the PKK in cities like Istanbul. The PKK's main political office is in Germany and it has nearly a hundred branches throughout Western Europe. Syrian embassies maintain close contact with the PKK in places as diverse as Stockholm and Madrid, providing useful services and receiving various forms of help in return. Although Western states officially acknowledge the PKK's record of terror, the organization continues to enjoy a legal status in some European countries (e.g., Denmark).
Armenians. Armenian nationalism arose in the 1860s with the goal of carving an independent Armenian state out of then decrepit Ottoman Empire; this goal followed by the alleged genocide of Armenians in 1915 created tensions between Armenians and Turks which yet endure. About 1970, many Armenians, "in their search for a model," watched with admiration the way Palestinians succeeded in winning publicity for their cause. Some Armenians joined the PLO, more or less as apprentices. According to one report, the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia was conceptualized by the number-two man in the PLO, Salah Khalaf, and one of his Armenian aides. PLO influence runs deep through ASALA. Starting in 1975, ASALA began a terrorist campaign against Turks and Westerners. Ties remained strong for some years: for example, when the PLO evacuated Beirut in August 1982, it apparently handed over many of its weapons to ASALA.
The liaison between ASALA and the PLO in due course led to a Syrian interest in ASALA, and the two developed close working relations. For example, the ASALA agent who shot up the airport in Ankara on 7 August 1982, killing ten and injuring seventy-one, had arrived in Turkey from Syria. When ASALA split after the PLO left Lebanon, the more radical and violent elements reconstituted their headquarters in Damascus and rebuilt their bases in the Bekaa Valley in 1983-84. ASALA later moved its training camp from there to locations in Syria (including one on the Turkish border at Qamishli). Over the years, "ASALA received training, arms, and forged documents from Syria, accepting in return Syrian participation in the planning of ASALA attacks."
While ASALA has lost importance in recent years, the emergence of an independent Armenia in 1992 opened another front in the Syrian-Turkish confrontation. That President Levon Ter-Petrossian was the son of a Communist Party leader in Syria helped spur the connection, but a shared hostility to the Republic of Turkey provided the real basis of cooperation. Yerevan opened an embassy in Damascus during the depths of its war with Azerbaijan in April 1993 and another in Beirut a year later. In turn, Asad promised 7,000 tons of fuel oil gratis to the Armenians. Azerbaijan's President Ebulfez Ali Elçibey announced in early 1993 that five hundred terrorists had arrived in Armenia from Lebanon, while his ambassador in Ankara asserted that Syrian citizens fought with Armenia against Azerbaijan. Later that year, reports surfaced of PKK bases in Armenia.
While many issues rile Turkish-Syrian relations, two have emerged as paramount: Turkish control of Euphrates waters and Syrian sponsorship of the PKK. In Syrian eyes, these two issues are closely intertwined, as Asad has, over the years, either used or withdrawn his trump card (Kurds) against the Turkish trump (water). In Turkish eyes, the two issues must not be connected. Water is a conventional diplomatic issue to be bargained over, like many others (coastal shelves, fishing rights); terrorism is another story altogether. As Ankara sees it, to reward Asad for sponsoring the PKK would encourage him to use this instrument to raise other questions, such as Turkish control of Hatay province.
Until 1987, Syrian authorities absolutely denied Öcalan's presence in their country. Only when the Turks made clear how much they knew (including the address of his domicile in Damascus) did the Syrians acknowledge his presence to the Turks. Then the real games began. The two governments in July 1987 signed a security protocol, during a state visit by Prime Minister Turgut Özal to Damascus, in which they promised to "obstruct groups engaged in destructive activities directed against one another on their own territory and would not turn a blind eye to them in any way." Instead, the Syrian authorities moved Öcalan to new residences and relocated most PKK facilities from Lebanon (where Turkish forces might attack them, Israeli style) to Syria (where they were much safer). During Özal's second visit in August 1988, the Syrians reiterated that promise. But nothing changed. In fact, things got so bad, Özal took the unprecedented step on 1 October 1989 of publicly threatening Damascus that if it failed to live up to the 1987 security protocol, Ankara would turn off the water flowing across the border, and he added, "We are doubtful they are abiding by these conditions." This warning led to a reduction in PKK attacks, but not for long. A pattern evolved over the next years: Turkish threats, a lull, a new round of attacks; then Turkish threats and the cycle repeats itself.
