Turkey, Syria putting ottoman heritage to work for peace

The Turkey-Syria Interregional Cooperation Project grew from both countries' shared Ottoman heritage and a profound awareness of inherent cultural similarities. The focus is on municipalities, with each country anteing up a half share of $20 million from

Turkey, Syria putting ottoman heritage to work for peace

Despite the mists of conjecture and intrigue that impel Turkish media, it is clear to astute observers that President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have made democracy, reducing political tension and constructive dialogue a convincing component of their political agenda.

This is no mean task, given the reality of terrorist threats and the ongoing task of persuading cynics that Turkey has mature, legitimate objectives and is a serious peace broker. Hand-in-hand with high-level realpolitik, lower-level diplomacy is striving to cement friendships with neighboring countries. The Turkey-Syria Interregional Cooperation Project Coordination Unit in Gaziantep and the municipal level cross-border rapprochement between Gaziantep, Kilis and Aleppo are forging cultural links, re-evaluating the shared historical similarities of the cities and raising the social profile of what was once Mesopotamia. Syrian-Turkish relations deteriorated in 1998 before the capture of Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan.

Political relations improved subsequently but the concept of neighborliness more often than not sounded a suspicious gong to Turks who eyed their eight neighbors but stopped short of embracing them.

A free trade agreement originally negotiated between Syria and Turkey in December 2004 during a trip to Syria by Erdoğan was published in Turkey's Official Gazette in November 2007. The October 2007 visit to Turkey by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad signaled the strengthening friendship of the two countries. From initial trade discussions the idea of cooperation in micro areas was seeded. Significantly, Syria has adopted a more mature outlook and vision of the world in economic, political and strategic terms. The legitimacy of cozying up to European Union candidate Turkey is openly acknowledged.

The Turkey-Syria Interregional Cooperation Project grew from both countries' shared Ottoman heritage and a profound awareness of inherent cultural similarities. The focus is on municipalities, with each country anteing up a half share of $20 million from state coffers.

Phase I of the project is unglamorous infrastructure, such as paving access roads to the border crossing at Kilis, parking and passenger terminals, street lighting, crash barriers, power lines and feasibility studies of legitimate border trade. This will be supported by cross-border professional visits, academic projects between Aleppo and Kilis' Seventh of December University to source, evaluate and categorize historical edicts and documents.

Nizip will benefit from the project through an interregional olive oil program. Turkey and Syria both produce a native genus of olive. Syrians excel at the cultivation process but are weak in refining; so technology transfer will pool the olives-without-borders talents of both countries.

As the town where the Zeugma mosaics were excavated, Nizip will gain a mosaic school administered by the local Nizip Chamber of Commerce. Another project will catalogue and label the horde of Roman silver coins unearthed at Zeugma for the Gaziantep Archaeological Museum.

Education is a key motivator and Gaziantep University plans to teach some courses in Arabic and Aleppo University will promote lectures in Turkish on common cultural curricula. Another scheme targets rural adult populations in Gaziantep/Aleppo for vocational and cultural development. Touristic visits will be promoted by information offices in Gaziantep (for Syria) and in Aleppo (for Gaziantep and Kilis).

The project has a built-in extension after Phase I but the ultimate goal is to be a bridge, sowing the seeds of innovation and joining the threads of a culture bound together for centuries.

A total of 81 projects were in the co-proposal and 26 are now approved. For many firms, the tendering process was a learning curve because the majority had no previous experience in institutionalized tenders. Through its focus on training and mutual regional benefits, gaps in project management skills will eventually be narrowed or eliminated between the three cities.

Another contracted task is the sterilization of water. Syria and Turkey have frequently disagreed over the waters of the Euphrates that rise in Turkey. Sterilizing the water in upstream Turkey to eliminate medical or micro bacterial waste before releasing it to downstream Syria was a reciprocal solution agreed upon locally.

The Turkey-Syria Interregional Cooperation Project draws public institutions, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and NGOs into the interaction process. It includes training, research and technical consulting companies. Gaziantep's Chamber of Commerce is involved as a functional participant. The priority aims are: infrastructure of frontier cities bordering Syria; technical cooperation and capacity building; support for entrepreneurs and innovators; cross-border culture and tourism.

Budgeting is an integral part of the project. Aleppo is three times the size of Gaziantep with a population of about 3 million. "Turkey is more experienced in planning and implementing institutionalized municipal projects and this kind of community platform will benefit Aleppo in many ways," Turkish Project Coordinator Özgür Tekbaş told Sunday's Zaman. Tekbaş' Syrian counterpart in Aleppo is Hamza Hamza, who was recently on a visit to Gaziantep.

The two countries have a similar trading and business mentality, and bilateral commercial values extend back to the 1991 Gulf War when Turkey agreed to suspend export trade, worth about $8 billion, with Iraq. Savvy Turkish exporting firms switched channels and funneled goods via Syria. Turkey is one of the largest foreign investors in Syria, and trade between the two countries, now at about $1.5 billion, is expected to increase substantially. There are other projects to open up neighboring border regions, but the Gaziantep-Aleppo-Kilis project does not have trade as its main aim; rather it is to create a harmonious ethnic axis.

Pundits may speculate that Turkey is hedging on euro membership by turning to Muslim neighbors to the south. But refining frontier friendships is a straightforward way to counter conflict and build democratic institutions. It is an enormously useful tactic in its own right, and what better time than now to focus on grassroots projects.

Mahmoud Zein Alabidin: The Syrian cultural emissary

It is no exaggeration to call Mahmoud Zein Alabidin a cultural ombudsman or envoy. At 17, as his family's youngest son, he left his native Syria to study architecture at İstanbul's Yıldız Technical University. He makes light of his impeccable Turkish pronunciation and diction.

"I came to İstanbul to study and immersed myself in learning Turkish. Otherwise my scope and appreciation of everything would have been very limited," he recalls. Alabidin noticed that there were few books or reference books in Arabic about Ottoman architecture, and this sparked his curiosity and drew him to the subject. A profound influence was Ottoman architect Sinan, whose most brilliant works are found in Turkey but also grace many of the former Ottoman territories. In fact Sinan's first work was the Hasreviye building in Aleppo, constructed between 1536 and 1537.

After graduating in 1998, Alabidin practiced architecture in Saudi Arabia and the United States and wrote his first book, "The Historical View of Turkish and Arabian Houses," available only in Arabic. A book published in 2006, "The Architecture of Ottoman Mosques," scooped the $200,000 Sheik Zayed Young Author Award. Having spent four years researching, photographing and then footing publication costs himself, Alabidin confesses he was scraping rock bottom financially. "This award changed my life," he added. As Turks would say, he turned the corner.

Now he has established an architectural heritage center in Aleppo (www.shadirwan.com) and has recently become a Syrian representative for Turkish-based ÇEKÜL (Foundation for the Promotion and Protection of the Environment and Cultural Heritage).

Sunday's Zaman

Güncelleme Tarihi: 16 Aralık 2007, 16:30