Newly launched peace talks between Syria and Israel mediated by Turkey have focused the international community’s attention on Turkey’s role in the Middle East. Political observers have been cautiously awaiting whether the attempt would bring any hope for Middle East peace. The head of the Center for Strategic Studies in Beirut, Lebanon, Muhammad Nureddin, whose works are often cited by Islamist publications in Turkey, suggests the biggest challenge before Turkey is to convince Syria to end its connections with Hamas, Iran, Hizbullah and the insurgency in Iraq. Damascus, however, strongly rejects those proposals (Yeni Safak, May 26). A counter-argument came from Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Center in Beirut, who recently spent time in Damascus talking to negotiators involved in the talks. Salem said: “There is a growing unease among some Syrian leaders about the influence of Iran in the Middle East. Peace between Syria and Israel would cause a serious rupture in the Syrian-Iranian relationship as it would represent a fundamental parting of the ways” (McClatchy Newspapers, May 21).
Turkey’s attempt to bring Israel and Syria to the negotiation table and its influential role in the Doha agreement reached on May 21 to elect General Michel Suleiman as the Lebanese president crystallized Turkey’s leading role in Middle East affairs (Referans, May 27). Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ali Babacan attended the Lebanese Parliament’s inaugural ceremony to show their country’s solidarity with the Lebanese people (Hurriyet, May 27).
Turkey’s involvement in Lebanese and Syrian affairs is likely to reduce Iran’s role in the region. If Iran wants to maintain its traditional foreign policy attitudes, which is very likely, it would undermine the peace process by using Hizbullah as leverage for its policies.
To maintain its connection with Hizbullah, Iran would continue to supply weapons to the organization. Since Iraq is under the control of the United States, the only viable route for arms shipments is through Turkish territory. This became an issue in 2006; during the war between Israel and Hizbullah, Turkey forced two Iranian airplanes down to search for weapons though none were found (Hurriyet, August 17, 2006). U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey declared: “Turkish authorities have deep concerns over this issue but we are confident about Turkish authorities’ attempts to take necessary measures to prevent the arms transfers” (Anadolu Agency, August 17, 2006). One of the weapons shipments was accidentally discovered in May 2007, when the PKK sabotaged a train in Bingol province and 300 rockets and small arms were found in a train container during the cleanup (Dogan News Agency, June 6, 2007). The train was on its way from Iran to Syria, a main transit-point for Hizbullah arms. The Turkish press reported that the main suspects behind the shipment were Iran and Hizbullah (Hurriyet, May 30, 2007). Israeli intelligence agencies still believe that Iran is arming Hizbullah with missiles sent via Turkey (Haaretz, March 5).
Terrorism related to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) weakens Turkish authorities’ ability to inspect all shipments passing through Turkey, as security agencies are occupied with fighting against the PKK. For instance in the city centers, whenever the pro-PKK parties organize demonstrations—which happen almost daily—most of the security personnel are deployed to keep the events under control. Even the operations against drug trafficking in the Kurdish region are mainly concentrated on the PKK’s drug cartels. The PKK has turned the highway and the railroad routes that pass through the Kurdish region into a lawless zone where state authority is very limited, especially at night. Due to safety concerns, people do not want to work in this region. Thus, the Department of Customs has only a limited number of employees working in this region to search for arms trafficking. Corruption may also encourage government agents to ignore such shipments.
If there are any weapons transfers through Turkish territory, it is because of the Turkish authorities’ inability to fully control the southeastern region. Similar transfers may be taking place through American-controlled Iraqi territory as well. One positive development, however, is the European Union’s requirement to install professional border security police on the borders until 2012, for which an education project already has been initiated (Zaman, November 15, 2007). As part of the border security project, the European Union funded Turkey’s first radiography-based screening system for freight and passenger trains, which will be installed at the Kapikoy border gate in the eastern Anatolian province of Van. The system will become operational in 2009 (Turkish Daily News, May 28).
