“Road Map” for Turkey's Syria Policy

05 September 2011
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The recent civilian movements against the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world have been observed by Turkey and the countries in the region with deep concern. Developments in the area have been so wide-ranging that they have deeply affected both the political and economic life of their respective countries. As a result, everyday life in the region has virtually come to a standstill.


The winds of change have started to blow over Tunisia and Egypt and spread to the whole Arab world. This has also reflected in the foreign policy of the important players in the region, such as Turkey.

The questions remain about what policies Turkey should adopt towards the countries witnessing the uprisings and which side it will advocate. These questions clarify the difficulty of decision-making preferences in Turkey’s foreign policy. Thus, confronted with such a difficult process of decision making, Ankara’s attitude will most probably affect its own regional position and has the potential of deeply influencing the developments in the region. This article mainly intends to analyze the probable attitude and the policy of Turkey towards Syria, which shares Turkey’s longest border.

Events and Developments in Syria

The Damascus administration has made some changes upon the demands of opposing groups, in light of the protests occurring throughout the country as of March 15th 2011. However, the Syrian protestors find these reforms inadequate and expect the administration to take more substantial steps. With the purpose of mitigating the demonstrators, the Syrian security forces opened fire against the demonstrators. These military actions resulted in death of 1,342 civilians, 343 policemen and tens of people were injured alike. (1) This has aggravated the reactions of the protestors and as a result, demonstrations against the current regime have spread to the other places in Syria (such as the cities of Aleppo, Deraa, Homs, Benyas and Hama) as well. Both the purpose and the flow of the protest demonstrations ongoing for almost four months in Syria have changed. This could be explained from two perspectives: Firstly, protests were said to come to an end on the condition that the Assad administration completed various reforms. Nevertheless, there were delays in this sense. Besides, people did not find those delayed reforms (such as change of the former government, removal of the state of emergency that has been in place since 1963, granting almost 300,000  stateless Syrian-Kurdish people  with the Kurdish identity) adequate and thus, the protests in Syria have continued. This time, the protests aimed at the change of the Assad administration. Furthermore, with the support of the opposing groups for the protestors, people’s movements, although not organized, have gained political ground. Hence, the recent demonstrations in Syria, because of their political characteristics and dimensions, have further strained the Assad administration.

Therefore, it could be said that the delay of the Assad administration in actualizing the reforms has altered the dimension of the events in the country. With an increase and aggravation in the protests and with the Assad administration use of force against the protestors, the happenings have evolved from being domestic issues into both regional and international problems regarding the maintenance of human rights, democracy, peace and stability. Therefore, it could be said that the events in Syria have great repercussions on a regional level and carry the potential of spreading to the neighboring countries like Turkey. It is for this reason that the strategic position of Syria in the Middle East is of unequaled importance for all the countries in the region, mainly being for Turkey. In other words, this position of Syria is an important constituent for the relations both between Iran and Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia and among the Gulf countries.

Impact of the People’s Movements in Syria on Ankara-Damascus Relations

Following the people’s movements in the Arab world, Turkey has expressed the need for the Syrian administration to make reforms. Being the southeastern neighbor of Turkey, Syria is an important door, opening Turkey to Jordan, Lebanon and the other Arab countries. Affinity and blood ties among the people living within the borders of the two countries constitute one of the biggest factors in the relations between Turkey and Syria. This clarifies the fact that, apart from establishing strong political, economic and socio-cultural relations, the two countries have also built strong socio-cultural bonds. Thus, it could be said that the events in Syria are of crucial importance for Turkey in any sense. Any unrest in Syria deeply concerns and affects Ankara. The fact that immediately after the outburst of the events in Syria, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu paid a visit to Damascus and urged Assad to carry out reforms at once could be seen as Turkey’s efforts for the prevention of a probable internal conflict. What’s more, for the settlement of the insurgency, Turkey has touched based with Syrian senior officials. Despite all of Turkey’s efforts, all suggestions and views for the implementation of reforms to the Assad administration have fallen on deaf ears, and Syria hasn’t appeared to give up its policies of violence and intimidation.

Within the framework of the recent developments, Ankara has faced a big challenge in implementing its one of the main principles in Turkish foreign policy within this challenging geography: “zero problem with the neighbors.” Furthermore, since the Assad administration has increased its military intervention due to the demonstrations in Syria, Turkey’s attitude towards this country has changed and the relations with the Assad government have been strained as a result. As one of the indication of this aspect, the fact that Syrians have taken refuge along Turkey’s southeastern border as a result of the increase in Syrian military intervention in Syria could be shown. It is said that the number of people fleeing from the city Jisr al-Shugur, which is the focal point of the political crisis, has risen to 15,531 people. (2) These refugees try to sustain their lives in the makeshift tent city, which was established by the Turkey’s Red Crescent aid chapter. In the case that this very policy of the Damascus administration towards the demonstrators continues, it is anticipated that the number of those immigrating to Turkey will increase.

