Turkish policy towards Syria has gone through different phases since the declaration of the Turkish Republic in 1924. Yet Syria has always been the main sphere of Turkey’s regional role in the Middle East. Geographical proximity, common history and common security concerns have shaped the evolution of bilateral relations and Turkish regional conduct towards conciliation and rapprochement or tension and military encroachment. Sharing common borders of nearly 900 km, Turkey and Syria have engaged in ongoing interactions that have influenced the balance of power in bilateral relations and the security dilemma in the Middle East.
Historical background of Turkish-Syrian relations
Not only did Turkey have power relations in its favor throughout the Cold War period and the 1990s, but regional dynamics were also dominated by power politics, including antagonistic military alliances involving countries Westerners and Israel vis-à-vis the Arab countries. Although the Turkish-Syrian dispute has been sparked by bilateral disputes over the Hatay/Iskenderun region, the distribution of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the Kurdish question, Arab countries have expressed their solidarity with Syria bilaterally and within regional bodies such as the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Egypt alongside Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Gulf countries have always condemned Turkey’s policy towards Syria and limited cooperation with Turkey at the economic level.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Turkish economic ties were limited to three Arab countries, namely the United Arab Emirates, Libya and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, Turkish economic cooperation initiatives involving Arab countries and Israel have been conditioned by the positive evolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Aykan, 1993; Mouawad, 2001). In light of Turkey’s regional projects under its alliance with the United States, Arab countries have refused to participate in some, including water pipeline projects involving Israel, unless the latter manages to a positive agreement on Palestinian rights with the PLO.
Mistrust has dominated the perception of the Turkish regional role in the region due to its antagonistic conduct towards Syria. Syrian support for PKK fighters as a pressure card to secure a better deal on water rights has come up against Turkish commitments to military and strategic alliances with the United States and Israel in the region. The 1980s and 1990s saw Turkey’s alignment with US policy in the Middle East, particularly vis-à-vis Iran and Iraq, as well as the conclusion of a series of military agreements with Israel in 1996 and 1997. Turkey’s comparative advantage in military capabilities vis à vis Arab countries culminated in the mobilization of military troops on common borders with Syria in 1998 which prompted the al-Assad regime to cease its support for PKK fighters thanks to Egyptian mediation which facilitated the conclusion of bilateral agreements subsequent security and political levels.
Turkish policy towards Syria under JDP rule (2002-2010)
Although Turkey’s rapprochement with Syria was initiated by the military establishment and supported by the secular ruling elite of the time, the inauguration of the ruling Justice and Development Party in November 2002 paved the way for the opening of a new chapter in bilateral relations. Turkey’s policy towards Syria continues to embody a prototype of a new Turkish regional policy in the Middle East. In line with the JDP’s regional vision based on economic rapprochement, zero problems with neighbours, multidimensionality and proactivity, Turkey has initiated an active policy towards Syria. Frequent official visits introduced multiple political, economic, security and technical cooperation agreements through the High Council for Strategic Cooperation which was later emulated with Turkey’s neighboring countries. The two countries agreed to develop areas of common interest, to increase commercial relations, especially cross-border ones through the creation of twin cities and increased investment in vital Syrian industries, and to adopt a cooperative approach in the management Kurdish issues and water.
The increase in bilateral trade with Syria following the elimination of visa requirements between the two countries as a means of overcoming bilateral tensions has been replicated throughout the region with Arab and Caucasian countries. Claims to the Hatay/Iskenderun region, disagreements over water allocation and mutual mistrust over the Kurdish issue are no longer dominant factors in shaping bilateral relations as they have been circumvented by several areas of cooperation economically, politically, technically and strategically. such as the elimination of visa requirements with Syria, technical cooperation on the management of the Tigris and Euphrates waters and the free trade agreement in 2004 (Aras, 2009; Magued, 2019).
Writings have highlighted the structural and normative transformations of Turkish policy towards Syria as a manifestation of a real change in the Turkish regional role and policy towards neighbors at discursive and practical levels (Magued, 2019; Mahfuz, 2012; Aras, 2004; Davutoğlu, 2010). Turkey’s openness towards Syria has shown an official move towards adopting a friendly and positive discourse towards Syria and Arab countries emphasizing areas of common interests rather than matters of disagreement. This change in Turkish attitude unlocked the regional security dilemma that persisted until the end of the 1990s. With the JDP’s incarnation of a political and economic model for Arab and Muslim countries, it turned towards increased commercial links and political coordination between neighbors and between them and the superpowers, in particular the United States and the EU. This security evolution of Turkish regional policy from material threats to areas of complementarity and cooperation between neighbors came in response to Turkey’s adoption of European harmonization packages in the early 2000s as a condition for starting negotiations for membership.
Moreover, the Turkish rapprochement towards Syria has presented an unprecedented channel of communication between the al-Assad regime and its allies (Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah) on one side and the West (notably the United States and the EU) on the other. Turkish-Syrian relations introduced the first step towards the socio-political and economic normalization of the Middle East and its normative integration into the world order. This step materialized in the mediation between resilient authoritarian leaders like al-Assad and the Iranian regimes on the one hand and Israel and the European troika on the other, the improvement of the Syrian economic infrastructure and the reconciliation of his political worldview with Western powers on various issues, including advancing peace negotiations and easing the Syrian resistance posture vis à vis the west.
The change in Turkish policy towards Syria and its repercussions on its regional role in the Middle East
Although the JDP has begun a successful rapprochement towards Syria, the Arab uprising, notably the protests that erupted in Deraa in March 2011, has raised security concerns in bilateral relations and disrupted regional dynamics. The re-emergence of the threatening nature of the Kurdish factor has alarmed Turkey about domestic political developments in Syria. Breaking with the personal friendship that developed between al-Assad and Erdoğan, the JDP’s call for immediate political reforms in Syria has increased tension in bilateral relations and propelled Turkish military intervention in border regions since 2012. From 2011, the Turkish hard power approach to Syria presented a prototype of the role of the JDP in the region. Turkey’s policy has been marked by a series of military operations in Syrian and Iraqi cities in its fight against PKK elements which have been bolstered by the emergence of a Syrian Kurdish Front and the Kurdish government in the north of Iraq.
The adoption of a confrontational and nationalist line in Turkey’s policy towards Syria that focuses on limiting the PKK’s infiltration across borders and its political-strategic empowerment in Syria and Iraq has tainted the regional role of Turkey and its relations with its neighbors from a Hobbesian perspective. Turkey’s former economic partners in the Gulf countries have expressed their opposition to Turkey’s policy in Syria and supported the current Egyptian regime after the overthrow of the post-revolutionary Muslim Brotherhood government. In addition, the Kurdish government in northern Iraq has expressed its opposition to the presence of Turkish officials and troops in Iraq and Syria. Similarly, Egypt, alongside the Gulf countries, perceived Turkish intervention in Libya to support the government of Fayez al-Sarrag as a matter of national security that would disrupt the stability and order of its western borders. In response to Turkey’s military presence in northern Syria, notably in Idlib in coordination with Russia, Egypt excluded Turkey from the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum initiative which overlooked strategic interests Turks in the demarcation of maritime borders with Greece and Cyprus (al-monitor, 2020; emgf .org).
Syria has always been geostrategically important for Turkey in the formulation of its regional policy and its role towards its neighbors. The nature of bilateral relations has depended on handling the common issues of contention that stood in the way of rapprochement in the 1980s and 1990s and tainted Turkey’s regional role with a hard-power approach in the Middle East. The success of the JDP in the establishment of a conciliatory diplomatic framework based on the development of areas of common interest with Syria has enabled its dissemination to neighbours. However, the eruption of Arab uprisings interrupted the conciliatory course of bilateral relations and disrupted the normative framework of Turkish diplomacy in the region.
Aras, B. (2004). Turkey and Greater Middle East. Istanbul: Tasam Publications.
Aras, B. (2009). The Davutoğlu Era in Turkish Foreign Policy. Overview Turkey 11(3), 127-142.
Aykan, M. (1993). The Palestinian Question in Turkish Foreign Policy from the 1950s to the 1990s. International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 25(1), 91-110.
Davutoğlu, A. (2010). Turkish policy in the Middle East and Turkish-Egyptian relations. Sharq Nameh 6, 1-10.
Hassan, Khalid (2020). Egypt leads an international coalition to confront Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean. Al Monitor.
Magued, S. (2019). Turkey’s economic rapprochement with Syria as a means of resolving territorial disputes. Mediterranean policy 24(1), 20-39.
Mahfuz, A. (2012). Al-siyyāsatul khārijiyyat-ul-turkiyyah: al-‘istimrār wal-taghiyyīr. [Turkish Foreign Policy: Continuity and Change]. Cairo: Arab Center for Research and Studies.
Moawad, G. (2001). Al-‘ilaqat al-masriyyah al-turkiyyah [The Turkish-Egyptian Relations]. Cairo: Center for Strategic Studies and Research. https://emgf.org
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