The Quiet Crisis: Turkish-Syrian Relations
by Daniel Pipes and Adam Garfinkle
It is easy to overlook Syrian-Turkish tensions, and the Western press generally has. The two states do not engage in the loud polemics that characterize relations each has with several of its neighbors. Violent acts against Turkey have taken place over recent years with some regularity, but they have not been large-scale, have usually been distant from the more populated regions of Turkey, and have been carried out by proxies. Moreover, the two governments generally refrain from overt hostility, and relations even improved broadly in the 1970s and 1980s over those of the 1950s and 1960s. On the formal level, the 1987‑90 period, too, has witnessed an improvement in economic and cultural ties, even though the tenor of political affairs has been mixed. The loosening of Cold War blocs also removes an important source of friction between Ankara and Damascus, and so normal, if not particularly friendly, relations may well characterize future ties.
But relative quiet does not imply an absence of tensions nor is future comity assured. Serious conflicts of interest remain having to do with border issues, questions pertaining to water and riparian rights, religious outlook, political-military orientation, drug-trafficking, smuggling, terrorism, and espionage. That these are not merely abstract concerns is shown by the build-up of border and internal security forces on the Turkish side of the Syrian-Turkish frontier. Since the raid on the Kurdish village of Pinarcik, launched from Syrian territory on June 20, 1987, the Turkish government has built lighted watchtowers which, according to Turkish press accounts, are placed every 500 to 1,000 meters along a 640 kilometer-long section (from near Cizre to Barak) of the 900 kilometer-long border. In addition, soldiers were said to have dug covered trenches every 100 meters, and to have installed rifle pits every 50 meters. The most likely tracks for entering and leaving Turkey along the border were also covered with soft soil to make tracking easier. In January 1989, the Turkish government announced the introduction of thermal cameras (infrared sensors that detect temperature changes and go off when human bodies heat up the area) along the border, and a number of infiltration attempts were reportedly foiled by the new equipment. In mid-1989, Turkey arranged to purchase Blackhawk helicopters from the United States to aid Turkish efforts to secure the frontier.
These measures have not made a very porous border impassable, but they have made violating it more difficult. They may have convinced Syria to remove some of the bases along the Turkish border that had been used to harbor Kurdish rebels. The point is: while fences make good neighbors, good neighbors needn't build such very elaborate fences.
Looked at as a whole, tensions between these two states may be characterized as a limited Syrian revanchism toward Turkey that is deterred, but not eliminated, by a variety of Turkish counterpressures. Neither government wants war, and neither superpower patron in years past has ever wanted a crisis in Turko-Syrian relations, so all sides have sought to control tensions. The relative quiet, however, has reflected a determination to contain problems, not an absence of them.
Not all recent trends point to better Syrian-Turkish relations. The border might well remain an arena of conflict during the next decade. There is about an even chance that it could witness limited military engagements within the next decade—possibly over water—and a more severe deterioration of relations cannot be entirely ruled out. Still, 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. In addition, common bonds forged by history and religion promise, at least, to temper any problems that might arise in the future.
Aside from the regional dimension of Turkish-Syrian conflict, there has been a superpower dimension of this issue making it of concern to the U.S. government. Turkish-Syrian relations have represented a confrontation at the margins between two alliance systems, the Syrian-Soviet and the Turkish-American. Any test of wills between Syria and Turkey has had general implications for the way that those states, and others as well, have seen the utility of alliance with its respective superpower patron.
Until 1990, the Syrian government was consistently and vociferously anti-American, and for decades pursued an active role in foiling U.S. diplomacy with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict, U.S. initiatives to combat international terrorism, and other regional issues. Limited U.S.-Syrian cooperation in the Kuwait crisis of 1990 has changed the tone of the relationship somewhat, but how deep or lasting the change really is remains to be seen. Turkey is Russia's long-term adversary, a formal ally of the United States, and a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). When Syria acted to irritate Turkey, it acted in part to please its superpower patron, for whom such irritation has been, within limits, a net asset. When Turkey acts to deflect Syrian pressures, it acts in part to show the United States that it is a strong and reliable ally willing to shoulder the burden of its own security.
The evidence suggests that Damascus and Moscow together probed against Turkey until recently, experimenting with new forms of indirect aggression against the NATO member possessing the largest army in Europe. The experiment proved worthwhile. Syrian behavior undoubtedly carried the message to the Turks that the Soviet Union was willing to assist it in assaulting Turkish security interests. And while Turkey never specifically requested U.S. support to offset Syrian activities, Soviet-Syrian efforts raise sensitive out-of-area NATO concerns—a divisive issue since 1964, when the United States refused to back the Turkish position over Cyprus.
From the American point of view, the limited successes of the Syrian and Soviet campaign against Turkey carried with them a cost not only to Turkey, but to the United States. Turkish measures to respond to campaigns of terror and subversion, whether of domestic origins or aided from abroad, injured Turkish interests in Western Europe and the United States. Further, Syrian activities may have whetted the appetite of the revisionist rulers in Damascus for more.
Since the political era of Mikhail Gorbachev, there has clearly been an ebbing of the Soviet interest and capacity to destabilize Turkey. There is no longer a coordinated campaign led by the Soviets, organized with Syria, and directed against Ankara. Nevertheless, older and cruder tactics might one day return, for the capabilities that have evolved over the last two decades remain intact and the Russian political future is cloudy. In the meantime, the Syrians and even still the Soviets keep a modest hand in subversion within Turkey due to their connections with a variety of irritants—Kurds, Armenians, Palestinians, and others—that remain parts of regional political dynamics.
Thus, whether as the result of active conspiring or as a part of the architecture of local interests, troubles between Syria and Turkey have had implications transcending their own relations, and might again one day. Syrian-Turkish tensions affect U.S. ties with Turkey and the long term stability of NATO's southeastern flank. The uncertain future Russian role, too, casts a shadow over the future of great power relations both in the region and outside it. For these reasons, it makes sense to focus attention on what is now a quiet problem, but a problem just the same.
The following pages (1) review elements of the Turkish-Syrian-Soviet triangle, (2) probe the activities of three major organizations that have worked and are still working for Damascus and against Ankara (the PLO, the PKK, and ASALA), (3) look in detail at selected events during 1987-90, and (4) point to the patterns, trends, and implications of Syrian-Turkish tensions.
Motives and Goals
Soviet-Syrian cooperation against Turkey started in the early years of the Cold War. It grew out of a combination of three factors: Syrian hostility toward Turkey; historic Russian ambitions against Turkey; and the of a Syrian-Soviet alliance. Each leg of this triangle deserves consideration.
Syria vs. Turkey
The Syrian regime of Hafiz al-Asad has historical, ideological, and practical reasons to pressure the Turkish government. Ideally, Syria would like to annex parts of Turkish territory and render the authority that governs the rest incapable or uninterested in posing security problems for Damascus. If it cannot have what it wants—and it cannot just now—it seeks to amass leverage to support its goals, while at the same time taking an interest in normal relations until new opportunities arise.
Irredentist claims. The Pan-Syrianists ruling in Damascus today do not fully accept Syrian frontiers with Jordan, Iraq, Israel, or Lebanon; it would almost be too much to ask that Turkey be an exception. Turkey possesses Hatay province (formerly known as Alexandretta) which Damascus claims for itself. Although the territory became Turkish in 1939, it remains a potentially significant issue largely because it was the result of a Franco-Turkish deal done at a time before Syrian independence. It thus represents a lingering stain of European colonialism on Syrian national aspirations and, as such, is a useful focus for a country otherwise bereft of a solid sense of national identity. Every evening, Damascus's television weather map includes Hatay within Syria. Every year, the Syria's United Nations delegation demands its return. A Syrian general was quoted not long ago pointing to the fact that Hatay continues to be shown on official Syrian maps as part of Syria, then added meaningfully: "Draw your own conclusions."
Hatay is less than one-fifth the size of mandatory Palestine; so the fact that the Syrian foreign minister stated in 1980 that "Turkey usurped five times the area of Palestine from Syria" implies that Damascus considers its "usurped" territory to include not just Hatay but an area twenty-five times its size—roughly the equivalent of England. This "claim" concerns the area of Turkey south of the Taurus and Anti-Taurus Mountains, a region that formed a portion of historic Syria. Although these territories became part of the Turkish republic in 1921, the Asad government apparently still considers them lost provinces.
Euphrates River waters. Turkey is now in a position to control most of the Euphrates River waters which flow into Syria and Iraq. The execution stage began in 1974 with the completion of the Keban Dam. The massive Atatürk Dam, the fourth-largest dam in the world, begun in 1983, is scheduled for final completion in 1992. And the Atatürk is just one of 15 dams and 18 hydroelectric power plants in the Southeastern Anatolia Project (SAP), a grandiose effort designed to turn the region into "the breadbasket of the Middle East." All these projects imply keeping more water for Turkish use, both for agriculture and for the urban centers expected to develop in southeast Anatolia.
The water projects have major political implications. First, they give the Turks control over the waters of the Euphrates, making it possible to deprive Syria at will of much, if not most, of its water. Particularly during times of relative drought, such as that afflicting the region in the spring and summer of 1989, this capacity has literally life and death dimensions. After the completion of two small dams in 1983, their initial operation somewhat reduced the flow of water into Syria. Some observers viewed this as a Turkish countermeasure, or better, perhaps, preliminary muscle-flexing, for the general Syrian support given to Armenian terrorism directed against Turkey. Syrian authorities cannot but understand the power these dams imply, in part because it provides a formidable instrument in Turkish hands, in part because they too have plans for agricultural expansion, and Syrian electrical power needs are growing. Moreover, many Turks do not understand the logic wherein they must pay heavily for Arab oil, but the Arabs need not pay anything for "Turkish water." The Syrians are surely aware of this attitude.
In addition, the dams are also a source of tensions with the Kurds, many of whom fear being removed from their ancestral lands in favor of projects associated with the GAP. Indeed, the Turkish press has reported that in 1987 the inhabitants of 484 Kurdish villages were ordered to move to western Anatolia.
Future Syrian operations may well be directed against the Atatürk Dam. In January 1989, eleven members of the PKK organization were captured trying to infiltrate from Syria in the Sunruc district—significantly, at a location near the construction site of the Atatürk Dam. Circumstantial evidence suggests that they were planning an attack on the dam. The dams are both a cause of tension and, under extreme circumstances, a potential target of the Syrian air force. In anticipation of trouble, GAP contractors have put up peripheral fences around their projects and have posted two guards every kilometer or so along the fences. ENR 29
Smuggling. The Syrian government depends on drug production and trafficking, and here too Turkey plays a key role. The drugs originate primarily in the Biqa' Valley of Lebanon, which is occupied by Syrian troops. From there, various Syrian surrogates carry the drugs through Turkey to Europe and points beyond. The Syrian-Turkish frontier has become an important corridor for drug trafficking and, although there is no hard evidence of official Syrian involvement, one can assume that, given the tight ship that Asad's Syria is, such activities cannot take place on their present scale without official sanction, and perhaps even official encouragement. The many rumors about high-ranking Syrian officials being personally involved in the trade point in the same direction. In any case, it is beyond question that many of Damascus's various proxy groups have become a part of the worldwide narco-terror network, using illicit drug sales to finance their activities. The Turks have a history of international difficulty with the drug business—opium cultivation having been put under control only within the last two decades, in large part prompted by the United States. Having come so far away from it, the last thing the Turkish government needs or wants is to be lured or pushed back into that particular mess by the Syrians.
