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Παρασκευή, 23 Σεπτεμβρίου 2011 03:00

The role of Turkey in the Syrian crisis and the challenges it faces

Γράφτηκε από Aref Alobeid
The presence of the USA in Iraq, the threats by former US defense minister Donald Rumsfeld in 2003 against Syria, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party coming to power in Turkey, the isolation of the Syrian regime due to the cold relations with Lebanon’s and Jordan’s governments and the economic cooperation with Syria were the main causes of strengthening the relations between Turkey and Syria during the period 2003-2010[1]. However, the spread of the Arab Spring in Syria cast a shadow over the good relations between Ankara and Damascus. As a result, reservation and suspicion obscured the communication between the two states.

Turkey’s initial reaction to the outbreak of the Syrian crisis was instinctive in avoiding any form of conflict according to the Erdogan government’s ‘zero problems’ policy. However, the large potential wave of refugees, the demonstrations spreading in many regions all over Syria with which Turkey has the largest borderline, the fear that members of Al Qaeda and PKK will enter the country along with the refugees as well as the economic factor (the large Turkish investments in Syria) became reasons which made the Turkish government increasingly interested in the crisis.

Yet another quandary ferments between the two states following Syria’s decision to use military means in tackling the uprising, and since Turkey stated its interest to participate in implementing any measures adopted by the United Nations against Damascus (should the situation get worse). From the side of the Syrian officials there is not only hesitation but an anticipation almost reaching the degree of concern about the “disturbing” Turkish attitude. This became more apparent after the welcoming of the Secretary General of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Riad al-Shaqfa in Istanbul, who invited the demonstrators to protest against the Syrian regime [2].

The officials of the Justice and Development Party view the regime’s dealing with the protesters as wrong and their way of managing the crisis incorrect. Moreover, Turkey is officially unsatisfied with the slow-paced reform that the Syrian government tries to implement and is sending underground messages, which implicitly threat that they won’t allow a second Hama[3]. Meanwhile, the Assad regime views the Turkish obsession for quick and serious reform as annoying and domineering.

The Turkish government believes that its experience in successful reform can be used as an example for democratic change in other countries of the region, especially Syria, because of the economic, social, cultural, geographical and historical relations between the two countries. This is why the Turks show more interest in the Syrian crisis compared to the cases of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. Turkey wouldn’t wish for democratic changes to affect the political stability in Syria and doesn’t seek the fall of the Assad regime. Stability in Syria is a sensitive matter for Turkey, especially concerning its national security, since they share borders and since there are 2 million Kurds in Syria; the fear of them uniting with the ones in Turkey and Iraq with the intention to form a Kurdish state is reason enough for sensitivity.

Davutoglu’s foreign policy has supported the Arab Spring, having adopted a noticeable position towards the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Therefore Turkey should not treat the Syrian crisis differently. This is perhaps why Turkish officials keep a direct and continuous communication with the Syrian leadership and have suggested to President Assad to allow Turkey to train Syrian officials on institutional crisis management based on their own experience. They have also presented to the Syrian authorities a new roadmap of the reforms which, in Turkish eyes, is needed in order to defuse the crisis[4]. In the mean time, the Turkish press compares the Syrian crisis to the one in Libya and expresses its concern about the military action taken by Assad and its consequences on the future of Syria.

The Turkish government, in an effort to help deal with the crisis, allowed exiled members of the Syrian opposition[5] to meet on Turkish ground on more than one occasions, and permitted the presence of the ‘Society of the Muslim Brothers’ which has unresolved issues with the Syrian regime since the destruction of the city of Hama in 1982[6]. The main problem is Damascus’s refusal to negotiate with the Muslim Brotherhood, against Ankara’s requests, since Assad’s Syria draws the line in this matter the same way Turkey does with the PKK.

With tensions having escalated in Syria, where more and more protests have appeared all over the country with rising numbers of outraged participants[7], the priorities of the two governments have begun taking different directions. Assad focuses on the safety of the regime without taking into account the huge cost in victims’ lives, while Ankara insists that political change, democracy, stability and security cannot flourish from the use of military action. What Syria officially argues is that there is a conspiracy against the state and that armed groups are behind the riots. Turkey, based on its own intelligence, disagrees with the above statement. The Alawite president Assad claims he is being targeted due to his ethnic and religious background, since the majority of Syrian Muslims are Sunnis. The Turkish government disagrees, saying that the main cause of the crisis is not the controversy between Sunnis and Alawites, but the population’s calls for reform and democracy.

