The Turkish military announced on Sunday it would hold its first drill with Syria this week, using ground forces in a border area. The drill is due to last into Wednesday. "Today we see a Syrian-Turkish drill, which is certainly a troubling development," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told reporters on Monday. "But I believe that the strategic ties between Israel and Turkey will overcome even Turkey's need to take part in this drill." Israel has extensive defense ties with Turkey, a NATO member and one of the few Muslim nations to have built an alliance with the Jewish state.
The Israeli and Turkish air forces and navies have held joint exercises. Despite the cooperation in the area of defense, however, tensions occasionally flare up in the political field as Turkey is also a harsh critic of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.
Tensions between Turkey and Syria were once high because Abdullah Öcalan, the now-jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), was based in Syria. Damascus then expelled Öcalan and he was captured in Kenya in 1999. Relations began to warm following the coming to power of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in Turkey in 2002. The joint military drill is the latest step as Turkey and Syria build and expand cooperation in the area of defense.
"The aim of the exercise is to boost friendship, cooperation and confidence between the two countries' land forces, and to increase the ability of border troops to train and work together," the Turkish military said in the statement on Sunday. It said teams from each country will cross the border and visit outposts as part of the three-day exercises to improve security.
The two countries are also planning to sign a letter of intent giving the green light for cooperation in the defense industry. The letter of intent was expected to be signed on the sidelines of the 9th International Defense Industry Fair (IDEF'09), which opened in İstanbul on Monday.
Turkish defense industry sources have told Today's Zaman that Turkey and Syria were not to enter immediately into cooperation in arms production, underlining that the letter of intent was a sign of the level that political relations had reached between Turkey and Syria.
As a country that maintains close ties with both Israel and Syria, Turkey announced last year that it was mediating peace talks between the two countries. Following four rounds, the Turkish-mediated talks collapsed in January when Israel launched a deadly offensive on Gaza.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Sunday he was willing to talk peace with Syria if there would be no preconditions. It was a response to Syria, which recently said it would be willing to resume indirect peace talks with the new Israeli government as long as they focused on a complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Israel captured the strategic plateau from Syria in the Six Day War of June 1967.
"I'd be glad to negotiate with Syria this evening, but without preconditions," Lieberman told Israel Radio. "They say, first go back to the '67 lines and give up the Golan. If we agree to that, what is there to negotiate?" he said. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem declined to comment on Lieberman's remarks.