Turkey’s Syria Problem


By Dr. Richard Weitz

(Credit: Bigstock)(Credit: Bigstock)

09/05/2011 – Turkish President Abdullah Gu, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have recently warned that they might side with the Syrian protesters if the Syrian government did not order the security forces to end their massive violence against the peaceful demonstrators. But Turkish leaders still oppose imposing economic sanctions on Syria, have not recalled their ambassador from Damascus, and have not followed Western governments in demanding that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad leave office.

Even so, the Turkish government’s hardening line toward Syria provides an opportunity to strengthen Turkish-U.S. ties.

Turkey’s hedging policy reflects an effort to balance competing domestic and foreign policy interests. On the one hand, Turkey has important economic and security interests at stake in Syria, including a desire to sustain border security and cooperation against Kurdish terrorists. In addition, Turkey does not want to jeopardize its improved relations with Iran, which strongly backs the current Syrian government.

On the other hand, several factors are driving Ankara to adopt a harder line toward Syria. First, Turkish public opinion and civil society are increasingly demanding action. Second, many other foreign countries have lost patience with the Assad regime. Third, the Turkish government also sharpened its line regarding Libya, another case where the regime has resorted to violence to remain in power. Fourth, simple emotion has contributed to the sharpening of the regime’s rhetoric, with Turkish leaders outraged by the massacres and by the Syrian regime’s ignoring their advice.

Relations between Turks and Syrians have historically been troubled. For centuries Syrians were subject to Ottoman rule. Although the Ottoman Empire ended after the First World War, hostility persisted after Turkey annexed the Syrian Hatay district that was located along Turkey’s Southern edge. They disputed Turkey’s water usage and management of rivers on which Syrians rely. In 1998, Turkey threatened to invade Syria to end that government’s support for Kurdish terrorists who, as the Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK, Kurdistan Workers Party), had established a safe haven there.

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, which has made Turkey Syria’s largest trading partner.
  • Turkey and Syria established a visa-free travel regime in 2009.
  • They also began convening joint cabinet-level meetings under the auspices of their new High Level Strategic Cooperation Council.
  • At the second ministerial meeting in early October 2010, the dozen ministers from both countries discussed ambition plans for cooperation in agriculture, energy, environment, health and other fields as well as initiatives to promote economic integration in the Middle East.
  • Turkish officials have, at various times, proposed consideration of a free trade agreement, a customs union, and a visa-free regime.
  • There regional cooperation has also extended to Turkey’s to mediate peace talks between Syria and Israel in 2008.
  • Finally, they have begun to cooperate in the defense sector. Turkey and Syria held an unprecedented three-day military exercise in April 2009.

The Syrian government also had strong incentives to seek a rapprochement. Damascus was isolated during the George W. Bush administration, which considered Syria a core member of its “axis of evil.” Ties with Turkey also yielded Syria 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 wanted alternative to provide some leverage in its relations with Iran.

Concerns about Kurdish nationalism have been a major driver of this reconciliation. 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.

(Credit: Bigstock)(Credit: Bigstock)

Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, with their community of three million constituting 16% of the population. For the past decade, the Syrian government has offered strong support for Turkish officials to cut off foreign support for the PKK. Last year, Turkey and Syria signed a counterterrorism agreement and a counterinsurgency pact.

Turkish authorities have made considerable if incomplete progress in recent years in transforming the Kurdish question in Turkey from primarily a military-security issue centered on opposition to the PKK to a social-political question that can be addressed by non-violent means. The point that makes Syria case more complicated than other Arab uprisings (or Arab spring for some), is the very existence of an ethnic tension which is capable to affect the region. This factor that can ignite a regional fire is the Kurdish dimension of the problem.

Now the chaos in Syria has weakened this cross-border cooperation. According to the Turkish media, a report of the National Intelligence Organization warns that the Syrian authorities may be decreasing their cooperation on the PKK issues in retaliation for Turkish criticism of Assad’s crackdown. Many PKK operatives are born or based in Syria. And Iranian-Turkish anti-terrorist collaboration may be weakened by their rift over Syria.

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 fleeing Syrian impression to infiltrate terrorists into Turkey. Already more than 10,000 Syrian refugees have entered Turkey, and Turkish authorities fear that the Syrian crackdown will lead to mass refugees on the scale of those that followed the 1988 Enfal operation in Iraq.

Turkish strategists still remember what happened after the first Gulf War, when the power vacuum allowed PKK to establish a terrorist structure in northern Iraq and uncontrollable refugee movements provided a “human cover” for these terrorists to infiltrate Turkey. As both countries share an open 850-km border, the flow of Syrian refugees into Turkey will continue commensurate with the scale of the violence in northern Syria, which explains Erdogan’s comment that “Syria is Turkey’s internal affair.”