Drugs are not the only problem. Agricultural goods are smuggled, too, to escape tariffs and taxes and reach more lucrative markets in Turkey, and this causes strains between the two countries. In past years, before border security was improved, as much value in cattle and expensive foodstuffs was smuggled across the border as was sent legally. The Syrian-Turkish border is long (about 900 kilometers) and intrinsically hard to police. The highway running across the border is a main overland trunk route for international traffic. In addition, Syrian authorities have not reinforced their banks of the Tigris—which forms the Syrian-Turkish border in Kurdistan between Cizre and the jointure of the Syrian-Turkish-Iraqi frontier—making security difficult to maintain and smuggling easy. The Turks suspect that this neglect is deliberate. During Prime Minister Turgut Özal's July 1987 visit to Syria, he alluded to the problem by announcing at a news conference in Damascus that good relations are necessary because of a shared river; this was Özal's oblique way of saying that if Syria wants good relations, it had better act more responsibly in regulating its bank of the river.
Land appropriations. Land problems between Syria and Turkey have their origins in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the development of dissimilar land policies in the two countries. Turks acquired and farmed land in what is today Syria primarily in the period 1870-1916 and some members of the Syrian aristocracy acquired land in today's Turkey. After World War I, with the formation of the Turkish Republic and the French mandate over Syria, the two sides developed, with considerable difficulty, special arrangements to allow farmers on both sides to tend their fields. These arrangements had to be renegotiated after Syrian independence in 1946, with difficulty again, and with only partial success. The rise of radicalism in Syria during the mid-1950s led to further troubles. Problems worsened after 1963, when the Ba'th Party came to power in Syria and executed land reforms which upset reciprocal extraterritoriality dispensations for private owners. Most Turkish landowners in Syria preferred to unload their holdings rather than contend with Ba'th radicalism, raising the issue of compensation for expropriated lands and whole new range of unsolved disputes which lasted until Hafiz al-Asad took power. He reached a series of compromises to defuse most, though not all, of these issues. Land questions remain a source of ill feelings, especially for Turks living near the Syrian border.
International alignment. Turkey is a loyal and important part of NATO, while Syria has been closely aligned with the Soviet Union. Although small allies sometimes strive to limit the price they pay for being the junior member of a partnership, at other times they take it upon themselves to prove their worth to their main sponsor by making life difficult for the ally of the opposite great power patron. This latter motive seems to have played some part in the Syrian animus toward Turkey.
U.S.S.R. vs. Turkey
The many areas of Syrian-Turkish tension notwithstanding, it does not follow that, left to themselves, the Syrians would participate in a major campaign of subversion and terror against Turkey as they did in years past. Soviet interests probably contributed to bilateral tensions, and policies adopted in the 1960s and 1970s left an institutional residue that carries on at a lower level even in the absence of direct Soviet activities. The elements of Soviet interest have been many and longstanding.
Russian leaders have tried to reduce Turkish power for several centuries. They had almost unimpeded success from the time of Peter the Great in 1711 until the demise of the Ottoman Empire. Pressure moderated in the 1920s, owing to problems on the new Soviet home front, and in the 1930s Moscow had to compete with German influence. This historical legacy served as a basis for a new hostility after World War II, when Turkey became firmly aligned with the West.
At that time, Russian pressure on Turkey resumed; only stiff Turkish resistance and timely American support through the Truman Doctrine turned aside Soviet ambitions. After Joseph Stalin's death, a somewhat more normal relationship evolved, largely at Soviet initiative. Relations remained troubled, however, and occasionally threatened to turn violent. When Turkish forces were mobilized on the Syrian frontier in 1957, Moscow came to Damascus's support. Ankara was reacting to a series of what it took to be threats. First, it worried about a communist takeover in Syria, which may have been an exaggerated fear but by no means an empty one. It also feared that the Soviets would build up the Syrian military. And it worried about evidence that Syria was trying to subvert the Hashemite regimes in Iraq and Jordan, both bastions of support for Turkey. Indeed, the Turkish mobilization coincided roughly with the Nablusi episode in Jordan, which nearly overthrew King Husayn, and may have been designed in part to warn the Syrians against intervening more forcefully in Jordanian troubles.
During the July 1958 crisis occasioned by civil war in Lebanon and revolution in Iraq, Turkish leaders took Soviet political advances in Syria and Iraq very seriously, especially as Soviet military forces mobilized along the Soviet-Turkish frontier. The Turks reasoned that a military attack on Turkey initiated by the USSR might also include Syria, and possibly Iraq. And while the Turkish accession to the U.S. request in 1958 to host intermediate-range nuclear missiles probably had more to do with changes in NATO strategy, it might also have reflected Turkey's desire to gain a strategic ace-in-the-hole over the new threat to the south.
Moscow shifted to a more normal relationship with Turkey as part of a re-orientation of Soviet policy toward Europe which occurred around 1960. Throughout most of the 1970s, too, Turkish-Soviet relations were good; indeed, Turkey was the prime non-communist recipient of Soviet nonmilitary aid for much of this period. Economic cooperation reached high levels, in particular, as the Soviets capitalized on the Cyprus crisis of 1974-75 and the resulting deterioration of U.S.-Turkish relations.
Fissures among the Western allies, in part over Cyprus, led Soviet strategists to believe that Turkey was separable from the United States and NATO, in fact if not formally. Soviet global policy was becoming more active and coercive under Leonid Brezhnev, and at time when Turkey appeared vulnerable to being split off from NATO. Using carrot and stick, Moscow tried to persuade the Turks not to re-open closed U.S. bases and even to leave NATO altogether. Moscow implied that if Ankara did not move in that direction, the economic benefits of Turkish-Soviet détente would founder. On another level, too, Moscow began experimenting with subverting Turkey, using Turkish leftists and Bulgarian, Palestinian, Armenian, and Syrian agents.
NATO's initial response to the Soviet challenge to Turkey of the mid-1970s was halting and timid. Rather than recognize Soviet policy objectives for what they were, NATO members instead criticized Turkish responses to the internal security threat. Criticism was exacerbated by widespread opposition to Turkey's policies in Cyprus and resentment toward the millions of Turkish guest workers in Western Europe. In the United States, it took continuous efforts by Presidents Ford and Carter to undo the congressionally imposed arms embargo against Turkey, finally succeeding in August 1978.
Emboldened by widening rifts in Turkish relations with the United States and West Europe, Moscow turned to brasher tactics. Unquestionably, Soviet efforts contributed substantially to the Turkish times of troubles and then to the Turkish military coup of September 1980. By 1979, Turkey was reeling from spasms of domestic violence aided and abetted from abroad. The chorus of European criticism—mainly from the left—at Turkey's attempt to respond to the threat was again predictable. When the Turkish military intervened in 1980, it was vilified by opinion leaders in Western Europe and by the human rights lobby in the United States. Most Turks, however, were relieved. However unpopular in the West, the military takeover abruptly ended the domestic crisis.
Relations with the USSR improved as subversion decreased, in part perhaps because Moscow's other considerations (the war in Afghanistan, the Iraq-Iran war, internal reforms), left little attention for an active policy toward Turkey. Since the mid-1980s, Soviet policy has maintained the double-track toward Turkey, combining an amiable public diplomacy with private pressures mobilized through various clients, including Syria and a host of proxies. What has changed is the proportions, with the former gradually but undoubtedly becoming more important than the latter.
Analysts often overlook the fact that Turkish territory separates the Middle East from the U.S.S.R. As Dankwart Rustow rightly notes, "It is in large measure thanks to the existence and effectiveness of the Turkish barrier that Soviet successes in the Arab countries, though often great, were always precarious, leaving the rulers of those countries the option of reducing or even eliminating Soviet influence if they so chose." (Ironically, then, Ankara's alliance with Washington is what will someday enable a different government in Damascus to turn against Moscow if it wishes to do so.)
Even more important, Turkey gives NATO a geographic reach it would otherwise lack, for, other than a tiny part of Norway, eastern Anatolia is the only NATO territory contiguous to the U.S.S.R. This gives Turkey a crucial role in intelligence gathering and strategic planning. Further, Turkey controls the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, critical choke points facing the Soviet navy.
For centuries, Russian expansion aimed ultimately at control of these passages from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. In both world wars, Russian and then Soviet ambitions were similarly directed, as evidenced by both the Sykes-Picot accord of 1916 and the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement of November 1940. With the death of Stalin in 1953, a major change occurred, as Moscow agreed to operate within the framework of the Montreux Convention (which it had signed). This meant, in effect, that the Soviet Union gave up formal territorial ambitions in the Dardanelle Straits. In an implicit quid pro quo that has endured ever since, Ankara has gone out of its way to interpret the convention to favor Soviet interests.
From the Turkish point of view, the 1936 convention is the best that can be hoped for, for it bestows more authority on Turkey than would any revised convention. Therefore, whenever the Soviets have wished to have an ambiguous clause interpreted in their favor, all they have needed to do is suggest subtly a preference for a revision of the convention and the Turks have usually come to terms. Thus, Ankara often does not apply provisions that limit frequency of passage and that stipulate advance notice before certain categories of ships may pass through the straits. Though Article 12 stipulates that Soviet submarines must travel by day, they routinely begin their passage through the Straits before first light, making it harder for them to be observed.
During ordinary times, the Turkish attitude toward Soviet practices is no cause for alarm, but routine practices take on more serious dimensions in crisis. The U.S.S.R. has since the mid-1960s maintained a permanent squadron in the Mediterranean, operating out of the Black Sea. For this squadron to operate effectively in crisis, it must rotate its ships more quickly than the convention allows. In the 1967 and 1973 Middle East wars, as well as in the 1970 Jordan crisis, the Turks accepted thinly veiled Soviet ploys that allowed Moscow effectively to traverse the Straits at will. Part of the Soviet resupply operation to the Arabs was carried through the Straits (and at the same time, the Turks refused to allow the United States use of American bases on Turkish territory for the resupply of Israel). Also, according to the convention, only ships permanently based in the Black Sea can transit the Straits, but during the October War and since, the Soviets have rotated submarines that were not based there.
In 1976, the Turks allowed passage of the Soviet aircraft carrier Kiev through the Turkish straits, though the convention implicitly denies passage to such capital ships; this was circumvented through the ploy of defining the Kiev as an "antisubmarine cruiser." The Tbilisi—a 70,000 ton, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier almost twice the size of Kiev-class ships—was completed in 1989 at the Soviet naval yard of Nikolayev on the Black Sea. The question of whether an aircraft carrier is a "capital ship" arose again when it was ready to put to sea. The Kiev could still be called a cruiser, but much more difficult to call the Tbilisi one. But again, Ankara seeks neither a crisis over the Straits nor revision of the Montreux Convention; the former would lead to a NATO-Soviet confrontation, the latter would erode Turkey's preferential position in the Straits. Therefore, the story of what to do about the Tbilisi proved interesting.
