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May 16, 2011

 Summary: In shaping its policy
                                             The Going Gets Tough:
 in the Arab Middle East, Turkey
 had worked to build a network               Turkey Tries to Meet the Syrian Challenge
 of stable relationships with the
 existing regimes. Now confronted            by İlter Turan
 with regimes that have come
 under popular challenges, it finds
 itself in a difficult situation. There
 is no established international             Who Is Next?                                of ruthless application of authoritarian
 mechanism that prevents the
                                             The countries of the Arab Middle East       rule, justified by hostile relations with
 use of force by authoritarian
 regimes against their citizens
                                             have different sized populations, social    Israel and the state of siege that this
 who demand democratic reforms.              structures, religious and, in some          has necessitated, which has, in turn,
 Turkish responses to Tunisian               instances, ethnic compositions, and         been used to hinder expressions of
 and Egyptian developments                   types of leadership. But they also share    discontent against the government.
 were in harmony with the United             common problems. They are all under
 States and the EU. In the Libyan            some type of authoritarian rule. No         At the outset, what happens in Syria
 and then the Syrian crisis,                 effective mechanism exists for citizens     appeared to matter less than other
 Turkey experienced difficulty in            to communicate their preferences to         countries facing popular uprisings.
 formulating a quick response.               their governments. Almost all have          Syria is not a major oil/gas producer
 Syria presents a particularly               poorly developed economies, which           nor does it have a major transit route.
 complex picture. The unity and              have failed to create jobs for rapidly      While its cooperation in helping
 stability of Syria is critical for both
                                             expanding populations. All, including       Iraq stabilize has been important, its
 Turkish and regional interests
 as well as those of the Western
                                             those with major oil income, harbor         influence is often seen as possessing
 Alliance.                                   major income disparities. And the           nuisance value, not a major deter-
                                             military constitutes a relatively well-     minant of outcomes. Furthermore, it
                                             organized and well-equipped organiza-       has recently been reported that Syria
                                             tion in each.                               has been devoting more attention to
                                                                                         monitoring the Iraqi border in order
                                             Now a wave of change is sweeping the        to prevent shipments of arms to Syrian
                                             region. The awakening that started in       anti-government groups and infiltra-
                                             Tunisia and Egypt invited speculation       tion of Syrian Islamic radicals.
                                             in regard to who would be next. Syria
                                             received less attention in this game of     There is also the complex question of
                                             fortune telling. It is more isolated from   what could be done in Syria if events
                                             the international system than others,       erupted. There is no established inter-
                                             with limited and somewhat unfriendly        national mechanism that prevents the
                                             relations with Western countries. The       use of force by authoritarian regimes
                                             United States has declared it a rogue       against their citizens who demand
                                             state — a U.S. ambassador returned to       democratic reforms. Concerned coun-
                                             Damascus only recently. It is ruled by a    tries act according to their own inter-
Washington, DC • Berlin • Paris • Brussels
                                             political elite that has mastered the art   ests and judgments. The EU seems less
     BelgraDe • ankara • BuCharest

than capable of doing very much unless the United States           Turkey was a pillar of NATO. Also, the general direction of
takes the lead. Otherwise, each member country pursues its         Turkish foreign policy was to avoid getting entangled in the
own interest. Russia and China, both being authoritarian           politics of the Middle East.
systems themselves, are generally opposed to humanitarian
interventions. In Syria’s case, no country seems deeply inter-     Syrian territorial claims on the neighboring Turkish
ested in devoting resources to restrain the government’s           province of Hatay and Turkey’s building dams/irrigation
authoritarianism or to intervene actively, let alone militarily,   schemes on the Euphrates, the main water source for Syria,
to stop bloodshed.                                                 constituted the background for hostile relations. In 1999,
                                                                   after Turkey threatened military action against Syria for
In Syria’s case, no country                                        supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) ethnic
                                                                   separatist terrorism and hosting its leader, Abdullah Öcalan,
                                                                   Turkish-Syrian relations became transformed. Syria sent
seems deeply interested in                                         Öcalan away; it stopped offering facilities to the PKK in
                                                                   Bekaa Valley (Lebanon), then under Syrian control; and it
devoting resources to restrain the                                 clamped down on PKK’s activities in the country itself.