In early 1992, Ankara became so disturbed by PKK assaults, Foreign Minister Hikmet ?etin announced that "Turkey's relations with Syria will henceforth be affected by the line that country takes on the question of PKK terrorism." In other words, it effectively reduced the bilateral relationship with Damascus to PKK behavior. When asked about the PKK presence, Syrian officials had difficulty providing a satisfactory answer. Bushra Kanafani of the Syrian embassy in Washington replied that her government has "a moral commitment to people who have been there [Damascus] a long time; we can't just throw them out."
In April 1992, the Turkish interior minister took four bulging files of evidence with him to Damascus and demanded a cessation of support for the PKK. The Syrians got the message and signed a second security protocol. In Ankara's understanding, the Syrians thereby agreed to declare "the PKK a terrorist organization that is illegal in Syria, that they will constantly monitor the activities in Syria of organizations that perpetuate terrorist activities against Turkey, and that they will arrest and try the members of that murderous gang when apprehended." Further, the Syrians promised "nice surprises" and made soothing noises ("Whatever disturbs Turkey disturbs us as well").
News soon came from Syria and Lebanon of Öcalan decamping and the bases shutting down. A top PKK leader told the Associated Press, "I am here today with a few comrades to pick up some personal stuff." Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel asserted that the PKK's headquarters in Syria "no longer exists." The Turkish interior minister stated categorically that the PKK had "completely" left the Bekaa Valley and speculated that Öcalan had sought refuge in the chaos of northern Iraq. Others subsequently located him in Beirut, in Greece, in the Greek part of Cyprus, or Armenia. Syria's foreign minister declared Syrian-Turkish relations "at their best level since World War II, if not since World War I." This became the official line: as late as February 1993, the Turkish foreign minister asserted that "there are no activities in Syria that disturb Turkey."
And, indeed, PKK terrorism did temporarily halt. But the Turkish military expressed skepticism, and with reason. By late July, just three months after the second security protocol had been signed, reports came of Öcalan in the Bekaa Valley and the main PKK camp there in operation. In September 1992, angry noises began coming out of Ankara: "Syria will reap a storm." In December, reports surfaced of a new PKK camp at some remove from the Bekaa Valley. In January 1993, a Turkish newspaper said Öcalan was being kept "in a very special location by Syria and is protected by intelligence agents"; indeed, when pressed later that month by a Turkish interviewer about Öcalan's presence, Syria's Prime Minister Mahmud az-Zu'bi pointedly refused to reply (instead, he uttered vacuous statements about cooperation and exchanging information). When the reporter insisted ("are you prepared to hand Abdullah Öcalan to Turkey if you arrest him?"), the prime minister simply replied, with a frown, "I prefer you not to ask me that question." Also in early 1993, a PKK radio station began transmitting from Damascus at 7.04 mHz on the short-wave band.
Syrian leaders acknowledged the PKK's presence but, as in the case of extremist Palestinian groups they host, maintained that it was prohibited from using force. Matters continued to worsen. Official Turkish sources revealed that in October 1993, Damascus and the PKK had secretly agreed that "Syrian commanders are leading some PKK terror units." Turkish sources estimated that some three to five hundred Syrians were involved in the fighting. In return, the PKK agreed "to suppress the Kurds in Syria."
About this time, Turks got thoroughly fed up with Syrian mischief. Prime Minister Tansu Çiller's adviser on foreign affairs traveled to Damascus in early November 1993 and delivered what was said to be an unusually strong statement. ?etin publicly warned Asad: "Turkey cannot tolerate terrorist attacks from any of its neighbors. No one should think Turkey will remain silent about such attacks. The necessary answer will be given." Çetin noted the Syrian denial but said it was "natural" for Ankara to have "difficulties in believing that."
