AMMAN, JORDAN — Military force long has been a tool of diplomacy in the Middle East: "Messages are sent" between rivals, territorial claims staked out, revenge for transgressions achieved.
But justifying the military action presents problems: How do you convince the world that your nation must act with force?
Enter the American cruise-missile strikes last month against alleged terrorist camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. They came in response to the bombing of two US embassies in East Africa Aug. 7. American officials said the decision to launch the missiles was based on intelligence reports that showed further terrorist attacks would be carried out "within days." The strikes therefore fell under Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations allowing nations to defend themselves. Said US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: "It was self-defense."
But now that precedent has set an easy means of justifying almost any action in the Mideast - a semantic genie that President Clinton may not have wanted out of the bottle as he tries to jump-start the Mideast peace process, focus on Iraqi intransigence, and plan for NATO airstrikes against Serb targets in Yugoslavia.
From Yugoslav President Milosevic's cleansing of ethnic Albanians in the Serb province of Kosovo to root out separatist rebels - a case of "self defense" to many Serbs - to Iran's "self defense" against the Taliban militia in Afghanistan, the UN Charter may receive unprecedented use. The only other American invocation of Article 51 occurred when then-President Reagan launched an April 1986 air attack against Libya to "fight back" against terrorism.
Pressure in Turkey has been building for months to force Syria to end its support of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. But the rhetorical bursts by Turkish military chiefs that sparked the current crisis came after the American strikes. And Iran would hardly have waited for a legal UN "nicety" to justify acting against the Taliban: Some reports say Iran had been planning attacks against the Taliban until American cruise missiles stole the thunder.
Still, the US strikes are "a very valid example for Turkey," says Seyfi Tashan, head of the Foreign Diplomacy Institute in Ankara, Turkey. "The justification is Article 51 against terrorism. Turkey will not be blamed by anyone for taking action." In reality, Article 51 does not mention terrorism specifically. It does allow member states to act in their own self-defense until the Security Council can act "to maintain international peace and security."
Turkish military chief Gen. Huseyin Kivrikoglu has said that his country is in "a state of undeclared war" with Syria and that Turkey's patience "has a limit."
Turkey's prime minister, Mesut Yilmaz, echoed the threat Sunday: "We are determined to put an end to that terrorism and if Syria continues to ignore warnings, we will be free to take all kinds of action."
Syria denies Turkey's claims that PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan lives in the Syrian capital, Damascus, or that there are PKK bases on its soil.
Diplomats say Syrian President Hafez al-Assad supports the PKK as leverage against Turkey in two disputes, one over a border area called Hatay and another over water rights to the Euphrates River.
Complicating the picture are the growing strategic friendship and military ties between Israel and Turkey, which Syria sees an alliance aimed against Arab states.
Israel also justifies its occupation of Arab lands in the Sinai, West Bank, and Golan Heights on grounds of self-defense, as it does its continuing occupation of a strip of southern Lebanon. But because Israel is technically still at war with Syria and Lebanon, it has not invoked Article 51. Israel did, however, claim that with a June 1981 airstrike that destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor it was exercising "its inherent right of self defense." The move was condemned by the UN.
Both Turkey and Syria say they want a peaceful solution to their dispute. Sources in Syria say there has been no official confirmation of Turkish press reports that Syria has offered to crack down on the PKK, a move that would mean Syria recognized a PKK presence. The 22-nation Arab League backs Syria in the dispute.
THE US missile strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan, says Israeli analyst Gerald Steinberg at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, haven't "changed policy or created a new dynamic." But they have changed the language of justification. Turkey-Syria and Iran-Afghan crises "would have happened anyway. But it sets a precedent for how they are justified."
That lesson also has been learned by Iran, which claims that any move it makes against the Taliban will be in self-defense.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, condemned the US missile strikes as "state terrorism" and called the American action "the law of the jungle," charging that "no international law allows pouring rockets on defenseless people...."
But Iran's president, Mohamad Khatami, saw fit to use the American example to Iran's advantage when he dismissed US calls for restraint by Iran against the Taliban. The US gets "worried when we act on our own borders to protect our security," President Khatami said last month. "But they allow themselves to launch long-distance missile strikes on other countries and kill innocent people."
Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, repeated the point last week: "We reserve the right of using military forces to realize our demands in Afghanistan."
For years such a "right" has been quietly exercised by NATO member Turkey. Time and again its troops have invaded northern Iraq to attack PKK bases and hunt down guerrillas.
Turkey's influential military has claimed for 18 months that it had done all that it could do to end the Kurdish insurgency in southeast Turkey. It is time for politicians to take over, military officers say, to create conditions that will prevent the PKK from emerging again.
But PKK rear bases in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and cash from European and American supporters, allows the PKK to keep reinvigorating itself.
Turks are tired of the conflict, even if many sympathize with Kurdish civilians who have suffered abuses by the Turkish military. But PKK attacks also have alienated many Turks.
"It's a matter of making the world understand the vehemence of the problem, and that even the US can react [with violence] to such an exasperating situation," says Mr. Tashan, the Turkish analyst. "Our situation is not fighting a war; it is ending a terrorist headquarters in Syria."
And what of the US example of missile strikes? "It's handy," he says.