Pressured by Israel and a suspicious United States, Syria is taking steps to build a loose-knit regional alliance by turning its immediate neighbors from potential enemies into useful allies.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is reversing decades of hostility and mistrust with Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan. With military and economic delegations dispatched to Ankara and Baghdad in the past week, Syria and its neighbors are also preparing for the potential ramifications of a Washington-led drive to unseat Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, analysts say.
Damascus last week inked two landmark military cooperation agreements with Turkey, Syria's northern neighbor. The deal allows both countries to exchange military students and conduct joint military exercises. The two sides are also discussing an agreement to sell unspecified Turkish weapons to Syria and to co-produce defense equipment. "A new era will be opened in the relations between Turkey and Syria with military cooperation," said General Huseyin Kivrikoglu, Turkey's chief of staff.
Syria's support for the Lebanese Hizbullah organization has brought hostile scrutiny from the US. In his Mideast policy speech delivered Monday, President Bush demanded that Syria "must choose the right side in the war on terror by closing terrorist camps and expelling terrorist organizations." In this climate, neutralizing US and Israeli allies in the region is a priority for Damascus. And that includes Turkey, which agreed in 1997 to a military alliance with Israel, Syria's archenemy.
"Damascus has always said that the Turkish-Israeli military agreement was dangerous for Syria and the Arab world," says Mohammed Noureddine, a Turkey specialist at Beirut's Center for Research and Documentation. "But this military agreement just signed by Syria and Turkey removes that threat."
US designs on Iraq also have regional powers working to form a bloc that can influence Iraq's post-Hussein future. Turkey is concerned that Washington may use the Kurds to help remove Saddam Hussein and reward them afterward with autonomy over northern Iraq.
"The agreement with Syria sends a message to Washington, and this message says that any change in the current situation with Iraq and that does not benefit Turkey will be faced by Turkey, Syria, and Iran together," Mr. Noureddine says.
Yet only four years ago, Syria and Turkey were on the brink of war.
Turkey's longstanding anger at Syria's support for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and its leader Abdullah Ocalan boiled over in the fall of 1998. The PKK had been fighting for an independent Kurdish state in southeast Turkey since 1984. Turkish troops marshaled along the frontier with Syria, and Ankara demanded that Damascus cease its support for the PKK and hand over Mr. Ocalan. Surprisingly, then Syrian President Hafez al-Assad complied immediately. Ocalan was deported and subsequently captured by Turkish special forces in Kenya and the PKK training camps in Syria and Lebanon closed down.
"Resolving the Ocalan case was like the bursting of the bubble," says Lebanese political analyst Michael Young. "The Turks do not want a hostile relationship with Syria, and the Syrians saw no point in maintaining bad terms with Turkey."
Despite their mutual strategic interests, differences remain between Syria and Turkey. Among them is a dispute over Turkey's use of water from the Euphrates River, which originates in Turkey and flows into Syria then Iraq. Syria and Iraq worry that a major Turkish hydroelectric scheme will reduce the flow of water to their own countries. Syria also lays claim to the Turkish province of Hatay on the Mediterranean, which it calls Liwa al-Iskandaron. "But the military cooperation agreement will help find a solution for these differences," Mr. Noureddine says.
To the east of Syria lies Iraq, once a bitter enemy but now an increasingly close friend and ally. The relationship has blossomed from an initial exchange of trade delegations in 1997 to business worth $2 billion under the United Nations oil-for-food program, according to Syrian Economy Minister Ghassan al-Rifai. "We hope to raise this volume to 3 billion dollars," he said during a visit to Iraq last week.
In addition to the UN-approved trade, Syria is believed to be illegally importing an extra 150,000 to 200,000 barrels of Iraqi oil per day.
Syria has also patched up relations with Jordan, its southern neighbor. Hafez al-Assad never forgave King Hussein of Jordan for signing peace with Israel in 1994. In October 1998, Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass memorably said of Jordan, "There is no such country and it is the south of Syria."
But just three months later, Hafez al-Assad made a surprise appearance at King Hussein's funeral, paving the way for improved ties. "Now relations are better than they have been and since the signing of the peace treaty in 1994," says Jordanian economist Riad al-Khouri.
The collapse of the Mideast peace process and the violence of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, has naturally drawn Syria and Jordan, with its large Palestinian population, closer. "Also, Jordan is suffering economically and any kind of new market for its private sector is welcome. That applies in exactly the same way for Syria," Mr. Khouri says. Hafez al-Assad launched the rapprochement with Syria's neighbors toward the end of his life to ease his son Bashar's inheritance.
After Bashar became president in June 2000 following his father's death, he accelerated the process, hoping that improved regional relations will allow him to concentrate on domestic reforms.
"Instinctively, the Syrian leadership continues the father's policy. But the practical leadership is coming from Bashar," says Mr. Young. "It was under Bashar that the Iraqi relationship has really built up. I think Bashar has played this rather well. And for the moment it seems to be working."