Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1182, (30 January - 5 February 2014)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1182, (30 January - 5 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

A friendship gone sour

Turkey’s relations with Syria have been falling to pieces since the beginning of the Syrian conflict three years ago, leaving Ankara to ponder its options, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The borders separating Syria and Turkey run through lush mountains for nearly 850 km and on either side live people who are bonded by marriage, ancestry, customs, and trade.

However, beneath the surface there lies a history that has as often as not been one of mistrust, dating back to the 1939 Turkish annexation of the Hatay province that under the name of sanjak of Alexandretta was formerly considered part of Greater Syria. Another cause of the tensions was Turkey’s damning of the Euphrates River without consulting its downstream neighbour.

Turkey’s membership of NATO and its brief strategic partnership with Israel also did not sit well with Damascus, which has preferred Moscow and Iran as allies.

Mistrust between the two neighbours almost came to blows in the aftermath of the formation of the Baghdad Pact in 1957, a security agreement linking Turkey to Britain, Iraq and Iran, and then again over Syria’s aid to the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in 1998.

 

FRIENDSHIP REPLACES MISTRUST: Yet, when the Turkish Justice and Development Party came to power in Ankara in 2000, it sought closer relations with Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, who had just acceded to power and replaced his father Hafez Al-Assad.

Before long, the two countries had established strategic relations in various areas, including security and the economy. The friendship between Damascus and Ankara became such that Syrian and Turkish officials signed a total of 54 cooperation agreements to facilitate trade and travel across the countries’ porous borders.

Suddenly, the dispute over the sanjak of Alexandretta was forgotten as tourists from both sides traveled freely, unhindered even by the formality of a visa. The two countries cleared their border areas of the mines that were now considered to be an unnecessary impediment to trade and tourism.

A secret security agreement signed by the two countries in Adana in 1998 also gave the Turks the right to pursue suspected terrorists up to five kilometres within Syrian territory, though the Syrians were not granted a similar right north of the border.

Around the same time, the two countries signed a free-trade agreement that boosted the volume of bilateral trade to US$2 billion per year. The honeymoon had started, and many thought it would never end. Syrian officials were proud to have Ankara as a friend, even if this had stifled any hope of their country reclaiming control of Alexandretta.

At one point a senior Syrian official was asked to explain the ease with which Damascus had decided to forgo Alexandretta. “We may have lost Iskandarun [the Syrian name for Alexandretta], but we have won Turkey,” he said. The Alexandretta province was quietly excised from Syrian maps and school textbooks.

In return, Ankara stood by Syria through several crises. It refused to turn against Damascus despite the threats the US was heaping upon Syria during the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Turkey’s faith in the Syrian regime was unshaken even when Damascus was accused of masterminding the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri in 2005.

Turkey’s faith in Syria remained apparently unshakable, and the fact that the West was slamming the Syrians with a variety of sanctions did not seem to count for much with Ankara at the time.

 

ESTRANGEMENT SETS IN: However, when the uprising began in Syria in March 2011, Ankara refused to honour the usual diplomatic custom of sitting on the fence. Instead, and to the bewilderment of many Syrian commentators, Turkey threw in its lot with the protestors.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he had told Al-Assad more than once to carry out democratic reforms, and as the conflict took hold Turkish envoys were sent to Damascus to tell the Syrians that reforms were long overdue and to offer training on how to carry out the democratisation process.

When Syrian officials refused to budge, Erdogan criticised the Syrian leaders for their inaction, saying that their failure to introduce reforms was divisive. His support for the Syrian opposition became such that he offered them free access to the Turkish media and even hosted some of their meetings.

Erdogan was particularly hospitable towards the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, which had ranged themselves against the Syrian regime, and the Syrian revolutionaries were encouraged to see their northern neighbour making common cause with their struggle. The Turkish position may have added zest to the widespread protests that soon turned into a military conflict.

Ankara not only embraced the position of the Syrian opposition, but also allowed opposition members free access to its conference halls and media. Within months of the uprising, Turkey had become a second home for the Syrian opposition to the Al-Assad regime, and the first public meeting of the Syrian opposition was held in Istanbul in April 2011 upon the invitation of Turkish civil society.

This meeting was primarily attended by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and its associates, and its being held in Turkey soured relations between the country and Syria, as Damascus considered the Brotherhood to be a terrorist organisation.

In June 2011, Syrian opposition figures from across the political spectrum met again in Antalya in southern Turkey with the help and protection of the authorities in Ankara. A month later, a further meeting was held in Istanbul, with 400 opposition members, mostly Islamists, taking part. The meeting almost succeeded in forming an interim government for Syria in the event of the collapse of the Al-Assad regime, though analysts who followed the meeting suspected that Ankara’s help to the opposition had been partial or lopsided.

Commentator Youssef Mekki writing in the Gulf newspaper Al-Khalij said that “Turkey is not supporting the Syrians but the Muslim Brothers in Syria.”

As thousands of Syrians then started fleeing the conflict in their country, Turkey offered them shelter. Some say that Turkey even built shelters before the refugees crossed the border, thus underlining its willingness to play an active role in the conflict.

Citing the 1998 Adana Agreement, Ankara pondered the creation of a safe haven area in northern Syria. This agreement says in its first article that “Syria, on the basis of the principle of reciprocity, will not permit any activity that emanates from its territory aimed at jeopardising the security and stability of Turkey.”

In the diplomatic efforts that followed, Turkey urged the Americans and Europeans to take firm action on Syria, also asking Iran to curtail its support for the Al-Assad regime.

