Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat – Regardless of the “diplomatic” statements being issued by the Turkish leadership on Syrian affairs, and the “non-diplomatic” statements being issued by the Syrian media towards Ankara, the honeymoon period between Syria and Turkey has now come to an end. The honeymoon period, between Ankara and Damascus, began with the border barrier between the two countries being lifted, and also saw the two countries signing a free-trade agreement and even holding joint-military exercises.
These two countries, which previously stood on the verge of war, before recent rapprochement, are now once again looking to redefine their relationship, particularly in light of the recent events in Syria. Turkey has said that it considers the demonstrations taking place in Syria to be an “internal issue”, which is a pragmatic approach, even if it is one that has angered the Syrian leadership. Ankara has now choice but to follow such a realistic approach given that the two countries share an 800 km border, as well as in light of the sectarian and demographic makeup of both countries.
Senior Turkish presidential advisor Arshad Hurmuzli denied there was any “Turkish scenario for military intervention” in northern Syria, similar to the Turkish military intervention in Iraq. A so-called “Plan B” was put forward during the last session of Turkey’s National Security Council, which met to discuss the situation in Syria, and particularly the influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey. This plan would see the establishment of “safe havens” on the Syrian side of the border for these refugees.
Turkish sources informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “the Turkish side is studying all possible options to safeguard the security of southern Turkey.” However experts in Turkish affairs did not rule out Ankara militarily intervening in northern Syrian, if the Syrian central government is weakened by violence.
The relations between Syria and Turkey have always been volatile, particularly with regards to Syria’s historical hostility towards the Ottoman Empire. There have also been logistical problems between the modern Turkish and Syrian states, particularly over water rights, some of which have been resolved, whilst others were shelved following the Turkish – Syrian alliance. It was this alliance that eased a lot of the international pressure on Damascus, whilst also transforming Turkey from a potential strategic threat to Damascus, to a physical ally and indeed source of stability for the Damascus regime.
The other source of tension between Ankara and Damascus was Syria’s sheltering of Turkish public enemy No 1, leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party [PKK], Abdullah Ocalan. The Hafez al-Assad regime long denied sheltering Ocalan or providing any support for the outlawed terrorist PKK, however this denial was exposed when Turkish intelligence presented King Hussein of Jordan – who was mediating talks between Turkey and Syria – with pictures of Ocalan entering and leaving his residence in Damascus. Al-Assad reportedly continued to deny sheltering Ocalan or providing the PKK with support, a stance that led to Turkey ultimately threatening war. Damascus backtracked, expelling Ocalan, and moving to improve relations with Ankara. Ocalan was later captured in Kenya by Turkish intelligence.
Turkish – Syrian relations remained relatively static until 2003; Syrian President al-Assad, this time Bashar al-Assad, had no direct contact with the Turks, however following the famous visit of US Secretary of State Colin Powell to Damascus, and at the urging of Washington, al-Assad began to improve his relations with Turkey. He visited Ankara in 2004, and indeed began to weave a different kind of relations with Ankara, asking Turkey to act as mediators in the indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel.
During this period, relations between Damascus and Ankara improved, and this also saw strong personal relations developing between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This resulted in a strategic cooperation agreement being signed by the two countries, as well as 48 separate economic and financial agreements.
In the view of Lebanese MP Nuhad al-Mashnouq, who heads the Lebanese –Turkish Friendship parliamentary committee that al-Assad was attempting to use Turkey to establish a kind of “balance with Iran.” Al-Mashnouq said that “Turkey is a strong and important country that could act as a kind of competitor for Iran [with regards to interests with Damascus].” He added that “Al-Assad encouraged Turkey to play a role in the Palestinian file, whilst the indirect Syrian – Israeli negotiations [under Turkish mediation] were also taking place, although this did not end in an agreement because neither side was ready for this.”
Lebanese MP Nuhad al-Mashnouq also told Asharq Al-Awsat that “in 2008, it was clear that Syria was giving a lot to Turkey, but not receiving anything in return. Al-Assad was acting on the basis that Syria is a regional country that can afford to ask certain things from Turkey without paying the political price.”
Relations between Turkey and Syria have become strained over two issues. Firstly there is the issue of Lebanon; the Turks believed that their involvement in Lebanon – via Syria – would help to create a state of balance between the Lebanese political forces, which is something that al-Assad promises, only to renege. This is something that was clear to see when Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Lebanon recently, along with Qatari Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jassim. They were forced to wait a whole day to meet Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, only to be informed that Hezbollah would not support the return of Prime Minister Hariri.
The second point of contention between Damascus and Ankara is over the issue of internal Syrian reforms. Turkey has found itself in an extremely uncomfortable position following the outbreak of anti-government protests and demonstrations in Syria. Ankara has publicly stopped short of supporting the protestors, or calling for al-Assad to resign, but rather has called for the Damascus regime to implement a “shock therapy” of reforms in order to quell the protests. Ankara has called on Damascus to put an end to the emergency law, allow the formation of political parties, and ease media restrictions, something that has angered the Syrian regime.
Lebanese MP Nuhad al-Mashnouq also told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Turks have tried to advise Damascus with regards to the protests there, but that they are also prepared for military intervention should the situation in Syria continue to deteriorate. He stressed that Turkey considers the security situation in Syria to affect “Turkish national security” and that Ankara is prepared for military intervention in order to protect Turkey’s national interests.
As for future relations between Syria and Turkey, al-Mashnouq said that Turkey is still acting on the belief that it can convince al-Assad to step back from the brink. Al-Mashnouq also tied Ankara’s relatively restrained statements, particularly in light of the violent Syrian crackdown against the demonstrations, to the forthcoming Turkish parliamentary elections. He stressed that there is an “opportunity” for al-Assad to appease the demonstrations, adding that “this opportunity ends following the Turkish parliamentary elections, for after this the Turks will call for al-Assad to step down, if he does not respond to the reform demands.”
However senior Turkish presidential advisor Arshad Hurmuzli confirmed that Turkey’s relationship with Syria, “as a state”, will not be affected, because relations between states are not based on the whims and desires of individual figures. He stressed that regardless of what happens in Syria, “this will not affect our relations, for these our strategic relations, the relations [between Turkey and Syria] are between two peoples, not two regimes, and any changes [in regime] will not affect this.”
He added that “it is natural for Turkey to support the demands of the Syrian people, as we did with all Arab countries that witnessed popular uprisings. In the same way, it is also natural for us to advise the Syrian regime that it must listen to the fair and just demands of the Syrian people. Turkish policy, in Syria and elsewhere, is clear, and that is that the regime must respond to the legitimate demands of the people, and that is what we have told the Syrian leadership on more than one occasion.”
Hurmuzli stressed that Turkey is using a “variety” of means to pressure the Syrian government to implement reform, adding that there is no reason to believe that there has been a setback in relations between Damascus and Ankara. He also played down the intensifying media rhetoric that can be found in the Syrian and Turkish media, describing this as the “emotionalism” of some journalists.
He also denied that there was any agreement or coordinated plan in place between Ankara and Washington to ensure that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood do not come to power, should Bashar al-Assad share the fate of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak.
Whatever the future holds in Syria, there can be no doubt that this will have a huge effect on Turkey, and that Syrian – Turkish relations, whether they are good or bad, will have a huge impact on both countries, and the entire region.