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Bright Stars Over the Near East

Three historic events of recent days promise to transform an ancient part of the world long known for its volatile mix of oil, religion, terrorism, ethnic bigotry, and clashes with the West:

*Europe invited Turkey to join its "club" of Western nations.

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*One of the Arab world's most anti-Israeli nations, Syria, made its most serious attempt yet to make peace with the Jewish state.

*And the United Nations once again chose to isolate the region's rogue state, Iraq, until it allows a renewal of weapons inspections.

These actions, coming within days of each other, reveal earnest attempts - mainly by the United States - to bring one of the most backward areas of the world into the post-cold-war era of shared global values.

Old animosities won't melt away overnight, but these big cracks in the Berlin walls of the Near East show that fewer and fewer nations anywhere can block powerful influences such as the global market, satellite television, and campaigns for human rights and an end to military threats.

New Arab television networks, for instance, have changed the way Syrians see Israel. The Internet, too, has helped created a desire to put improving Syria's dismal economy ahead of anti-Israel sentiments.

Television images of Turkey's Aug. 17 earthquake helped create Greek sympathy for its neighbor and break Greece's long antagonism to Turkey joining the European Union. The US, too, nudged the EU (especially Germany) to bring Turkey into the fold for its cold-war services and its pivotal role in the oil-rich Caspian Sea region.

Turkey, a democracy overshadowed by a strong Army, has vowed to clean up it human rights record, including an end to the death penalty, to meet EU standards. Turkey plans to resolve its disputes with Greece and the Kurds. And it is preparing itself to have its economy governed by EU officials in far-away Brussels.

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These steps are truly historic in completing Turkey's transformation from the old Ottoman Empire into a Westernized state. But they come at some risk: the Army must be de-politicized even as Islam is reviving as a political force. Also, Turkey still faces the question of whether to execute Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Turkey, like Syria, faces internal pressures to open up and change. The UN action against Iraq last week was an attempt to do the same with Saddam Hussein.

No nation voted against the UN Security Council resolution that asks Iraq to allow inspections in return for some expectation of an end to sanctions. But Russia, China, and France did abstain in the vote. They at least recognize that the US (and Britain) must take the lead in standing up to Saddam's archaic threats - and in the post-cold-war era, that a US-led global order is difficult to oppose.

Peace in the region has been a long time coming. The last decade has seen immense progress in peace deals. These recent steps show an acceleration of diplomacy that may now be unstoppable.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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