Many developments have shaped Syria-Turkey relations since October 1998 when Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz had threatened to occupy Syria militarily, if Abdullah Ocalan was not expelled from Lebanon. However, October 1998 is completely different from October 2012. Several fundamentals have changed. Turkish prime ministers who used to live under the shadow of the military establishment have left the scene. Turkish military officers have become subservient to the state and to the Rule of Law, especially after some of their generals were imprisoned on charges of plotting a military coup. Islamists, who had been suppressed since the rule of Kemal Ataturk, have now become the rulers of Turkey. These new rulers have developed a modern model of Islam. They have helped their country attain a high position in human development indices and have nurtured their economy. For example, they have set the goal of drawing 60 million tourists to Turkey within a few years.
In Syria, Hafez Al-Assad died in 2000 and power was transferred to his son, Bashar. The heir inherited the country’s regional clout, a strong alliance with Iran, and relations with Arab states that revolve around the Damascus-Cairo-Riyadh axis. It is true that Hafez Al-Assad counteracted the Turkish warning by threatening to open a war front on the Golan Heights, i.e. if the leader of the Turkish army carried out his promise of “breaking teeth and occupying Damascus.” However, the senior Al-Assad knew how to lie low and wait for the storm to pass. He spun an intricate web of relations that led Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to fly to Ankara and forge an understanding with Turkey. According to this deal, Syria expelled Adullah Ocalan — leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — from Lebanon. It is worth noting that until that time Ocalan was living in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, which was considered the backyard of the Syrian regime.
In the first decade of the 21st century, Turkey underwent major developments that led to the forging of a balance of power between the military elite and the Islamists. This paved the way for Turkey’s new policy of ‘zero problems’ with all its neighbors. The policy helped Turkey become a hub of business and finance, even as Syria languished under Bashar Al-Assad by pursuing an intelligence-backed rule, predisposed to an alliance with Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah. Syria’s preoccupation with enhancing the status of Hezbollah in Lebanon continued until the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. That event forced the Syrian military to pull its military out of Lebanon. The charge of being involved in the assassination soured Damascus’ relations with other countries in the Arab world as well as with nations at the international level. Thereafter, problems continued to escalate for the Syrian regime. When the ‘Arab Spring’ sparked an unrest in Dara’a, a city near the country’s border with Jordan, the uprising spread across the country and intensified following incidents taking place along the 900-km long Turkey-Syria border.
Surprisingly, until quite recently (even after the outbreak of popular protests in Syrian cities) Turkish premier Rajab Tayeb Erdogan used to call Bashar Al-Assad “a friend and a brother.” But in the wake of the brutal repression by the Syrian regime of its own people, Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Dawood Oglu (the engineer of the rapprochement between the two countries) became wary of a possible setback to the Turkey-Syria relations. As violence increased in Syria, members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood who had taken refuge in Istanbul started asking for help from Ankara. Still, Mr. Oglu held the hope that Bashar Al-Assad would acquiesce to the ‘list of reforms’ he had delivered to the Syrian President. But, after Mr Oglu’s 37th meeting with the Syrian President, the Turks understood that its neighbor would not mind resorting to extreme measures to remain in power. The Turks were also incensed by Bashar’s actions a few months ago, when he aborted the Doha Accord for Lebanon that led to the ousting of the Saad Al-Hariri government, in complete disregard of Turkish assurances.
Many had believed that as a strong member of the NATO, Turkey would play a vital and critical role in settling the Syrian crisis. They had thought it would be easy for Turkey to replicate ‘a Benghazi’ in Aleppo, Azaz, Marea or any other insurgency-riddled town near its border. If the Benghazi model was difficult to establish, it was thought that Turkey would at least create a ‘buffer zone’ for the protection of civilian refugees. It was thought that this zone could also serve as a launch pad for the Free Syria Army to carry out its mission. However, Turkey did not act according to these expectations.
In fact, it was disappointing to note the extremely diplomatic language used by Ankara with reference to Damascus’ actions in the early stages of the uprising. For one, the language used by Turkey did not reflect the seriousness of the situation and indicated that Ankara was trying to avoid a conflict in order to defend the prosperity of its people, curb any possible opposition from within its ethnic Kurdish and Alawite communities and even the Turkish military that has so far been averse to getting involved in any military adventure. Turkish rulers vacillated between the moral call for intervention to save innocent lives from slaughter and from the high direct and indirect costs that such an intervention may entail. They were also aware that this indecision would allow the Bashar Al-Assad regime to challenge and even provoke Turkey. Consequently, forces of the Syrian regime started to chase and shoot at refugees well within Turkish borders until the latter reached the refugee camps. Thereafter, Syrian military shot down a Turkish fighter plane above international waters. Yet, all this time Ankara did not respond in any way except for members of its ruling Justice and Development Party, issuing angry words of denunciation. Erdogan heated up this rhetoric, though, by calling Syria a ‘terrorist state’ and its president a ‘war criminal’.
In order not to place the lack of response entirely at the door of Ankara, one must note that the Syrian crisis caused a deep and dangerous polarization at the international stage, with Russia preventing the passage of any forceful international resolution. The Russian concern has been to defuse any escalation that might lead to a repeat of the recent Libyan experience and to avoid the Ba’ath Republic embracing a fate similar to that of the ‘Gaddafi Republic’. This international polarization has prevented Ankara from taking serious and effective steps like arming the Syrian opposition or reacting strongly to Syrian provocations. However, this polarization has also allowed Ankara to hide behind the UN cover, as Erdogan has himself stated: “We shall move only under the cover of the UN and the UN Security Council.”
Nevertheless, there is another more important and serious factor behind this apparent dithering, which is being voiced by many Arab and Western officials behind closed doors these days. For more than a year, Iran has threatened to go to war with Turkey, if the latter crosses the border into Syria and supports its rebels. This threat has made Turkey, the US and Western countries tread cautiously to avoid the outbreak of a regional conflict which might even escalate into a major international confrontation. Therefore, it is not surprising to see a weak Turkish response to Syria bombing one of its villages that killed five Turkish citizens. For its part, Turkey merely fired back a few shells into Syria — apparently as a face saving exercise. It should be noted that the strength of the military of Bashar Al-Assad cannot be compared to the might of the Turkish military. Moreover, the Syrian army is already stretched for it is waging a civil war and is deployed in many towns and cities across the country.
By playing the ‘Kurdish card’ and by handing over authority to followers of Abdullah Ocalan (PKK) in several areas along the Turkish border, Syria is exploiting another factor which would make any move by Ankara more difficult, and could force it to review its plans several times over before taking any decisive action.
The so-called ‘axis of resistance’ is a deep, delicate and difficult alliance. Syria, Iran and Hezbollah — both individually and collectively — believe they are fighting for survival. The continuance of Al-Assad regime, its power structures and institution and even the fate of the Alawite sect, is perceived as being under threat. Moreover, Hezbollah is no longer hiding its involvement in the fight against Syrian rebels. As for the Iranian regime, its future does not appear any brighter than that of the Assad regime. Iran is groaning under the weight of international sanctions, its currency is collapsing and it is also witnessing the axis, into which it had poured billions of US dollars for over three decades, unravel. This axis had allowed Iran to have a presence and exercise its influence within the Arab world and to control the timing of wars on Israel’s borders, which it had exploited as bargaining chips to protect its nuclear program.
Will the situation on the Syria-Turkey border remain deadlocked as until early October it has remained limited to a daily exchange of canon and mortar fire? Will these skirmishes lie within the fold of an unstated ‘bilateral understanding,’ which defines the level of force used as face-saving and a test of tolerance by both sides, or will relations deteriorate?
It is difficult to foresee future developments in the present state of flux, which could spring many surprises. Syria may be willing to draw Turkey into a regional war as the “axis of resistance” would then hope to raise the level of danger to the degree that it would become acceptable to let Bashar Al-Assad become part of a prospective solution. Turkey, for its part, may be inclined to force the international community and Syria into accepting a buffer zone that extends 10 kilometers into Syria. Such a zone could be used in the future for deployment of the Free Syrian Army and to shelter refugees. Bashar Al-Assad could also be troubled by calls to remove him or by proposals like the one that names Farouk Al-Sharaa as new Syrian president for the period of transition. More ominous than these scenarios could be the rise of new realities on the ground that may introduce unforeseen variables for each side. At that time, each party will try to secure its own interests in line with changed realities.