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The Going Gets Tough: Turkey Tries to Meet the Syrian Challenge

The Going Gets Tough: Turkey Tries to Meet the Syrian Challenge

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This policy brief outlines the implications of Syrian unrest on neighboring Turkey.
This policy brief outlines the implications of Syrian unrest on neighboring Turkey.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: German Marshall Fund of the United States on May 16, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Summary: In shaping its policyin the Arab Middle East, Turkeyhad worked to build a networkof stable relationships with theexisting regimes. Now confrontedwith regimes that have come
under popular challenges, it ndsitself in a difcult situation. There
is no established internationalmechanism that prevents theuse of force by authoritarianregimes against their citizenswho demand democratic reforms.Turkish responses to Tunisianand Egyptian developmentswere in harmony with the UnitedStates and the EU. In the Libyanand then the Syrian crisis,
Turkey experienced difculty in
formulating a quick response.Syria presents a particularlycomplex picture. The unity andstability of Syria is critical for bothTurkish and regional interestsas well as those of the WesternAlliance.
 The Going Gets Tough: Turkey Tries to Meet the Syrian Challenge
by İlter Turan
May 16, 2011
, DC
Who Is Next?
Te countries o the Arab Middle Easthave dierent sized populations, socialstructures, religious and, in someinstances, ethnic compositions, andtypes o leadership. But they also sharecommon problems. Tey are all undersome type o authoritarian rule. Noeective mechanism exists or citizensto communicate their preerences totheir governments. Almost all havepoorly developed economies, whichhave ailed to create jobs or rapidly expanding populations. All, includingthose with major oil income, harbormajor income disparities. And themilitary constitutes a relatively well-organized and well-equipped organiza-tion in each.Now a wave o change is sweeping theregion. Te awakening that started inunisia and Egypt invited speculationin regard to who would be next. Syriareceived less attention in this game o ortune telling. It is more isolated romthe international system than others,with limited and somewhat unriendly relations with Western countries. TeUnited States has declared it a roguestate — a U.S. ambassador returned toDamascus only recently. It is ruled by apolitical elite that has mastered the arto ruthless application o authoritarianrule, justied by hostile relations withIsrael and the state o siege that thishas necessitated, which has, in turn,been used to hinder expressions o discontent against the government.At the outset, what happens in Syriaappeared to matter less than othercountries acing popular uprisings.Syria is not a major oil/gas producernor does it have a major transit route.While its cooperation in helpingIraq stabilize has been important, itsinuence is oen seen as possessingnuisance value, not a major deter-minant o outcomes. Furthermore, ithas recently been reported that Syriahas been devoting more attention tomonitoring the Iraqi border in orderto prevent shipments o arms to Syriananti-government groups and inltra-tion o Syrian Islamic radicals.Tere is also the complex question o what could be done in Syria i eventserupted. Tere is no established inter-national mechanism that prevents theuse o orce by authoritarian regimesagainst their citizens who demanddemocratic reorms. Concerned coun-tries act according to their own inter-ests and judgments. Te EU seems less
than capable o doing very much unless the United Statestakes the lead. Otherwise, each member country pursues itsown interest. Russia and China, both being authoritariansystems themselves, are generally opposed to humanitarianinterventions. In Syria’s case, no country seems deeply inter-ested in devoting resources to restrain the government’sauthoritarianism or to intervene actively, let alone militarily,to stop bloodshed.Syria has a young leader who had been expected to bringabout change. Bashar al-Assad, unlike his ather, Haezal-Assad, was not a military ofcer. He had spent much o his time in England, training to be an ophthalmologist. Hisascendance to power owed much to the death o a brotherwho had been groomed or the job. It had been elt that ashe gradually took the reins o power in and came to rely lesson the cadres he inherited rom his ather, he would renderthe political system more moderate and less authoritarian.
Turkish-Syrian Relations
urkey has displayed hesitancy in deciding how to respondto Syrian developments. urkey’s relations with Syria hadimproved in recent years. It seemed that Syria wantedto make a gradual comeback to the international systemthrough establishing closer relations with urkey. urkey hoped that the mood o optimism owing to economicbetterment would dampen pressures or regime change.During the Cold War urkey’s relations with Syria weredistant. Te Syrians had close relations with the USSR whileurkey was a pillar o NAO. Also, the general direction o urkish oreign policy was to avoid getting entangled in thepolitics o the Middle East.Syrian territorial claims on the neighboring urkishprovince o Hatay and urkey’s building dams/irrigationschemes on the Euphrates, the main water source or Syria,constituted the background or hostile relations. In 1999,aer urkey threatened military action against Syria orsupporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) ethnicseparatist terrorism and hosting its leader, Abdullah Öcalan,urkish-Syrian relations became transormed. Syria sentÖcalan away; it stopped oering acilities to the PKK inBekaa Valley (Lebanon), then under Syrian control; and itclamped down on PKK’s activities in the country itsel.Te turnaround was remarkable. Relations expandedrapidly in the domains o trade, investments, tourism, andeducation. Tey gained special momentum aer AhmetDavutoğlu became urkey’s oreign minister. urkey servedas host to proximity talks between Syria and Israel thatailed only aer Israel staged its attack on Gaza in December2008. Visa requirements were mutually cancelled. High level visits became commonplace. Steps or building a “strategicpartnership,” with the two countries holding joint cabinetmeetings, were introduced. Projects were developed toclean the mineelds along the border and return them toagricultural use. urkish businesses sought investmentand export opportunities. Only recently, groundbreakingceremonies were held or a dam on the Orontes that wouldprovide ood control and water or both countries. urkey was looking orward to a long period o peace, stability, andprosperity in its “special relationship” with Syria.
In Syria’s case, no countryseems deeply interested indevoting resources to restrain thegovernment’s authoritarianismor to intervene actively, let alonemilitarily, to stop bloodshed.Turkey was looking forward to along period of peace, stability,and prosperity in its “specialrelationship” with Syria.
The Syrian Crisis and Turkey
Te contagion o mass uprisings demanding reorms anddemocratization in the Arab Middle East caught all partieswith interests in the region, including urkey, o-guard.urkish responses to unisian and Egyptian developmentswere in harmony with the United States and the EU. Butmaking a choice in those cases was relatively easy. urkey had no major interests in unisia, and limited interestsin Egypt. Furthermore, major policy dierences existedbetween urkey and Egypt regarding how to address thePalestinian problem, especially its Gaza/Hamas dimension.Also, the urkish Prime Minister had wide appeal amongEgyptian masses who wanted President Hosni Mubarak togo.In the Libyan and then the Syrian crisis, urkey experi-enced difculty in ormulating a quick response. In Libya,relations with the government o Col. Muammar Qadhahad been good. urkey had developed substantial businessinterests in building contracts totaling US$25 billion. Also,urkey was unsure o Western resolve to intervene. Teseconsiderations initially led urkey to encourage restraint,appealing to Qadha to reorm. Qadha seemed, however,to be in no mood to accommodate. It soon became evidentthat the best policy was to act together with other NAOallies, among others, to prevent France rom acting aloneto prevail in Libya. urkey’s position against Qadha hashardened slowly as it has become apparent that his ability to stay in power is ar rom assured in view o the resoluteNAO position that his rule should end, and expressions o anti-urkish sentiment in Eastern Libya. urkey has nowasked Qadha to leave only to be told, like others, that itshould not intervene in Libyan domestic aairs.Syria presents a complex picture, unlike Libya whereurkey’s major interests were mainly economic. Syria andurkey have relatively porous contiguous borders with no visa requirements at the crossings. Already small groupshave crossed into urkey asking or asylum, claiming (itseems alsely) that their lives were in danger. I distur-bances intensiy, particularly in the North, urkey would beexposed to populations crossing the border, which it wouldnd difcult to cope with.Tere is an additional dimension to Syria’s population in itsnorth east. Tis is a Kurdish region bordering the Kurdishinhabited regions o urkey and the Kurdish RegionalGovernment o Northern Iraq. O late, Syrian Kurds havedisplayed challenging attitudes toward the Syrian govern-ment. urkey is nervous that as Syria is trying to nd a way o accommodating the aspirations o its Kurdish populationor ethnic recognition within the ramework o the nation-state, the breakdown o the regime might unleash orcesthat neither the new Syrian regime nor urkey would ndeasy to contain, while Northern Iraq might not resist thetemptation to support Kurdish separatism.It appears that centriugal tendencies in Syria abound. Temost easily identiable ault line is sectarian. Te Assadamily and important command posts in the army are heldby the Nusayris, a heterodox religious minority. Questionshave been raised, or example, in regard to whether and orhow long the ordinary soldiers comprised mainly o Sunnirecruits will continue to re on Sunni crowds demandingreorms. In parts o Syria, tribal identications are strong; inothers, regional identity combined with religious sect seemsto play an important political role. Although the secular
Turkey is nervous that as
Syria is trying to nd a way of 
accommodating the aspirations of its Kurdish population for ethnicrecognition within the frameworkof the nation-state, the breakdownof the regime might unleash forces that neither the new Syrian regime
nor Turkey would nd easy to

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A policy brief by @gmfus that outlines the implications of the unrest in Syria on Turkey.
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A policy brief by @gmfus that outlines the implications of the unrest in Syria on Turkey.
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