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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

U.S. backs Turkey ties with Syria, Lebanon to offset Iran

ANKARA — Turkey is preparing to implement what officials termed a major weapons sale to Lebanon.   

Israel has relayed concern over the agreement. Israeli military sources have told the Turkish General Staff that a Lebanese military trained and equipped by Ankara could threaten Israel.

Officials said Turkey has approved the export of U.S.-origin systems and weapons to the Lebanese military. They said Ankara acquired permission for the proposed defense export from the administration of President Barack Obama.

"We expect events to take place soon," an official said.

On April 23, Lebanon and Turkey signed a defense cooperation agreement in Ankara. Officials said the memorandum of understanding envisioned joint exercises, training and weapons sales.

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Meanwhile, the United States has encouraged Turkey to develop strategic relations with Syria.

Officials said the administration of President Barack Obama has relayed its approval for Turkish measures to improve defense and military relations with Syria. They said the White House approval included the border security exercise conducted by Ankara and Damascus in late April.

"Turkey is the gateway to Iran and Syria," an official said. "We want to reach both of these countries."

On May 8, Obama said he would maintain U.S. sanctions on Syria for another year. Officials cited Syria's efforts to expand its weapons of mass destruction programs as well as increase the flow of Al Qaida operatives to Iraq.

Still, the White House regarded Turkey as a prospective supplier of military and security assistance to Syria that would be banned under U.S. law. Both Iran and Syria have been on the State Department's list of terrorist sponsors, which prevents U.S. military and most dual-use exports.

The Obama administration has made improved U.S. relations with Damascus and Teheran a linchpin in Washington's foreign policy. Officials said the president discussed Turkey's role in helping the United States during his visit to Ankara in April.

Three weeks later, Turkey became the first NATO ally to launch a military exercise with Syria. This was followed by the signing of a memorandum of understanding for defense cooperation between Ankara and Damascus. The United States has been a major supplier to Turkey's military, including the sale of the F-16 multi-role fighter.

Officials said the administration regards Turkey as a tool to help reduce Syria's military dependency on Iran. They said Washington was also encouraging Turkey to help Pakistan fight Al Qaida along the border with Afghanistan as well as sell weapons to Syria's neighbor Lebanon.

"With Turkey, you have a devout Muslim state that is also pro-American engage in stabilization activities that could be opposed by Congress," the official said. "If Turkey helps Syria with border security, then our interests benefit as well."

Israel has also expressed concern over the emerging strategic relations between Syria and Turkey. Officials said the government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu relayed its dismay to the U.S. administration during the three-day Syrian-Turkish exercise.

Details of the Turkish arms proposal for Lebanon were not released. Ankara state-owned defense firms have been marketing munitions, rockets, armored cars, electronic warfare systems and unmanned aerial vehicles.

"Turkey is asserting itself exclusively in the Muslim Middle East, while ignoring other areas of the Ottoman realm," Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish researcher for the Washington Institute, said. "What is more, under the [Turkish ruling party] AKP, Turkish foreign policy empathizes increasingly not with the West, but with Russia and Iran, and especially with Arab Islamist causes.

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