Ankara called the reforms which Assad implemented (lifting the State of Emergency and abolishing the Supreme State Security Court) insufficient in bringing about a more democratic system and asked the Syrian leaders to stop the excessive use of military violence against the protesters. This has disappointed the Syrian government, especially since the two sides have managed to achieve cooperation in matters such as the PKK issue. They never expected the wind of change to blow from their Turkish ally who refused to adopt Syria’s official position[8].

Turkey seems to follow a stance of continuous and intense pressure on president Assad for substantial changes. This pressure increases with the possibility of the Syrian regime collapsing which would lead to the ensuing of anarchy, international intervention, various problems concerning the Kurdish matter and possible refugee problems. In order for the both countries to avoid reaching a dead end in case matters escalate, the Turkish government is trying to take advantage of its warm, friendly and personal relations with Bashar al-Assad himself to resolve Syria’s domestic issues by satisfying the people’s demands. Ankara is making efforts to retain its communication with the Assad regime, while simultaneously trying to convince the Syrian leader that the Turkish proposal is the only way to emerge out of the crisis. Furthermore, Turkey stresses its neutrality but shows support to the Syrian people[9] and, should the current state of things change, it would be best if change came from the inside rather than the outside. This indicates that Turkey is not afraid of a possible political power shift if the crisis deepens. As conditions now indicate, Erdogan’s government will keep pressuring Assad as long as the Syrian people continue their uprising and the Turkish (and greater Arab) public opinion stands by the Syrian population.

There is the possibility that Assad will suppress the rebellion through violent force   supported by Iran in order to impose his domination both inside and outside of the country. This would put Turkey in a difficult position, and if Assad doesn’t follow Turkey’s proposals and put an end to the demonstrations he will expose himself to intense pressure both from the inside and the outside. In that case, Turkey will have no choice but to adjust its position according to that pressure.

In 2004, Syria and Turkey signed a Free Trade Agreement that came in affect in 2007. Based on the agreement, Ankara ceased to impose customs’ duties on Syrian products, and Syria began to reduce its tariff on Turkish goods (and will continue to do so for the next 12 years). However, the Turkish products have managed to conquer the Syrian market and in the first few years brought a 15% loss in the Syrian industry. To compensate for that loss Turkish businesses have built factories in the city of Aleppo which is located 26 km away from the Turkish border. Therefore, considering Turkey’s ‘soft power’ attitude and Syria’s economic crisis, Ankara (with the support of the UN and other international organizations) can limit or suspend trade as a means to pressurize Assad to cease the military violence against protesters. What concerns Turkey, however, is that Syria might respond with trade sanctions on Turkish products which - combined with the current international sanctions that are in effect-  could lead to the disappearance of Turkish products in the Syrian market. Moreover, a shutdown of the factories financed by Turkish investors would raise the unemployment rate and cause problems amongst the working class as well[10]. Thus, deterioration in Turkish-Syrian trade relations would force the middle and wealthier social strata of Syrians to reconsider their positive attitude towards the current regime.

Another important factor which could affect the Turkish policy towards Assad is the 20 million Alawites in Turkey[11] who support the Syrian president. The Turkish government took this fact into account during June’s national elections while the current uprising was unfolding in Syria, and checked whether the dispute between the regime and the protesters could turn into a fight between Sunnis and Alawites.

The controversy between Turkey and Iran over Syria

Iran’s official attitude towards the Arab Spring has been contradictory to that of Turkey’s. In cases of other Arab revolts, Tehran has supported regime changes, as was shown by the examples of Egypt, Libya and Bahrain. However, it now voices its support to the Assad regime and endorses the official Syrian statement, that everything is a foreign conspiracy.

Like Turkey, Tehran has also been following Syria closely since the first days of the uprising, but on a different footing; it has offered its assistance to the current government. With the crisis escalating, Syria has become a playground of influence and competition between Iran and Turkey, bringing back memories of the dispute between the Ottomans and Ismail I (Shah Ismail Safavi) of Persia[12].