Turkey’s Regional Power and Syria

As a regional power, Turkey has not only made recommendations to the Assad administration related to reforms but also closely followed the transition period,  wanting to aid the Damascus administration. This clearly shows Turkey’s objective of maintaining peace and stability in the area. In addition, Turkey has established close bonds with Syria not only in a political sense but also in the fields of economy and trade. However, it would be of use for Turkey to be cautious in its policies towards the Damascus administration, both in terms of its position in the region and its “zero problems  with the neighbors” policy. Turkey’s political road map for Syria could be stated as follows:

1. Turkey had acted parallel to the US and other Western countries on the issues of no-fly zones or secure zones that were implemented during 1991 in Iraq. Nevertheless, in the system to be formed later, Turkey started to project threats from Iraq with regard to the PKK terrorist organization and the political developments in the region. Hence, it is seen that the uprisings in the Arab world (which are today called the Arab Spring), especially the events in Libya and Syria, do not differ much from the happenings of the 1990s in Iraq. Given the events and developments in Syria, it could be said the people’s movements in Syria, which are based on ethnic and religious (sectarian) grounds, are similar to the movements in Iraq. Thus, if a structure that is similar to the Libya case appears in Syria sometime the near future, Turkey should not act in the same manner as it did towards the Damascus administration. In other words, it should not recognize the opposition in Syria as it did in Benghazi. If it does the same in Dera’a, Hums, Hama and Kamishli, internal problems and terror events (which may affect Turkey as well) may increase in the region as a result.


2. Before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Turkey had rejected the  March 1st memorandum (which would have allowed US troops to base their command headquarters on Turkish soil). It could be said that, although not that plausible, in the event that the same Turkey permits or helps for a plausible NATO or the US intervention with the purpose of prohibiting the events in Syria, it could also be said that its positive image both in its region and the Arab world could be negatively affected. It would be beneficial for Turkey to act together with the United Nations not with the NATO or the US when it comes to the issue of Syria. Likewise, it could be of use for Turkey to draw its own road map in this sense. Otherwise, Turkey may be confronted with the Arab countries and Iran in the region. It is for this reason that Ankara should pursue a quite cautious policy towards Syria.

3. If the US agrees with the Iraqi parties and does not extend the time it stays in Iraq, the US is expected to withdraw from Iraq towards the end of 2011. After the US withdrawal from Iraq, it may find an opportunity of turning towards Syria. Given the last statements of the American officials, it is seen that they focus more on a probable Turkey-Syria conflict or the other plausible conflicts in the region. It is not that plausible for such a conflict to appear. It is not that possible (or even impossible) for a Syria which is crippled with internal conflicts to attack a strong neighbor as Turkey.


4. It is known that following the events in Syria, 15,000 Syrian people took refuge across the Turkish border. If this number increases and “a buffer zone” is formed with the EU decision within the Syrian border to prevent a probable migration, Ankara may find itself in a more difficult situation. It is because of the probability that if a buffer zone is formed, a military force for the protection of this area may be demanded from Turkey. Under such an atmosphere, if Turkey, which fights against terror on its southeastern part, sends a military force to Syria, this may please the Syrian opposition groups. However, it may also result in evoking reactions of many other countries in the region.


5. Following the happenings in Syria, Syrian opposition groups  organized meetings in Turkey (in April in Istanbul and on  May 31st in Ankara) under the name of “The Syrian Conference for Change.” (3) In both of the meetings, the number of the Syrian  Muslim Brothers (of the  was remarkable. In this sense, while Ankara has been in dialogue with all the ethnic and religious entities of Iraq, in Syria, it has focused more on the Muslim Brothers. This, in turn, has resulted in negative implications for Turkey. As mentioned above, events and developments in Syria are based on ethnic and religious grounds. Thus, it could be said that the Kurdish and Alevis have reacted to Turkey, which has sided with only the Muslim Brothers.


6. When Turkey seeks for a solution by taking into account the countries in the region (regarding the developments in Syria and the events in the Middle East), this both eases the burden on itself and shows its integrative role for the maintenance of peace and stability in the region. Otherwise, a Turkey that acts on its own concerning the regional developments would draw all sorts of reactions. Likewise, it may find itself alone in the combat against the regional problems. It could be suggested that the regional leadership means being in a regional unity rather than acting alone. Furthermore, both the Middle East in general and the Arab world have been undergoing a rather tough and fragile process. Such a difficult process cannot be settled by a regional power alone. Thus, it is of urgent necessity to establish a “Cooperation Council for the Maintenance of Peace and Stability” which comprises of Iran and other important Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) under the leadership of Turkey to prevent the probable conflicts deriving from the changes in the region and to build the regional balance. Likewise, the above mentioned countries should act in compliance with this council. In this way, the power struggle among the countries in the region could somehow be avoided.

