Israel Eager to Avoid Conflict Growing Between Turkey, Syria

Israel has sent clear signals to Damascus indicating that it has no aggressive intentions against Syria.

The message was delivered over the weekend as Israel’s close regional ally, Turkey, warned that it was considering military action against Syria.

Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai said Israel was underlining its message of non-belligerence by scaling down some routine military activities along its border with Syria.

Not only did Israel have no interest in a conflict with Syria, he said, “we are looking to restore talks with the Syrians.” Israel’s strategic ties with Turkey “are not aimed against any other party,” he added.

The Turkish defense minister, Ismet Sezgin, denied media reports that some 10,000 additional troops and convoys of armored vehicles had been sent to the Syrian border.

Turkish military leaders said last Friday that any military movements in the border area were part of NATO exercises. The Turkish media said the NATO forces would be simulating conflict with an “enemy,” marked as “Yellowland” on NATO maps. The area represents Syria.

In London, Western sources said they do not believe the escalating rhetoric from Ankara indicates that military action is imminent, but they do believe that Turkey might be preparing public opinion for such an eventuality.

On Sunday, both Syria and Turkey called for a peaceful solution to the crisis as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sought to mediate the dispute.

The level of rhetoric from Ankara increased late last week after Turkey’s National Security Council discussed Syrian support for the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, which is based in Syria.

The conflict between the PKK and Turkey is estimated to have cost the lives of some 34,000 people since 1984.

According to well-informed Middle East sources, the PKK is immensely wealthy as a result of “compulsory taxes” that are unofficially extracted from tens of thousands of Turkish-Kurdish workers in Europe, particularly in Germany.

However, the sources noted that the PKK’s heavy dependence on logistical support from Syria has reduced the movement to a “wholly controlled Syrian subsidiary.”

“The Syrians,” said one senior source, “use the PKK as a proxy force against Turkey just as they use Hezbollah as a proxy force against Israel,” referring to the Islamic militant group in southern Lebanon.

The long-running dispute between Syria and Turkey — which centers on Syrian support for the PKK and Turkey’s control of the flow of water from the Euphrates River to Syria — has been exacerbated by the increasingly close military ties that have developed between Turkey and Israel over the past two years.

Under the terms of their relationship, Israel and Turkey conduct joint military exercises and have a reciprocal agreement to use the other country’s air bases and air space for military training.

Israel has been accused of using Turkish facilities to spy on military activities in northern Syria, which are “invisible” to Israel’s early warning systems on the Golan Heights.

Israel captured the Golan from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War.

In addition, both Syria and Iran have accused Turkey and Israel of conspiring to launch joint military attacks, charges that have been vigorously denied by both Jerusalem and Ankara.

Syrian-Turkish tensions reached new heights late last week after a stream of statements by Turkey’s political and military leaders served notice that their patience is running out over Syrian support for the PKK.

The Turks said that while they hoped to resolve their differences through diplomacy, military action against Damascus is now being considered.

“There is a state of undeclared war between us and Syria,” the Turkish daily Sabah quoted the army’s chief of staff as declaring last Friday.

“We are trying to be patient,” Gen. Hussein Kivrikoglu said last Friday. “But that has a limit.”

His remark followed a threat by Gen. Atilla Ates, commander of Turkey’s ground forces, that Syria could face military action “if it does not end its support for the terrorists.”

The warning was echoed by President Suleyman Demirel in a recent speech to the Turkish Parliament.

“I declare once more to the world that we reserve the right to retaliate against Syria, which has not abandoned its hostile policies despite all our warnings and peaceful initiatives, and that our patience is nearing an end,” Demirel said.

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