- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2003

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Turkey is seeking closer military and economic ties with Syria to regain Arab world influence damaged by the coalition’s victory in Iraq, diplomats report.The recent visit to Syria by Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul has set the stage for a series of other meetings, including a trip to Turkey by Syrian President Bashar Assad, planned for September.It will be the first visit to Turkey by a Syrian head of state since former Turkish and French possession Syria’s independence in 1946.The official Turkish view is that Syria intends to upgrade its relations with Turkey to the “strategic level” after years of difficulties because of Syria’s support for Kurdish rebels and accusations that Turkey was blocking the flow of the Euphrates River to favor its own dams.The developments stem to some extent from Turkey’s refusal to join the coalition in the war against Iraq, the resulting difficulties with the United States and a loss of prestige in parts of the Middle East.For its part, Turkish officials say, Syria needs a new ally in the area to reduce its isolation and to limit the extent of U.S. pressure. The United States accuses Syria of sheltering extremist Palestinian organizations.According to the Istanbul Cumhuriyet daily, Syria feels vulnerable, “squeezed between the United States and Israel after the collapse of the Saddam regime in Iraq. Syria is seeking to eliminate its isolations.As far as Turkey is concerned, diplomats say, a major opening to the Middle East and the Arab world is one of the objectives of the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, which is sympathetic to the tenets of Islam.The efforts to solidify rapprochement with Syria come against a background of Turkey’s increased economic problems and a dispute between the political leaders, who are sympathetic to Islam, and the highly secular military establishment.Both share power in the National Security Council, where the military, although in a minority, has the final word as the ultimate guardian of the secularism imposed by Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic.Diplomats have reported clashes between Mr. Erdogan and Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, chief of the General Staff, at a recent National Security Council meeting on issues including Turkey’s ambition to join the European Union, its desire to improve links with the Arab world and the appointment of politicians from an Islamic party to sensitive government posts.On some occasions, according to one report, President Ahmet Necdet Sezer “instead of acting as an arbiter, allowed the military to assert its influence.”The president’s attitude has caused appeals for his resignation by members of the Justice and Development Party.According to Mustafa Balbay, columnist for the Istanbul Cumhuriyet, “When we look at the government-army relations, we do not see a comforting picture.”Turkish commentators stress that since 1960, the military has played a dominant role in Turkish politics. Writing in the Istanbul Saban newspaper, Metin Munir pointed out:”Politicians cannot do anything without getting the necessary permission from the soldiers on critical issues. … Not a single army in other countries has the great role and influence enjoyed by the Turkish army.”

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