Landmines must go, but how?

ISTANBUL — Along the Turkish-Syrian border lies a neglected, uncultivated stretch of land that has recently become the center of a political minefield for the Turkish government.

The area is riddled with hundreds of thousands of landmines — the legacy of Turkish policies stemming from the Cold War era — and the question of who will clear and destroy them has roiled the country and exposed divisions within the government.

Opposition to the bill centers on a provision that would allow the work to be subcontracted to a private company that specializing in mine clearing in exchange for 44-year leases on the land to be used for organic farming.

The Constitutional Court ruled last week to partially halt the execution of the bill, which is supported by the governing party. The court suspended the controversial provision after opposition parties said it threatened ties with Damascus and national security. The court is expected to rule at a later date on whether to scrap the law entirely.

“The bill is now dysfunctional … there is nothing left of the demining bill for the moment,” said Mehmet Gunal, a deputy of the opposition Nationalist Movement Party.

Turkey’s mine problem is serious. During the 1950s, following a rise in border smuggling, Turkey planted hundreds of thousands of mines along the border with Syria, especially along Turkey’s southeast frontier. It later planted even more mines to prevent crossing by separatist Kurdish rebels seeking refuge in Syria.

Today, the 176-square-kilometer area is riddled with 615,000 landmines. Under the Ottawa Treaty, which Ankara ratified in 2003, Turkey has until 2014 to clear its border territories of landmines.

Although the Turkish military had initially started doing some of this work before 2003, it was later determined that it lacks the equipment and expertise to finish the job. One solution, proposed by the government, was to subcontract the work to a private company that specializes in mine clearing in exchange for 44-year leases on the land to be used for organic farming.

It is this idea of leasing Turkish soil — a kind of modern interpretation of the old plowshare angle — that has roiled the Turkish public and led to heated — and at times almost violent — debate in the Turkish parliament.

The ruling Justice and Development Party government has defended the bill, saying that it will spare Turkey the exorbitant cost of removing the mines and will develop the neglected border region for agricultural use. Yet opposition parties have overwhelmingly perceived the bill to be a “sale of Turkish sovereignty” to foreign parties.

Speculation that an Israeli company may win the contract has further inflamed sentiments, particularly as Ankara tried to offer the contract a few years ago without inviting any other bidders. That move was overturned by the courts.

The strength of the reaction, however, has also revealed endemic prejudice toward Israel in this constitutionally secular but predominantly Muslim country.

“We should not forget the fact that the Israeli state commissions nearly all of its citizens who go abroad, including Israeli tourists, with special tasks,” wrote columnist Husnu Mahalli in the Turkish daily Aksam. “The Israelis who will be working along the Turkish-Syrian border will first lead to damage in Turkish-Syrian relations.

Early this year, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan boldly attacked Israel during its assault on Gaza, garnering him harsh criticism internationally while making him into a hero in Turkey and a number of Arab states. Yet he is also the person who pressured the Turkish government to pass the demining law, tying the matter to improving Turkey's economic condition. Economically, Israel has long been a strategic ally of Ankara.

Opposition politicians argued that awarding the work to an Israeli company would have adverse consequences on Turkey's flourishing ties with neighboring Syria, a longstanding foe of Israel, who has expressed concerns over its national security if the project succeeds. If granted the contract, Israeli companies would work for five years along the border with Syria, and would remain Syria's direct neighbors for 44 years, the duration of the agricultural land investment lease on offer.

Syria is not alone in such concerns. Turkey’s own opposition also argues that giving a foreign company control of border territory for more than four decades would compromise national security.

The government had fought such concerns, arguing that land required for ensuring border security would not be leased to the contractor. Such statements, however, have thus far failed to satisfy the opposition intent on striking down the bill.

Prime Minister Erdogan, during a June meeting with his party’s parliamentary group said: “Opposition parties have planted so many mines on the border of their minds that they cannot walk past them.”

What has become clear amid the tit-for-tat bickering is that concern for territorial integrity and national security is as paramount to Turks as ever — a point that the passion of the opposition and the speed by which it has effectively sidelined the demining bill has helped hammer home.

But while the divisions within the parliament have become painfully clear, the ultimate point of the debate seems to have been forgotten: clearing away deadly mines that are both dangerous and a hindrance to rural development and agriculture. Politics aside, what’s the new plan to address that?

More GlobalPost dispatches on Turkey:

Saving Istanbul's skid row

Healing a populist rift with Turkey

Young Turks: a question of identity

Turkey seeks economic salvation in Africa