Standstill of Turkish-Syrian Relations Decisive for Syria

Commentary by Van Meguerditchian – 11 August 2011

Bashar al-Assad & Ahmet Davutoglu

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s speech in Ankara following a six-hour talk with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad signals a crucial turning point in the shaky relations between the two Middle Eastern states. As Assad stood firm on his belief that his army is fighting terrorist groups, Mr. Davutoglu took another step towards allying his country with pro-democracy protesters in Syria.

Relations between Syria and Turkey were stabilized in 1998 following Syria’s expulsion of Abdullah Ocalan, the then militant leader of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). For years, Turkish military officials had a tense relationship with former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. In effect, since 1984, Ocalan had been heading a military campaign against Turkish government forces from Syria, that triggered Turkey to pursue regional and international pressure on its south neighbors to hand the PKK leader in. Syria and Turkey opened up their relations to higher levels after the arrest of Ocalan in Kenya in 1999. Further, when Bashar al-Assad took office in 2000, economic and political relations became a key strategic interest for both countries.

However, the uprising in Syria, which started five months ago, has pushed these relations into a standstill as a result of Assad’s violent crackdown on protesters. Turkey, after months of relative silence, sent a strong message to Assad on Tuesday warning the Syrian regime that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had “run out of patience.”

This message was delivered through Davutoglu, Turkey’s renowned diplomat, who has visited Damascus more than three dozen times in the past decade. His last meeting with Assad Tuesday marks not only a turning point in regional politics, but also the possible break-off in relations between the two governments.

If the international community and Turkey were expecting a fruitful meeting Tuesday to ease the ongoing violence in Syria, Assad was quick to bring those hopes down by telling the local news station SANA that “Damascus will not relent in pursuing the terrorist groups in order to protect the stability of the country and the security of the citizens.”

Although Davutoglu reiterated that his message to the Syrian regime was solely a Turkish one, his swift response to Assad’s statement, saying that the following few days are decisive for Syria, made it clear that the Turkish visit to Damascus was an international message to the Syrian regime.

The relations between Turkey and Syria reached further deadlock on Tuesday as a result of the regime’s continued crackdown on peaceful protesters across several cities in Syria. As Turkish FM and al-Assad discussed the circumstances facing Syria and possible solutions for the conflict, Syria’s military and security forces pressed ahead with their attacks on several cities and reports from human rights organizations and Syria’s Local Coordination Committees said that at least 23 people had been killed across the country.

On Tuesday, the regime also launched attacks on the town of Binnish, located on Syria’s northwestern border with Turkey. The violent crackdowns and the deterioration of Syria’s security, as a result of the continued repression close to Turkey’s borders, has rendered the matter one of national security threat for the Turkish government.

Turkey has for a long time considered its improving relations with Syria as a key foreign policy success: the two governments ventured in several military exercises, and in 2009 visa requirements for commercial traffic between the neighboring countries were lifted.

Officials in Turkey fear that any sectarian conflict within Syria between the minority ruling Alawite sect and the majority of Sunnis could pose a threat to the stability within Turkey. Moreover, Turkey considers that further deterioration in Syria’s security could pave the way for more Kurdish military operations on both sides of the border.

Meanwhile, Turkish domestic politics is playing a key role in Turkey’s politics within the region, including its recent attempts to ease down the unrest in Syria. Erdogan’s pro-Islamic government is not only in confrontation with Turkey’s secular advocates, such as the military, but also with the secular regime of Assad who has been repeatedly accusing demonstrators across Syria of being part of a more global Islamic conspiracy.

Turkey’s stronger role within the Middle East, which was partly the result of its stagnating relations with its long-term ally, Israel, has given Turkey considerable leeway and legitimacy in the region, especially amongst Arab populations who view the Erdogan government positively. Since then, Turkey has adopted a much more independent foreign policy in the region, making it able today to send strong messages to governments in the region.

Not surprisingly, although under violent crackdown, Syrian pro-democracy protesters in Hama, a town that has been heavily shelled by the army since the start of the holy month of Ramadan, showed great support to Erdogan, who has become one of the first Muslim leaders this week to voice support for the Syrian people’s demands for democracy and freedom.

Before the past week, Arab political leaders have been largely silent about the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on the uprising. Lebanon’s former Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, who is currently in Paris, took the first step into breaking the Arab silence on the ongoing unrest in Syria. This followed in a wave of increased international pressure against the Assad regime. In what appeared to be a coordinated campaign, Saudi Arabia and several other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, withdrew their ambassadors from Damascus.

However, Lebanon’s new government, an arch ally of the Syrian regime has echoed the statements of Assad and has been openly defending the regime’s violent crackdown on protesters. Two months before the Syrian demonstrators broke their fear of the Assad regime, Lebanon’s March 8 coalition, headed by Hezbollah, carried out a constitutional coup against Hariri’s government and formed a new government headed by Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

Despite Mikati’s statements that his government would be on equal distance from all parties and countries in the world, last week’s Lebanon’s stance at the United Nation’s Security Council painted a completely different picture. Following hours of consultations between New York and Beirut, Lebanon’s representative at the U.N. voiced its rejection to any resolution or statement that criticizes the Syrian regime. Lebanon, a non-permanent member of the Security Council, will take the presidency of the 15-nation chamber at the U.N.

More than 2,000 people have been killed in Syria so far and according to many human rights groups, while thousands of others have gone missing since the start of the uprising. However, the resilient regime in Damascus may be witnessing a split within its ruling Alawite party.

On Monday, Assad replaced Syria’s Defense Minister General Ali Habib with General Dawood Rajiha. But there is no confirmation whatsoever whether Habib was killed or alive as a pre-recorded video suggests. The ambiguity comes as the Syrian news agency reported that Habib was found dead in his apartment after suffering a lifetime illness. The mystery behind his disappearance, for some analysts, has been linked to Davutoglu’s visit to Turkey. It is suspected that Turkey had sought to propose Habib as a possible alternative to the Assad regime as he is one of the few government officials that remained popular across the country.

Arab disdain at Assad’s regime and the deteriorating Turkish ties with Damascus would be the driving force of international agreement on further sanctions and action against Syria. What remains to be seen is whether what encouraged U.S. President Barack Obama to act on Libya would also encourage him to act on Syria amid the current economic turmoil.

Van Meguerditchian is a Journalist and a political analyst based in Beirut with an emphasis on Lebanese, Turkish and American politics in the Middle East and the United States.

Another version of this article was published in Turkish in the Turkish weekly AGOS newspaper.  

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Filed under Arab Spring, English, Foreign Policy & IR, Lebanon & Syria, Turkey

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