As the event drew nearer, parts of the Turkish press clearly declaimed against calling the Tblisi anything but an aircraft carrier. Cahit Akyol, writing in Gunaydin, was blunt: "The aircraft carrier, which is currently being tested in the Black Sea, must definitely not cross through the Dardanelles." The Soviet consul general in Istanbul, a General Parloushin, replied that the ship was not an aircraft carrier, only a cruiser that carried aircraft. The ship did transit the Straits, officials in Ankara accepting the Soviet definition. Despite consistent Turkish pliancy in such matters, however, Soviet interest in revisions of the Montreux Convention of 1936, or reinterpretations of it (which amount to the same thing), grew with the increasing blue water reach of the Soviet Navy.
Syria and the U.S.S.R
Close Syrian ties to the Soviet Union date from 1955, but Syrian politics were radicalized with the rise of the Ba'th Party to power in March 1963, bringing the two states closer in ideology and geopolitical outlook. Despite tensions for some years after Hafiz al-Asad came to power in November 1970, relations blossomed after 1977. The defection of Egypt from the Soviet system in 1972 was a major factor in bringing the Soviets and the Syrians closer together, for Damascus needed Soviet arms and Moscow needed Syria to ensure Soviet influence in the Middle East. Syrian overtures to the United States in 1975‑77 notwithstanding, this bond grew ever firmer from Sadat's trip to Jerusalem in November 1977 until the attenuation of Soviet power in the 1989-90 period.
The two states never enjoyed a perfect harmony of interests, but their bonds far surpassed the "marriage of convenience" some analysts saw. Syria, indeed, had its own part to play in the "socialist division of labor" that involved East Germany, Vietnam, Cuba, and other states in a worldwide effort against the United States and its allies. The Syrian military was partially integrated into the Soviet system, especially with regard to its navy, air force, and short-range ballistic missiles. In addition, some Turkish sources were concerned that stocks of Syrian tanks, artillery and aircraft were so much larger than the number of troops that could man them that they represented pre-positioned stocks for use in major conflict. Clearly, Syria has been a potential third front for Turkey in a NATO war, along with Thrace and eastern Turkey, and it could do much damage to extended and soft lines of communications in southeastern Turkey.
As regards Turkey, Syrian and Soviet interests created a malign synergy: the Soviets helped Damascus with planning, financing, and coordination; Asad helped the Kremlin destabilize a very important member of NATO. While the level of activity today is far less than it was a decade ago, it is still not zero and it need not be permanently reduced. Even if the Soviet Union collapses fully and finally, Russia will surely one day return as a great power. Given the long legacy of Russo-Turkish relations, there is no "end of history" to be found here.
The Syrian-Soviet Axis
Soviet-Syrian activities aimed against Turkey have in the past combined two tactical elements. The proximate one involved state-sponsored terrorism directed against Turkey. But the background element—the danger that the Soviet military presence in Syria poses for Turkey—provided the essential context.
Turkish military planners have long assumed that Soviet aggression against Turkey would involve an active southern front along the Syrian frontier. In the 1980s, they also considered the possibility of Syrian support for a breakaway Kurdish state. This partly explains why, in preparation for the Conventional Stability Talks (CST, since renamed CFE, Conventional Forces in Europe) in early 1989 -- the replacement for the failed Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction negotiations—the Turks tried to exclude an area in eastern Turkey from the CFE negotiations, which are an exclusively European affair.
The Turks have had reason to worry. Soviet military involvement in Syria was still growing as of mid-1989, with a new naval complex at Tartus a key element. Just as NATO naval operations in the Mediterranean are complicated by Soviet-Syrian military coordination, so are all aspects of Turkish military planning. At the very least, resources to be committed to the defense of the frontier with Syria cannot be brought to bear in a NATO context. This does not mean that the Soviet Union has ever wanted Syria to get involved in a war with Turkey, or that if it had the Soviet Union would have actively supported it. Damascus had no carte blanche in that regard. But the use of Syria to complicate NATO planning is part and parcel of sound geopolitical planning, and the Soviets have missed few tricks at this art.
Soviet-Syrian state-sponsored terrorism has been the active portion of the strategic problem that the Soviet-Syrian alliance poses for Turkey. For nearly two decades, Turkey has been periodically plagued with subversive campaigns, some of them actively supported by external parties. A drug-trafficking enterprise in the early 1970s had support from the Soviet Union and made use of Syrian, Bulgarian and, later, Palestinian surrogates. As Turkish democratic institutions faltered in the late 1960s and early 1970s, domestic terrorism of the extreme left was the main problem. The problem grew worse in 1975, with the advent of terrorism of the right as well. Mass gang warfare broke out in many Turkish cities and the Soviets helped arm both sides.
The development of terrorism as an instrument of state power changed the quality of Soviet-Syrian efforts against Turkey. Its instruments were mostly nationalist and leftist organizations working with Syrian intelligence. Their main activities were to foment terrorism and insurgency.
As Asad and other Middle East leaders (especially Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi and Ayatollah Khomeini) came to rely increasingly on terrorism, what had been the refuge of desperate revolutionaries became a preferred mechanism of state power. Terrorist groups benefited from cooperation with Damascus by gaining vastly enhanced means: they received better, more varied, and more plentiful weapons; they had access to more convincing forged documents and safe houses in other countries through the use of embassies and state agents; their members received training and were put in contact with other groups with whom they shared common interests. States gained by having access to an ample supply of highly motivated agents whose activities could not be easily traced back to themselves.
Damascus has continued to rely on a variety of groups in its campaign against Turkey. These included the small remnant of leftist Turks within Turkey itself, such as the clandestine and devoutly Stalinist Communist Party and a half dozen other Marxist-Leninist groups, as well as some leftist Greeks and Greek Cypriots willing to help the Kurds and Armenians run guns and drugs. But Palestinian, Kurdish, and Armenian groups have been by far the most important proxies in Syrian efforts against Turkey, and they remain so today.
Moscow armed and abetted both left and right extremism in Turkey through a variety of agents—Syrians, Bulgarians, Palestinians, Kurds, Armenians, dissident Turks, and Greek and Greek-Cypriot leftists. The Soviets had also refined and broadened a network of surrogates which came to include cadres of leftist Turkish workers (Gastarbeiter) in West Germany. Some idea of the complexity and breadth of Soviet activities was revealed in connection with Mehmet Ali Ağca, Pope John Paul II's would-be assassin who was apparently set up by the KGB. Ankara's severe response to these activities undermined the functioning of Turkey's democratic institutions and led to its partial estrangement from Western Europe and NATO.
There is not much question that the Soviet Union was complicit in Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) terror campaigns in the 1970s. The PLO was then based in Lebanon, where it became a vehicle for training and supporting terror operations aimed against Turkey, often within the context of Syrian-directed or -supported operations. The Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) was long a tool of Soviet diplomacy. There is evidence—such as the focus by Syrian operatives on NATO bases—that the Kremlin not only has known of Syrian efforts against Turkey, but has aided and helped coordinate them. Two incidents of Syrian agents snooping around NATO facilities near Adana and Incerlik, one in 1986 and one in 1987, are matters of record. Specific instances of Syrian agents getting caught since are not, but U.S. and NATO officials in Turkey have assumed that Syrian operatives take an interest in NATO operations.
Further, Moscow has not relied on Syria alone in its efforts against Turkey. A Bulgarian connection has also had importance, for example, in the plot to kill Pope John Paul II. Bulgarian support for Turkish-organized crime lords may have been related to this. So might have been the campaign of harassment against the Turkish population of Bulgaria.
The Syrian-Soviet subversive campaign has had two objectives: to destabilize and to discredit the Turkish government. Terrorism has reduced the authorities' control, especially in the southeast of the country. This increased the two states' leverage over Ankara, made smuggling easier, and promoted the further escalation of violent activities designed to garner still more leverage.
No less important, subversion blemished the Turkish image in the West and weakened Turkey's position within NATO. Intervention by the Turkish military has always irritated relations with Western Europe and the United States, also to the general detriment of NATO. As noted above, Turkish responses to subversion have often touched off acrimonious Western accusations of human rights abuses in Turkey. Some suspect, too, that ASALA's operations, which almost never took place within Turkey, were designed to exacerbate relations between Turkey and the Western allied country in which the terrorist act took place.
This issue has grown in importance as Ankara seeks to associate itself closely with an economically congealing European Community. As one European diplomat put it: "There would be a lot less criticism of Turkey if it was not trying to join the club." While ASALA appears to be in disarray, and its terror campaign in remission, the PKK is situated to take up the slack, and the results of a new terror campaign could injure Turkey's campaign to further integrate its economic institutions with those of post-Cold War Europe.
Further, Syrian-Soviet efforts have been intended to reduce Turkish confidence in the United States. By attacking a flank not formally protected by NATO's obligations to Turkey, they raised sensitivities about the value of the U.S. alliance outside the strictly European context, a sensitivity has its roots in the traumatic "Johnson letter" of 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson warned Ankara that the United States was not obliged to act as an ally in affairs outside of the NATO domain (in that case, Cyprus).
The Turkish government understands the reluctance of other West European allies to make promises about support for Turkish interests in out-of-area contexts, but a legacy, in the Turkish view, of U.S. reluctance historically to be a "full partner" has given rise to a complex situation. On the one hand, the Turks know that the United States military has contingency plans and capabilities that it can bring to bear in a Turkish-Syrian conflict if it so chooses, and these plans and capabilities reassure the Turks to some degree. It is also the case that, in a crisis, Israeli power checks Damascus, and the Turks know that Israeli policy is influenced by the closeness of U.S.-Israeli ties. On the other hand, the Turks insist that U.S. facilities in Turkey not be earmarked publicly for any out-of-area contingency lest the Syrians and Iraqis (and to a lesser extent the Arab world beyond) be provoked gratuitously. The Turks also limit their public relationship with Israel for similar reasons. Seen in this context, any obliviousness on the part of the United States to Syrian intrigues against Turkey is a matter of concern, for it reduces the reach of the inherent deterrent power of Turkey's alliance with the United States. But it is not a concern that is ever likely to be aired publicly.
The Palestinian Connection
Thanks in large part to the example and availability of Palestinian agents, terrorism became a major part of the Soviet-Syrian campaign against Turkey in the 1970s. Turkish and Armenian terrorists participated in training courses run by the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon and Syria (portions of which were taught by East German, Bulgarian and Czech operatives). In particular, the Turkish Revolutionary Left (Dev Sol) organization formed links with George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). In return for Turkish mercenaries, the PFLP provided training to Dev Sol in Lebanon, as well as approximately 1,000 pistols, 300 Kalashnikov machine-pistols, 500 hand grenades and 10 small grenade launchers.
