BACKGROUND: The seven years of rapprochement under the AKP have brought about a significant strengthening of Syrian-Turkish ties. In 2004, Turkey and Syria signed a strategic partnership treaty and a free trade agreement. The later began to take effect three years later, resulting in a surge of Syrian imports of Turkish goods. Current bilateral trade between Turkey and Syria reached $2.5 billion in 2010, making Turkey Syria’s largest trading partner.
Most recently, Turkey and Syria established a visa-free travel regime in 2009. The two countries also began convening joint cabinet-level meetings. Ministers from both countries have discussed ambitious plans for cooperation in agriculture, energy, environment, health and other fields as well as initiatives to promote economic integration. Turkish officials have, at various times, proposed consideration of a free trade agreement, a customs union, and a visa-free regime. Turkey and Syria held an unprecedented three-day military exercise in April 2009.
The Syrian government had strong incentives to seek a rapprochement. Ties with Turkey yielded important economic benefits at a time when Western governments were imposing more trade, banking, and investment sanctions on Damascus. Turkey helped Syria keep open lines of communication with Israel. Finally, despite Syria’s good relations with Iran, Damascus also wanted to have alternative partners if for no other reason than to provide some leverage with Iran, which was a much more powerful and resource-endowed state.
Concerns about Kurdish nationalism have been a major driver of this reconciliation. The point that makes Syria case more complicated than other Arab uprisings is the ethnic tension of the Kurdish dimension. Syrians have joined with Turks in expressing alarm about the advent of a Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq could affect their own Kurds. Kurdish unrest in Syria’s northeastern city of al-Qamishli in 2004 convinced Damascus to adopt harsher measures against Kurdish nationalists, who had been aroused by the creation of the Kurdistan Regional Government the previous year. Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, with their community of three million constituting 16 percent of the population. Many PKK operatives are in fact born or based in Syria. Under Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian government has offered strong support for Turkish officials to cut off foreign support for the Kurdish guerillas. Last year, Turkey and Syria signed a counterterrorism agreement and a counterinsurgency pact. The chaos in Syria has weakened this cross-border cooperation. According to the Turkish media, Syrian authorities may be decreasing their cooperation on the PKK issues in retaliation for Turkish criticism.
Even if the Syrian authorities do not adopt a deliberate policy of aiding the PKK, Turkish officials worry that extremists will exploit the flows of refugees to infiltrate terrorists into Turkey. Turkish strategists still remember what happened after the first Gulf War, when the power vacuum allowed the PKK to establish a safe haven in northern Iraq. The same thing could happen now through the 850-km border between Syria and Turkey. The flow of Syrian refugees into Turkey will continue commensurate with the scale of the violence in northern Syria. The relatively flat terrain as well as ethnic and familial ties shared by ethnic Arabs in southern Turkey with their Syrian kin will also likely induce many Syrians to see Turkey as a refuge. Prime Minister Erdoğan's comment that 'Syria is Turkey's internal affair' is literally true given the refugee issue, though he also noted that “we have kinship, historical and cultural ties and … we cannot just watch what is happening there.”
IMPLICATIONS: Given these competing interests, the Turkish government naturally tried at first to straddle the Syria issue. When the Arab Spring unrest spread to Syria in March, Turkey first sought to induce the Assad regime to introduce the reforms demanded by the moderate protesters. In April, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu met Assad in Damascus and offered "every possible assistance" should Assad implement his proposed reforms. But Turkish leaders soon realized that Damascus was ignoring their advice. Then a June Syrian crackdown in the north led more than 12,000 refugees to flee to Turkey. The Turkish rhetoric against the violence has accordingly escalated, mirroring a trend of many other foreign governments. By then, Erdoğan was saying that the protesters were engaged in a "fight for freedom” and warning against further massacres that could result in a Libya-like situation. In early August, Erdoğan claimed that “Turkey’s patience is getting to an end about Syria,” justifying his concern by calling Syria “an internal affair of Turkey.”
Last week, Davutoğlu went to Damascus to demand “concrete steps” to end the violence. His meeting with Assad lasted more than six hours. But the Syrians have apparently ignored this latest initiative, as much as they did earlier warnings. The Syrian state news agency reported that Assad told Davutoğlu that, while his government would carry out reforms and accept help from all friendly countries, Syrians “will not relent in pursuing the terrorist groups in order to protect the stability of the country and the security of the citizens.”
Several reasons could explain this transformation. It parallels the shift in many other foreign countries increasingly incensed by the number of killed protesters. Furthermore, Turkish public opinion and civil society has increasingly been demanding action.
