It is a cheap idea to support how united the countries from the Middle Eastern area are. In fact, with the exception of their hate against Israel – as a tool to excuse their disregard for basic rights for their citizens - and the support for the extremist Palestinian factions, there is no interest in going and acting together.
As Syria is in the news – but not in the minds of the decision makers – daily, the old and deepening conflict between Syria and Turkey I decided that I should start looking more carefully to the history of the bilateral relations between Damascus and Ankara.
Overall diplomatic framework
Syria has an embassy in Ankara and two consulate general in Istanbul and Gaziantep. Turkey has besides the embassy in Damascus one consulate general in Aleppo.
Both Turkey and Syria are members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and of the Union for the Mediterranean.
The relation between Damascus and Ankara were molded at a great extent by the so-called ‘independence’ attitude of the new authorities in Ankara – to be read more tempted to follow the usual religious oriented patterns. Within the various Islamic fora, Turkey was often accused of being a Trojan horse, due also to the previous good relationships with the state of Israel, and its prestigious position in NATO. Many Muslim countries clapped their hands when the Turkish Parliament refused in 2003 to cooperate militarily with the US for the invasion in Iraq.
In 2004, Assad was the first ever president that ever went to Ankara in a state visit. In 2008, Turkey started to play the role of mediator between Damascus and Jerusalem on the issue of the Golan Heights, but it gave up its neutral role after qualifying the 2008-2009 operation in Gaza as ‘crimes against humanity’ committed by the Israeli Defense Army. On 26 April 2009, Syria and Turkey organized three-day joint military exercise developed in the border areas.
The casus belli
There are a couple of points that marked regularly the relations between the two countries:
- - The 1939 conflict regarding the annexation of the Hatay Province to Turkey. Hatay Province won in 1938 independence from the French Mandate of Syria and as the Republic of Hatay decided to join Turkey through a referendum that was never recognized by Damascus. Even though the province appears on many maps in Syria as still being part of this country, following the historical visit to Ankara, Assad declared that Damascus has no more interests in winning back the province. According to various media reports, it is said that many Syrian nationals bought in the last years properties in this Turkish region.
- - The water dispute within the Southeastern Anatolia Project refers to the decision ot Turkey to build several dams on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers
- - Syria’s open support for the Kurds. Repeatedly, it was alleged that Kurdish separatists were trained in Syria by one of the most sought Nazi war criminals, Alois Brunner who apparently was received open arms here Eastern Syria – or what the Kurds call Western Kurdistan – is home for more than 2 million Kurds who should be considered in any discussions regarding the future of the region. However, in October 1998, the Syrian authorities decided to expel the Kurd leader Abdullah Öcalan to Turkey where he was put in prison, following unprecedented tensions when the Turkish tanks were deployed at the border. In the coming months, the issue of the Kurdish minority will continue to be at stake, as Turkey clearly outlined that it will not accept the creation of a Kurdish entity within Syria.
- The recent evolutions
The immediate effect on the current uprising on the bilateral relations was the high number of refugees – around 300,000 that flew to Turkey at the beginning of the conflict. The same Erdogan that hold hands with Assad declared to the Anatolian Agency that “Syria is not acting in a human manner. This is savagery”. Part of the change of perspective was the serious incident that took place a couple of months ago after on 22 June 2012, Syria shot down a Turkish F-4 Phantom military jet near the Turkish-Syrian border, due to what the Syrian military alleged it was a violation of the Syrian airspace by Turkey. In the last years, Assad decided to grant Syrian citizenship to some Kurds another example that, in fact, in many Middle Eastern countries, governments are not acting for the sake of an idea, but rather against a particular other.
Despite the recent political turmoil in Ankara, Turkey continues to be an important NATO member and a candidate country to the EU. Even though the Cold War is over, some of the disagreements could be included on the old bill that Russia will never ask to be paid from the US in the Middle East. After officially losing the control in Central and Eastern Europe, Moscow could be as desperate as to negotiate some influence in the Middle East and thus cannot accept by itself to loose Syria (too).
Turkey is interested in a stable Middle East and, eventually, in a regime with whom to continue its quiet expansion of its interests.