In addition to Iran’s attempts to use Turkish territory to ship military munitions to Lebanon’s Hizbullah, international political observers also have concerns over pro-Hizbullah demonstrations in Turkey. Israel National News recently reported that radical Turkish Islamists have been organizing nightly programs in cities across Turkey under the slogan: “A free al-Quds [the Muslim term for Jerusalem]; A world without Israel.” Meeting halls are decked out with photos of Hizbullah chief Shaykh Hassan Nasrallah and former Hamas chief Shaykh Ahmad Yassin. PLO flags are found draped over the speakers’ podiums. Similar events are frequently held in the mainly Kurdish southeast and eastern parts of the country, with huge audiences turning out as efforts are increased to indoctrinate those populations (IsraelNN.com, May 25; Velfecr.com, March 23; agd.org.tr, March 23).
One of the events that concerns Western political observers is the demonstration organized in Sakarya province on March 22 by Nureddin Sirin, an Islamist activist who has dedicated his life to the cause of “free Jerusalem.” The meeting was supported by the Islamist Anatolia Youth Organization (Anadolu Genclik Dernegi, or AGD) and co-sponsored by other Islamist organizations (velfecr.com, May 28).
To understand recent trends better, one needs to look at who Nureddin Sirin is, as well as ask why the massive demonstration was held in Sakarya and why the AGD supported these events.
Nureddin Sirin is an Islamist who writes for the Islamist magazine Tevhid and newspaper Selam on how to free Jerusalem from Israel. He also owns the Islamist website velfecr.com. In the last two decades, Sirin organized or participated in hundreds of events and meetings to keep the Jerusalem issue alive in Turkish politics. As a result of these activities, he spent 10 years in prison (Gercek Hayat [Istanbul], December 29, 2007). His recent organization of a demonstration in front of Holland’s embassy in Ankara on April 4 put Sirin back in police custody, but he was released shortly thereafter (islamiyonelis.com, April 4). So far Nureddin Sirin’s attempts to recruit Turkish Islamists for Hizbullah’s military wing have been unsuccessful. Because of its large base in Lebanon’s Shiite community, Hizbullah may not actually need any Turkish militants to join its armed struggle. Where Nureddin Sirin is successful, however, is in keeping the anti-Israeli discourse alive in Turkey, as well as his organization of aid campaigns whenever Israeli defense forces strike Palestinian or Lebanese civilians.
The massive demonstration was held in Sakarya because the city has—thanks to the neo-nationalist (ulusalci) movements—become a hotbed of anti-Kurdish, anti-Western and anti-Israeli campaigns in recent years. Since 2006, four demonstrations were organized that ended with provocations and violent protests (Zaman, May 4). Perhaps those Islamists who organized the anti-Israeli demonstrations attempted to use the established anti-Israeli sentiments among the people in Sakarya in their favor. The AGD organizes similar events on a regular basis but typically fails to draw many people. As late as May 28, the Anatolia Youth Organization organized a “Jerusalem Day” event in the eastern Malatya province but only a couple of hundred people attended (velfecr.com, May 28).
The key question, however, is why the AGD became so active in recent months. The Anatolia Youth Organization is the youth wing of the Islamist Saadet (Felicity) Party, a political party that expresses the Milli Gorus (National Vision) ideology of veteran Turkish Islamist and former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. Perhaps it is directly related to the struggle of the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP) against state elites and its attempt to bring Israel and Syria together to discuss a peace agreement. The AKP is itself a splinter group from the Milli Gorus movement that took power by tempering its Islamist message, but Public Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya has opened a lawsuit against the AKP to close down the party on the grounds that it is unconstitutional. Many political observers agree that the Constitutional Court may shut down the AKP. In such a case, the Saadet Party hopes to regain some of its Islamist strongholds that it lost to the AKP. If, in addition, the peace talks between Israel and Syria end with an agreement seen to favor Israel, the Saadet Party then would have an advantage against the AKP by capitalizing on existing anti-Israeli sentiment.