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Power Bloc

Turkey and Israel Lock Arms


By Jennifer Washburn

The Progressive magazine, December 1998


Last December, when Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz visited the White House, a coalition of human-rights and arms-control groups urged President Clinton to confront him about Turkey's pervasive human-rights violations and its ongoing repression of the Kurds. Not all members of the American human-rights community were so critical, however. On December 17, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a prominent Jewish organization that seeks to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination, presented Yilmaz with its Distinguished Statesman Award and honored him at a gala dinner attended by the leaders of several major American Jewish organizations.

"Turkey stands as a country committed to democracy and the promotion of tolerance," proclaimed ADL director Abraham Foxman in a press release distributed at the time. According to the ADL, its Distinguished Statesman Award goes "to those leaders who exhibit an extraordinary dedication to regional and world peace, and who possess a special commitment to promoting human and civil rights."

Such high praise for Turkey and its head of state prompted a sharply worded rebuttal from the Washington Kurdish Institute. Yilmaz's treatment of the Kurds, the group wrote to Foxman, "amount[s] to little more than ethnic cleansing."

Since 1984, the Turkish military has bombed and depopulated more than 3,000 Kurdish villages in its campaign to eradicate the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant Kurdish opposition group. As a result, 30,000 people have died, and two million Kurdish refugees have been driven out of their homes into overcrowded urban shantytowns.

The Turkish government "has long denied the Kurdish population . . . basic political, cultural, and linguistic rights," notes the U.S. State Department in its most recent human rights report. In 1997," torture remained widespread," and "government officials continued to harass, intimidate, indict, and imprison human rights monitors, journalists, and lawyers for ideas that they expressed in public forums."

So why would the ADL and other Jewish leaders lavish such praise on Yilmaz?

The reason is Turkey's burgeoning military partnership with Israel. In February 1996, Turkey and Israel signed a historic military training agreement, followed six months later by an arms-industry cooperation pact. Since that time, military and economic ties between the two countries have blossomed. Both nations now fly and train in one another's airspace, share sophisticated intelligence information, enjoy extensive trade relations, and cooperate on joint security and weapons projects.

"We think the relationship gives hope to the region; we believe it can be helpful in moving the region toward peace," said the ADL's assistant national director Kenneth Jacobson in an interview with The Progressive. "This award doesn't specifically use the word human rights," he explained defensively. "We always raise questions about human rights and the need for further democratic reform."

Most Turkey and Israel supporters, including the Clinton Administration, agree that this partnership is a cause for celebration. "We are very supportive of it," says Dana Bauer, deputy director of the

Office of Southern European Affairs at the State Department. "It strengthens two pro-Western allies in the region and helps both to modernize their defense capabilities in areas that are of mutual interest. We see it as a stabilizing agreement."

Yet throughout the Arab world, and among arms-control and human-rights groups in the United States, this dramatic strategic development has raised a host of disturbing questions about the prospects for Arab-Israeli peace, the stability of the Middle East, the plight of the Kurds and the Palestinians, and regional arms-control efforts.

One immediate threat is a massive buildup of Turkey's military strength. Israel's willingness to sell top-of-the-line military hardware to Turkey, with no questions asked, could undermine progress on human rights. As the Congressional Research Service recently observed, "The Israeli connection enables Turkey to circumvent U.S. and European arms embargoes and what it believes to be the influence of anti-Turkish ethnic lobbies in Congress."

Of course, Turkey's main military supplier is the United States. Eighty percent of Turkey's weapons imports are stamped MADE IN THE U.S.A. and, over the last decade, Ankara has received more than $12 billion in direct and indirect U.S. military assistance. In recent years, however, mounting human rights criticism in the United States and Europe has been a persistent thorn in Ankara's side. In 1996, Turkey angrily accused the U.S. Congress of imposing a "shadow embargo" after a coalition of arms-control and human-rights groups succeeded in blocking two pending sales of Cobra helicopters and frigates. Last December, Europe rejected Turkey's application for membership in the European Union, in part because of Turkey's failure to improve human rights.

Israeli weapons offer Turkey a way around such sanctions. David Ivri, an adviser to the Israeli Defense Ministry who was instrumental in bringing about the Turkish-Israeli accord, was asked by the Jerusalem Post last year whether Israel considers human rights when it sells arms to other countries. "Israel to this day has a policy of not intervening in any internal matters of any country in the world," Ivri responded. "We don't like it when others interfere in our internal matters. For this reason, our policy doesn't touch on such matters."