The rise of the PLO also increased the Syrian government's interest in using this institution to serve its own agenda. In the 1960s, it promoted Yasir 'Arafat's al-Fath and other organizations, then founded its own Palestinian organization, as-Sa'iqa. In 1983, it founded the Palestine National Salvation Front, based in Damascus and including most of the anti-'Arafat groups, including Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) and Abu Nidal's Fatah Revolutionary Council.
The Syrian-sponsored mutiny within the PLO in 1983 changed aspects of the relationship between Syria and the PLO. After 1983, Damascus could no longer avail itself of agents from the pro-'Arafat wing of the PLO, but other Palestinians were available. In return for Syrian help, a number of anti-'Arafat Palestinian groups did Syrian dirty work in Turkey. Abu Nidal was involved in the massacre at the Neveh Shalom synagogue in Istanbul in September 1986; under Syrian aegis, Armenian terrorists fought with Palestinian groups against Israel, while Palestinians provided training for Armenians. Kurz and Merari 40-1
Some PLO groups assaulted Turkey in part because they were on the Syrian payroll, and did as told; and because Syrian control of eastern Lebanon has forced Lebanese groups into trading favors with their Syrian occupiers. But this is not all. Pro-Syrian PLO groups despise Turkey's continuing relationship with Israel and want the many Americans (including military and intelligence personnel) out of Turkey. As for 'Arafat and his followers, they have attempted to get on Ankara's better side in recent years, in part because of their feud with Asad, and in part to win a moderate position from which to blunt Turkey's extensive albeit publicly subdued relations with Israel.
PKK—The Kurdish Connection
Kurds live in five countries, with the largest numbers of them (between 8 and 10 million) in eastern Turkey; other significant populations live in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the Soviet Union. Kurdish culture and language have been suppressed in Turkey since the establishment of the republic in 1923, and their discontent has led to a nearly constant state of insurrection against the Turkish Republic.
The Soviets for many years have tried to exploit Kurdish grievances at Turkey's expense, and in 1974 they succeeded in sponsoring a Marxist-Leninist organization of Turkish Kurds, whose goal it was to establish a separate Kurdish state in eastern Turkey sympathetic to the U.S.S.R. The Partiya Karkerén Kurdistan (PKK, or Kurdish Workers Party), established by Abdullah Öcalan (known as Apo) began its public life with the curious front name of the Ankara Democratic Patriotic Association of Higher Education. The ADPAHE established regional centers in southern and eastern Anatolia, took part in local elections, and placed second in the mayoral race in Diyarbakir in 1977. The organization established a presence throughout Kurdish areas at that time.
In the late 1970s, the PKK was caught up in the spiral of violence and terror that enveloped the country. When the military government that took power in September 1980 arrested hundreds of PKK members, the organization turned to terror. The next year witnessed two hundred murders, many kidnappings, bombings, and extortion plots. The organization also fought Turkish interests abroad, taking a role in blowing up a Turkish consulate building in Strasbourg, France, on November 10, 1980. The PKK was in league with ASALA to effect this operation, and their joint effort may have been coordinated by Syrian intelligence, although hard evidence is elusive. "Apocular members," as they became known, had become the single greatest menace to Turkish domestic security by the early 1980s.
August 1984 witnessed an escalation of PKK efforts, with a spectacular attack on two Turkish garrisons in Kurdish villages and the shooting down of an army helicopter that responded to the attack. The PKK then opened jail doors for hundreds of imprisoned Kurds. On October 17 of the same year, Turkish security forces worried enough about the PKK to chase some of its members across the Iraqi border and into Iraq, with the consent of Baghdad. (Again in 1986 and 1987, the Turks did the same, without ever eliminating the insurgency.) According to a PKK spokesman in March 1986, more than 1,500 Turkish soldiers had been killed in fighting his organization in the previous two years. According to the Turkish government, "nearly 1,600 people have been killed since the separatist terrorists launched an armed campaign in 1984."
Despite these successes, the PKK's ideological orientation makes it difficult for it to cooperate with other Kurdish groups, particularly those in Iraq led by the Barzani family, which tend to be more traditionally tribal and religious. Nor does the party have a sturdy base of support among the Kurdish villages in eastern Turkey. But it has become part of an international terrorist network sponsored and coordinated by the Syrian government. Thus, noted above, PKK joint operations with ASALA took place as early as 1980, and while PKK-ASALA joint ventures have waned with ASALA's nadir, other conjunctions may exist and more may be formed through Syrian agents operating in Europe. PKK members have been trained in Syria, and succored in Europe by Syrian agents in places as diverse as Stockholm and Madrid. Kurz and Merari 44.
There are, however, limits to what the Syrians will do for the PKK—as its removal of border bases for the PKK in 1987 illustrated—but the relationship is dynamic and can improve as well as worsen. The PKK may have to earn some of its rights from Damascus; Syria's inclinations to use and help the PKK depends on the danger of a Turkish response, the PKK's strength within Turkey, and the needs of the moment. If the Syrians wish to use the PKK, they have the means. The PKK's main political office is in West Germany, with branches in Amsterdam, Athens, and Paris; of course, there are Syrian embassies in these cities as well, leading most analysts of terrorism to assume that PKK operatives have participated in the past on Syria's behalf in a variety of anti-Turkish, anti-American, and anti-NATO activities in Western Europe.
Details of direct Soviet support for the PKK are not easily obtained. According to the Turkish press, a captured PKK Central Committee member, Halit Celik, revealed that "Syria, Lebanon, and a number of other Arab countries are supplying arms to the PKK" and that "this supply was subject to the approval of the Soviet Union."
Finally with respect to the PKK, through its alliance with Syria, the Iranian government came to shoulder more of the support burden for the PKK after 1988. This was partly to punish Turkey for what Iran saw as aid to Iraq during the Gulf War, to punish Turkey because it is allied with the Great Satan, and to punish Turkey because its "secularized" Islam is an abomination to the mullahs. In addition, Kurds share much linguistically with Persians and more important, directing Kurdish militancy against Turkey, and potentially against Iraq, reduces its virulence in Iran. The Kurds that Iran has helped lately are Iraqi Kurds, those with whom it has long had a political alliance of convenience.
Thus, Tercuman reported in December 1988 that two PKK camps in Iran were nearly ready for operation. The increased Iranian role became particularly evident in the aftermath of the flow of Kurdish refugees into Turkey from Iraq in the 1988 denouement of the Gulf War. Some 60,000 Kurds fled to Turkey, mainly from Iraq. As of June 1989, some 15,000 had left Turkey. Of these, very few returned to Iraq, but some 12,500 went to Iran. A few hundred went to Syria and these, in particular, are suspected of PKK connections.
ASALA—The Armenian Connection
Armenian nationalism arose in the 1890s, when it aimed at creating an independent Armenian state out of the decrepit Ottoman Empire. The movement consisted of two main groups: the Dashnaks (or Tashnags), a nationalist movement and the Hunchaks, a Marxist revolutionary group. Armenian nationalist sentiments were inflamed against Turks and Kurds as a result of the massacres that occurred during World War I. Those events, plus the proximity of a radical model in the Soviet Union, radicalized Armenian nationalism. Partly as a result, both branches of Armenian nationalism have engaged in terror tactics, and did so long before the current epoch. For example, the leftists went through an active terrorist phase in the 1920s under the name of "Nemesis."
In the post-World War II environment, Armenian national groups developed leftist and rightist components somewhat along the lines of the original split. The rightist branch formed a terrorist organization, the Justice Commandoes of the Armenian Genocide (JCAG), which engaged in killing Turks, but not "imperialists" in general.
The leftist branch renewed its terrorist activities in 1972 and became ASALA in 1975. Establishing a base in Beirut and then branches in Western Europe, ASALA committed itself to attacking not just Turks, but Americans and American allies worldwide. It declared Soviet Armenia to be a liberated zone, and ASALA activities and platforms accorded in full with those of the Kremlin. While the Dashnaks took the Christian side in the Lebanese civil war, ASALA took the Palestinian side; the former emphasized their Christian ties to the Maronites but ASALA emphasized its ideological affinity with the Palestinian groups.
Accordingly, it is not surprising that ASALA was deeply influenced by the PLO; indeed, its early training was undertaken by the PFLP. (In time, it was also aided directly by the Soviet Union.) The liaison between ASALA and the PFLP in due course led to a Syrian interest in ASALA, and as the Syrians became immersed in matters Lebanese, ASALA and the Syrian regime developed closer working relations. Syrian involvement with Armenian nationalism began in Lebanon around 1976.
Before the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, ASALA training was carried on by PLO groups, mainly the PFLP but also Sa'iqa. Its financing seems to have been done in large part through Libya, but ASALA's weapons, used in attacking Turks throughout the world, included Polish-made WZ-63 submachine guns almost certainly obtained through Syria. Further, Bulgarian agents are thought to have trained ASALA terrorists in Syria. At the height of the war in Lebanon, the ASALA agent who shot up the airport in Ankara on August 7, 1982 had come to Turkey from Syria. Kurz and Merari, pp. 48-9, citing various Israeli and Turkish sources. There is evidence, too, that when the PLO was forced to evacuate Beirut in August 1982, it handed over many weapons to ASALA.
ASALA split after the PLO left Lebanon, leading to a reorganization of operations. The more radical and violent elements reconstituted themselves under Syrian aegis and rebuilt their bases in the Biqa' Valley in 1983-84. The Israeli assault of 1982 had sufficiently weakened those Marxist Palestinian groups which had mediated between ASALA and the Syrians—mainly the PFLP and DFLP—that ASALA and Damascus had to decide whether they had enough in common to warrant a new and more direct relationship. Apparently, both sides answered that question in the affirmative. Accordingly, ASALA moved its training camp from PLO auspices at Hamuriya, where it had been training since 1978, to a location near Damascus. ASALA also established a presence in Anjar in the Biqa' valley, in Qamishli near the Turkish border (where PFLP training is also carried out) and at Tadmur as-Sahara. By 1983, Syria's growing relationship with Abu Nidal led ASALA into an association with that organization, too.
This new Syrian-ASALA connection soon led to conspicuous results. ASALA communiqués and manifestos began to come more frequently from Damascus, although also still from Los Angeles and West European capitals. An ASALA member who had participated in the assassination of a Turkish diplomat in Brussels on July 14, 1983, told Dutch authorities that the incident originated in Syria. An ASALA operative who planted a bomb at Orly Airport, Paris the next day also admitted as much under French interrogation. ASALA operatives murdered some forty Turkish officials between 1975 and 1985.
ASALA's relations with Damascus are restricted by the fact neither side views the other as its main ally. Accordingly, it has cultivated other radical states; in 1982 Qadhdhafi appeared to be ASALA's main Arab sponsor. Alliance with Damascus also led to ASALA's temporary working with Tehran; ASALA activists arrived in Tehran after the evacuation of Beirut and even participated in an Iranian attack against an Iraqi position at Hajj 'Umran in August 1983. But this alliance faltered in 1984-5 when the Khomeini regime turned against Armenians living in Iran.
