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Turkey prepares to abandon Northern Cyprus: a lesson for Syria?

by the Debkafiles

Update January 12: Turkish Cypriots form a new government led by Mehmet Ali Talat’s Republican Turkish party which favors UN’s reunification plan Greek Cypriots and others may remain skeptical, but DEBKAfile’s intelligence sources believe Turkey to be genuinely committed to a speedy settlement of the decades-old division of Cyprus. Speed is of the essence because Cyprus is due to join the European Union this May: if the division is healed, and a federation formed, the whole island will join; if Turkey’s protégé, Northern Cyprus, continues to hold out against the federal plan, only the internationally recognized government of Greek Cyprus will join the EU, and the northern Turkish third, which Turkey alone recognizes and supports, will be more isolated than ever.

DEBKAfile’s confidence is based on the secret talks that took place this week between Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, and Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, who was in Ankara for a 3-day state visit. Erdogan told Assad that the Turkish leadership had decided to force Rauf Denktash, the long-time Turkish Cypriot leader, to go along with the plan first put forward by the UN’s secretary-general Kofi Annan in November 2002. This envisages a federation of two constituent parts, with a rotating presidency. Last March talks on this plan collapsed after Denktash held out against it.

But Northern Cyprus is entirely dependent on Turkish support, and on the 30,000 Turkish troops that have been stationed there for the 30 years since Turkey invaded the island in 1974. According to DEBKAfile’s sources, Erdogan told Assad that Turkey has decided to withdraw this occupying army after Cyprus joins the EU, thus forcing Denktash’s hand. And, indeed, Turkey has good reason to do so. It is itself an applicant to join the EU at some point, and furthering a peace in Cyprus will advance its case.

At a closed-door meeting between Assad, Erdogan and Abdullah Gul, Turkey’s foreign minister, on Wednesday January 7, Erdogan told Assad that the decision, in effect, to stop supporting a semi-independent Turkish enclave was taken at a meeting of Turkey”s National Security Council in late December. Though there was opposition from some military commanders, the council agreed by a large majority. It will meet again on January 23, and will then reveal its “road map” to peace.

The leaders of all four Turkish Cypriot parties have been summoned to Ankara to hear Turkey’s decision. But Debkofile has learnt that, contrary to what Gul told CNN on January 10, Denktash will not be allowed to lead the Turkish-Cypriot delegation to new talks with the Cyprus government on the peace plan. It is being suggested instead that Mustafa Akinci, the leader of the Movement for Democracy and Peace (BDH) chairs the delegation.

The link to Golan?

Erdogan explained to Assad why he had chosen him to tell such things. No other leader, he said, would understand how painful it was for him to give up Turkish Cyprus, and what huge obstacles he faced in selling this concession to public opinion. “To give up Cyprus is like giving up part of Turkey itself,” he said. But Gul added: “If we want to escape from international isolation, we have no other choice.”

DEBKAfile learns that, according to the reports that Turkey sent to the US and Israel reporting on this conversation, Assad listened very intently when Erdogan and Gul spoke of the need to give up territory, and explained how to overcome domestic opposition to such measures. He did not make any reply at all.

He was more forthcoming when the discussion turned to Turkish-Syrian trade, and Turkey’s proposal to set up a customs point on the border between Syria and Alexandretta. Assad agreed to sign a document of understanding on this, which was tantamount to Syrian recognition of Turkish ownership of the province, giving up Syria’s historic claims.

But DEBKAfile believes that the implications of this talk about giving up territory stretch from Alexandretta all the way to Golan. The Turkish leaders, in their report to Jerusalem, were well satisfied with their tactic of talking about giving up Cyprus as a model for what Syria itself might be prepared to give up

The message seems to have been absorbed by Israel. Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s finance minister, has been talking about the possibility of negotiating with Syria without having to hand back the Golan Heights, or at any rate large chunks of the region.

On Saturday, Syria’s semi-official newspaper wrote “Syria is calling on the US to renew Syrian-Israeli negotiations from the point they stopped in 2000.” Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon, will not accept this, insisting that any new talks should start from scratch. This is a big difficulty. But the newspaper’s call on Israel to be “objective, honest and not miss the opportunity for negotiations” amounts to a rare direct approach.

In the next few days, Washington and Jerusalem will try to clarify Syria’s position. A group of congressmen are to visit Damascus. And Jordan’s King Abdullah, now on a visit to Saudi Arabia, will make Syria his next stop. Turkey’s prime minister was making an important point. But lessons about giving up territory may cut many ways.

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