Syria and Turkey: Two neighbors worried over the border
Dia Odeh/ Nour Dalati/ Reham al-Assaad/ Murad Abdul Jalil
On February 17, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad addressed the heads of the local councils in Syria, attacking Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and calling him “an affiliate to the Muslim Brotherhood” who is trying to appear as “the events’ maker.” Al-Assad added that Erdogan is “an insignificant follower of the US,” and that the Turkish have always waited for the permission of the Americans to enter the north of Syria since the first day of the crisis.
At the time of talking about the rehabilitation of the Syrian regime, solving problems and opening of channels of communication with the countries of the region, al-Assad’s attack on Erdogan and Turkey will contribute in deepening hostility between the two parties, especially with the current circumstance through which the Syrian file is going. Besides, there is a talk about the formation of the constitutional committee with the endorsement of Turkey, Russia and Iran, in addition to the current plans about the safe area that Turkey wants to establish on the border.
This unapologetic attack voiced by the Syrian regime was met by a two-way Turkish policy. The first is reflected in statements made by Turkish officials, mostly Erdogan, accusing al-Assad of being a murderer who killed and displaced millions of Syrians and demanding his departure. The second strategy consists of releasing controversial statements about the relationship between the two sides and keeping intelligence relations between Damascus and Ankara at its lowest level. One of the most prominent remarks was made by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, last December, indicating that his country might consider cooperating with Bashar al-Assad if he is elected democratically.
This troubled relationship between the two neighbors, who share an 822 km border strip, was not the result of Turkish involvement with the Syrians’ revolution against the regime after 2011. If we exclude the “golden period” at the beginning of the new millennium, the Turkish-Syrian relations have always been characterized by tension, diplomatic rupture and controversial issues.
In order to draw a clearer picture of the future of the relations between the two countries, Enab Baladi tried to review these relations historically and answer the broader questions about the possibility of re-establishing diplomatic ties between Syria and Turkey, as well as the role that al-Assad’s allies can exert in this direction, especially Russia and Iran, which have close relations and signed agreements with Turkey.
Cold War and controversial issues
The relationship between Turkey and Syria has undergone three stages since the establishment of the Turkish Republic. Several controversial issues have emerged between the two parties that have led to the so-called “Cold War” which continued over the past decades.
In May 1937, the League of Nations issued a decision to separate the Sanjak of Alexandretta from Syria and to appoint a French governor to run the area. In July 1938, the Turkish forces entered the cities of the Sanjak of Alexandretta and the French army retreated to Antioch. Thus, in 1939, the French organized a referendum in the region, and the participants supported joining Turkey while the Arabs boycotted it. After the independence of Syria and the evacuation of the French, the problem of the Sanjak of Alexandretta continued to exist.
The issue of the Sanjak of Alexandretta remained a prominent point of contention between Syria and Turkey, and it was used as a tool of pressure to win over unresolved crises. During the 1990s, the Syrian regime used the issue of the Sanjak of Alexandretta to exert pressure on Turkey, following the conflict over the Euphrates River and the military operations led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) against Turkey that were launched from Syrian military bases.
Water: Turkey’s bargaining chip
The issue of the Euphrates River formed an obstacle that hindered the Syria-Turkey relations, on the one hand, and a tool for exerting political pressure in all types of conflicts between both sides, on the other.
The Euphrates stems from the Armenian Highlands in Turkey and passes through Syria and Iraq, which means that Turkey mainly controls the amounts and levels of pumped water. Turkey has used the river as a bargaining chip with Syria since the middle of the last century. Water crises and bilateral agreements have continued to be re-occurring over decades to come.
In 1954, Turkey objected to the project proposed by Adib al-Shishakli, who was then president of the Syrian Arab Republic, to distribute the state lands on the Syrian island, claiming that there were Turkish properties there. Back then, the Turkish authorities resumed the works of diverting the course of the Jaghjagh River in northeastern Syria, which started in 1941, causing the river to dry in the summer. Thus, the shortage of water significantly damaged rice and cotton cottages on the Syrian lands. In 1958, Turkey stopped pumping the water of the Jaghjagh River completely and only some of the water leaking from the sub-valleys reached Qamishli.