government’s authoritarianism                                      The turnaround was remarkable. Relations expanded
                                                                   rapidly in the domains of trade, investments, tourism, and
                                                                   education. They gained special momentum after Ahmet
or to intervene actively, let alone                                Davutoğlu became Turkey’s foreign minister. Turkey served
                                                                   as host to proximity talks between Syria and Israel that
militarily, to stop bloodshed.                                     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
Syria has a young leader who had been expected to bring            partnership,” with the two countries holding joint cabinet
about change. Bashar al-Assad, unlike his father, Hafez            meetings, were introduced. Projects were developed to
al-Assad, was not a military officer. He had spent much of         clean the minefields along the border and return them to
his time in England, training to be an ophthalmologist. His        agricultural use. Turkish businesses sought investment
ascendance to power owed much to the death of a brother            and export opportunities. Only recently, groundbreaking
who had been groomed for the job. It had been felt that as         ceremonies were held for a dam on the Orontes that would
he gradually took the reins of power in and came to rely less      provide flood control and water for both countries. Turkey
on the cadres he inherited from his father, he would render        was looking forward to a long period of peace, stability, and
the political system more moderate and less authoritarian.         prosperity in its “special relationship” with Syria.

Turkish-Syrian Relations
Turkey has displayed hesitancy in deciding how to respond          Turkey was looking forward to a
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
                                                                   long period of peace, stability,
through establishing closer relations with Turkey. Turkey
hoped that the mood of optimism owing to economic                  and prosperity in its “special
betterment would dampen pressures for regime change.
                                                                   relationship” with Syria.
During the Cold War Turkey’s relations with Syria were
distant. The Syrians had close relations with the USSR while


The Syrian Crisis and Turkey                                    inhabited regions of Turkey and the Kurdish Regional
The contagion of mass uprisings demanding reforms and           Government of Northern Iraq. Of late, Syrian Kurds have
democratization in the Arab Middle East caught all parties      displayed challenging attitudes toward the Syrian govern-
with interests in the region, including Turkey, off-guard.      ment. Turkey is nervous that as Syria is trying to find a way
Turkish responses to Tunisian and Egyptian developments         of accommodating the aspirations of its Kurdish population
were in harmony with the United States and the EU. But          for ethnic recognition within the framework of the nation-
making a choice in those cases was relatively easy. Turkey      state, the breakdown of the regime might unleash forces
had no major interests in Tunisia, and limited interests        that neither the new Syrian regime nor Turkey would find
in Egypt. Furthermore, major policy differences existed         easy to contain, while Northern Iraq might not resist the
between Turkey and Egypt regarding how to address the           temptation to support Kurdish separatism.
Palestinian problem, especially its Gaza/Hamas dimension.
Also, the Turkish Prime Minister had wide appeal among
Egyptian masses who wanted President Hosni Mubarak to           Turkey is nervous that as
                                                                Syria is trying to find a way of
In the Libyan and then the Syrian crisis, Turkey experi-
enced difficulty in formulating a quick response. In Libya,
relations with the government of Col. Muammar Qadhafi
                                                                accommodating the aspirations of
had been good. Turkey had developed substantial business
interests in building contracts totaling US$25 billion. Also,   its Kurdish population for ethnic
Turkey was unsure of Western resolve to intervene. These
considerations initially led Turkey to encourage restraint,     recognition within the framework
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
                                                                of the nation-state, the breakdown
allies, among others, to prevent France from acting alone
to prevail in Libya. Turkey’s position against Qadhafi has      of the regime might unleash forces
hardened slowly as it has become apparent that his ability
to stay in power is far from assured in view of the resolute    that neither the new Syrian regime
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
                                                                nor Turkey would find easy to
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        It appears that centrifugal tendencies in Syria abound. The
visa requirements at the crossings. Already small groups        most easily identifiable fault line is sectarian. The Assad
have crossed into Turkey asking for asylum, claiming (it        family and important command posts in the army are held
seems falsely) that their lives were in danger. If distur-      by the Nusayris, a heterodox religious minority. Questions
bances intensify, particularly in the North, Turkey would be    have been raised, for example, in regard to whether and for
exposed to populations crossing the border, which it would      how long the ordinary soldiers comprised mainly of Sunni
find difficult to cope with.                                    recruits will continue to fire on Sunni crowds demanding
                                                                reforms. In parts of Syria, tribal identifications are strong; in
There is an additional dimension to Syria’s population in its   others, regional identity combined with religious sect seems
north east. This is a Kurdish region bordering the Kurdish      to play an important political role. Although the secular