ASALA also cultivated relations with Greek Cypriots. According to one account, ASALA's welcome in Cyprus was due in part to the important role of communists there to the government; the communists aid ASALA on account of their common anti-Turkish and their Marxist affiliations. ASALA may also have worked with those elements of the Greek PASOK regime which maintained very good relations with Syria.
Thick Description: February 1987-January 1989
To get a better understanding for the Syrian campaign against Turkey, there is no substitute for a detailed record. A chronological presentation of the two-year period February 1987 to January 1989 reveals Syrian activities against Turkish interests, the variety of agents that assault Turkey, and the way that the Turkish government and press cope with the campaign. It also reveals the mixed quality of Turkish-Syrian relations, characterized by an episodic public push toward normal bilateral relations combined with a below-the-line-of-sight campaigns of pressure and counterpressure.
Because the relationship runs on two tracks, it is often difficult to credit official pronouncements at face value. The Turkish press presents special problems of interpretation. It sometimes functions through official information, the veracity of which is hard to know. There are several areas in which Turkish officials have reason to selectively interpret the record, and have been known to do so. Knowing that the United States is interested in Syrian intrigues and their Soviet connection, they put the worst face on Syrian activities. The Turkish government has good reason to market, and in some cases re-market, intelligence to the United States in return for American aid and diplomatic support. Turks are extremely sensitive about the Kurdish problem, and they engage the state public relations apparatus to protect their policies. Still, a careful reading makes a review of the public record worthwhile.
Escalation in Early 1987
It happened that the Syrian governor of al-Hasakah province, Muhammad Mustafa Miru, crossed the border to Sanliurfa, Turkey on February 7, 1987 to discuss border problems with his counterpart, Alparslan Karacan. It was not a pleasant meeting, for Miru accused the Turks of shooting at Syrian farmers. Karacan denied this, claiming that troops fired only at those trying to cross the border illegally, which normal law-abiding farmers avoid. Karacan then demanded the return of five separatist Kurds in Syria who, he said, had crossed into Syria on the night of January 7. Miru admitted that there were PKK militants inside Syria, but he refused to give details. Karacan urged the Syrians to reinforce the banks of the river that forms the border between the two countries near Ceylanpinar; Miru was noncommittal. Despite the tense meeting, the Turks took the Syrians on a public tour of historical sites, and then the Syrians went home."
The Turks had reason to complain. Days later, on February 22, a PKK raid killed 14 civilians in a village near the Iraqi border. Some or all of the raiders had crossed the border from Syria. It was not the first time such raids had taken place, but it was the first time more than a dozen innocent people had been killed in a single incident.
On February 25, Turkish police accused both the Syrian and Libyan governments of supplying arms and logistics to the PKK, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The accusation was voiced as a trial of five persons—two of them Iraqi nationals in the service of Syrian intelligence—got underway in Diyarbakir. The defendants had been arrested on charges of aiding the PKK by smuggling arms into Turkey from Syria near Mardin.
On March 2, a Kurdish infiltrator from Syria carrying binoculars, explosives, and no identification, was killed trying to cross into Turkey. On March 8, another attack near Mardin killed eight people, including the village mukhtar of Acikyol. The Syrian ambassador was summoned; he denied Syrian involvement, and the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied issuing a formal protest. But the Turkish Interior Minister made very plain his understanding of matters:
That this was not an idle threat was shown by the fact that, just days earlier, Turkish troops and warplanes hot-pursued Kurdish rebels into Iraq. Coskun Kirca, too, a columnist in the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet, warned the Syrians that if they did not take measures to stop these raids, Turkey would defend itself by taking all "necessary measures"—no doubt alluding to hot pursuit across the Syrian border and Turkish fighter planes overflying Syrian territory. He alluded obliquely to the present and future use of dams and water and warned Damascus that Turkey has a "natural ally" in Israel, and that it is "most natural for these neighboring countries to coordinate certain measures they might take against that hostile country." He concluded by noting that "friendships which are not reciprocated are withdrawn."
Syrian activities then resulted in a somewhat different form of trouble. On March 17, two persons were convicted of spying for Syria—one a Jordanian national and one an Iranian-born Turk named Ali Kent. The two had taken special interest in NATO facilities in Turkey, gathering information about "military airfields, ports, dams, and U.S. installations in Turkey." No connection to the Soviet Union could be proved, however.
Some aspects of Turkish-Syrian troubles are mostly symbolic. On March 12, a Syrian map, published for the Mediterranean Games of 1987, included Hatay as part of Syria. Ankara officially protested, warning: "We, on every occasion, remind Syria that Hatay in an inseparable part of Turkey, and claims on this province damage Turkish-Syrian relations which both countries wish to develop." Damascus relented. Coskun Kirca used this occasion again to advocate closer Turkish ties to Israel, arguing that Turkey's tilt toward the Arabs after 1973 had achieved nothing. Further, he noted, not just Damascus, but other Arab governments see Hatay as Syrian.
Late in March 1987 more evidence of widespread Syrian espionage and subversion came to light as the result of the juxtaposition of two legal investigations: one concerned the murder of a Jordanian diplomat, Zaid Sati, in Ankara on July 24, 1985; the other the Neveh Shalom massacre of September 1986. Evidence suggested Syrian aid to both perpetrators, the pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad and the Abu Nidal gang. Indeed, after a Turkish newspaper fingered the second secretary in the Syrian embassy in Ankara, Muhammad Darwish Baladi, as the mastermind of the murder, Baladi fled the country. He was tried in absentia, and found guilty. The trigger man in Sati's murder, Abu Nidal operative 'Abd as-Salim al-Hajj, was also tried in absentia, with the same result. Neither of these incidents was anti-Turkish per se, but they did take place on Turkish soil and violated Turkish laws and sensibilities. That is quite enough to cause alarm, for guns can be pointed in any number of different directions.
Some Success, Then More Trouble
In early April, Turks had both bad news and good news. Their police reported the successful infiltration of about 60 PKK guerrillas into Turkey from the Syrian frontier near al-Afsiq and split into two groups. The infiltrators were said to include Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian nationals as well as Turks.
But on April 10, the police announced the foiling of an Islamic Jihad plan to bomb the U.S. Consulate in Adana and the Israeli Embassy in Ankara. Four men had smuggled 91 kilograms of explosives into Turkey from Syria for the operation which was to involve the taking of hostages. The Turkish press explained how the case was cracked. According to Murad Doğukanli, writing in Milliyet, a smuggler named Hidir Filiz told the Political Police in Hatay about the explosives, and fingered a former colleague, Bedrettin Gunduz, who had helped him bring in the explosives. The police then set a trap for the third and most important man, a Lebanese national named Husayn 'Ismat Sulayman. Sulayman's real name, further investigation revealed, was Husayn Muhammad Simtayn, and he had been a Hizbullah member for five years.
Once in jail, Simtayn told Turkish police all he knew. He described Hizbullah as a branch of Islamic Jihad, which takes its marching orders from Tehran. Simtayn explained that had received three months of special "religious" training, then assigned to Turkey. "I was to meet with Hidir Filiz" and take the explosives to Istanbul. "We were to take a hotel room and send a coded telex message in English to our headquarters to summon the other members of the group. We were supposed to launch countrywide operations in Turkey to secure the release of 200 members of the organization who are imprisoned in Israel." Simtayn told the police about other operations planned for France and Greece.
A few days later, another smuggling incident revealed further the complexity of minoritarian-style terrorism in the Middle East. Turkish security forces captured three armed smugglers, one of them a Syrian living in Iraq and apparently a member of the Muslim Brethren. The Syrian had slipped across the Iraqi border into Turkey in order to re-cross the border into Syria, and there to wreck havoc. The Turks caught him but did not hand him over to the Syrians; this was because the Syrians are not in the habit of reciprocating such cooperation.
In April, about the time that the Turkish Energy Minister announced that Turkey would begin to sell electricity to Syria within a month,. a PKK raid at Semdinli killed a number of Turkish soldiers. "We want to go out and meet them [in battle]," said one frustrated Turkish soldier, "but they do not meet us." Also that month, a United Nations Fund Drug Abuse Control delegation visited Turkey to discuss Syrian and Lebanese trafficking through that country. Apparently, 868,000 Categon pills, a commercially produced amphetamine, impounded in Saudi Arabia were planted there by dissident Turks working for Syrian intelligence. Given the extreme sensitivity of the Saudis to drugs, the aim of this plant was to disrupt Saudi-Turkish trade relations by fixing blame on Turks. The UN delegation was lectured by Turkish officials on Syrian and Lebanese culpability. Although perhaps a bit farfetched, the Turks argued that the Saudi operation was designed by Syria to disrupt Turkish-Saudi relations.
In May 1987, the Turkish press reported that the intelligence service had proof that Bulgaria was involved in aiding the PKK. In particular, the Bulgarians were accused to helping the PKK set up a clandestine radio station. According to the report, Öcalan contacted Bulgarian embassy officials in Damascus in 1984, seeking the establishment of the radio station in return for intelligence data on Turkey of use to Bulgaria and the Soviet Union. It is not known whether Syrian officials conceived the quid pro quo or not, but they surely knew about it, and might have arranged it.
Later in May, more information came out about PKK operations. Tercuman reported that the PKK had assumed operational control of some 20 percent of the illicit drugs smuggled out of Syria. The organization also grew the materials for drugs (marijuana flowers to be turned into hashish, mainly) under Syrian aegis in Jabal Hawran in Syria. According to the report, the drugs were exported through Syrian controlled areas in Lebanon and taken to Limassol in southern (i.e., Greek-controlled) Cyprus. From there the PKK transshipped the narcotics to Europe where PKK operatives sold them and bought arms, which returned to the Middle East again through Cyprus. Some of these arms were sold to Lebanese militias, others were used for PKK operations in Turkey, and still others were stored in Syria, mainly in the Qamishli region. Turkish accounts describe a sort of consignment system in Lebanon, where the Lebanese would place orders for weapons and pay with (still more) drugs or with cash.
Also in late May, the Turkish press reported the sentencing of a Kurdish militant, Husnu Altun, to 20 years in prison. The noteworthy fact about him was Altun's having been handed over to Turkish police by the Syrian authorities in 1986, along with four other PKK militants. Although the dispatch did not say why he was handed over, Syria's occasional cooperation with Turkish security forces is most likely part of the effort to keep a balance to relations. The gesture also reflects Syrian respect for Turkish power. Of course, it is also possible that the five PKK members handed over had become too independent, unreliable, or otherwise troublesome.
The Turkish press remained lively in June 1987, as ever mixing vignettish drama and hard facts into a swirling narrative of danger and heroism. Thus, Hürriyet reported an "evil summit" in Damascus that brought together the PKK, the Turkish Workers-Peasants Liberation Army (TIKKO) of Hidir Aykir, and the Revolutionary Left (RL) organization led by Pasha Güven. (Both of the latter had been helped by a Syrian ally, Habash's PFLP, before 1980.) According to Degenhardt, the Hürriyet report, the summit was guarded by the Syrian mukhabarat (intelligence service) and was designed to assign geographic responsibility to the various groups. The PKK was to take the southeast, TIKKO eastern and central Anatolia, and the RL Istanbul and western Anatolia.
