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Five Lessons From Turkey’s 1998 Standoff With Syria

Revisiting the 1998 confrontation with Syria over Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan could help decision makers in Ankara avoid the pitfalls of intervention.
Syrian opposition demonstrators living in Jordan hold a poster of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan during a rally in front of the Turkish embassy in Amman June 26, 2011, in support of Turkey's tough stance against President Bashar al-Assad.  REUTERS/Ali Jarekji (JORDAN - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR2O4DU
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It tends to be forgotten, but in the fall of 1998 Turkey and Syria almost went to war. The crisis started when Gen. Atilla Ates, commander of the Turkish land forces, spoke near the Syrian border on Sept. 16. Ates, called on Damascus to expel Abdullah Ocalan and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the militant group that had been fighting the Turkish government since 1984. The drums of war echoed throughout the Middle East as Turkish tanks seemed poised to roll into Syria. Unwilling to go to war, the government of Hafez al-Assad, father of the current Syrian president, complied with Ankara’s demand and expelled Ocalan. Turkey would capture its public enemy number one in February 1999, five months after Ates’ speech.

Today, Ankara’s enthusiasm for possible US airstrikes against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad makes one realize how Turkey’s Syrian odyssey has come full circle since that fateful fall of 1998. Even as US military action against Syria is becoming more likely, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu are disappointed that their Western and Middle Eastern allies are unwilling to use all means necessary to quickly topple the Assad regime. Five lessons from the 1998 episode and its aftermath could help Ankara devise policies more in tune with its national interests in Syria.

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