More than 25 years later, the PKK file remained the hottest topic at the forefront of Syrian-Turkish relations. Turkey was trying to persuade the Syrian regime to abandon the PKK and stop supporting it, as the Turkish government considered the Kurdish party as “terrorist” and a threat to its national security. In 1987, Turkey signed a cooperation protocol with Syria, stipulating the passage of 500 m3/s of the Euphrates River’s water to Syria. However, when the Syrian regime refused to respond at the time to the Turkish demands, turkey started stalling to pump the agreed upon quantities of water toward the Syrian territories. At that point the Syrian government started implementing a dam project on the Assi River, which passes through Syria and pours water into the Samandag bay in the Sanjak of Alexandretta. As such, the newly constructed dam caused a shortage of water supplies, which lead to drying up large areas of the Turkish lands near the course of the river.
Turkey tried to solve the water crisis by reaching an agreement on the Assi and Euphrates Rivers, however, the Syrian regime objected, as any potential agreement would mean a Syrian recognition of Turkish sovereignty over the Sanjak of Alexandretta, which was cut off by Turkey in 1939 from the Syrian territories.
In 1990, the most prominent water crisis between Syria and Turkey intensified, when Turkey redirected the course of the Euphrates River for a full month to fill the Ataturk Dam. The Syrian authorities protested against the deterioration of the water levels between the northern border and Lake Assad to three meters only, damaging the winter crops.
The dispute was settled by the signature of a security agreement between the two countries in 1992. However, the deal was disrupted due to Turkey’s ongoing projects in the Euphrates River.
The Kurds: Syria’s bargaining chip
Since the beginning of the Kurdish political wake in the early 1950’s of the last century, the rising Kurdish movements faced considerable pressure from the successive Syrian government. Thus, the Kurdish political project was met with repression and arrests, forcing the Kurdish political movements to work clandestinely away from the eyes of the authorities, in most times.
This repression continued after the Baath party took over power in Syria and Hafez al-Assad was appointed as president. However, the 1980s saw a relative shift in al-Assad’s stance towards the Kurds. In the late 1970s, as the water crisis between the two neighbors escalated, al-Assad got closer to the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, whose popularity was rising in Syria at the time, in order to put pressure on Turkey. Al-Assad also allowed the PKK to launch military operations against the Turkish army from military bases situated in the north of Syria.
These attacks were met by counter operations led by the Turkish army against the Kurds in Turkey. In 1985, the Turks installed barbed wires on the border with Syria.
During this period, a large number of young Syrian Kurds joined the PKK. As such, the Kurdish party, which was based mainly in the city of Qamishli in northeastern Syria, became a major ally of the Syrian regime in the Kurdish community and on the Syrian island.
Turkey tried to contain the situation with the rise of the power of the PKK when former Turkish President, Turgut Ozal, visited Syria in 1978. Despite signing a protocol of cooperation to resolve the water crises and end the Syrian regime’s support for the PKK, the terms of the agreement have not been implemented by both sides.
In the subsequent period, tensions escalated between Syria and Turkey. Turkey approached Israel to exercise pressure over Öcalan’s case, and situation amounted to military confrontation when Ankara began to mobilize forces on its southern border. Turkey threatened Hafez al-Assad in order to stop supporting the PKK and expel its leaders, or else it will be obliged to take the necessary measures to preserve its national security, including invading the Syrian side.
However, regional and international mediators, especially Egypt, managed to put an end to the dispute by signing a security agreement, known as the Adana Agreement in 1998. Öcalan was deported from Syria to Russia in late 1990s, then moved to Italy and then to Kenya. Turkey kidnapped him in 1999 and Syria lost one of its most important bargaining chips.
Solving problems and opening the borders
“It feels like home,” said the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during his second visit to Turkey in 2007. This sentence may sum up the golden era, during which the Syrian-Turkish relations were at their best in the first decade of the new millennium.
The Adana security agreement was a major turning point in the course of the relations between the two countries, for it has signaled the beginning of the mutual visits of security, military and political officials between them. The attendance of Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer of the funeral of Hafez al-Assad in 2000 marked his first visit to Syria and the new relations with the country.
Turkey was able to break the ice with Syria and brought about a qualitative leap with its neighbor, which paved the way for the Turkish government to enter the Arab world. This has been further established by the arrival of the Justice and Development Party led by current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2002.
The high level of mutual visits between officials reflects the state of political consensus. Bashar al-Assad visited Turkey twice in 2004 and 2007, and secretly visited Turkey with his family in Bodrum in August 2008. However, officials denied al-Assad’s last visit.
