Revisiting the Turkey-Syria conflict

Revisiting the Turkey-Syria conflict
An explosion following an air strike is seen in western Kobani neighbourhood, Nov 23, 2014. Islamic State has been trying to take control of the town for more than two months in an assault that has driven tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians over the border into Turkey and drawn strikes by US-led forces.

From the current level of hostility between Turkey and Syria, the casual observer might assume that the two countries have for long been bitter enemies. This, however, is hardly the case, as from the late 1990s through 2010, the two countries actually enjoyed friendly relations, with increasing cooperation at all levels.

The question arises, therefore, as to what eventually brought about the end of this period of constructive bilateral relations between the two states, thus leading to the current conflict. Here are some thoughts and analysis that might help us better understand the situation.

In the 1990s, relations between Turkey and Syria were anything but peaceful. Syria was supportive of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is considered to be a terrorist organisation in Turkey, and had offered refuge to its leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

This was viewed by Ankara as utterly unacceptable, for it posed a direct threat to its security. In late 1998, however, as a result of ongoing Turkish pressure and the possibility of an all-out war, Syria asked Ocalan to seek refuge elsewhere, which in turn led to the opening of a new chapter in bilateral relations between the two neighbouring states.

In 2002, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power vowing to further improve Turkey's relations with its neighbours and rebuild the country's image in the world as a regional source of power and stability.

One of the countries that benefited the most from this approach, which was dubbed "zero problems towards neighbours" by Ahmet Davutoglu, the then foreign minister, was naturally Syria, with which Turkey signed a free trade agreement in 2004 and established high-level strategic council meetings (joint cabinet meetings) in 2009, both aimed at even greater political, economic, and security cooperation between the two countries.

In 2011, however, the political climate began to change dramatically in Syria, which caught many, including Prime Minister Erdogan and President Bashar al-Assad, by surprise.

Protesters took to the streets demanding reforms, such as the release of political prisoners and an end to the state of emergency, which had been in place for decades (some even went as far as demanding the overthrow of the regime).

While Assad eventually gave in to some of the protesters' demands by releasing a number of political prisoners and promising to repeal the state of emergency, such measures in themselves proved incapable of putting an end to the protests, thus leading to more violent clashes between demonstrators and government forces.

Here, it is important to note that opinions vary as to what exactly triggered the new political climate in Syria.

Based on a number of reports hitherto published, however, it is fair to say that what is now commonly referred to as the Syrian "civil war" stemmed from not only the entrenched democratic aspirations of the Syrian opposition, but also the machinations of certain Arab and non-Arab states, including Turkey, opposed to the Assad regime.

Whatever the truth behind Ankara's role in the Syrian debacle, or the extent of its involvement, though, one thing is for certain: as the level of violence began to escalate in Syria and the number of refugees pouring into Turkey increased on a daily basis, Erdogan could no longer afford to be seen on the same side as Assad, for that would jeopardize not only his political career (he became the president of Turkey in 2014), but also Turkey's decades-old objective of joining the European Union.

Therefore, in August 2011, Erdogan decided to confront the Assad regime more directly by hosting the Syrian opposition (many of whom were defectors from the Syrian army at the time), a decision that was criticised in some political quarters within Turkey, and further complicated relations between the two neighbouring countries.

Now that the Syrian "civil war" is in its fourth year, however, and Assad has proven to be quite resilient, Erdogan is perhaps more worried about a post-civil war Syria with Assad still in power, for that would make matters ever more complicated for both Turkey and him (just as it would for all the other states that have so far taken part in the anti-Assad operations).

For example, such an outcome could spell the end of Erdogan's political career, deal a heavy blow to the AKP, and kill the prospects of a rapprochement between Turkey and Syria for decades to come. It could also create serious problems for Ankara in terms of minority relations and security, issues the country is already highly familiar with.

Of course, Erdogan's fear of such an outcome might also explain his hitherto lax attitude toward the fate of the Syrian Kurdish-majority city of Kobani (also known as Ayn al-Arab). Currently, the rebels who are at the forefront of the fight against the Islamic State militants in Kobani are said to be members of the People's Protection Units (YPG), which is not only an offshoot of the PKK, but also rumored to have cooperated in the past with the Assad regime. Thus, for Erdogan to help the YPG win the battle against the Islamic State in Kobani would be tantamount to assisting Assad and the PKK.

The combination of the above factors, then, when viewed in the context of the region's ideologically informed sectarian rivalries, can help explain Ankara's relentless pressure on the West to do away with the Assad regime as a condition for a more serious Turkish involvement in the anti-Islamic State coalition operations in Syria and Iraq.

Meanwhile, however, the United States, as the country that is leading the coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, has declared defeating the Islamic State the coalition's main objective, and for good reason: removing Assad from power by means other than a political solution (even if such a move had the backing of the United Nations) would be too risky, not just for Syria, but for the entire region (post-Saddam Hussein Iraq is a good case in point here), for no one knows what would happen next or who would take his place, since Syria, according to news accounts, is a fragmented society, with hundreds of heavily armed militias actively competing for power.

What is more, President Barack Obama has stated that the mission to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State might take years to accomplish, thus leaving Turkey in the difficult position of having to live, for quite a long time perhaps, with a highly volatile situation (without a doubt much worse than what it used to be in the 1990s) right across its southern border.

Therefore, instead of eagerly awaiting the fall or violent overthrow of the Assad regime, which seems to be going nowhere as a strategy (and even if it did, there is no guarantee that Syria will become a full-fledged democracy or a better place to live for ordinary Syrians any time soon), it would do Ankara well to seriously consider initiating a new peace process with Damascus.

This would not only decrease the possibility of Syria falling into the hands of extremist forces, but also allow the two countries to renew their once thriving bilateral relations. More importantly, this approach would serve as an indication that Ankara, under the AKP, is, once again, committed to its self-declared policy of "zero problems towards neighbours," which will be necessary if Turkey is to be deemed a reliable partner in the region.

Of course, initiating a new peace process with Damascus would not be an easy task for Ankara to accomplish, for it would require the latter to relinquish any and all claims to moral superiority and thus, once again, recognise Syria as a sovereign state entitled to the same rights under international law as Turkey.

Nevertheless, initiating such a process may be the only feasible plan for Ankara to pursue under the circumstances, provided that it is capable of not only recognising Turkey's national interest, but also understanding the dynamics of the region.

Ramin Mirfakhraie is a sociologist. His scholarly interests range widely, from social inequality in the United States to globalisation and global inequality to the politics and international relations of the Middle East. He earned his doctorate at the University of Warwick.

Author's Note

Addressing issues of a humanitarian or criminal nature is beyond the scope of this brief article. Such issues should be dealt with in a separate article in which the role played by each and every state and non-state actor in what has so far transpired in the Syrian "civil war" can be thoroughly investigated.

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