Mideast Balance Of Power Shifts As an 'Axis' Is Born

Israel and Turkey are moving to cement a de facto military alliance, one which indicates a significant strategic realignment in the Middle East.

Their Arab neighbors worry that by improving military and intelligence ties the two countries are forming a new, American-backed regional coalition that may soon include Jordan as well.

Despite complications that have arisen with the recent coming to power in Turkey of Islamic leader

Necmettin Erbakan, this new "axis," as some Arab commentators have called it, has left the leaders of Syria, Iraq, and Iran anxious that its principal aim is to check their influence in the region.

The relationship - which was first revealed last February when a pact was signed allowing Israeli jet fighters to train in Turkish airspace - could only be made public because of Israel's peace deals with Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians. Partial success in the Mideast peace process, one analyst said, enabled the Turkish Army to "come out of the closet."

An agreement signed yesterday is expected to lead to a $650-million deal for Israel to overhaul 54 Turkish Phantom jets and install advanced radar and electronic-warfare navigation systems in Turkey.

Adding to the concerns of wary neighbors, a deal is expected to be signed that will allow the new allies to exchange technical know-how. It reportedly allows Israeli surveillance flights along Turkey's borders with Syria, Iraq, and Iran in exchange for Israeli help in preventing cross-border raids by separatist Kurdish rebels.

Senior Turkish military officials say the deal will advance joint intelligence cooperation against Syria and Iran, even though political reconciliation is under way between Turkey's Islamist-led government and Iran, against the wishes of the United States. The Israeli media speak of "joint strategic assessments."

Though civilian Turkish officials try to play down the deals with the Jewish state as "routine," Israel admits that the budding relationship has strategic significance. Across the Arab world and Persia, it is seen as a threat.

"It's dangerous because the Jews want to extend their reach to other Muslim nations like Iraq, Iran, and Syria," says Moustafa Mashour, head of the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo.

The Tehran Times in Iran called it "another Zionist encroachment."

A New Middle East 'Peace' Coalition?

The most visible sign of the new Mideast "axis" was the meeting at Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, earlier this year, in which Arab and Israeli leaders - along with President Clinton - declared a joint fight against terrorism.

That meeting underscored the new alignment in the region: Syria, Iraq, and Iran were not invited.

"The new [Israel-Turkey-Jordan] axis is real, but not in a war situation," says an Israeli government official. "Jordan will not fight for Israel, and Israel will not fight for Turkey.

"But in terms of a political 'axis,' a 'peace axis,' this coalition exists."

What's in It For Israel?

For hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Turkey fits well into a policy of "triple containment," which adds Syria to the blacklist of Israeli enemies along with Iraq and Iran. The pact projects Israeli air power across Turkey to outflank Syria and to menace Iran's doorstep.

The United States, Israel's strongest ally, favors the deal. Jordan, which has embraced Israel enthusiastically since signing a peace deal in 1994, has indicated that it might play a role in the emerging "axis."

Though Israel's previous Labor government was deeply involved in talks with Syria to return the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967, Mr. Netanyahu so far has made it clear that he is not interested in withdrawing. But yesterday a senior Israel official, David Bar-Illan, said Netanyahu has not ruled out negotiations over the Golan.

Netanyahu has offered to talk to Syria about Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in exchange for peace, a move that Syria has rejected. Netanyahu also wants Syria to pull its 35,000 troops out of Lebanon and to end support for terrorists.

What's in It for Turkey?

Long before the February pact was made public, Turkish military officials had been in contact with Israel. Though Turkey is a member of NATO, it straddles the geographical divide between east and west and is a Muslim country.

The Turkish Army, which since the 1920s has been entrusted with maintaining Kemal Ataturk's vision of a secular nation, sought the deal with Israel on its own. This marriage of convenience allies the region's largest standing army (Turkey) with its most sophisticated one (Israel).

Turkey seeks greater leverage against rebels of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), who have fought for an independent state for a decade. Nearly 20,000 civilians have died in the fighting and vast areas of southeast Turkey are depopulated. The fighting has also strained the Turkish economy.

Turkey blames Syria for the continued existence of the PKK, a guerrilla force that the US State Department lists as "terrorist." PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan is based in the Syrian capital of Damascus, and PKK units have conducted cross-border attacks from Syria.

Syrian President Hafez al-Assad plays this "PKK card" to pressure Turkey not to shut off water supplies to Syria with a dam project on the Euphrates River. An indication of the depth of mutual suspicion came last May after a series of bomb blasts in Damascus that were reported to be aimed at Mr. Assad or Mr. Ocalan. Overnight, Syrian security forces rounded up 600 ethnic Turk suspects.

In June, Syria is believed to have massed 40,000 troops along its border with Turkey, which was matched by maneuvers on the Turkish side. "The reason Turkey signed this deal [with Israel] was because of bad relations with Syria," says a senior Israeli government official and expert on Turkey.

Turkey's Islamic Leader And Iran

Turkey's prime minister, Islamic firebrand Necmettin Erbakan, has vowed to annul Turkey's pact with Israel, withdraw from NATO, and create an Islamic state.

Mr. Erbakan set off alarm bells in Washington earlier this month by ignoring US warnings not to visit Iran. Just days after President Clinton signed an "antiterrorism" law to prevent foreign firms from investing more than $40 million a year in Iran's oil and gas sectors, Erbakan sealed a $20 billion natural gas deal with Iran.

Though Turkey's new prime minister denied that the deal violates American law, Iranian newspapers heralded the visit as a slap in the face to Washington that challenged US attempts to isolate Iran.

Erbakan "will try to improve relations with Arabs and not move ... against Israel," says one Turkey expert. "He must rule [together] with secular leaders..." in Turkey.

Syria Reacts

The Turkey-Israel pact has left Syria vulnerable on three fronts: Turkey to the north, Israel to the southwest, and Jordan to the south.

"No matter how hard the Turkish government tries to cover up and market this agreement, it poses a threat to the security of Syria ... and all Islamic countries," says the official Syrian newspaper Tishreen.

With a new Islamist prime minister in Turkey, Syria expects to improve relations with Turkey.

Further isolated by Washington for snubbing Secretary of State Warren Christopher earlier this year, Syrian President Assad needs friends.

He has met with longtime enemy Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Authority, in Damascus. And he reportedly met in secret with Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein near the border with Iraq.

Iran has made fresh overtures to Syria, which include a collegial high-level meeting between Syrian and Iranian leaders in Tehran a week ago.

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