Analysis

May 16, 2011

Summary: In shaping its policy in the Arab Middle East, Turkey had worked to build a network of stable relationships with the existing regimes. Now confronted with regimes that have come under popular challenges, it finds itself in a difficult situation. There is no established international mechanism that prevents the use of force by authoritarian regimes against their citizens who demand democratic reforms. Turkish responses to Tunisian and Egyptian developments were in harmony with the United States and the EU. In the Libyan and then the Syrian crisis, Turkey experienced difficulty in formulating a quick response. Syria presents a particularly complex picture. The unity and stability of Syria is critical for both Turkish and regional interests as well as those of the Western Alliance.

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

Who Is Next? The countries of the Arab Middle East have different sized populations, social structures, religious and, in some instances, ethnic compositions, and types of leadership. But they also share common problems. They are all under some type of authoritarian rule. No effective mechanism exists for citizens to communicate their preferences to their governments. Almost all have poorly developed economies, which have failed to create jobs for rapidly expanding populations. All, including those with major oil income, harbor major income disparities. And the military constitutes a relatively wellorganized and well-equipped organization in each. Now a wave of change is sweeping the region. The awakening that started in Tunisia and Egypt invited speculation in regard to who would be next. Syria received less attention in this game of fortune telling. It is more isolated from the international system than others, with limited and somewhat unfriendly relations with Western countries. The United States has declared it a rogue state — a U.S. ambassador returned to Damascus only recently. It is ruled by a political elite that has mastered the art

of ruthless application of authoritarian rule, justified by hostile relations with Israel and the state of siege that this has necessitated, which has, in turn, been used to hinder expressions of discontent against the government. At the outset, what happens in Syria appeared to matter less than other countries facing popular uprisings. Syria is not a major oil/gas producer nor does it have a major transit route. While its cooperation in helping Iraq stabilize has been important, its influence is often seen as possessing nuisance value, not a major determinant of outcomes. Furthermore, it has recently been reported that Syria has been devoting more attention to monitoring the Iraqi border in order to prevent shipments of arms to Syrian anti-government groups and infiltration of Syrian Islamic radicals. There is also the complex question of what could be done in Syria if events erupted. There is no established international mechanism that prevents the use of force by authoritarian regimes against their citizens who demand democratic reforms. Concerned countries act according to their own interests and judgments. The EU seems less

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Analysis
than capable of doing very much unless the United States takes the lead. Otherwise, each member country pursues its own interest. Russia and China, both being authoritarian systems themselves, are generally opposed to humanitarian interventions. In Syria’s case, no country seems deeply interested in devoting resources to restrain the government’s authoritarianism or to intervene actively, let alone militarily, to stop bloodshed. Turkey was a pillar of NATO. Also, the general direction of Turkish foreign policy was to avoid getting entangled in the politics of the Middle East. Syrian territorial claims on the neighboring Turkish province of Hatay and Turkey’s building dams/irrigation schemes on the Euphrates, the main water source for Syria, constituted the background for hostile relations. In 1999, after Turkey threatened military action against Syria for supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) ethnic separatist terrorism and hosting its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, Turkish-Syrian relations became transformed. Syria sent Öcalan away; it stopped offering facilities to the PKK in Bekaa Valley (Lebanon), then under Syrian control; and it clamped down on PKK’s activities in the country itself. The turnaround was remarkable. Relations expanded rapidly in the domains of trade, investments, tourism, and education. They gained special momentum after Ahmet Davutoğlu became Turkey’s foreign minister. Turkey served as host to proximity talks between Syria and Israel that failed only after Israel staged its attack on Gaza in December 2008. Visa requirements were mutually cancelled. High level visits became commonplace. Steps for building a “strategic partnership,” with the two countries holding joint cabinet meetings, were introduced. Projects were developed to clean the minefields along the border and return them to agricultural use. Turkish businesses sought investment and export opportunities. Only recently, groundbreaking ceremonies were held for a dam on the Orontes that would provide flood control and water for both countries. Turkey was looking forward to a long period of peace, stability, and prosperity in its “special relationship” with Syria.

In Syria’s case, no country seems deeply interested in devoting resources to restrain the government’s authoritarianism or to intervene actively, let alone militarily, to stop bloodshed.
Syria has a young leader who had been expected to bring about change. Bashar al-Assad, unlike his father, Hafez al-Assad, was not a military officer. He had spent much of his time in England, training to be an ophthalmologist. His ascendance to power owed much to the death of a brother who had been groomed for the job. It had been felt that as he gradually took the reins of power in and came to rely less on the cadres he inherited from his father, he would render the political system more moderate and less authoritarian. Turkish-Syrian Relations Turkey has displayed hesitancy in deciding how to respond to Syrian developments. Turkey’s relations with Syria had improved in recent years. It seemed that Syria wanted to make a gradual comeback to the international system through establishing closer relations with Turkey. Turkey hoped that the mood of optimism owing to economic betterment would dampen pressures for regime change. During the Cold War Turkey’s relations with Syria were distant. The Syrians had close relations with the USSR while

Turkey was looking forward to a long period of peace, stability, and prosperity in its “special relationship” with Syria.