The Pinarcik Raid and the Özal Trip
Reports of the summit may not have been entirely exaggerated. Only days later, on June 20, 1987, the PKK raided Pinarcik, a Kurdish village in Mardin province only 40 kilometers from the Syrian border, and killed thirty people. Police believed that extreme security measures put into effect after the raid prevented the guerrillas from returning to Syria.
After the Pinarcik raid, Turkish air force planes overflew Syrian territory looking for camps and bases. Their efforts were designed to remind the Syrians that, just as Turkish forces had hot-pursued Kurdish rebels across the Iraqi border, so would they pursue the killers across the Syrian border if necessary. The Syrian government expressed regret about the incident and denied any involvement. No one believed it. Brigadier General Güven Ergenc expressly said that "foreign forces" were responsible for terrorism in southeastern Turkey, and it did not take much imagination to figure out the foreign forces he meant.
Indeed, the journalist Uğur Mumcu, presumably using government information, publicized some details of Syrian involvement shortly after the attack at Pinarcik. PKK headquarters were in Syria, and PKK guerrillas were trained by the Syrian mukhabarat formerly under the direct supervision of Rif'at al-Asad, the Syrian president's powerful brother. At the Az-Zabdani camp, moreover, Syria trained ASALA militants, too. The Soviet Union, said Mumcu, knows of all this activity and approves. One reason is that the United States and West European countries know as much too, but refuse to condemn PKK activities. This, said Mumcu, makes it riskless for Moscow to support and help the terrorists (a common Turkish press refrain and complaint about U.S. policy). Mumcu also cited recent pro-Kurdish resolutions of the European parliament as proof that NATO supported the PKK.
Despite such tense relations, Prime Minister Turgut Özal began a visit to Syria in July to set matters straight, and to give an appearance of normality to the bilateral relationship. One of the interesting stylistic aspects of Syrian-Turkish conflict is that neither government wishes to admit in public that a problem exists, lest it appear weak in the eyes of the other. Before going to Syria, Özal denied any intention of Turkish hot pursuit across the Syrian border, and claimed that Syria had made efforts to police its border. Özal also went to Mardin. There he told the people that new roads and new communications stations and new irrigation projects would change their lives for the better. So much for carrots. Then came sticks. He warned residents of the largely Kurdish area not to expect "foreign aid," and pledged that the murderers of Pinarcik would be tracked down and "sent to hell." He also pleaded with young people who had joined the PKK to denounce their allegiance and make use of the "law of repentance," which specified clemency for those below a certain age.
Also on the eve of Özal's visit to Syria, three other events of note took place. The PKK bombed a railroad bridge in Mardin. Second, Özal expressly denied that Turkey had any evidence that Syria was responsible for the Pinarcik massacre, or that he was going to Syria because of problems in eastern Turkey. Third, Tercuman published on June 27, 1987, a fairly sensational expose of Syrian involvement with ASALA, explicitly citing Israeli intelligence information—a tactic sure to create heartburn in Damascus.
According to the Tercuman report, the Mossad shared with Turkey information indicating that about 700 PKK and ASALA militants were in training in Cyprus, helped by Abu Nidal himself, after which they were to go to Syria for assignment. Interestingly, however, the report also said that George Habash's PFLP had severed contact with the PKK after it came to Habash's attention that they were involved in drug smuggling. According to the report, Habash also ordered a severing of PFLP relations with ASALA, which he supposedly described as fascist and racist.
Milliyet also published an analysis of the Syrian role in PKK operations on July 9. The Syrian role grew, wrote Attila Korkmaz and Eyup Kacar, after Kurdish leaders in Iraq broke with the PKK. Lebanon became a training area under Syrian auspices, and PKK guerrillas crossed into Turkey with help from the Syrian mukhabarat. The report also identified six specific border points used by the PKK to cross from Syria into Turkey: Tall al-Abyad, across from Akcakale; Ra's al-'Ayn, across from Ceylanpinar; Darbasiya and 'Amudiya, between Kiziltepe and Nusaybin; and Qamishli, between Cizre and Nusaybin. Milliyet also claimed to have seen intercepted messages from Abdullah Öcalan in Syria to his followers in Lebanon and elsewhere, ordering "rivers of Turkish blood to flow in July and August."
Despite these revelations, Özal's three-day visit to Syria in mid-July, during which security and water issues were discussed, was very bland. Özal did confirm that he had asked the Syrians for Öcalan's extradition, but was stonewalled. (For years, the Turks have known that Öcalan is in Syria, but the Syrians claim he is not.) Rather, the Syrians promised to do more to police their border. The Turks, in discussing water questions, went out of their way to stress that water and security issues were separate matters, but this was public etiquette, not to be taken seriously. Indeed, this seemed an example of a point of view stressed so hard that it was designed to convey just the opposite impression; official Turkish statements frequently mention the two issues in juxtaposition. The Turks promised a flow of 500 cubic meters per second until the Atatürk Dam began to block water, after which riparian agreements yet to be negotiated would come into force. The Syrians also agreed to accept Turkish help in surveying Syria's water needs in Project Peace Water (Turkey's name for a pipeline project that involves rivers other than the Euphrates), and to buy Turkish electricity.
But these matters are related, for Syria's major waterworks on the Euphrates, the Asad Dam, produce half the country's electricity. Even in normal times, the flow of water is insufficient to turn all four of the Asad Dam's generators, especially in the summer, partly because the Soviet technicians who designed the damns did a poor job; with the Atatürk Dam, the flow could be reduced to the point that one-quarter of Syria's electrical generation capacity is eliminated. Moreover, replacing it with power from Turkey is problematical: it could cost more and it gives Ankara a lever over Syria.
In consideration of this, Syria in recent years has revised its energy development strategy to favor natural gas over hydroelectric power, and to otherwise diversify its electrical generating capacity. If Syria's attempt to diversify its sources of electrical power are successful, then to that extent Turkish water projects become a less urgent danger. To the extent they fail, one supposes that the Syrians would take risks, presumably short of war, either to extract better terms from the Turks, or in extremis, to prevent the dam from coming on line. But electricity is not nearly as important as water, and Turkey's ambitions with respect to all its rivers raise troubling long term problems for Syria.
Fewer Troubles in 1988
Özal's subtle display of muscle-flexing in Damascus had a clear effect on Turkish-Syrian relations for the rest of 1987. Terrorist incidents slowed and the problem virtually disappeared from the Turkish press for the rest of 1987. The reduction of PKK activities in eastern Turkey may also have had something to do with the severity of the winter weather, which disrupted contact with bases in Syria. A Syrian drug trafficker was caught in August trying to smuggle 1.5 billion Turkish lira worth of Captagon tablets in a TIR truck (Transit Highway International). But this incident appeared to be unrelated to regional politics. Though probably not politically motivated, this is an example of a spinoff of arrangements that were set up for political reasons and that, if they get out of hand, can reintroduce political motives into the equation.
Troubles resurfaced in January 1988. The data suggest that after some months of a lower profile, the Syrians decided to probe again and see what Özal, politically somewhat weaker than in the preceding summer, would do. A long article in Hürriyet listed the range of issues: Syrian governmental support for the PKK, mukhabarat activities against Turkey and U.S. bases in it, consular relations, general border security, Hatay, and problems concerning pipelines. (Damascus made financial claims concerning two pipelines, one a water pipeline related to the Project Peace Water, another related to an oil pipeline through Syrian territory, originating in Qatar and terminating at the Turkish coast.) The Turkish Foreign Ministry chose to adopt an agnostic position toward Syria: "We do not know whether the Syrians are failing to keep their promises or whether they are unable to do so."
A few weeks later the same paper, Hürriyet, accused Damascus of allowing the PKK to operate a military camp near Damascus, and noted that Abdullah Öcalan's guards wore Syrian military uniforms. When the spring thaw came, Turkish officials geared up for more activity by sending three battalions of specially trained soldiers to the border region.. They did not have to wait long. On April 1, a patrol battled 20 infiltrators from Syria who had, some days earlier, gone on a sabotage spree, blowing up train bridges, tunnels, even road signs. Turkish sources reported that all the infiltrators had been killed.
As a rule, Turkish publicists, official and unofficial, spent more time decrying Kurdish anti-Turkish activities than Armenian ones. But they are also intent on following Armenian activities as well. And from doing so they know that Syria is involved as well with various Armenian groups. A remarkable interview with Mahran Mahranian, leader of ASALA, appeared in the Arabic paper Al-Majalla, published in London. Mahranian revealed that the group's training camps and headquarters were in the Biqa' valley, where they operated under Syrian supervision. Mahranian acknowledged contacts with the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Japanese Red Army, and formerly with the Red Brigades which, he said "are finished and no longer exist thanks to the services of certain Arab and Palestinian sides." He did not elaborate.
In April, the Turkish press reported a greater degree of cooperation between the PKK and Armenian groups, and opined that Syria was responsible for the new juncture. The Turks may well have responded to this frightening new development themselves. On April 28, the pseudonymous leader of ASALA, Hagop Hagopian, was murdered in an Athens suburb. It is not known if Turkish intelligence was responsible, for many people and organizations arguably could have been gunning for him, but it would not have been the first time that the Turks struck at Armenian terrorists directly: in December 1982, three Armenian militants were murdered in Beirut, Athens, and Amsterdam. ASALA blamed Turkish intelligence, and there was no denial. According to Al-Majalla, citing "well-informed Western sources," in the fall of 1983, after digesting Israeli intelligence material and apparently with unspecified Israeli assistance, Turkish commandoes raided Armenian camps in the Biqa' valley and killed most of the bases' leaders.
According to Turkish sources, PKK activities in Turkey in 1988 were reduced over previous years. Reasons included: better border security, better training, Syrian fear of Turkish responses, and the PKK's poor tactics (choosing to terrorize and kidnap Kurdish people and youth rather than help them). Their manifest weakness caused the PKK leaders to use more firepower. According to a young defector, the PKK had amassed a huge store of weapons through the drug trade. These included SAM-5 and SAM-7 missiles and a great variety of smaller weapons, many provided by Iran. According to the informant, the PKK was awaiting Syrian permission to smuggle the weapons into Turkey.
Whether the PKK has brought such weapons into Turkey remains uncertain. The Turkish press reported in February 1989 that the PKK had smuggled RPG-47 rocket launchers into the country from Syria, within which the PKK planned to pull off spectacular attacks not only in Kurdish areas, but in major Turkish cities.
An Iranian Role
Directly related to the relative control of the frontier with Syria was news of an Iranian role in aiding the Kurds. Turkish mercenaries fought on both sides of the Iraq-Iran war. The Iraqis paid more than the Iranians (5,000 Turkish lira per month vs. 2,000 lira), but Shi'i leaders in Turkey encouraged their people (called Alevis) to fight for Iran. Turks who fought for Iran reportedly received intensive religious training—training designed to turn them against the secular government in Ankara. As if to confirm this worry, an Iranian citizen was captured in June 1988 smuggling explosives into Turkey from Syria.
