Ten thousand Turkish troops have moved to the Syrian border and have been prohibited from taking leave. The Turkish air force is on red alert, with RF-5 and F-16 jets constantly buzzing the border. And Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has spent the week shuttling between Ankara and Damascus.
As Turkey and Syria face off, informed opinion holds that the Turks will not go beyond "a few surgical strikes." But the Middle East is a supremely volatile region, where conflicts tend to escalate beyond expectations. In 1967, the Six-Day War between Arab nations and Israel seemed to come out of nowhere; historians still puzzle over its origins. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan took everyone by surprise, as did the Iraqi invasions of Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990. The Lebanese and Sudanese civil wars started on a dime. It therefore behooves us, like Mr. Mubarak, to take the flare-up between Turkey and Syria seriously.
The origins of the conflict lie in several Syrian resentments and ambitions toward Turkey. In 1939, on the eve of World War II, the French imperial power in Damascus handed over a province of Syria to the Turks, something still not accepted by Syrians. In fact, daily television broadcasts in Syria of weather maps show Turkey's Hatay Province as part of Syria.
Then there is the ever-sensitive issue of water. Turkey and Syria signed an agreement in 1987 whereby the Syrians were assured a minimum allotment of water from the Euphrates River flowing out of Turkey. Although the Turks have lived up to their side of the bargain, Syrian President Hafez Assad has decided his country deserves more.
Finally, Damascus worries about Turkey's foreign links. In the old days, it was the membership in NATO. Now, flourishing military, commercial and cultural ties between Turkey and Israel perturb the Syrians even more. Such grievances prompted the Assad regime, starting in the mid-1980s, to sponsor a whole range of terrorist groups against Turkey, one of which remains very much in business. Known by its initials PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party has killed some 30,000 Turks in the pursuit of a breakaway Kurdish state and represents the number one problem in Turkey today.
For over a decade, the Turkish and Syrian governments have played a game that goes something like this: The PKK kills Turks and destroys their property; the Turks protest to Damascus; the Syrians deny any culpability but promise it will not happen again; and things quiet down for a few months. Then new PKK attacks against Turks resume, followed by a new protest, and the whole cycle begins anew.
Over the years, Turks have become ever-more frustrated by their inability to get an agreement with the Assad regime to stick. Particularly galling is the fact that the PKK's leader, Abdullah Öcalan, lives openly in Damascus, giving interviews and allowing himself to be photographed. Nonetheless, the Syrian regime insouciantly denies his presence - a studied insult to the Turks.
In reply, Turkish rhetoric has grown increasingly heated. By 1993, various columnists aired proposals to adopt the "methods used by Israel" against Syria's Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon: Turkey should destroy PKK camps and kill Öcalan, cut off the Euphrates waters, and even wage "all-out war against Syria." Since mid-September, these drastic proposals have moved from the opinion pages to the news pages as military and political leaders adopt a new tone.
On Friday, the Turkish chief of staff Huseyin Kivrikoğlu said relations with Damascus had already become an "undeclared war." President Suleyman Demirel announced that "we are losing our patience and we retain the right to retaliate against Syria." He also put the Syrians on warning: "Those who expect benefits from terrorism have to know that they will also suffer from terrorism in the future." Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz accused Syria of being "the headquarters of terrorism in the Middle East" and reportedly warned Damascus that the Turkish army is on stand-by, "awaiting orders" to attack.
A "crisis committee" has apparently been put together at the Turkish prime minister's office to deal with this issue. Newspapers bristle with talk of military plans. A leading daily announced that the army's plans begin with air strikes on Syrian military airports as well as radar and missile installations; a land-based incursion could be considered later on. Another newspaper predicted that Turkish planes could reach the terrorist camps in Lebanon in a half-hour.
Additional developments enhance the sense of crisis. The volume of trade between the two countries is falling rapidly, so that this year's is less than half of that of 1997. On the Syrian side of the border, truckers report tanks moving toward the border. Another 10,000 Turkish soldiers, with air backing, recently entered northern Iraq to strike at PKK bases.
Why is all this taking place now? Many factors contribute to the timing. Standing up to the PKK's sponsors plays well within Turkey and unites an otherwise fractured country. Even the leader of Turkey's fundamentalist Muslim party called the Assad regime "our enemy." Confrontation permits Prime Minister Yılmaz to emphasize his own importance; he has declared that when he leaves office in a few months, as part of an election deal, Turkey "will be in chaos."
The timing may also reflect the sense of the Turkish military that it has largely licked the PKK problem inside Turkey. Now the organization's sanctuaries in Syria and Iraq must be dealt with.
Foreign developments also explain the timing. Most important is the startling growth in alliances across the Middle East. On one side, Turkey and Israel have formed a hard kernel of democratic and pro-Western states, with Jordan and others sometimes joining them. On the other side, the many states with a grievance against Turkey or Israel have joined forces, including Greece, Greek Cyprus, Syria and Iran.
The formation of these blocs leads to an intermeshing of once-separate crises such as the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, the Cypriot problem, the PKK assault on Turkey and the Golan Heights issue. Not long ago, they had almost nothing to do with each other. But as the two blocs grow in importance, the friction from one problem affects tensions elsewhere. For example, Ankara's tough policies toward Syria are almost certainly affected by the absence of Syrian-Israeli negotiations over the Golan Heights; and the impending shipment in November of Russian surface-to-air missiles to Greek Cyprus, which has recently developed close ties with Syria.
Is war in the offing? Heated rhetoric across the Turkish-Syrian border has been heard often before and never led to a clash of armies, a prospect fraught with intense dangers for each side which both presumably realize. That said, the Middle East's violent past gives pause about predicting a peaceful resolution to crises. The combination of Syrian aggressiveness and Turkish frustration could be deadly. Plus, the specificity of Turkish demands (drop the claim to Turkish territory; close down PKK camps; extradite Mr. Öcalan) makes this crisis unlike previous ones.
Should these demands go unmet and Turkey resort to military means, it will most probably begin with air raids. Should these not suffice to change Syrian policy, ground forces would probably enter portions of Syrian territory and not meet much resistance. Not only are Turkish troops better trained, but the Syrian forces are mostly at the opposite end of the country, either facing Israel or stationed in Lebanon. Exaggerating just slightly, former U.S. ambassador to Damascus William L. Eagleton observes that "the only thing that would delay the Turks in an invasion of Syria would be the need to stop and drink tea."