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Analysis
The Syrian Crisis and Turkey The contagion of mass uprisings demanding reforms and democratization in the Arab Middle East caught all parties with interests in the region, including Turkey, off-guard. Turkish responses to Tunisian and Egyptian developments were in harmony with the United States and the EU. But making a choice in those cases was relatively easy. Turkey had no major interests in Tunisia, and limited interests in Egypt. Furthermore, major policy differences existed between Turkey and Egypt regarding how to address the Palestinian problem, especially its Gaza/Hamas dimension. Also, the Turkish Prime Minister had wide appeal among Egyptian masses who wanted President Hosni Mubarak to go. In the Libyan and then the Syrian crisis, Turkey experienced difficulty in formulating a quick response. In Libya, relations with the government of Col. Muammar Qadhafi had been good. Turkey had developed substantial business interests in building contracts totaling US$25 billion. Also, Turkey was unsure of Western resolve to intervene. These considerations initially led Turkey to encourage restraint, appealing to Qadhafi to reform. Qadhafi seemed, however, to be in no mood to accommodate. It soon became evident that the best policy was to act together with other NATO allies, among others, to prevent France from acting alone to prevail in Libya. Turkey’s position against Qadhafi has hardened slowly as it has become apparent that his ability to stay in power is far from assured in view of the resolute NATO position that his rule should end, and expressions of anti-Turkish sentiment in Eastern Libya. Turkey has now asked Qadhafi to leave only to be told, like others, that it should not intervene in Libyan domestic affairs. Syria presents a complex picture, unlike Libya where Turkey’s major interests were mainly economic. Syria and Turkey have relatively porous contiguous borders with no visa requirements at the crossings. Already small groups have crossed into Turkey asking for asylum, claiming (it seems falsely) that their lives were in danger. If disturbances intensify, particularly in the North, Turkey would be exposed to populations crossing the border, which it would find difficult to cope with. There is an additional dimension to Syria’s population in its north east. This is a Kurdish region bordering the Kurdish inhabited regions of Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government of Northern Iraq. Of late, Syrian Kurds have displayed challenging attitudes toward the Syrian government. Turkey is nervous that as Syria is trying to find a way of accommodating the aspirations of its Kurdish population for ethnic recognition within the framework of the nationstate, the breakdown of the regime might unleash forces that neither the new Syrian regime nor Turkey would find easy to contain, while Northern Iraq might not resist the temptation to support Kurdish separatism.

Turkey is nervous that as Syria is trying to find a way of accommodating the aspirations of its Kurdish population for ethnic recognition within the framework of the nation-state, the breakdown of the regime might unleash forces that neither the new Syrian regime nor Turkey would find easy to contain.
It appears that centrifugal tendencies in Syria abound. The most easily identifiable fault line is sectarian. The Assad family and important command posts in the army are held by the Nusayris, a heterodox religious minority. Questions have been raised, for example, in regard to whether and for how long the ordinary soldiers comprised mainly of Sunni recruits will continue to fire on Sunni crowds demanding reforms. In parts of Syria, tribal identifications are strong; in others, regional identity combined with religious sect seems to play an important political role. Although the secular

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Analysis
approach of the Baas government has held the country together, it has always been with the help of the military and security agencies. It is far from clear if centrifugal tendencies would not become too manifest should strong central authority break down. The unity and stability of Syria is critical for both Turkish and regional interests as well as those of the Western Alliance. Its collapse would open the way to enhanced Iranian presence in Syria as well as Lebanon, presenting a challenge to both Western interests and Israel. While Syrian-Israeli relations are highly adversarial at the rhetorical level of, they are otherwise predictably stable. A regime change might well undermine such stability, setting off events that would drag in other regional countries. International conditions favor continuation of the Baas regime under Assad. It must bring about reforms, however, reduce the omnipotence and omnipresence of al-Muhabarat (the intelligence and secret police agency), allow for greater political participation, and demonstrate greater sensitivity to demands emanating from society. The Turkish government has hoped to persuade Assad to take bold steps toward reforms. It is not clear if he has been persuaded and whether he can command a reform process without the concurrence of the military and the security agencies. The answer to this question is not known but the policies of the Syrian government have to date been far from encouraging. Turkey is also reluctantly working on a plan B if the current regime proves unsustainable. In shaping its policy in the Arab Middle East, Turkey had worked to build a network of stable relationships with the existing regimes. Now confronted with regimes that have come under popular challenges, it finds itself in a difficult situation. It has to maintain relations with existing regimes, promote change, and calculate how its actions affect its credibility in the region and the world, its aspirations to regional leadership, and its economic prosperity. The going has gotten rough. It will not become easier until the process of change has run its course.

İlter Turan, Professor, Bilgi University
İlter Turan is currently a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, where he also served as president between 1998-2001. His previous employment included professorships at Koç University (1993-1998) and Istanbul University (1964-1993), where he also served as the chair of the International Relations Department (19871993), and the director of the Center for the Study of the Balkans and the Middle East (1985-1993). Dr. Turan is the past president of the Turkish Political Science Association and has been a member of the Executive Committee and a vice president of the International Political Science Association (2000-2006). He has served as the program chair of the 21st World Congress of Political Science in Santiago, Chile, July 12-16, 2009. He is board chair of the Health and Education Foundation and serves on the board of several foundations and corporations. He is widely published in English and Turkish on comparative politics, Turkish politics, and foreign policy. His most recent writings have been on the domestic and international politics of water, the Turkish parliament and its members, and Turkish political parties. He is a frequent commentator on Turkish politics on TV and newspapers.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has six offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.

About the On Turkey Series
GMF’s On Turkey is an ongoing series of analysis briefs about Turkey’s current political situation and its future. GMF provides regular analysis briefs by leading Turkish, European, and American writers and intellectuals, with a focus on dispatches from on-the-ground Turkish observers. To access the latest briefs, please visit our web site at www. gmfus.org/turkey or subscribe to our mailing list at http://database. gmfus.org/reaction.

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