For their part, Iranians and their supporters took verbal aim at Turkey as well. In a statement issued by the Islamic Jihad organization from Nicosia, "Turkey's treacherous role" was condemned just before "Israel's terrorist actions on the West Bank." The statement went on to claim that: "Our Kurdish brothers are being exterminated in the most foul manner. The Turkish rulers willingly offer to cooperate with the American imperialists and the Zionist enemy. . . . The Turkish secret service supplies the Israeli secret service with the information necessary to conduct their terrorist operations. Turkey is an Islamic country, but only in words; in action it is like a Trojan horse within our ranks."
Relations deteriorated fast. When Turkish troops crossed the Iraqi border in pursuit of the Kurds in 1987, the Iranians accused Turkey of seeking Iraqi oil. Tehran resented Turkey's use as a conduit for young Iranians to escape military service, and Ankara feared that Iranian military penetration might cut the Iraqi-Turkish oil pipeline that provided Turkey with much of its petroleum supplies. Turks knew that culturally, Kurds and Persians were kindred, Kurdish being a distant dialect of Persian. Worse, Turkey came to fear the consequences of an Iranian victory in the Gulf War, and preparations for proxy political parties designed by Tehran to sow confusion and fundamentalism in Turkey. The Turkish authorities had only 40,000 troops in eastern Turkey, mainly to deal with the PKK and the Syrians; many times that number would be required to deal with a victorious and battle-tested Iran across an almost completely unfortified border. For all these reasons, Iranian sponsorship of the PKK was bad news.
Still, Iranian sponsorship of the PKK reflected Turkish success at sealing the Syrian frontier, thus making it far more difficult for the PKK to help or communicate with Kurds in southeastern Turkey. In February 1989, a "high-ranking" Turkish official noted crossing places into Turkey from Iran as being at Kuçuk Agri, Eleskirt, northern Malazgirt, Karliova, and the Bingol and Seytan mountain areas. While Iran activities were unfortunate, the official noted that these routes proved that PKK "links with the terrorists in southeastern Turkey have been severed."
Also in June 1988, the issue arose again of Abdullah Öcalan's working out of Syria. After a leading PKK member, Mehmet Emin Aslan, was killed in a raid in the Mardin region, the Turkish police found evidence that he had crossed the border from Syria under Öcalan's direct orders. The Turks again demanded his extradition from Syria. The Asad regime temporized, intending to refuse. Meanwhile, a prominent Turkish journalist, Mehmet Ali Birand, travelled to Öcalan's camp in the Biqa' Valley for an interview; but, according to reports from Athens, the Turkish government refused to allow Milliyet to publish it. Two other journalists followed him. The interviews were put to good use anyway, as the Turkish government summoned the Syrian ambassador and used the journalists' accounts to accuse the Syrians of harboring Öcalan, and of lying in their denials of this fact. The Syrians denied everything, leading to new strains in Syrian-Turkish ties.
Reports that militants of the Turkish People's Liberation Party-C-Urgent Action Group had set up shop in Qardaha, President Asad's home village not far from the Turkish border, caused relations to degenerate further. Kamil al-Asad, one of the Syrian president's brothers, was said to be responsible for the group's training and transport. Despite its proximity to the border with Turkey, this group operated through Cyprus. The Syrians were said to have put the group in touch with the PKK, and to have encouraged cooperation between them. On July 8, Reuters reported that a Kurdish group had seized a small Lebanese village in the Biqa', intending to use it for training purposes. Damascus denied the report.
Relations with Syria had deteriorated so far that Turgut Özal decided, for this and other reasons, to pay another visit to Syria. This he did in August. The issues were similar: economic questions, Öcalan's refuge in Damascus, smuggling, Syrian support for the PKK. So was the tone; the public nature of the visit was friendly, but since a second visit is not as novel as a first visit, press attention was more reserved. As with the previous visit in July 1987, border problems calmed down for a while thereafter, and then resumed.
In January 1989, the Turkish police arrested five people and seized 1,220 kilograms of hashish in a TIR truck crossing into Hatay from Syria. More important, Turkish security forces revealed information extracted from a woman named Emine Gerger. Gerger, whose PKK code name was Aysel-Zeynep, was captured crossing into Turkey from Iran; facing a death sentence, she sought "asylum" in Turkey and agreed to tell Turkish police what she knew. Gerger had joined the PKK in 1978 and received training in Lebanon from Palestinian groups. She revealed that Syria is the Soviet Union's chief representative in dealing with the PKK and that Soviet aid to the PKK is virtually all channeled through Syria. She also told of Iranian and Bulgarian support.
Patterns, Trends, Implications
Patterns of Activity
Syrian-Turkish relations proceed on two tracks, one publicly correct and at times even friendly, the other privately hostile and suspicious. Sometimes the same development affects both tracks, as for example when Turkish water projects simultaneously lead to cooperative measures and also provide Turkey with political leverage. The 1987 and 1988 state visits established a sort of ritual: after a number of incidents and a Syrian denial of guilt, the Turks go to Damascus with hard evidence. The Syrians do not admit the evidence, but plead, in effect, that "this time" they will sincerely strive to be better neighbors. They are, for a while, and matters calm down. But then, slowly, Syrian complicity in terror against Turkey mounts again, both in old ways and in new ones.
Another cycle of this fashion was plainly visible in August 1989. After a rise in violence in eastern Turkey, Premier Özal again decided to tour the area; he brought his Interior Minister with him. Speaking in Bitlis, just southeast of Lake Van, Özal told the citizens that their lives would improve with the irrigation projects, that the Turkish army was strong, that outsiders caused all the trouble and violence in their midst, and that these outsiders have found people in Turkey to help them. Then, turning his attention to outsiders, Özal reminded everyone that Turkey had been neutral in the Gulf War, and had supplied medicine and food instead of the tools of war. Now, said Özal, "It is only natural for us to expect them to repay the debt" with a similar good neighborliness instead of with subversion. As for Syria, Özal said: "We want to establish good relations with them, too. But everybody should bear in mind that our patience has a limit when our neighbors continue to contribute to certain actions against Turkey." The next day he added, in an unmistakable reference to 'Alawi-ruled Syria, that: "This is a Moslem country. The ones who want to divide Turkey cannot be real Moslems. They can only be fake Moslems." To give added teeth to Özal's campaign, the Turkish Army Chief of Staff, General Necip Torumtay, suddenly arrived in Diyarbakir on August 24, talking about a final campaign of annihilation against the PKK which "might involve" strikes "beyond the border."
How did the Syrian government respond? As it had in the past. Once its attention had been raised, Syria pledged solemnly that it would not allow its territory to be used to harm Turkish security. Meanwhile, the Syrian Embassy in Ankara denied reports that the Turkish ambassador in Syria had protested Syria's conduct to the Syrian Foreign Ministry.
As long as things remain basically in hand, Ankara will continue the double track approach with Syria—a cordial one on the public level and a deadly one on the quiet level. The Turks, for the time being, are content to practice damage control. Despite its many activities, the PKK has not yet been able to change the security situation qualitatively for the worse; further, the Atatürk Dam is coming close to operational capacity and the Syrians have lost their Soviet patron for the most part.
Further, in some ways Syrian aggressiveness has been counterproductive; thanks to a decade of Syrian pin-pricks, Turkey is better prepared and deployed on the border than are the Syrians. There are more troops, better trained and better equipped than ever before. Years of Turkish effort and investment have produced a frontier that is increasingly difficult to violate.
A similar duality characterizes Turkish-Soviet relations. The Turkish government denies reports of Soviet support for ASALA and the PKK, even when these are raised and seemingly substantiated in the Turkish press, rare though that may be in any reliable fashion. When Moscow is forthcoming, the Turks seek as normal a relationship as possible. For example, in 1988, the Soviets suggested the reopening of a border point after 51 years of closure, with facilities paid for by the U.S.S.R., the Turks were happy to oblige. And when in January 1989 the Soviets suggested another border crossing, the Turks again agreed. For these reasons, even assuming they have good evidence, the Turks have something to lose from accusing the Soviets directly and publicly of supporting ASALA or the PKK or the various small Turkish Marxist-Leninist groups. So they do not do so.
In the summer of 1989, Bulgarian persecution and expulsion of more than 300,000 Bulgarian Turks threatened to disrupt Turkish-Soviet relations. The Turks believed that the Soviets could have forced the Bulgarians to stop the persecutions if they had wanted to, but Moscow offered instead to mediate between the two. Whether in this mediation the Soviet Union received something from Turkey is unknown.
On occasion, the Turks take so much care not to ruffle Soviet feathers that they end up ruffling those of the United States instead. When a Soviet pilot defected to Turkey in May 1989, bring with him a MiG-29, the Turks returned the plane (but not the pilot) the very next day. This reportedly led to "dismay" on the part of U.S. officials, who sought a close look at the aircraft.
More Trouble to Come, or Less?
There are some reasons to be optimistic about Turkish-Syrian relations. The Iraq-Iran war is over and the dynamics of alliance relations are such that Syria's support for Iran does not require Damascus to take as much umbrage at Turkish help for Iraq. Public relations are sound; state visits to Syria by Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Özal in July 1987 and August 1988 enhanced bilateral ties. 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 the relationship. Syrian regional isolation and economic weakness could lead to less terror and subversion against Turkey. The frontier area became more relaxed; for example, in the late 1980s, the Turkish and Syrian governments began to permit archeologists and geologists from abroad—including the United States—to work very close to the border. Americans from the Smithsonian, Hunter College and the University of Pennsylvania were given permission to work on the Tigris River near Batman, about 60 miles east of Diyarbakir and only 80 miles from Cizre. On the Syrian side, archeologists, including some from the United States, worked even closer to the border. And the Soviet Union is temporarily absorbed with domestic troubles.
Nevertheless, problems remain. The end of the Iraq-Iran war means that Syria is no longer as restrained by its alliance with Tehran—which needed Turkey during the war nearly as much as did Iraq—from assaulting Turkey. Syrian economic weakness is really not relevant to activities against the Turks; the traffic in drugs makes Syrian support for its anti-Turkish proxies a cheap (or even a profitable) activity. Further, it is largely run by Kurdish, Palestinian, Lebanese and still a few Armenian proxies whose agendas are relatively unaffected by regional and international perturbations.
The PKK is becoming richer, more powerful, and more sophisticated. Its international connections are growing, especially in Western Europe. As a result, parts of eastern Turkey are not entirely under government control. Especially at night, the PKK runs many villages in Kurdish areas through a combination of sympathy and intimidation. And while the Syrian frontier may be harder to penetrate, the Iraqi and Iranian frontiers remain porous, and operatives from Syria increasingly come to use those routes to enter Turkey.
Besides, optimism about Syrian-Turkish relations flies in the face of some trends on the ground. For a while, it seemed that Syrian efforts against Turkey were declining in frequency but escalating in intensity. The murder of Turkish diplomats abroad, for example, stopped in 1988. But Syrian efforts appeared more broadly organized, more flexible, and better financed than earlier. Perhaps, having created a critical mass of proxies, Damascus (and behind it, Moscow) no longer had to lend specific aid or give specific orders to its Palestinian, Kurdish, and Armenian proxies. Besides, there were new tensions in late 1989.
