Chances of demining borders bleak, Syrian mine row indicates

With the ratification of the Ottawa Treaty in 2003, Turkey has until 2014 to clear its border areas of mines. The Turkish Parliament passed a bill last week to demine the country's border with Syria.

June 11, 2009, Thursday/ 18:28:00
The Turkish Parliament recently passed, after a vigorous parliamentary debate lasting for weeks, a controversial bill on clearing and destroying mines along the border with Syria.

The debate stemmed from a row over the bill between the government and the opposition, a discord that has been particularly discouraging since Turkey has yet to clear mines from its Georgian, Bulgarian, Greek and Armenian borders.

Another major obstacle behind the difficulty of demining operations on Turkey's borders is the lack of trust over the issue between the government and the military. The military has been taking one step forward and then one step back over the issue; most of the time at the cost of ignoring Turkey's legal commitments stemming from international covenants such as the Ottawa Treaty on the destruction of anti-personnel mines (APMs), which Turkey ratified in 2003.

Initially, the military said it would assume responsibility for demining the region along the Syrian border, but then said it did not have enough funding, tossing the ball back to the government, which favors a private contractor to carry out the task and in return, secure the allocation of the cleared area for agricultural use. Opposition parties have expressed dissent, asserting that subcontracting the deal could harm Turkey's national security, in the case of foreign companies, especially Israeli firms, being involved in the project. In the past, a mine-clearing tender was canceled by the Council of State owing to such objections.

Border Protection Agency suspended

An important reason why the military is not so keen on throwing its full support behind mine-clearing operations lies in the failure to complete physical security measures in the mined areas. For the borders to be secured completely, Turkey needs to set up a Border Protection Agency by the year 2014 under Turkey's obligations to the European Union. The EU has undertaken 2.5 billion euros of the cost, about 70 percent of the total funding needed for the project, but the government and the military have failed to reach an agreement on the specifics of the new agency. All efforts to complete the establishment of the Border Protection Agency, for which 70,000 guards will be recruited, have been suspended due to differences between the military and the government; they have been unable to agree under which ministry the agency will be established, which institution will be paying their salaries and the scope of the powers and authorities of the border guards.

Greek and Armenian borders

The intensity of the discussion surrounding the Syrian mines proposal indicates that national security remains an important concern. However, there are also serious differences of opinion between the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Defense concerning clearing mines along the Greek, Bulgarian, Armenian, Georgian and Iranian borders.

Defense Minister Vecdi Gönül recently announced that once the mines along the Syrian-Turkish border are cleared, Turkey will start clearing the mines on its borders with Georgia and Bulgaria. According to Defense Ministry estimates, there are 981,790 APMs buried along Turkish borders. In addition to these, there are mines placed around critical military facilities in the cities of Ardahan, Batman, Diyarbakır, Doğubayazıt, Gaziantep, Hakkari, İskenderun, Kağızman, Kars, Mardin, Siirt, Şanlıurfa, Şırnak, Tunceli and Van.

Although Turkey has resolved its problems with Georgia and Bulgaria to a great extent, it still has unresolved issues with Armenia and Greece. Turkey and Greece are two of the three countries, including Belarus, which have failed to fulfill their obligations stemming from the Ottawa Treaty. As long as the two countries' problems remain unsettled, mine-clearing will not start.

The same situation applies to Armenia; the two countries have failed to agree on opening up even a single border gate. Clearing the mines between the two countries will only be possible when peace is fully established.

The Foreign Ministry is against clearing the mines along the Greek and Armenian borders, which is why Minister Gönül only promised to clear the Bulgarian and Georgian mines. The Iranian border, which has a smaller number of mines, but in very difficult terrain, is not currently a priority.

These developments indicate that Turkey will be discussing demining and border security questions for a long time to come.

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