As ever, Damascus replied with the requisite words. On 20 November 1993, a Syrian major general from the Interior Ministry traveled to Ankara and signed an agreement promising that Syria would not serve as a "shelter" or a "passage" for anti-Turkish elements. He also assured the Turks that, if caught, Öcalan would be returned to Turkey. Then, in a novel step, the Syrian state minister for foreign affairs, Nasir Qaddur, went on Turkish television and made what he called "a very important announcement": "The PKK has been declared illegal in Syria. The PKK is considered illegal in accordance with our laws. In brief, the PKK has been banned in Syria. . . . From now on, the PKK or Öcalan may not make use of or pass through Syrian territory."
In the aftermath of these iron-clad assurances, Turkish media reported that Öcalan had been arrested or expelled from Syria. But, again, the issue did not die; already in January 1994, Interior Minister Mahit Mentese publicly took issue with the Syrians' claim that Öcalan had left their country. In February, the Syrian foreign minister stonewalled his Turkish counterpart's protests about the PKK. Mentese made the by-now familiar trek to Damascus in April 1994 to protest Öcalan and the PKK's continued presence in Syria and Lebanon. According to a purported record of his conversation with Syria's Interior Minister Muhammad Harba, Mentese said he had evidence not only of Öcalan's presence in Syrian-controlled areas but proof that PKK rocket launchers captured in Turkey had come via Syria. Mentese again heard the right words from Harba but seven years of all talk and no action left him skeptical. "The Syrians," he said, "have responded positively to the problems presented by Turkey and its request for cooperation on those issues." But that was not enough: "We have to see concrete results."
When Mümtaz Soysal replaced Hikmet Çetin as Turkey's foreign minister in July 1994, he reduced the pressure on Damascus (for example, he pointedly refused to request Öcalan's extradition). After a trip to Damascus, Soysal declared himself "less pessimistic" about relations with Syria because the Asad regime accepted his proposal that the two states begin with the easier issues (border crossing, land ownership, trade), then move on to the more challenging ones (the PKK and water). This, he hoped, would create "an atmosphere of mutual understanding." Soysal clearly improved the tone of the two states' relations; it remains to be seen whether they will also improve in substance.
Years of abiding by Syrian transgressions leaves many Turks frustrated and angry, prompting them openly increasingly to demand radical measures. Fatih Cekirge proposed blocking the Euphrates Waters; or trying "methods used by Israel" and dispatching units to destroy the PKK camps and kill Öcalan. Evren Deger stated baldly that Turkish forces could strike the PKK's camps in Lebanon "whenever they want to do so." Gungor Mengi called for a cut-off of Euphrates waters, an attack on PKK bases in Lebanon, and "all-out war against Syria." Yalcin Özer termed Syria "a country ruled by a gang that has terrorist roots, a country that should not be considered a state because there is absolutely no reason to see it as such," and called for the Turkish secret service to eliminate Öcalan.
Syria, Turkey, and Israel. Though rarely looked at in tandem, Syrian disputes with Turkey and Israel share a number of features. Both revolve around territory once Syrian and still claimed by the Asad regime, Hatay (lost in 1939) and the Golan Heights (lost in 1967). In both cases, terrorism and water have central importance. Asad sponsors a dozen or so terrorist groups-ethnic, religious, ideological-against each of Turkey and Israel. New dams in Turkey permit Ankara to make life-and-death decisions about the quantity of Euphrates River water flowing into Syria; Syrian threats to divert the Jordan's tributaries could (were Damascus to recover the Golan Heights) deprive Israel of up to half of its water supplies. Further, because Turkey and Israel are the two key allies of the United States in the Middle East, one a member of NATO and the other a partner in the most special of the United States' many special relationships, their problems with Syria take on a parallel international dimension as well.
Despite the inordinate attention to Syria's confrontation with Israel, its face-off with Turkey may present the more explosive dangers. Consider these differences:
* The conflict with Israel is an old one, which Damascus long ago lost and militarily can have few expectations of winning in the future. In contrast, the conflict with Turkey is yet mounting, with new issues (such as the PKK) supplementing old ones (Hatay).
* The world closely follows the conflict with Israel, so for Damascus to choose war against Israel would be tantamount to renouncing its campaign to win Western favor. But the conflict with Turkey is obscure, so fighting presumably would not much affect Asad's standing in the West.