Probable Course of the Bilateral Relations in the Event of the Overthrow of the Assad Administration 

The Assad administration is an important factor for both the relations between Turkey and Syria and for Turkey’s relations with its neighbors in the region. Tehran and Ankara have adopted different stances towards the events in Syria. These different attitudes of the two have negatively affected the relations between Turkey and Iran. Despite the events in Syria as of  March 15th, 2011, Iran has not shown any reaction to the Assad government. What’s more, the Iranian government supports the policy that Assad has adopted towards the demonstrators. It is because of the probability that if the Assad administration is overthrown, Iran may lose its closest alliance in the region and its influence over Lebanon alike. Thus, it would be of great use for Turkey to take into account the regional dynamics when it comes to the developments both in Syria and in the region.

Furthermore, the probable consequences of the overthrow of the Assad administration for Turkey could be summarized as follows:

-It could be envisaged that Turkey’s relations with Syria will improve with the overthrow of the Assad administration. If it happens so, it could be suggested this time that the instability in Syria will negatively affect Turkey.

-It can be suggested that Turkey’s “Kurdish Problem” which is expected to get complicated after the Assad government, may create difficulties for Ankara. This problem may not only be a problem for Ankara but also a problem for other countries. Besides, Turkey may have to simultaneously combat against the terrorists infiltrating from Iraqi and Syrian borders.

With all these factors combined, it is clear that the events in Syria are important since they have the potential of changing all the balances in the region, including the Turkey’s position in the Middle East. Within this framework, in spite of the positive image of Turkey in the Arab world after the protests in Syria, the fact the Syrian opposition organized meetings in Istanbul and Antalya has resulted in a change in Arabs’ perceptions towards Turkey. The survey conducted by the (Saudi Arabia-based) Elaph news website  clarifies this change of perception in the Arab world. To the survey  question asking “how do you evaluate Turkey’s role in the region?,” 46.21% (or 4,399 people)  saw Turkey’s role in the region as positive, while 53.79% (or 5,120 people)  regarded Turkey’s role as negative. (4) Those giving negative answers have some concerns that Turkey, as a result of its recent interests in the region, intends to revive the Ottoman Empire. Given this scene in the Arab countries, a Turkey that returns towards this area in the Arab world triggers the idea that ‘Ottomanism’ is turning back. Hence, it would be important for Ankara to clearly explain to the Arab world its purpose in returning to the region. It could also be said to the Arab countries that their relations with Turkey  will strengthen in this way. 

Given the course of the insurrections in Syria, it could be said that the ruling party in Syria is not restricted to the Bashar al-Assad. It could be considered that the Assad family wholly holds control over the Damascus administration. This, in turn, prevents the Bashar al-Assad government from acting alone. When analyzing the Assad administration, the Ba’ath party should also be taken into account as an important factor. Moreover, unless the people’s movements in the Middle East occur in a healthy atmosphere, they may trigger ethnic and religious conflict in the region in the forthcoming days. Especially taking into account the developments in Syria, it is seen that they have evolved into the similar scenario that was seen in Iraq. As it is known, firstly the insurrection started in Iraq, followed by the US invasion and eventual sectarian disintegration.

Within this framework, the events in Syria clarify the fact that Turkey’s ‘zero problems with neighbors’ policy is difficult to implement unless peace and stability are maintained in this geography. Turkey’s humanitarian aid given to  Syrian refugees across the Syrian border have once again showed how Ankara is bound to the principles of good neighborhood and friendship. Besides, Turkey has both called on the Assad government to make reforms and wants the Syrian opposition groups to demand the fall of the Assad administration. This indicates that a change without Turkey in the region would not be that successful. In addition to this, the events in Syria are as important for Iraq as they have been for Turkey. In the event that disorder in Syria further increases, terrorists may infiltrate into Iraq through the Syrian border and terrorist actions may increase in Iraq. Within this scope, it should be the priority for each and every country in the region to maintain Syria’s stability. Otherwise, Turkey will face two unstable neighbors: Iraq and Syria.  


Translated by Hacer Şartepe



(1) http://haberler.com/turkiye-ye-giris-yapan-suriyeli-sayisi-15-bin-531-2843562-haberi/ 

(2) http://www.arabstoday.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=115284&catid=696 

(3) http://www.dp-news.com/pages/detail.aspx?articleid=85659  

(4) http://www.elaph.com/Web/news/2011/6/665150.html

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