 

STRATEGIC CONCERNS: Damascus may have been puzzled by the speed with which Turkey turned from being one of its best friends to one of its worst enemies. Damascus had earlier been trying to get Turkey and Iran accepted into the Arab League with observer status, and in previous peace talks between Syria and Israel it had insisted on Turkey being the mediator.

Ahead of the conflict, Syrian officials had buried their differences with Turkey over Hatay and the water of the Euphrates River in order to enjoy cordial relations with their northern neighbour in return for free travel and trade that was just as profitable for Ankara as it was for Damascus.

But Turkey had now changed its thinking. It was now wagering on the quick fall of the Al-Assad regime and was craving a front-row seat in the arrangements for the future of Syria.

Even before he became the country’s foreign minister, the present Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, wrote a book, entitled Strategic Depth, that was to inspire Turkish policy for years to come. In the book, Davutoglu suggests that Turkey can play a leading role in the international arena if it makes full use of its Islamic and Asian connections.

Instead of turning to the West, as Turkey had done since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, Ankara should explore its opportunities in the East, he said. Ankara, Davutoglu suggested, had the chance to outperform Iran and Israel as a top player in regional politics.

This thinking may explain the enthusiasm with which Ankara lent its support to the Syrian uprising. If Iran was hoping to make gains from standing by Al-Assad, then Turkey could trump it by fostering regime change.

Turkish officials must have understood that any deterioration in the security situation in Syria would likely have an adverse impact on their country, though the risk for them was apparently worth the taking. If things went wrong in Syria, the 1.5 million Kurds living in Syria could also have become a force for instability across the borders.

However, if things went the way Ankara predicted, Turkey would gain a powerful ally on its southern borders and one that would add to Ankara’s regional stature. A democratic Syria would open the door for Turkey to consolidate its position as a role model for the Middle East, the thinking went.

Another thing that Erdogan may have had in mind when he decided to support the Syrian opposition was that a Syria led by the country’s Muslim Brotherhood would likely boost the fortunes of his own Justice and Development Party. As a result, he wanted to pave the way for the rise of the Brotherhood as at least a coalition member in a new Syrian government.

During earlier visits to Syria, Erdogan had urged Al-Assad to allow the Brotherhood to operate freely in Syria. While Al-Assad had refused, he had consented to the return of Brotherhood exiles to the country on a case-by-case basis and on the condition that they stay out of politics.

Turkish writer Nasuhi Gungor noted at the time that the Turkish leaders were following the situation in Syria closely. They knew, he said, “that sooner or later there would be an uprising against the Al-Assad regime. The choices open to Ankara were all tricky ones, for they thought that the Syrian regime would not be able to hold on to power and that it would be replaced with a new regime. As a result, Ankara wanted to be part of the process of determining the image and colour of the new regime in Syria.”

 

ESCALATING VIOLENCE: After the Syrian army stormed the town of Hama in August 2011, Ankara became more outspoken in its attacks on the Syrian regime, Erdogan saying that Al-Assad would “drown in the blood he is shedding.”

The Turkish newspaper Jumhuriyat also reported on the preparations it said were being made in Turkey to deploy a missile shield in the country as a precaution against Syrian attacks.

Ankara reacted to the escalating violence by sending Davutoglu to Damascus with a message from Turkish president Abdullah Gul in which, according to the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, he said that “we have made great efforts to ensure that reform will be a priority under your leadership and that it will take place without blood and in a peaceful framework. But for six months you have been toying with us, and now our patience has run out.”

“Unless you stop using violence and pull your troops out from the cities, we will give up our support for you. Start reforms now. Move toward democracy. Hold general elections,” Gul apparently said.

In mid 2013, two brigades form the Turkish army took up positions near the Syrian borders, as the government in Ankara contemplated possible intervention. Meanwhile, Ankara agreed with the West to deploy Patriot missiles to protect its borders with Syria from any attacks.

 

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE: However, the quick demise of the Syrian regime on which Ankara based its policy has failed to materialise.

Discontented with the way things were developing in Syria, Ankara opened its borders to fighters wishing to join the fight against the Syrian regime, and even international jihadists have been allowed to cross the borders.

Ankara has continued to support the Syrian opposition in general and the Islamists in particular, and when Washington started to have second thoughts about its position on the conflict, Ankara was incensed.

For its part, the US has been concerned about the Turkish policy on Syria, and articles have appeared in the US press accusing Ankara of supporting radical Islamists. Under pressure from Washington, Ankara declared that Al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria were a threat to Turkish national security as a result.

Yet, when the US and Russia pressed for the holding of a peace conference on the situation in Syria, now taking place in Switzerland and entitled Geneva 2, Turkey was less than enthusiastic, feeling that it was being pushed out of the narrow circles of the players entitled to decide the outcome of the political game in Syria.

Meanwhile, Ankara has been trying to coordinate its position with the Gulf countries that have a stake in the Syrian crisis. It has sought to placate the Americans by communicating with Iran and Russia and offering thoughts on a possible way out of the crisis.

Over the past two years, Turkey has tried and failed to pose as the leader of attempts to solve the Syrian crisis. However, its hopes of seeing Syria turn into a democratic country with a moderate Islamist government were dashed as the conflict grew bloodier and the West failed to offer real help to the uprising.

Now the Syrian conflict is weakening the position of Erdogan’s already beleaguered government. If the latter exits from the political stage in Ankara, the Syrian opposition may find itself bereft of a staunch, though thus far unfruitful, friendship.

 

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