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Strengthening relations between Turkey and Jordan are being viewed with suspicion elsewhere.

Speaking in Amman last May at the start of a 20-day joint Turkish-Jordanian military exercise, the Turkish ambassador to Jordan, Suha Umar, was full of praise for the country to which he had been appointed. "Jordan is the only moderate country with long-term vision in the Middle East that Turkey can trust," he said; a candid enough statement for a diplomat.

However, such praise for the Jordanians by Turkey has had a decidedly unnerving affect in the region recently, setting off alarm bells in certain other Middle Eastern capitals. Why this is so Ambassador Umar well knew, prompting him to add hurriedly to his previous statement, "Turkey's military cooperation with Jordan has nothing to do with its military ties with Israel."

Nevertheless, with Jordanian participation in the biannual Turkey-Israel strategic talks on 10 June, such denials are beginning to look a little shaky.

Turkish-Israeli cooperation goes back to a defence accord signed in 1996, but became a regional issue and the target for strong Arab criticism last January when the two countries held joint naval exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean -- along with US ships.

Since then the interests of the two have been seen to converge on a number of issues. Neither have a great deal of trust for Syria, which borders both, and recent developments in the Central Asian oil game have also seen them similarly aligned. Turkish hopes for a pipeline from Baku to Ceyhan on its southern Mediterranean coast to transport Caucasian oil are also strongly supported by Israel. Tel Aviv would like to see a link from there to its own ports, giving it another energy source independent of Middle East oil and gas production.

At the same time Israel wants to sell Turkey its tanks and use Turkish airspace to practice low-level flying. It is also jointly developing the Popeye I and II air-launched missiles with Turkey. Meanwhile, due to difficulties in gaining US Congressional approval for military sales to Ankara and Turkey's desire to maintain and upgrade its largely-US origin hardware, the Turks see Israel as a way of bypassing Congress to get the equipment they want.

On the other hand, although Turkey and Jordan signed a military training agreement 10 years ago, this was not followed up until last year, when Jordanian observers joined the controversial Eastern Mediterranean naval exercise. Then, last April, the two exchanged troops to take part in joint training -- the fruit of which was mid-May's 20-day military exercise. In addition, Jordanian pilots have been receiving F-16 fighter aircraft simulator training in Turkey, where the F-16 is produced under licence.

Small stuff perhaps, but concurrent with this have been a series of meetings between top Turkish and Jordanian officials. At the beginning of May, Jordanian Chief of Staff, Field Marshal Abdul-Hafez Marai el-Kaabneh, met the head of the Turkish First Army, General Atilla Ates, a few days after Jordan's Crown Prince Hassan visited Ankara. In mid-June the Turkish air force commander-in-chief, General Ilhan Kilic, was in Amman concluding a deal with Jordanian air force commander, General Mohammad Ababneh, to include Jordanian air and naval personnel in future joint activities and share airspace. "This doesn't and cannot have any connection with Israel," Ambassador Umar was quick to repeat at the time.

Then, at the biannual strategic talks, the deputy chief of the Turkish general staff, Cevik Bir, met Israeli defence minister Itzhak Mordechai's senior aide, David Ivry, and confirmed afterwards that there had been Jordanian participation, something Amman itself was loath to do.

The significance of visits by senior Turkish military officials also has to be put into the context of current Turkish politics. Significantly, Turkish-Jordanian links have almost exclusively been led by Turkish generals, not foreign or defence ministry officials. Given the important role of the military in Turkish politics in the last year and a half, this is perhaps not too surprising.

Under the previous Turkish administration of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of the now banned pro-Islamist Welfare Party (RP), the official government line on foreign policy was to develop links with Islamic countries -- particularly the Turkic republics of Central Asia, but also other Middle Eastern and North African states.

Erbakan set up the now largely defunct Developing Eight (D8) group of Muslim nations and even visited the pariah Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi. However, while this was going on the Turkish military were pursuing quite a different agenda.

Despite opposition from within the RP the General Staff was able to develop its links with Israel, and indeed, in the military-government power struggle of 1997, it was the generals who came out on top, launching last July's "soft coup" to remove the RP and replace it with the opposition coalition that still rules today.

In consequence Turkey's links with Israel have remained a principle item in Turkish foreign policy. Now, many observers believe, a similar lead is being given to the current, beleaguered government by the generals in moves towards stronger ties with Jordan.

Arab reaction to these developing links has been one of serious concern. Speaking to the Turkish press on condition of anonymity at the time of the troop exchange, an Arab ambassador in Ankara said that Turkey and Israel were trying to manoeuvre Jordan into their alliance. "They are trying to pull Jordan into these arrangements," he said.

Shi'ite Sheikh Allamah Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah was more outspoken. Putting the US behind the scenes, he saw evidence here of a desire in Washington "to draw Turkey, Israel and Jordan into an alliance against Syria, Iran and other Arab countries" in order to force through a Middle East peace settlement in line with Israeli wishes.

Such developing links may have added certain complications to the recent call of Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, for an Arab summit to try and force a breakthrough in the stalled Middle East peace process. Syria demanded that such a conference, if it were to happen, must call for a freeze on ties with Israel and a reimposition of the Arab economic embargo on Tel Aviv. Leading the opposition to this was Jordan.

Syria and Saudi Arabia also issued a joint statement mid-June condemning the Turkish-Israeli alliance. Saudi Arabia has been critical of the government in Amman -- as has the Gulf Cooperation Council -- since Jordan refused to join the Gulf War anti-Iraqi coalition. Ever since then, the Saudis have cut off oil supplies to the Hashemite kingdom.

The Jordanians are thus seen in Ankara as facing a dilemma. Fear of fundamentalism is shared by both countries, and a strengthening of the military to ward off such a perceived threat has been the response in Jordan and Turkey. Jordan needs to modernise its armed forces, and the Turks are there to help them do this, anxious as they are to develop their armaments production and regional influence. The US is also supportive of such links.

Ambassador Umar sees the new ties as far from worrisome for any third countries though. "Turkey and Jordan are the two countries in the Middle East who can bring security and stability to the region," he believes. There is also some distance to travel between Jordan and Israel these days, as relations have often been bumpy since the election of Binyamin Netanyahu -- last September's bungled Mossad assassination attempt of an Hamas leader in the Jordanian capital being a case in point.

Nonetheless, Turkey seems set to push for further links with Jordan, and with other Arab states -- notably Egypt, which Turkish Deputy Under-secretary of Defence, General Armagan Kuloglu, visited recently in an effort to improve military ties and ward off Egyptian criticism of Turkish-Israeli links. Since then a number of energy projects have also been discussed between Ankara and Cairo. Turkish prime Minister, Mesut Yilmaz, is also to visit the region in September.

It is many years since the Middle East had to take any great account of its northern Turkish neighbour, but with recent developments, all that may be about to change.
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Author:Gorvett, Jon
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Sep 1, 1998

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