Over the next twenty-five years, Turkey plans to spend an astonishing $150 billion to modernize its military. U.S. arms manufacturers will continue to lobby hard for these lucrative sales but, increasingly, Israel will be a major competitor. Already, Turkey and Israel have signed a number of arms deals, with many more in the works. Two of these involve Israeli contracts worth $715 million to upgrade Turkish F-4 and F-5 combat planes with high-tech radar and avionics to improve their performance in bombing missions. Israel also has orders for night-vision systems, tank upgrades on F-16 fighter planes, and 200 Popeye missiles. In May 1997, the two countries agreed to co-produce advanced Popeye II missiles, with a range of ninety miles, which will involve a significant transfer of technology and manufacturing capability to Turkey. This year, the two partners also sealed a controversial deal to jointly produce a new medium-range missile, similar to the Arrow missile that Israel has been developing using U.S. technology and $785 million of U.S. funding. Such sales raise questions about whether Israel will become a back door conduit for Turkey to obtain American technology.

Arms control advocates fear that Ankara's access to Israeli weapons could exacerbate the arms race between Greece and Turkey (by breaking the military parity that the United States has sought to maintain) and jeopardize resolution of their dispute over Cyprus. The Israeli connection could also further strengthen Turkey's military-the country's ruling power behind the scenes-just when international pressure is mounting for Turkey to democratize and find a political solution to its fourteen-year conflict with the Kurds.

Currently, arms control groups are gearing up for a major battle over Turkey's plan to purchase 145 advanced attack helicopters, worth $3.5 billion-one of the most lucrative helicopter deals in the world. Vying for the contract are a French-German consortium (Eurocopter), an Israeli-Russian consortium (Israeli Aircraft Industries and Kamov), and two American companies (Boeing Corporation of Seattle and Bell Helicopter Textron of Fort Worth). Groups like Amnesty International U.S.A. are campaigning hard to block any American sale, since the Turkish armed forces routinely use these helicopters and other U.S. weapons to carry out their scorched-earth campaigns against Kurdish villages in the southeast.

When President Clinton met with Prime Minister Yilmaz last December, he pledged that no final U.S. export license would be approved unless Turkey could demonstrate improvements in human rights. Now, however, the Israel-Turkey connection may jeopardize these gains.

"There will be tremendous pressure from arms contractors to grant an export license," says John Tirman, executive director of the Winston Foundation for World Peace, and author of Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America's Arms Trade. "Choosing Israel is a way to leverage the U.S. because no one in Israel . . . is going to raise any human rights problems for Turkey."

The Israeli-Turkish pact fundamentally shifts the balance of power in the Middle East. As a 1997 paper by Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy observes Israel's enemies must now weigh the possibility that Turkey will provide Israel assistance in the event of a confrontation. The same logic makes Turkey's enemies more circumspect, as well.

Turkey and Israel have repeatedly stressed that their accord is not an "alliance" requiring either country to defend the other. But the Arab countries are dubious-and not without justification. In February, a former Turkish ambassador to Washington announced that Turkey would consider allowing Israel to use Turkish airspace to retaliate if Iraq ever threatens a missile attack on Israel. And reports already indicate that Israeli planes flying in Turkish airspace are gathering detailed intelligence on Iran, Iraq, and Syria- Israel's chief enemies.

Officially, the United States denies that it played any direct role in bringing this military axis together. But as Eqbal Ahmad, emeritus professor of Middle East Studies at Hampshire College, explains, "It seems an impossibility that two principal U.S. allies could form a bilateral alliance without the U.S. playing a matchmaking role. There is a long history of the U.S. trying to find strategic allies in the Middle East who would play deputy to American power."

Last December, following a U.S.-Turkish-Israeli meeting at the Pentagon, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai explicitly confirmed the U.S. role: "I certainly describe the relationship between us and the Turks as the development of a strategic relationship. All this with the backing and coordination of the U.S."

One key target of the Israeli-Turkish military partnership is Syria. "The entire state of Syria, to put it bluntly, is now surrounded," says Robert Fisk, the Beirut bureau chief for the London Independent. In addition to its regular reconnaissance missions over the Golan Heights, Fisk explains, "Israel can fly along Syria's northern border, just inside Turkey, and presumably over the northern Iraqi border with Syria as well," where Turkey regularly goes in pursuit of the PKK. The Economist reports that Turkey is already receiving detailed information about Syria from Israel's military intelligence service, Mossad.

Turkey's antagonism toward Syria centers primarily on Damascus's support for the PKK, which is believed to have bases in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley of Lebanon.