The Iranian government supports Assad because he leads the only Arab, pro-Iranian regime in the Middle East with the economic means[13], the military equipment[14], the oil and the training to deal with the demonstrations. Turkey’s gradual change of attitude towards Assad has upset Iran which has clarified its position to Turkey saying that the fall of the Syrian regime will be the ‘red line’ for Iran[15]. The statement by the spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was clear regarding his country’s official position on the Syrian crisis: “If we had to choose between Syria and Turkey we would undoubtedly choose Syria”[16]. The collapse of the Syrian regime would signal the end of Iran’s strategy in the Middle East and the Arab world, so Tehran watches closely over the developments, monitors every detail and uses every means to save the current regime so that it can emerge more powerful.


When it comes to the Syrian crisis, Turkey follows a double-headed strategy. On the one hand it hosts meetings of the Syrian opposition (the Muslim Brotherhood in particular) and on the other hand insists that the current government should reform. In the Turkish government’s eyes (who like to see security, stability and good economic relations are in place) the immediate national benefits would require Syria to undergo political and economic reform, as it wishes for the whole of the Arab region. The Turkish government, by adopting a diplomatic stance, seeks to play the role of the intermediary between the regime and the opposition without leaving out the possibility of the regime’s collapse in the event it fails to implement effective changes.

Turkish policy collides with the way Syria has managed the crisis so far because of the slow-paced and superficial reforms it has implemented, coupled with the use of military force. This collision could gradually lead to the deterioration of the bilateral relations and form a breach between the two countries in the near future.

The establishment of a safety zone inside Syria, after 12,000 Syrians have already sought refuge on Turkish ground, would reinforce Turkey’s international status[17] and this could prove a good idea should the Syrian crisis evolve into a civil war. By using the safety zone, Turkey will avoid using military solutions and will be able to maintain its diplomatic status in the Middle East, as well as continuing to provide significant assistance to the Syrian refugees.

The dispute between Iran and Turkey will probably delay the process for democratic change and therefore the outcome of the uprising. Assad’s regime is the lungs of Iran and the heart of Hezbollah, so to speak, and its fall would weaken Hezbollah in Lebanon and end Iran’s influence over the Middle East. Turkey might be open to a Syrian, Sunni government that would follow the current political Turkish model and which would deal with the Iranian ‘invasion’ in the region. A new “era of cold relations” between Ankara and Damascus would push Assad in Iran’s arms and Tehran will not hesitate to take advantage of the discontent between Ankara and Damascus in order to become a partner in the Syrian decision-making process in dealing with the rebels.

Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the Turkish-Iranian relations will be affected by the Syrian crisis because of their mutual interests: their trade that has an estimated worth of $10 billion, the Kurdish issue, and the nuclear program. As a result, each country tries to protect its affairs without ceasing its interest in the developments in Syria. Deterioration in Turkish-Iranian relations may occur if the international community decides to implement severe measures and impose more sanctions on the Assad regime. In that case, Turkey would have to side with the West while Iran would try to exploit its influence over the Iraqi government and exert economic pressure on Ankara.

Iran and Turkey’s dispute has also affected the situation in Syria, especially since it reinforced the socio-religious conflict between the Sunnis and Alawites. Iran sided with the regime while Turkey took the side of the people, but the gap between the people and their leaders is enormous; moreover, the differences between Ankara and Tehran have had a negative effect on the Syrian liberation movements which seek political change.

The escalating crisis shows that the Syrian regime is becoming more isolated, especially since France and Qatar suspended their diplomatic missions in the country after having been attacked by Assad’s supporters[18]. It is difficult for the Syrian president to proclaim free elections when such a decision would mark the end of his dynasty, since the majority is against him (especially after the harsh crackdown on protesters).

It seems the future of the Syrian regime lies in the hands of foreign intervention, such as Turkey’s and Iran’s, and it could turn the Syrian matter from a national to a regional crisis because of the continuous interventions and different attitudes the two competing regional forces demonstrate. This is why it is imperative for the countries of the Arab league to take a stand so that the Syrian crisis remains under Arab control.

[1] In the last 3 years Turkish-Syrian relations have evolved greately, local travelers no longer need a visa to move between the two countries, dozens agreements of economic cooperation have been signed, tourism has developed significantly and the two countries have estblished a Strategic Cooperation Council.