approach of the Baas government has held the country
                                                                    İlter Turan, Professor, Bilgi University
together, it has always been with the help of the military and
                                                                    İlter Turan is currently a professor of political science at Istanbul’s
security agencies. It is far from clear if centrifugal tenden-
                                                                    Bilgi University, where he also served as president between 1998-2001.
cies would not become too manifest should strong central
                                                                    His previous employment included professorships at Koç University
authority break down.
                                                                    (1993-1998) and Istanbul University (1964-1993), where he also
                                                                    served as the chair of the International Relations Department (1987-
The unity and stability of Syria is critical for both Turkish
                                                                    1993), and the director of the Center for the Study of the Balkans and
and regional interests as well as those of the Western Alli-
                                                                    the Middle East (1985-1993). Dr. Turan is the past president of the
ance. Its collapse would open the way to enhanced Iranian
                                                                    Turkish Political Science Association and has been a member of the
presence in Syria as well as Lebanon, presenting a challenge
                                                                    Executive Committee and a vice president of the International Political
to both Western interests and Israel. While Syrian-Israeli
                                                                    Science Association (2000-2006). He has served as the program chair
relations are highly adversarial at the rhetorical level of, they
                                                                    of the 21st World Congress of Political Science in Santiago, Chile, July
are otherwise predictably stable. A regime change might
                                                                    12-16, 2009. He is board chair of the Health and Education Founda-
well undermine such stability, setting off events that would
                                                                    tion and serves on the board of several foundations and corporations.
drag in other regional countries.
                                                                    He is widely published in English and Turkish on comparative politics,
                                                                    Turkish politics, and foreign policy. His most recent writings have
International conditions favor continuation of the Baas
                                                                    been on the domestic and international politics of water, the Turkish
regime under Assad. It must bring about reforms, however,
                                                                    parliament and its members, and Turkish political parties. He is a
reduce the omnipotence and omnipresence of al-Muhabarat
                                                                    frequent commentator on Turkish politics on TV and newspapers.
(the intelligence and secret police agency), allow for greater
political participation, and demonstrate greater sensitivity        About GMF
to demands emanating from society. The Turkish govern-              The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a non-
ment has hoped to persuade Assad to take bold steps                 partisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedi-
toward reforms. It is not clear if he has been persuaded and        cated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between
whether he can command a reform process without the                 North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF
concurrence of the military and the security agencies. The          does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the
answer to this question is not known but the policies of the        transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy
Syrian government have to date been far from encouraging.           and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on
Turkey is also reluctantly working on a plan B if the current       transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster
regime proves unsustainable.                                        renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition,
                                                                    GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies.
In shaping its policy in the Arab Middle East, Turkey had           Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent
worked to build a network of stable relationships with the          memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong pres-
existing regimes. Now confronted with regimes that have             ence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in
come under popular challenges, it finds itself in a difficult       Washington, DC, GMF has six offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels,
situation. It has to maintain relations with existing regimes,      Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest. GMF also has smaller representa-
promote change, and calculate how its actions affect its            tions in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.
credibility in the region and the world, its aspirations to
regional leadership, and its economic prosperity. The going         About the On Turkey Series
has gotten rough. It will not become easier until the process       GMF’s On Turkey is an ongoing series of analysis briefs about Turkey’s
of change has run its course.                                       current political situation and its future. GMF provides regular anal-
                                                                    ysis 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.
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