The second half of 1989 witnessed a significant increase in Syrian-Turkish tensions. PKK killings in eastern Turkey increased dramatically. Turkish military officials claimed to have caught Syrians, both Muslim and Armenian, "running with" the guerrillas inside Turkey. The Turks also saw worse to come. First, they held, Damascus moved the main PKK training camps to the Biqa' Valley in Lebanon, where they would have more freedom of action. Second, Turkish sources claimed that Damascus set up a new Kurdish organizations (with help from the KGB) called TEVGER, in Damascus in December 1988. TEVGER was apparently led by a Kurd named Casim Urun, and was made up of some non-PKK radicals, but whose rank-and-file seems to have been drawn as well from the Iraqi Kurds forced from their homes in the aftermath of the Gulf War, and whose views are antithetical to the PKK's Marxism. In this sense, Syrian sponsorship of TEVGER is analogous to Syria's creation of as-Sa'iqa within Palestinian para-military nationalist groups years ago.
As a result of these provocations, Prime Minister Özal took an unprecedented step on October 1, 1989. He publicly threatened that if Damascus failed to live up to the 1987 security protocol, the Turks would turn off the water flowing across the border, and he added, "We are doubtful they are abiding by these conditions." These words conjured up the Syrians' worst fear; accordingly, they raised tensions to new levels.
Hafiz al-Asad is nothing if not a fighter. In what might well have been a response to Özal, two Syrian MiG-21 fighter planes entered Turkish airspace near Samandağ in Hatay province at 10:00 a.m. (local time) on October 21, 1989. They went straight for a Britten Norman-2L belonging to a provincial Land Registry directorate, shooting down the small (35 ft. length) civilian airliner and 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 possibly, in broad daylight, be mistaken for a military aircraft.
The Syrian government subsequently apologized for the incident, saying it was an accident. It also agreed to participate in a committee to designed to prevent future such incidents, but conspicuously said nothing about offering compensation to the families of the victims. Even though it is conceivable that the incident was indeed accidental, few observers in Turkey believed that given the pulse of Syrian-Turkish relations in the fall of 1989. Rather, it appeared to them to be a direct response to Özal's threat. This impression was then strengthened on October 16, when a Lebanese Shi'i member of Islamic Jihad tried to murder a Saudi diplomat, 'Abd ar-Rahman Shi'rawi, in Ankara. Eventually, Syria agreed to pay compensation for the crash, but only after Turkey demonstrated in January 1990 its power over the waters of the Euphrates River.
As for the Soviet role, recent Soviet inwardness implies less activism abroad, less violence, and less interventionism. Soviet support for Syrian probes against Turkey will be much diminished as long as Western cooperation is required to revivify the Soviet economy. Still, Soviet foreign policy retrenchment tends to occur only when the cost of current programs is raised. Wherever the United States has made aggression expensive—in southern Africa, Cambodia, Central America, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa—the Kremlin has responded by trying to get the West to negotiate. (Some Soviet concessions in arms negotiations have been similarly motivated.) But where the West has raised no price, there is no incentive for Soviet compromise. The best way Washington can contribute to a permanent moderation of Soviet behavior toward Turkey is for Washington to keep Turkey on the U.S.-Soviet agenda.
Turkey's problems with Syrian subversion and terrorism have not diminished but shifted. The Syrian network for making trouble against Turkey has become larger and more sophisticated. It still provides agents, arms, drugs, explosives, false papers, training, coordination between groups, safe havens and financial compensation. Just as Asad disposes of a host of proxies in his conflict with Israel (the PFLP, Abu Nidal, Abu Musa, Amal, PSP, SSNP, and so on), he has proxies aplenty to choose from if he wishes to escalate the assault on Turkey.
All this still matters because Syrian motives still endure: too much divides the two countries for them to enjoy normal bilateral relations, even despite being on the same side in the Kuwait crisis of 1990. A mixed picture is more likely. There is the host of bilateral tensions—borders, smuggling, water, and the illicit drug trade—that will keep relations simmering at the very least. Syrian attempts to break out of today's frontiers—frontiers its leaders believe are artificial and do not correspond to the proper destiny of historic Syria—have been frustrated along the Israeli, Jordanian and Iraqi borders, and consummated along the Lebanese one. This might lead the Syrian regime, especially if it experiences difficulties at home in stabilizing its rule, to raise the issue of Hatay more vociferously than it has done in recent years. But, third, the leverage that Turkey has accrued on account of its water projects may lead to a greater degree of Syrian caution. Also, the Syrian regime has demonstrated pragmatism in the face of superior power in its relations with Israel. Further, Moscow and Damascus disagree over a range of political and bilateral issues, and even cooperation on essential military issues seems to have diminished.
Implications for the United States and Turkey
The Syrian campaign against Turkey has had important implications for the Middle East and NATO over the years. The campaign challenged Turkish-U.S. relations as Damascus played upon Turkish insecurities about the role of non-NATO issues in its alliance with the United States. It was saying, in effect, that Syria's superpower patron was more willing to tolerate or even assist it in a destabilization campaign against Turkey than was Turkey's patron willing to help defeat it.
Soviet involvement was a threat to the solidity and long term endurance of NATO's southern flank. If Turkey had become estranged from NATO (even while formally remaining a member) before the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, it would have been more likely to have appeased the Kremlin. The campaign, had it been entirely neglected by the United States, might have encouraged the Soviets to pressure other pro-American states with similar tactics whenever and wherever available. Examples could have included an increase in activities against governments of Thailand, Pakistan, Tunisia, Egypt, Somalia, and the Ivory Coast.
In the end, American decisions partly determined the cost of these actions for Moscow and Damascus. The U.S. response was mixed, for there have been daunting obstacles to the construction of an effective U.S. policy. Syrian-Turkish relations present technical problems for the U.S. government because they cut across the existing categories of government operations. The issue falls into many different bureaucratic drawers: NATO, drugs, terrorism, U.S.-Soviet relations, and the Middle East. In the Washington bureaucracy, Turkey is part of Europe and Syria part of the Middle East. Those responsible for Turkish affairs tend to be oriented toward NATO; and those concerned with Syrian affairs are absorbed with the passions of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the past, such diffusion has led to ineffective policy.
Since mid-1989, and collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the entire post-war architecture of European security has shifted. Germany is reunited, new economic groupings are evolving, and the future of the Soviet empire is itself in question. This does not mean, however, that Turkey has become less important to the United States, or the United States less important to Turkey. Cold War or no Cold War, Soviet threat or no, Turkey remains an important strategic asset to the United States, particularly so, perhaps, as U.S. forces and interests are drawn down elsewhere in Europe. Similarly, the U.S.-Turkish partnership transcends security considerations narrowly construed. Particularly if Turkey is excluded from European groupings, and if the Persian Gulf remains unstable, as seems likely, the United States and Turkey will have plenty in common to sustain a close and mutually beneficial relationship. As a result, and combined with Soviet weakness and Syrian retrenchment, the possibility of solving various longstanding Turkish problems with Damascus is coming into view. One result of success would be a far more normal Turkish-Syrian relationship, which would serve the interests of all parties.
Though it is not the purpose of this essay to advocate policy to either the Turkish or American governments, a number of observations may be put forth.
First, the U.S. government can tell the Soviets privately that it knows what they and the Syrians have done in the past, and put them on warning not to do it again in the future. Formal linkages between this and other U.S.-Soviet issues need not be established, for informal ones suffice. If the U.S. government acts like it knows what is going on, the Syrians may think twice, for they have a proven record of astutely understanding public relations, and they back off whenever the costs rise. As Soviet power weakens, U.S. policy is likely to be ever more effective. If Russian power returns in whatever new form, as seems inevitable in the fullness of time, establishing red lines on this topic far in advance cannot hurt.
Second, Ankara has publicly warned the Syrians that unless they desist, it will improve its relations with Israel. The United States government might support this development, for closer relations between the two leading American allies in a critical region could make a big difference in a time of crisis, and may even conduce to an amelioration of Syrian-Israeli hostility.
Third, Syrian subversion could lead Ankara to shut off the Euphrates River waters or even to respond militarily. Should either of these developments take place, the United States government will need to tread carefully and avoid offending the Turks; Syrian bellicosity is not a trivial subject from Ankara's point of view. The basis for a thorough appreciation of the background and context of any Turkish action needs to be established in advance. Even more important, the U.S. government needs to know what its position will be should the Turks take one of these steps.
Fourth, it bears remembering that Turks take offense at any demonstration of U.S. support for Kurdish autonomy. The Turkish press distorts even the vaguest allusion into a major initiative. Uğur Mumcu, writing in Cumhuriyet in April 1987, accused the United States of supporting the Kurds, and charged that this amounted to "destabilization." Mumcu also accused Syria and the U.S.S.R., but America is supposed to be friendly, he wrote, and U.S. support of "Kurdish chauvinism" undermines the "concept of joint defense." Another columnist railed against U.S. Ambassador Robert Strausz-Hupé's intention to visit eastern Turkey. In characteristically droll fashion, the ambassador told the Turkish press that he was merely going sightseeing. Turks also resent U.S. sympathy for the Armenians. Of course, the U.S. government need not muzzle itself to please the Turks, but it should avoid giving gratuitous offense.
Fifth, the Executive branch should brief the Congress on these issues, for Congress has actively impeded the full funding of Turkish military assistance. This has been counterproductive in the past for, to the extent that Turkey has felt weak, it was more prone to acquiesce to Soviet pressures. Congress might better appreciate the Turkish predicament if the Soviet-Syrian campaign against it were better known.
Finally, U.S.-Turkish military coordination should perhaps include Syria, albeit in densely shaded public form. At the very least, this would suggest to the Syrians that their remaining military ties to the Soviet Union has costs. At best, it would provide the Turks with needed assurances. The American and Turkish governments have arranged to enhance the Turkish military infrastructure in eastern Turkey, largely at U.S. expense. Americans have been interested in the region because it borders the Soviet Union; the Turks have agreed because it helps them fight Kurdish insurrectionists. As new bases and airfields come into use, they should be stocked and their personnel trained discreetly, not only with respect to large Soviet and small Kurdish contingencies, but to mid-sized Syrian ones, too.
 Turkish-Bulgarian relations have been exacerbated by a systematic Bulgarian campaign of harassment against its Turkish speaking minority. This campaign became particularly acute in the summer of 1989. The Turkish-Greek frontier across the Aegean Sea and in Thrace has been a scene of dispute and military preparation for some time, and Cyprus remains a contentious issue, as well. Turkey's borders with Iran and Iraq are troubled by Kurdish insurrectionists. The Syrian border with Israel is one of the tensest and most heavily armed in the world. The border with Lebanon has been all but eliminated as Syrian troops occupied most of Lebanon after 1975. Borders with Jordan and Iraq witness periodic armed confrontations.
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