* The U.S. government would likely assist Israel in the case of war with Syria. Although Turkey is a NATO ally, American assistance against Damascus seems unreliable at best, in part because of German reluctance to have NATO help Turkey.
Like the Iraqi claim to Kuwait, the Syrian claim to parts of Turkey represents one of those back-burner, open-ended issues of the Middle East that could unexpectedly flare up and create a serious crisis. (Along similar lines, the Palestinian claim to Jerusalem has suddenly, after decades in remission, emerged as an issue again, as did the Halayib issue between Egypt and Sudan; the Iranian claim to Bahrain could explode at any point, as could the Moroccan claim to Ceuta and Melilla; Saudi Arabia has outstanding territorial disputes with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen; and so forth.) This revanchist pretension is most likely to become active if the other issues, terrorism and water, cannot be dealt with. Indeed, a former Syrian official, Murhaf Jouejati, has publicly speculated that "the two [states] are on a collision course" unless they can resolve their differences.
Turkish impatience has potentially ominous implications for Damascus. Although Syrian military strength is considerable, it is heavily deployed in Lebanon and versus Israel, leaving little to spare for the north. Also, an American military analyst notes, Asad's forces "could not get tanks to the Turkish border except by driving them," which would be slow and would greatly damage the tracks and engines. (Of course, peace with Israel would free up these forces and weapons.) In contrast, Turkish military forces are redeploying from the Aegean region to the southeast of Anatolia (mostly to deal with the PKK), where they will be conveniently located to deal with Syria. Only slightly exaggerating, one former U.S. ambassador to Damascus observed that "the only thing that would delay the Turks in an invasion of Syria would be the need to stop and drink tea."
War or peace ahead? Tensions along the Syria-Turkish border may be characterized as a limited Syrian irredentism toward Turkey deterred but not eliminated by Turkish counter pressures. Damascus seeks to annex parts of Turkish territory and render the authority that governs the rest of Turkey incapable or uninterested in challenging its sway. If it cannot have what it wants-and it cannot just now-Damascus seeks to amass leverage to support its goals, while at the same time purporting interest in normal relations until new opportunities arise.
In a typical example of Asad's double game, Syrian-Turkish relations proceed along two tracks, one publicly correct and at times even friendly, the other privately hostile and suspicious. The two discourses remain for the most part separate, with foreign ministries handling the friendly portfolio and interior ministries the hostile one.
A second double game plays out within the first. After a number of Syrian-backed terrorist incidents take place, followed by Syrian denials of guilt, a Turkish delegation goes to Damascus and presents the authorities there with hard evidence. The Syrians reject the evidence but at the same time assure the Turks that they will make sure the problem does not recur. They do for a while, and matters calm down. Then, some months later, Syrian backed terror against Turkey mounts again. A Turkish delegation takes off for Damascus . . . and the process begins over again.
There are reasons to expect Turkish-Syrian relations to remain calm, what with visits back and forth, plenty of communications, and a mutual interest in keeping up appearances. A series of small agreements (on the selling of electricity from Turkey to Syria and a limited accord on promoting tourism) point to a building of relations. The frontier area has become more relaxed; for example, in the 1980s, the Turkish and Syrian governments began to permit archaeologists and geologists from abroad-including the United States-to work near the border. The two sides have lived with each other in peace since Syrian independence, and both governments know that more is to be lost from fighting than gained by it. The two states actively cooperate vis-à-vis Iraq, with their foreign ministers meeting several times a year to discuss strategy. Common bonds forged by history and religion should temper future problems. Also, Turkey's leverage from its water projects may lead to a greater degree of Syrian caution.
Still, not all recent trends point to better Syrian-Turkish relations and a host of bilateral tensions will keep relations simmering. The relative quiet of recent years reflects not an absence of problems but a Turkish determination to contain them. The Turkish position has gradually hardened as the leadership felt that Asad was trying to make fools of them; it may not be willing indefinitely to accept this treatment. Asad may be playing a double game with an opponent unwilling to go along with his subtle turns. The Turkish-Syrian border could unexpectedly and rapidly become a crisis point.
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