[2] Khorsid Deli, "Turkey and the Syrian Crisis" (05/18/11) (Date of access: 19 May 2011), Aljazeera.net, http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/4D8A790E-B158-4EA8-B639-481964203DAF.htm?GoogleStatID=1

[3] Aljazeera.net, «Erdogan’s warning for potential massacres in Syria," (5/11/11), (Date of access: 11 May 2011), http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/7C3BCCF9-A3CC-4FE8-BEDC-6E2ED767A45D.html He is reffering to the massacre that came as a result after the Syrian regime and the "Muslim Brotherhood" colladed leaving thousands of dead and the city in ruins.

[4] Daniel Abd Al fatah, "Turkish mission headed to Syria to help start the process of comprehensive reforms" (04/28/11) (Date of access: 30 April 2011), Alarabiya.net, http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/04/28/147080.html.

[5] BBC, «The Syrian opposition meets in Turkey and Assad Committee recommends national dialogue in Damascus" (01/06/11), (Date of access: 01 June 2011), http://www.bbc.co.uk/arabic/worldnews/2011/06/110601_syria_assad_commitee_dialogue.shtml

[6] The province of Hama is the center of Sunnism in Syria. Most traditional families that ruled Syria came from that area before Assad's coup in 1970. In 1982 Assad destroyed the city because of a revolution. 30.000 were killed and thousands have been missing since then.

[7] Eyewitnesses said that in the Hamas county demonstrators exceeded 500.000 demanding the fall of the regime.

[8] Ali Hasan Bakir, "Turkey’s position over the crisis in Syria," Arab Centre of Civil Research and Study, Aljazeera.net, (04/07/11), (Date / Date of access: 4 July 2011). http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/847AEC70-5386-441E-9BC4-817136ABA341.htm?GoogleStatID=9

[9] Aljazeera.net, «Erdogan asksAssad to meet the demands of his people" (5/13/11) (Date / Date of access: 26 July 2011), http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/54F1285A-4968-409B-9411-57E98BADFE6C.htm

[10] Soner Cagaptay and Andrew J. Tabler, «How Washington Can Work with Turkey on Syria», The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, (14/07/11),( Ημ/νία πρόσβασης: 30 Ιουλίου 2011), http://washingtoninstitute.org/templateC05.php?CID=3385

[11] Mohyeddin Sajedi, «Turkey's failure in Syrian crisis»,(26/07/11),( Ημ/νία πρόσβασης: 26 Ιουλίου 2011), Islam times, http://islamtimes.org/vdcevx8v.jh8ffik1bj.tx

[12] Saleh Qallab (Former Jordanian Minister of Information), "I don’t rule out a conflict between Ottomans and Safavi in Syria" (19/07/11) (Date of access: 19 July 2011), http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/07/19/158354.html

[13] Ιranfocus, Tehran ready to give Syria $5.8 billion, (15/07/11), (Date of access: 16 July 2011), http://www.iranfocus.com/en/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=23475:tehran-ready-to-give-syria-58-billion-report&catid=4:iran-general&Itemid=26 Iran has also decided to supply the Syrian regime with 290 thousand barrels of oil per day to help deal with  the crisis.

[14] Alarabiya.net, «Can Iran manage the crisis in Syria?" (07/23/11) (Date of access: 24 July 2011), http://www.alarabiya.net/views/2011/07/23/158958.html

[15] Saud Al Zahed, "The Iranian Revolutionary Guard warns Turkey for its attitude towars Damascus and reaffirms its support to Assad", (07/18/11) (Date of access: 18 July 2011), Alarabiya.net, http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/07/18/158186.html

[16] Khorshid Dali, "Where is Iran and Turkey in the Syrian Crisis" (28/07/11) (Date of access: 30 July 2011),  Aljazeera.net,,http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/970AB766-4AC6-4DEF-AFA3-5D7A6A975BF2.htm?GoogleStatID=1

[17] Nour al Din Al Farithi, "Europeans call for a safe passage between Syria and Turkey to help with the refugees" (07 /07/11), (Date of access: 07 July 2011), Alarabiya.net, http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/07/07/156463.html

[18] Aljazeera.net, «Qatar suspends its embassy’s operations in Syria" (19/07/11) (Date of access: 19 July 2011), http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/4376F663-40E0-4A88-89CC-A1F26D15698A.html