Meanwhile, the protesters have recently expressed recent annoyance at Turkey’s repeated deadlines that, when ignored, have not resulted in any concrete action. When Erdoğan announced last week that he would give Assad 10-15 days to implement reforms some protesters saw this as encouraging him to continue the crackdown even during the Ramadan. One activist in Damascus said that, “The talk on the street is that Turkey has a secret agreement with Assad.”
Turkey’s policies toward Syria are also threatening another AKP achievement: Turkey’s improved relations with Iran. Influential Iranians have been denouncing Turkey’s policy toward Syria. The preservation of a friendly regime in Damascus is a vital national interest for Iran.
Both Iranian and Turkish leaders want stability in Syria, but they disagree how best to achieve it. Turkish leaders, seeing the disorders as resulting from mass discontent with Syrian government policies, believe that the Assad regime could stabilize the situation through reforms. Iranian leaders, by contrast, attribute the protests to foreign instigation, specifically a U.S.-European-Saudi-Israeli attempt to overthrow the Assad regime. Since these foreign plotters want to replace rather than reform the regime, they believe that the Syrian government must forcefully suppress the popular protests, as the Iranian government has done with what Iranian leaders perceive as foreign-backed efforts to depose it.
Thus far the Turkish government has responded to these dilemmas by hedging. Ankara has kept lines of communication open with Assad, never calling for his overthrow, but also developing ties with opposition groups.
As in Iraq earlier and Iran recently, Turks fear how international sanctions on Syria could force them to reduce their economic activity with Syria. Turkish leaders do not want to jeopardize their newly acquired commercial interests in Syria. Furthermore, they doubt that economic sanctions would be effective and have any major impact on Syrian policies. Turkey might accept narrowly targeted sanctions against the Syrian leaders most closely linked to the violence to minimize the damage to Turkey’s economic interests or Syria’s general population.
There is always the possibility of an actual military confrontation. Turkey and Syria have already reinforced their troop strength along their joint border. The most plausible Turkish military action would be to repeat the steps taken in earlier crises. First, as in 1998, Turkey could mass troops on the border to compel a change in Syrian policies. Second, Turkey could establish a border buffer zone in Syrian territory, where refugees could relocate without entering Turkey. Turkey established a similar zone in Iraq in 1991, when Saddam Hussein unleashed violence on the country's Kurdish population.
But military pressure against Iraq in 1998 only worked because Syria’s support for the PKK was a simple tactic that could be ended when the probable costs began to exceed the likely benefits. Today the Assad regime sees itself as fighting for its very survival. For that reason, establishing a buffer zone without Syrian approval risks escalating into an actual armed confrontation. Turkish officials are presently reluctant to even consider direct military intervention, though they have not publicly excluded the option.
CONCLUSIONS: The Syrian case is a reminder that Turkey must address a larger flaw in its regional policies. The “zero- problem” foreign policy aimed to bring Turkey strategic depth through improved ties with regional governments. But the plan had a flaw: In undemocratic states like Syria and Libya, Ankara was not expanding its relationships with the people, but with brutal regimes. With the Arab Spring toppling tyrants, however, Turkey must not only take into account its relationships with dictators, but also the popular uprisings that challenge these rulers. How the ruling AKP grapples with this conundrum will be the defining issue of Turkish foreign policy.
Concurrently, the Syrian crisis potentially offers Turkey the opportunity to bolster its claims that its NATO and EU partners actually benefit more from Ankara’s newly independent foreign policy because it enhances Turkey’s ability to support Western-supported initiatives in the Middle East and Eurasia. U.S and Turkish officials have been in constant contact during the last few months regarding Syria.
Domestic opinion may however impede how closely the AKP government collaborates with Western allies regarding Syria. Even though foreign minister Davutoğlu, upon his return from Damascus, stressed that “We conveyed only Turkey’s messages and none other,” Turkish opposition leaders joined with the Iranian and Syrian media in criticizing the AKP government for supposedly following U.S., European, and Israeli marching orders. Selahattin Demirtaş, leader of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), claimed that Davutoğlu travelled to Syria “not only as the foreign minister of Turkey, but also as an envoy of the U.S.” And in a comment that smacked of the anti-Western impulses of the secularist opposition, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), complained that Turkish-Syrian relations had deteriorated once “Western powers got involved” and had persuaded the AKP to act as their “subcontractor.”
The question is whether it is more damaging for the Turkish government to appear to be a “stooge” of Western powers or a passive bystander to the atrocities of the Baath regime.
Richard Weitz, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".