Given these competing interests, the Turkish government naturally tried at first to straddle the 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. Then a June Syrian crackdown in the north led more than 12,000 refugees to flee to Turkey.

The Turkish rhetoric against the violence accordingly escalated. Last month, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu again went to Damascus to demand “concrete steps” to end the violence. But the Syrians have again ignored this latest Turkish initiative, as they did earlier warnings.

Turkey’s relations with the Syrian government have naturally suffered from Ankara’s harder line. Many pro-regime Syrians attack Turkey’s intervention in their internal affairs as an example of “neo-Ottomanism.”  Meanwhile, Turkey’s policies toward Syria are also threatening another AKP achievement: Turkey’s improved relations with Iran.

The preservation of a friendly regime in Damascus is a vital national interest for Iran. The Syrian government represents one of Iran’s few genuine allies, having resisted strong U.S. efforts to wean it away from Tehran.

In addition, Iran’s ability to “unleash” Hamas and Hezbolllah is seen in Tehran as an important means of deterring, through threats of retaliation, Israeli or U.S. military action against Iran.

And Syria provides the territory, intelligence, and other essential enablers that Iranians need to keep these two proxies militarily powerful.

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, Syrian leaders have followed the Iranian path, believing they would be swept pit of office, as with the communist regimes of Easter Europe, if they started yielding on core issues as opposed to fig-leaf reforms designed to divide the opposition and perhaps win some foreign support.

Turkish leaders insist that, even today, if the Syrian government chooses the reform path, it would find Turkey an eager partner willing to help Syria follow Turkey’s route towards Islamist democracy and a more independent foreign policy.

But since Syrian leaders have continued to follow the path of violence and repression, they have found Iran a more suitable source of assistance and advice, leaving Ankara with the unwelcome prospect of having to turn to Tehran to influence developments in Damascus.

All this threatens to dissipate all the good will in Tehran that the AKP government has earned in Iran in recent years by defending Iran’s controversial nuclear program, breaking with Israel, opposing the imposition of economic sanctions on Iran. The two countries have also seen a surge in bilateral commerce, thanks in part to Iran’s subsidizing oil sales to Turkey.

The Turkish government has responded to these dilemmas by hedging. They have kept lines of communication open with Assad, never calling for his overthrow, but also developing ties with opposition groups. Predicting the winner in Syria’s civil war is so difficult because of some unique factors at play in this case. The person of Bashar Al Assad is not the center of gravity, in Clausewitzian terms, as Qaddafi is in Libya. Bashar was not expected to be the president, and the regime’s power resides with the military and other security forces and certain business and political elites.

This system of collective rule, which has a sectarian orientation due to the large numbers of minority Alawites among the elite, makes Assad wary of making excessive reforms that could lead the regime’s collective power holders to displace him for threatening their rule. The regime also has an incentive to polarize the situation through repression since outsiders are then confronted with a choice between a continuation of the current regime and a radicalized and violent opposition.

At the international level, the regime looks to be immune from foreign military intervention. The United States and its NATO allies are overtaxed elsewhere. Israeli military intervention might be the one act that rallies dissatisfied Syrians behind the regime. The protesters have not established a safe haven from which they could organize an armed force that could receive foreign support. Whatever objections the Turkish government has toward Assad’s policies, Turkey would hardly allow such activity on its territory given its objections to PKK activity in foreign countries.

Turks fear how international sanctions on Syria could force them to reduce their economic activity with Syria. The United States and the EU have imposed diverse sanctions on Syria, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is now calling on other countries to join them.

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.

Thus far, Turkey has been shielded by Chinese and Russian opposition in the Security Council, but that could end, leaving Ankara as exposed as it has been when it tried to mediate a resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis. Turkey might lobby for 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, which is victimized already by the violence.

There is always the possibility of an actual military confrontation. Middle Eastern media sources have been flaming tensions by reporting mutual threats, with Turkish officials purportedly telling Western governments were preparing to intervene to use force to overthrow the Assad regime and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei supposedly warning that Iran would bomb NATO and US bases in Turkey if Turkey supported any Western military action against Syria. Both governments have officially denied such reports. Turkish officials recognize that, since the Assad regime sees itself as fighting for its survival, it would fight viciously against any foreign military intervention.

In any case, Turkey’s break with Syria could bolster Ankara’s claims that its NATO and EU partners actually benefit more from Ankara’s newly independent foreign policy because it enhances Turkey’s influence 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, presumably hoping to avoid the miscommunications responsible for last year’s snafu over Ankara’s efforts to broker an Iranian nuclear settlement, when the Turks erroneously had Washington’s backing for their proposed fuel swap.

For earlier discussions on Syria and the Arab Spring see: