The current civil conflict in Syria that continues to upsurge every day is damaging the good relationship between Turkey and Syria. It is terminating the impressive bond between the Turkey’s ruling party, Adelet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP), and the al-Assad’s government that has existed for almost a decade.
Turkey’s Prime Minister in cooperation with the Foreign Minister ostracised their previous associate and backed the insurgents, as a way of preventing the revolt from infiltrating into Turkey. This move has led to an upsurge of refugees, military rebels, and opposition leaders, who are deserting the tyrannical authority, into Turkey.
Turkey has not only declared its support for the insurgents, but also promised a military intervention if the government continues with its violent suppression. Turkish government has lauded support for the revolutionists stating that Syria will greatly benefit from the resistance.
Syrian government has disregarded the threats raising the question if these events will prompt Turkey to cease its “soft power” and initiate hard power as a way of protecting its southern border.
From Compulsion to Stabilisation
History reveals that Turkey utilised mechanisms of hard power towards Syria when Syria backed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) thirty years ago. In an attempt to terminate Damascus sponsorship for the military rebels that Ankara had been unable to conquer for years, the Turkish government implemented pressure tactics against Syria on not less than three incidents in the 1980s, as well as 1990s (Bishku 36-53).
In the late 1980s, the Turkish government took advantage of the influence they had over the headwaters of Euphrates as well as Tigris to snip a chip on Syria. The anticipation was that Damascus would run out of options and withdraw its support for the PKK because Turkey had fortified its shares on the regional rivers.
However, this strategy botched as Syria continued supporting the group. Later in 1992, Turkey applied a second pressure strategy that was also unsuccessful when Ankara ignored retaliation threats on Syria if it continued sheltering PKK. The coercion ultimately inspired a temporary agreement when Damascus decided to remove PKK fighters from Helwe drill site.
However, the leaders of Turkey did not react when Syria allowed PKK to launch a site where 1000 insurgents were drilled in 1993. Turkey also failed in its third effort, when it had to stop its battle with Syria because of the unpredicted outbreak of conflict with Greece (Bishku 36-53).
The defining moment came in the fourth effort of Ankara in 1998 when Washington, Tehran, and Cairo supported them. The Turkish government hinted that it would use compulsion in case Damascus refused to comply and continue backing terrorist activities. Ankara established a diplomatic invasive as well as martial campaign to support its coercions (Damla 41-50).
These tactics in line with the strong support from Washington enabled Turkey to succeed eventually. Ankara signed the Adana agreement, which that stated, “PKK training camps in Damascus would be closed and Öcalan was prohibited from residing in Syria” (Özlem 165).
Furthermore, mechanisms to check if Syria observed the agreement’s demands were established. PKK was defeated and the relationship between Syria and Turkey strengthened once again. The economic association between Ankara and Damascus was also re-energised as Turkey and Syria signed a free trade accord, which was to remove the custom taxes (Özlem 163-175).
The AKP’s “Soft Power” Tactic
Although the early Turkish leaders in the 1990s always aimed at perfecting the link between Syria and Turkey, AKP tried to utilise every available opportunity to improve the relationship between the two countries from 2002.
The AKP government proposed a remarkable role for Turkey in the Middle East. AKP agreed that, for them to achieve this goal, they had to acquire elements of “soft power” in trading, sharing of customs, diplomatic actions, as well as religious kinship whilst refraining from compulsive tactics (Damla 41-50).
The soft power approach was exemplified by the then Foreign Minister who stated that Turkey should have a zero conflict policy with its neighbours because of its central location in Afro-Eurasia.
This geostrategic position would enable Turkey to become a core continental or even global actor if it maintained good relations with its closest neighbours. AKP’s achievement in establishing good links with Syria as well other Middle East nations hinged firmly on economic and political benefits (Idrees 87-99).
AKP decided to use its traditional as well as religious connections with Levant as an instrument of soft power. Since AKP is an Islamic inspired party, it believes that Turkey should be a typical example of justice, equality, as well as economic success witnessed during the Ottoman period.
This doctrine has encouraged it to accomplish its goals in the Middle East. In attempt to advance Turkish authority in Middle East, AKP got unforeseen backing from its entertainment industry. Over forty Turkish films have been aired in the Arab countries and they help educate the constituents of Arab world understand how Muslim societies can live liberally (Bishku 36-53).
