10/13/2011 By Richard Weitz
The political turmoil in Syria is depriving Turkey’s ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP, or Justice and Development Party) of one of its most significant foreign policy achievements. Since the AKP came to power in 2002, Turkey and Syria have seen a major improvement in their bilateral relations after decades of general hostility punctuated by periodic acute confrontations. But the recent months of upheavals in Syria have strained ties between Ankara and Damascus. In addition, Turkey could suffer major economic loses, threats to border security, and a more complicated regional security problem.
These concerns were most evident in the day we spent in the city of Antakya, the capital of the province of Hatay in south-central Turkey, which borders Syria. Although less developed than Istanbul or Ankara, Hatay is an up-and-coming Turkish province. According to the Turkish government, Hatay ranks 12th of Turkey’s 81 provinces in terms of production, 9th in terms of contributions to Turkey’s tax revenue, and 8th in terms of the volume of its international exports. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and other agricultural products are major export items since Hatay has a good Mediterranean climate for their production. The local authorities hope to transform Hatay into one of the leading producers and exporters of agricultural products in the Middle East, but realizing that vision will require that Hatay develop its infrastructure further as well as that the Middle East region becomes more stable.
The people we met with in Hatay stressed their province’s cosmopolitan nature. Most of the inhabitants are conservative Sunni Muslims, but there are other Muslims there too.
In Ancient Times, Antakya was known as Antioch. It is considered the first location where the followers of Jesus Christ were called Christians. Antakya has one of the world’s oldest Christian churches. It also has an Armenian minority and even a small Jewish community. In addition to visiting the church, we also saw a mosque and a synagogue.
In addition, we spent a few hours at the local Mustafa Kemal University. Founded in 1992, the university is one of Turkey’s newest. The university leaders and academics we met described their students as relatively politically inactive despite the debates over what should be in Turkey’s new constitution and how Turkey should respond to the Arab Spring.
Through our discussions in Hatay, we soon realized that few of the local business, religious, or academic groups had regular contact with Americans or the United States, primarily because of geographic distance but also due to the lack of a local American presence. This situation offers an opening for greater U.S. outreach efforts by American businesses, universities, and other institutions, supported by the State Department and other U.S. federal, state, and local institutions.
Much of our discussions in Hatay concerned Turkish-Syrian relations. Hatay has historically been a contested part of Turkey. The Syrian government had long claimed the territory as its own due to Hatay’s being a part of colonial Syria under French rule until the 1930s, when the French government, preoccupied with the rising threat from Hitler’s Germany, allowed Turkey to establish control of the province despite Syrian protests that the transfer was illegal. The French gambit did contribute however to helping keep Turkey neutral during World War II.
Turkish President Abdullah Gu, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and other Turkish government leaders have adopted an increasingly hard line toward Syria in recent months, though Turkey is still less hostile toward Syria’s current regime than earlier Turkish governments or most of its NATO partners.
Turkey’s hedging policy reflects an effort to balance competing considerations. On the one hand, Turkey has important economic and security interests at stake in Syria, including sustaining the security of its border with Syria and preventing Damascus from again adding anti-Turkey Kurdish terrorists.
In addition, Turkey does not want to risk a break with Iran, which strongly backs the current Syrian government. Some Iranian officials have expressed irritation at Turkey government criticism of Syrian policies, but the government in Tehran has generally sought to avoid a confrontation with Ankara over the issue.
Nonetheless, competing considerations have been inducing the Turkish government to adopt a harder line toward the Syrian regime.
First, Turkish public opinion has been pressing Turkish officials to at least denounce the repression as well as warn Syria that further regime violence will inflict harm on their bilateral relationship.
Second, many foreign governments close to Ankara, including the members of NATO and the EU as well as Arab leaders, have adopted their own harder line toward the Bashir Assad regime, raising pressure on Ankara to follow suit.
Third, the Turkish government broke with Qaddaffi in Libya due to his government’s use of violence against Libyan civilians, so there was pressure on Ankara to follow the same path toward Damascus.
Fourth, Turkish leaders have become genuinely outraged by the Syrian regime’s repressive policies and Assad’s failure to follow earlier Turkish government advice to end it.
One factor that underscored Syria’s troubles to the people of Hatay is that Turkey has established several refugee camps in Hatay and other border provinces to provide a safe have for Syrians fleeing the violence in their own country. The number of refugees tends to fluctuate, ranging from several thousand to several tens of thousand refugees depending on the level of violence in Syrian regions near Hatay. In addition to those in the camps, many Syrians are now living illegally in Turkey, often staying with friends pending a normalization of the situation in their home country.
Regardless of their location and status, the Syrian refugees were most often not the same groups of people who form business partnerships with Hatay’s commercial elite. Syrians with large property holdings or other physical assets do not want to risk losing their wealth by fleeing. In their absence, the authorities would naturally be tempted to confiscate it.
As a result, the refugees are mostly poor people or military conscripts who have deserted rather than shoot their own people, who risk severe punishment if they are captured by the Syrian authorities.
We were originally scheduled to visit one of these camps but the Turkish authorities in the end postponed opening them to visitors. Erdogan was supposed to make a trip to the camps a few days before our arrival, which would result in their being more open to foreign visitors, but his mother died a few days before the scheduled trip so his visit was canceled.
We did ask the local officials in Hatay about the Syrian issue, but they declined to answer many questions since such issues are being decided primarily by the central government.