Turkey and Syria also have a long-running territorial conflict over the Turkish province of Hatay (which Syria used to control), and a major dispute over access to water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which originate in Turkey and flow through Iraq to Syria. (It is widely thought that Syria supports the PKK largely to increase its leverage with Turkey over its water rights.)

Israel, meanwhile, has similar objections to Syria's backing of the Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, with whom it continues to fight a low-intensity war. Israel hopes that pressure from Turkey along Syria's northern frontier will force Damascus's hand on talks over the contested Golan Heights.

In early October, simmering tensions in the Middle East boiled over into a serious confrontation when a top Turkish military commander announced that Syria and Turkey, which share a 550-mile border, had reached "a state of undeclared war" over Syria's support for the PKK. Ankara sent 10,000 troops and equipment to the border and indicated that it was prepared to invade Syria to attack the bases of the PKK, just as it does inside northern Iraq. Damascus responded by calling for talks. The Syrian government's official newspaper, Al Baath, declared that Turkey's aggressive behavior could mean only one thing: "full coordination between Ankara and Tel Aviv in accordance with their alliance."

Seeking to avert a crisis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspended flights over the Golan Heights to stress Israel's noninvolvement. But many analysts question whether Turkey would have threatened strikes against the PKK in Syria were it not for its access to intelligence from Mossad and the heightened confidence Ankara feels from its military partnership with Israel.

"I don't think there is any doubt that this type of confrontation is what the relationship was conceived to do," says Alan Makovsky, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It was specifically created to intimidate Syrian President Hafez al-Assad."

Sukru Elekdag, a former Turkish ambassador to the United States, clearly identified Israel as the source of Ankara's new bravado in a column appearing in the Turkish Milliyet. "Syria . . . cannot risk a hot clash with Turkey under today's conditions," he reasoned. "Syrians know that . . . if they lose their military forces in a war with Turkey, they would become totally vulnerable to Israel, their arch enemy.... In other words, Israel is breathing down Syria's neck."

In late October, Turkey and Syria reached an agreement in which Syria would end its support for the PKK and turn over its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, to Ankara. "I think it worked beautifully from Ankara's point of view," Makovsky exclaimed. "Turkey never felt emboldened before, and now it does, Assad never caved in, and now he did." For Makovsky, Damascus's "surrender" is evidence that the Turkish-Israeli pact may compel Syria to bow to Israel's demands, as well.

But others are skeptical. John Tirman believes that the agreement was probably a "face-saving device." "The Syrians could easily agree to remove Ocalan, only to let him back in six months later," he explains. "I would doubt that the Syrians even have the capacity to eject the PKK out of their territory completely. The Turkish military continually claims they've done the PKK in, but then it always seems to resurface again."

Even Makovsky acknowledges that the Turkish-Israeli pact "might make Assad less secure about making peace." On September 16, the Arab League, led by Damascus, announced that the Turkish-Israeli pact "exposes Arab interests to real danger and brings the region back to the policy of axes and alliances" that proved so destructive during the Cold War.

Assad is certainly not blameless in these conflicts with Israel and Turkey, but it is by no means clear that a united Turkey-Israel front is going to soften his stance. Syria has already marshaled support from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq to form a possible counter-alliance. Egypt, a traditional U.S. ally, has expressed strong opposition to the pact's effect on regional peace, while Iraq and Syria, formerly hostile neighbors, appear to be developing closer ties in response to the pact, despite Syria's support for the U.S. during the Gulf War.

The new Israel and Turkey relationship may also reinforce each country's inclination to find military solutions to their internal conflicts and to view these conflicts primarily through a "terrorism" lens.

Turkey and Israel's interests "coincide from an international 'terrorism' perspective," notes Mike Amitay, the executive director of the Washington Kurdish Institute. "How do you justify using force against segments of your own society? The answer is you create a terrorism mind-set."

No one disputes the fact that groups like Hamas and the PKK have committed serious acts of terrorism, but in both Israel and Turkey the governments' hard-line, anti-terrorism approach has been strongly criticized as an impediment to dialogue and lasting peace.

In Israel's case, despite the interim agreement signed in October at Wye Plantation, the Netanyahu government's ongoing land expropriations, restrictions on travel, and refusal to concede any genuine autonomy have left many Palestinians deeply disillusioned with the peace process.

In Turkey, meanwhile, the government's position is yet more extreme. "There is no dialogue whatsoever," explains Amitay, "even with legitimate Kurdish groups. Incredible as it is, Turkey is willing to go to war with a neighboring state-Syria- rather than identifying Kurdish interlocutors with whom it can start to negotiate a political solution." Still, he cautions, "the Turkish military won't find a resolution of its PKK problem in Damascus; it's a domestic issue."

There is a striking parallel between the Turkish and Israeli anti-terrorism campaigns. Both countries have violated the sovereignty of neighboring nations in pursuit of their enemies. In northern Iraq, Turkey has set up a security zone, nine miles deep, along the entire length of the Iraq-Turkey border, where it regularly conducts aerial bombing missions and sends in troops to eliminate PKK bases. Since 1982, Israel has occupied a similar security zone inside Lebanon, also nine miles deep, where persistent fighting with the Hezbollah has ensued. In both cases, civilian casualties have been high, and no resolution of the conflict is in sight.

Netanyahu publicly acknowledged in May 1997 that the threat of terrorism has drawn Israel and Turkey together. "Turkey has suffered from terrorist attacks from the PKK, and we see no difference between the terrorism of the PKK and that which Israel suffers," he said. The speech was significant not only because Netanyahu abandoned Israel's historic neutrality toward the Kurds and ruled out the establishment of a Kurdish state, but because he explicitly warned there would be no peace between Israel and Syria unless Damascus ended its support for the PKK.

Netanyahu's desire to involve Turkey in Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations could stall the peace process further. Turkey has long been an outspoken opponent of Israeli-Syrian peace talks because it fears that, if the two countries ever come to an agreement, Syria will re-deploy its army from the Golan Heights to the Turkish border. Given the trouble that Israel and Syria have encountered in their own negotiations over Lebanon and the Golan Heights, any participation by Ankara would certainly make reaching a settlement more difficult.

The same may be true of the Palestinian issue. Even though Ankara has supported the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a Washington Post editorial last year suggested that a strengthening of Israel's security through its partnership with Turkey could actually reduce Israel's perceived need to reach a settlement.

In the Arab world, pessimism reigns. Recently, when Israel suggested it would like to invite Egypt to participate in joint military exercises with Turkey, Egypt's foreign minister Amr Moussa responded forcefully. "There has been no invitation, and there had better not be one," he said. "We regard this [military pact] as untimely, negative, and unhelpful to efforts to revive the peace process."

In Washington, the pro-Turkey and pro-Israel lobbies are working together to pursue their common interests. The Congressional Research Service notes that Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai has confirmed that "Israel is assisting

Turkey on the American political scene and encouraging Jewish organizations to follow this example." Earlier this year, according to the Economist of London, Turkey "was pleased to have the support of the powerful Jewish lobby in Washington," which "helped to get Congress to unfreeze the sale of two frigates" to Ankara. The wan Street Journal notes that Turkish interests "are now on the agenda" of groups like the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), a Washington-based think tank, and the American-Israel Public Action Committee (AIPAC), an influential pro-Israel lobby. JINSA has spoken out against foreign aid cuts to Turkey and has organized meetings between retired U.S. military officers and their Turkish counterparts.

More recently, the Dallas Morning News reports that the American-Turkish Association, based in Ankara, has asked a number of Jewish groups-including the American Jewish Congress, B'nai B'rith, and AIPAC-for their help on Turkey's upcoming helicopter deal. "Help" essentially means persuading the Clinton Administration that Turkey's human rights practices have improved enough to warrant approval of a U.S. export license." I think Turkey deserves this sale," Foxman told the newspaper, citing "the relationship with Israel."

For Turkey, this is a dream come true. The new alliance "gives Ankara something they've never had before," notes John Tirman." An ethnic constituency in the U.S. that can strengthen Turkey's lobbying presence in Washington."

Last February, all the threads of this intricate alliance came together at the annual conference of the American-Turkish Council, a lobbying group in Washington that promotes closer U.S.-Turkish business and military relations. There, some of the largest U.S. weapons companies- Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Textron, Raytheon, Sikorsky/United Technologies-were in attendance, which was not surprising, since representatives from these firms either sit on the Council's board of directors or have other leadership posts in the organization. The conference also attracted U.S. officials like Senator Jesse Helms (Republican of North Carolina), Commerce Secretary William Daley, and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Ralston. One panel on the Turkish-Israeli military pact, with Alan Makovsky speaking, drew considerable attention.

"The fact that Israel and Turkey-the most economically and militarily powerful states in the region-are working together as partners is a very dramatic development," says Makovsky. The conference made it clear that this new power bloc, while cementing U.S. control over the region, will do little for human rights and peace.


Jennifer Washburn is a Senior Research Associate at the World Policy Institute and a freelance journalist based in New York City.

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