On the other hand, Turkish officials visited Syria several times with President Necdet Sezer in 2005 and President Abdullah Gul in May 2009. Recep Tayyip Erdogan developed his intimate relationship at the personal and family level with al-Assad and his wife Asma. Erdogan and his wife visited Aleppo to celebrate the opening of Aleppo International Stadium and visited Damascus in January 2009.
The normalization of relations between the two countries reached a peak when the Turkish-Syrian High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council was established in 2009. Both sides signed more than 30 agreements and 10 protocols and memorandums of understanding, covering defense, security, economy, health and agriculture, as well as irrigation, environment, electricity, oil and transportation; in addition to cancelling visas between both countries.
Under this rapprochement, the Syrian regime handed over to turkey 122 wanted persons, including 77 members of PKK, between 2003 and 2009, according to a statement made by Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, during his visit to Damascus in October 2009.
A break after 2011: An outlook into the future
With the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Turkey advised al- Assad to carry out democratic reforms in the country and stop all forms of violence and bloodshed. One day after Foreign Minister Davutoglu went to Syria on 9 August 2011 and talked to al-Assad during a six hours meeting, Erdogan expressed his hope that the Syrian government would take steps towards a political reform within 10 or 15 days. Such announcement was rejected by peaceful protesters who raised banners reading: “15 days enough to kill us, Erdogan.”
The Turkish political analyst, Firas Radwan Oglu, considered that Turkey did not want any changes in the Syrian political system at the beginning, but rather looked for tangible reforms and pushed in the direction of enabling the opposition to take part in the government. Turkish efforts were rejected by al-Assad who said in a televised interview on 22 August 2011 that “the Turkish position is vague. We still do not know whether the Turkish government is worried about Syria, afraid of what is happening, or maybe wants to play some sort of roles at our expense,” adding: “If Turkey is willing to play the role of the savior then this is unacceptable and we will not allow any country to interfere in our internal affairs. They are fully aware that we have the suitable method to deal with all kinds of intentions for Syria.”
Such statement led to a shift in Ankara’s position, moving away from calling for political reforms and starting to endorse the anti-Assad camp which demanded the Syrian regime’s departure. The Turkish novice stance was conveyed through its support to the Syrian opposition by allowing the establishment of communication platforms for al-Assad’s oppositionists in its territories, before launching military operations inside Syria against ISIS, i.e. the Northern Aleppo offensive in 2016, and the Operation Olive Branch in Afrin against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in 2018.
Can Syria-Turkey relations be re-established?
With Turkey’s movements in the north of Syria, whether in Idlib or the countryside of Aleppo or East Euphrates; and Russia’s attempt to present the regime as a key partner that must take part in any type of political settlements, the attention is drawn to the prospects of re-establishing relations between the Syria and Turkey. At the same time, the Syrian regime is expected to be a significant card in the Adana agreement, in addition to the talk of a political solution that Turkey, Russia and Iran are soon reaching on the path of Sochi and Astana talks.
In a quick reading of the relationship between Turkey and the Syrian regime, we see that the Turkish government supported the Syrian opposition and provided military and financial support to the factions operating in the northern countryside of Aleppo under the command of the Syrian National Army, in addition to receiving more than three million Syrians in its territory. Besides, Turkey has become a safe haven for the regime’s oppositionists. The Turkish presence in Syria was considered by the Syrian authorities as an invasive act that amounts to “occupation.” This stance was contradicted by Russia, which stressed that the Turkish army’s entry to Syria can be a pillar for a project to protect Syria’s national security.
The Turkish activity in Syria was not confined to exerting influences in the north. Turkey also participated politically through the talks of Astana and the Russian-led Sochi talks, especially after the retreat of the Geneva talks’ path. This meant that turkey was no less important than the rest of the actors, in relation to its powerful position in Syria, i.e. full control and management of the northern countryside of Aleppo and the military deployment of 12 observation points in Idlib Governorate.
According to Dr. Khattar Abu Diab, a geopolitical scientist and professor of international relations at the University of Paris, the relations between the Syrian regime and Turkey have undergone several stages. At the start of the revolution in Syria, Turkey had a good relationship with the Syrian regime, which was propagandized by al-Assad, since 2010, as what he called “the five oceans” day and the axis that runs from Ankara to Moscow and Tehran.