In addition, the Red Crescent and some other local Turkish charities were providing assistance to the refugees as well as other Syrians suffering from their country’s domestic upheavals.
The local Turkish business leaders we met expressed genuine outrage at the behavior of the Syrian government. Turkey and Syria established a visa-free travel regime in 2009, which dramatically increased people-to-people exchanges. Many of these members of Hatay’s local business elite have been developing good business contacts in Syria, trading goods and making small-scale commercial investments.
Some of these business leaders indicated that, whenever they go to Syria, they try to stay at the homes of their Syrian business partners rather than in hotels in order to establish the personal trust and understanding that they consider essential for good business relations. They thus had a very good sense of the pains the Syrian people had been suffering in recent months.
These business leaders praised the current AKP government for overcoming the impediments created by Turkey’s historic legacy of distancing itself from its former Ottoman dependencies. They also criticized previous Turkish governments for stoking fears among Turks about how they would allegedly risk personal dangers by traveling to the Arab world.
One business leader told a moving story about a recent visit to Syria. He recalled how one elderly Arab shopkeeper he met praised the Turks as a great people who had been betrayed by the Arab revolt during World War I. The shopkeeper then attributed the Arabs’ misfortunes during the following century to this betrayal. Although he recognized that not all Arabs think this way, polls do show that Turks and the Turkish government now enjoy widespread popularity in the Arab world.
These Hatay business leaders recognized that they could suffer financial losses from any sanctions imposed on Syria by their own government or the restrictions on contacts with Turks that the Syrian authorities might themselves apply. Still, they were willing to suffer personal economic costs if their sacrifices might contribute to the spread of democracy and human rights in Syria and other Arab countries.
The business leaders attributed this widespread sentiment in part to the own changing economic circumstances. Ten years ago, discussions among Turks often focused on their country’s high levels of unemployment, inflation, and other economic problems. Now that many more people are satisfied with their economic status, Turks more often discuss other issues, including how to advance liberal democratic values in Turkey and its neighbors.
Nonetheless, even the more outspoken local business leaders recognize that, in themselves, any sanctions Turkey imposes cannot have much affect on the outcome of the Syrian situation. The members of a liberal democratic think tank in Istanbul explained that the Turkish people had already inflicted their most powerful sanction on Syria, which was to make clear that Turks no longer consider the current Syrian government worthy of their friendship.
Truly robust economic sanctions on Syria require the UN Security Council to adopt and enforce vigorous sanctions on the government. Thus far, China and Russian are using their permanent membership status on the Council to veto rigorous sanctions on Damascus.
We also had the opportunity to discuss the Syrian issue with several senior Turkish executive and legislative branch officials. Due to the improvement in bilateral relations in the last few years, many Turkish government ministers had developed institutional ties with their Syrian counterparts. These relationships allowed them to cooperate on common problems as well as enabled Turkish officials to help train and educate their Syrian counterparts on such issues as public housing, national economic policy, and central bank management. Ironically, the Turks said they learned the value of promoting cross-border cooperation by observing how effectively the EU has promoted such cooperation within its framework.
Although some of these bilateral institutional relations continue, the deterioration in Turkish-Syrian ties during the last few months has disrupted some joint projects. For example, there were plans to expand the collaboration between the two central banks that has arisen in recent years into a common finance area that would also include Jordan and Lebanon. There were even discussions about how to expand this area into a regional customs union. But the Turkish and Lebanese central bank heads have declined to meet with their Syrian counterpart for fear that the Syrians would exploit the opportunity to claim that they remain respected partners of these two governments.
Now Turkish officials are considering developing their partnership will Egypt and other Arab states in an Eastern Mediterranean Cooperation Partnership based on cooperation in financial services, with the hope they could resume their bilateral and multilateral cooperation with Syria after its government improves its behavior.
As for the effects of any economic sanctions Turkey might impose on Syria, the Turkish officials argued that such measures would likely have only a small, primarily regional impact on the Turkish economy given the large size of the Turkish economy and small share of activities involving Syria in that total. Turkish officials acknowledge that the sanctions might reduce cross-border economic opportunities for the inhabitants in Hatay, but the Treasury, Ministry of Development, and other Turkish government agencies were already taking steps to counter these negative impacts.
An influential Turkish legislator called Syria the most complicated case in the Arab world.
The protests make evident that strong hostility toward the regime exists, but the demonstrations remain confined to several enclaves and the regime benefits from having perhaps the strongest internal security forces in the Arab world. Turkish diplomats confirmed that their government had given up Turks have given up on reforms and the ability of Assad to fulfill the promises to reform that he has made to Turkish officials.
Still, Turkish officials do not think it is their place to say that Assad must go. One senior diplomat noted that it was still possible that Assad could, despite expectations, reach an agreement with his main domestic opponents that could meet many popular demands, improve the lot of the Syrian people, but allow him to stay in power.
Ankara is also seeing how the newly emergent Syrian opposition evolves in the coming months. Turkish officials described the opposition as in the midst of a “learning process.” They argued that the opposition needs further time to develop its potential and become more representative of the Syrian people.
Meanwhile, Turkey is allowing the opposition to meet on its territory, though Turkish officials stressed that their government is not favoring any side. Turkish officials stressed that they would adhere to international law when developing and executing their policy regarding Syria. They have no intention to provide arms to the Syrian opposition but will seek to prevent arms reaching Syria through Turkish territory if the UN or the Turkish government adopts an arms ban on the Syrian government.