The AKP administration has improved the bilateral relations introduced by the previous regimes. The Strategic Cooperation Council, which is made of ministers from both Syria and Turkey, held meetings in 2009 to improve the bilateral links. The efforts to perfect the bilateral relations got strong support from a group of organisations, which include investors and company representatives (Saban 5-7).
Consequently, the trade volume between Syria and Turkey escalated from $824.1 million to $1.84 billion in 2010, and they anticipated that the amount will rise to $5 billion by the end of 2012 (Bishku 36-53).
The boosted relationship between the two countries spread to other states in Middle East, which inspired Bashar al-Assad to request Ankara to intercede in the convert talks between Syria and Israel in 2007.
Lebanon also sought the assistance Ankara to help them persuade Damascus and Tehran to stop their diplomatically destabilising tactics towards Lebanon. These incidents disclosed the significant role that Turkey was playing in resolving clashes in the Middle East (Idrees 87-99).
Furthermore, Ankara sided with Damascus in several occasions instead of Washington, hence affecting the relationship between the United States and Turkey (Jim 12). For instance, the Turkish tactical interests concurred with those of Syria in several scenarios during Iraq incursion in 2003. The bond between the two countries became even stronger when Assad visited Erdoğan in Turkey.
This visit was remarkable because sixty-eight years had passed since the last president of Syria visited Turkey (Saban 5-7). The relationship between the two counties appeared to have a bright future if not for the Arab revolts that began in 2011.
Although the soft power applied by AKP was successful in several incidences, it could not control the Syrian regime as it had anticipated and especially during the revolt. The relationship between Syria began to decline at the onset of the revolution (Damla 41-50).
Turkey believed that its close rapport with Syria would help convince Assad to stop torturing the rebels. However, Syria was not prepared to solve its conflict through reforms and instead continued with its brutality. These events prompted Erdoğan to support the rebels (Karen 26-32).
Whilst the mutual rapport between Turkey and Syria is deteriorating, a close relationship between the U.S. and Turkey is developing. Turkey has been holding consistent talks with the U.S. intended to resolve the Syrian conflict. The two governments have agreed to use compulsion against Syria. Turkey has recently threatened to impose sanctions against Syria (Karen 26-32).
Syria has also retorted asserting that it might re-introduce PKK. Ankara has also displayed its direct support for the militants by establishing camps, which shelter fleeing army officers and refugees. Allegations indicate that AKP has withdrawn its support for Assad because of Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB).
SMB has promised to adopt Turkish governance policies after assuming power. Turkey sees this indication as a good opportunity to perfect its relations with the country (Idrees 87-99).
Though the ongoing revolts have negatively affected Turkey-Syria relations, Turkey still has a regional authority in the Middle East. Clearly, the conflict in Syria is having both positive and negative impact in Turkey’s association with states, both regionally and internationally.
The revolts in the Middle East as well as the autocratic nature of the Arab potentates make it inappropriate to employ soft power. It is time Turkey in cooperation with foreign forces applied hard power, which was successful three decades ago, to oust the tyrants and restore peace in Syria.
Bishku, Michael. “Turkish-Syrian Relations: A Checkered History.” Middle East Policy 19.3 (2012): 36-53. Print.
Damla, Aras. “Turkish-Syrian Relations Go Downhill.” Middle East Quarterly 19.2 (2012): 41-50. Print.
Jim, Zanotti. Turkey: Background and U.S. Relations, 2012. Web. <https://www.state.gov/>
Idrees, Mohammed. “Turkey and Iran Rivalry on Syria: Alternatives.” Turkish Journal of International Relations 10.1 (2011): 87-99. Print.
Karen, Kaya. “Turkey and the Arab Spring.” Military Review 92.4 (2012): 26-32. Print
Özlem, Tür. “Turkish-Syrian Relations – Where Are We Going?” UNISCI Discussion Papers 23 (2010): 163-175. Print.
Saban, Kardas. “Syrian Uprising Tests Turkey’s Middle East Policy.” Eurasia Daily Monitor 8.90 (2011): 5-7. Print.