Abu Diab told Enab Baladi that the Turkish role in Syria has been always tied to the US control. In the past, the Turkish military establishment was not convinced of Erdogan’s policies until he managed to regulate the general political atmosphere in Turkey, starting from frustrating the coup d’état.
After the coup, there was a green light for the US and Russia to carry out Operation Euphrates Shield, under which it took control over areas in Aleppo northern countryside, including Jarabulus and al-Bab. However, after the defeat in the city of Aleppo (which was controlled by the opposition), it had been recognized that the Turkish side entered a world of understandings with the Russian side, according to Abu Diab.
He explained that since then the Turkish side has found itself in an “ambivalent” position in Astana with Russia and Iran, and has remained in support of the opposition factions. In parallel, he is an active member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
With time, the expansion of the work of the Russians and Iranians on the ground and the substantial retreat from the Eastern Ghouta to the south, the axis of Russia – Iran came to demand certain accounts of Turkey, but it has been able to control things, especially in Idlib under the “Sochi” agreement, signed in September 2018.
Currently, while reaching the decisive point in the Syrian North and East Euphrates, Abu Diab said: “It seems that Tehran, like Moscow, is asking Ankara to normalize with the Syrian regime, to stay in Syria, but the environment is unfavorable, in the sense that there is no willingness, neither from the regime, nor from Turkey for this move.”
The researcher believes that there are interests for each party (regime, Turkey) different from the other party. The Syrian regime, which is maneuvering between Moscow and Tehran, is able to continue maneuvering and evading commitments, because it does not want even 1% of reform. It is “the regime of everything and nothing,” according to the researcher, who indicated that Erdogan, and in the event of reconciliation with the Syrian regime will lose all investment made by groups of Syrians.
He believes that the regime and Turkey can only turn to fixing problems, only in terms of security, but politically, Erdogan is forced to adhere to the Western position, meaning that the Geneva Document 2012 is the key to a political solution.
What makes it easier for the Turkish side not to rush into normalization is that when some Arab countries started to restore their relations with the regime, America responded with rejection, so that Egypt was afraid of rushing, and the UAE did not send an ambassador, nor did Saudi Arabia show any initiative.
Abu Diab explained that Turkey is interested in national security and the question of not being the loser in Syria especially that Russia and Iran have taken areas of influence within Syrian territory, and thus Turkey wants a border area free of any threat.
From the point of view of the researcher, “there is currently some kind of preservation of the status quo, and I do not think that the regime and Turkey are rushing to get further.”
Abu Diab’s view is in line with that of the Turkish political analyst Firas Radwan Oglu, who thinks that the possibility of restoring the relationship between the regime and Turkey is very unlikely, and there are not even thinking about it, pointing out that Turkey cannot fix problems with a political entity which is not unified in Syria that is already divided into “three Syrias.”
Radwan Oglu told Enab Baladi that “Turkey does not have to re-normalize relations with the regime, and there are no direct reasons for this approach, unless the new constitution is approved and the opposition strongly participates in the future regime.”
Since the start of the revolutionary movement in Syria to date, Turkey has not given any legitimacy to the Syrian regime. Security communication between the two sides can be linked to the nature of the work of any state institution with the institutions of another state, regardless of the existing regime. From the analyst’s point of view, “political recognition differs from state institutions.”
Is normalization under pressure?
Apart from the Syrian regime’s hostility towards Turkey and considering its presence in Syria an occupation, it seems that its Russian and Iranian allies are trying to restore relations in the context of their actions after years of war and defeat of the opposition in a number of strategic areas in Syria, most notably Aleppo, Damascus countryside and Daraa.
The “Adana Agreement,” put forward by Russia in recent months on the sidelines of talk about the safe area on the border, is evidence of an attempt to give the Syrian regime “legitimacy” of the Turkish side, which is the main party in the agreement signed in 1998.
While Russia holds several pressure cards that it may use to bring the Syrian regime and Turkey closer together, including Idlib Governorate and the eastern Euphrates areas, Turkey puts cards in its favor that could be in place to hold onto the process it wants without yielding to pressure.
Professor Khattar Abu Diab said that Ankara has bargaining chips, and it is not in Moscow’s interest to lose them. Rather, Turkey would prefer to remain “confused” while remaining in the NATO with America.
He believes that the issue of pressure on Turkey to re-normalization needs a better environment of international reconciliation in the rehabilitation of the Syrian regime, and therefore it will be difficult for the Russians to put pressure on Ankara.
With regard to Iran and its role in the process of re-establishing relations, the researcher explained that Tehran offered Erdogan to play the role of mediator, but its goal is that the Syrian regime completes control over all areas in Syria. “It is trying to respect some of Turkey’s interests, but with a vision to integrate Turkey under the banner of the Iranian axis, and this is out of question,” he said, noting that Erdogan maneuvers just like Iran for the protection of interests.
What has happened to the agreements that ended crises and strengthened relations?
In the last century, Syrian-Turkish relations have been strained following diplomatic tension between the two countries that share an 822-kilometer border. This has nevertheless been interspersed with periods during which the two sides have sought to overcome acute differences through the signing of agreements in various fields, some of which are still valid and others have been cancelled due to the changes on the Syrian scene.
The following are the most important signed strategic agreements between Turkey and Syria during the rule of al-Assad family.
Euphrates Agreement to resolve water crisis
Turkey has signed an official protocol with Syria’s former president, Hafez al-Assad, in July 1987, to resolve the crisis of the shares of the Euphrates River, which the two countries share with Iraq.
The protocol stipulates that Turkey pumps 500 cubic meters per second of the Euphrates water, which stems from its territory, provided that this would be increased in the future to reach 700 cubic meters.
The Syrian regime has concluded a similar agreement with Iraq in 1989 stipulating the sharing of water pumped by Turkey to Syria, so that Iraq would receive 58 percent of it and Syria receives 42 percent.
In 1994, the Syrian regime has registered the former protocol at the United Nations to become a formal agreement guaranteeing the rights of the three countries in the Euphrates River waters. The agreement is still valid to present, despite accusations that Turkey has reduced the amount of water it pumps, while it has denied this.
Adana Agreement re-discussed
The Adana Agreement was signed between Turkey and Syria in 1998, when the relationship between the two countries was strained against the backdrop of the support of the Syrian regime and its president at that time, Hafez al-Assad, to the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan.
The agreement stipulates cooperation between the two countries to combat terrorism, Damascus’s end of all formations of the PKK and the removal of its leader Öcalan, as well as giving Turkey the right to pursue terrorists inside Syria to a depth of five kilometers and taking necessary security measures if its national security is threatened.
The agreement has been recently raised again when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called in January to re-discuss it with Syria, in light of Turkey’s intention to establish a safe area in northern Syria at a depth of 32 kilometers, meaning an increase of 27 kilometers from the provisions of the Adana Agreement, and to try to exclude the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which Turkey considers as an extension of the PKK, which is banned and classified as a terrorist group.
The Syrian regime, in turn, confirmed that it is still committed to the previous agreement, accusing Ankara of violating it through its support of the opposition factions.
Free Trade Agreement
The Free Trade Agreement is the first agreement to be concluded between Syria and Turkey in 2004, during the era of the Justice and Development Party, headed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the first agreement to be signed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with Turkey.
The agreement represents a turning point in the economic relations between the two countries. It stipulates the two-way free trade of some Syrian and Turkish goods, as well as the establishment of joint projects in the field of industry, infrastructure and services projects.
The agreement came into force in 2007. However, Turkey stopped adopting it at the end of 2011, in protest against the repressive Syrian regime’s practices against its people. It announced the suspension of all financial credit transactions with Syria and froze the regime’s assets in Turkish banks.
The regime immediately responded to the Turkish decision by officially announcing the suspension of the free trade agreement, imposing a 30%-fee on the Turkish-made materials imported to Syria, and then issuing a decree prohibiting the importation and circulation of Turkish goods in Syrian markets.
Sham Gen… A visa-free entry agreement
The Syrian regime reached a visa-free entry agreement with the Turkish side in 2009 for Syrian citizens wishing to enter to the Turkish territories, as well as Turkish citizens wishing to visit Syria.
Under the agreement, the consular procedures that the citizens of both countries had to go through in the past had been canceled. This was considered as an agreement that paved the way for an openness in Turkish-Syrian relations. The Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was prime minister at that time, called it Sham Gen, similar to the European Schengen agreement.
The agreement was cancelled in early 2016 when Turkey imposed entry visas on Syrian citizens, following the wave of asylum in the country, which received more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees.