A troubled distant past
If the first casualty of war is the truth, the second is clearly a historical perspective. In 2018, Turkey and Syria are still no closer to restoring diplomatic relations than they were two years ago at the height of the Syrian conflict. Even though it has been suggested, probably with veracity, that Damascus and Ankara quietly speak to one another via Russia, the internal political narrative in Syria remains that Turkey’s President Erdogan is a public enemy and likewise, most of Erdogan’s supporters would say the same of Syrian President Al-Assad. But not so long ago, the story was not just different, but entirely different.
Syria and Turkey have had tense relations for much of the 20th century. In 1923, clauses in the Treaty of Lausanne which some Syrians felt gave the Republic of Turkey historic Syrian land led to early tensions, while the Hatay incident of 1938 which saw Syria losing land to Turkey while still under French mandate (aka imperial) rule, only enshrined into the Syrian consciousness that modern Turkey had neo-Ottoman ambitions, even in the decades after Ataturk denounced Ottomanism.
Throughout the Cold War era, Turkey and Syria found themselves on the opposite sides of the ‘east-west’ spectrum while Turkey’s damning of rivers allegedly deprived Syria of fresh water sources. This was all compounded in the 1980s when the Syrian government made the fateful decision to allow the terrorist group PKK to use its soil for training and lodging purposes. Ironically, the same PKK has now set up a terrorist branch in Syria, the YPG and threatens the political and territorial unity of Syria, while systematically engaging in the ethnic cleaning of Arabs and non-Kurdish minorities.
A near perfect recent past
But in spite of this fraught 20th century history, at the turn of the 21st century, not only did relations between the neighbouring states thaw, but Syria and Turkey were beginning to embark on a substantial partnership. In 2003 US President George W. Bush labelled the Syrian Arab Republic as a country on the infamous “Axis of Evil” along with Saddam’s Iraq, Kim Jong-Ill’s DPRK and the Islamic Republic of Iran. That same year, Turkey’s new Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan would soon grow into one of Syria’s most meaningful partners.
In 2004, Premier Erdogan signed a free trade agreement with President Al-Assad in Damascus, signifying a dynamic shift in once hostile relations. In 2009, Turkey and Syria conducted their first ever joint military exercises while throughout this period, Turkey was embraced as a neutral mediator in the Syria-“Israel” dispute regarding the latter’s illegal occupation of the Golan Heights. Speaking of a would-be Turkish mediated peace process, in 2009, Bashar al-Assad stated,
“Turkey’s role is important because we have trust in Turkey”.
Even in late 2011, the always anti-Assad and more recently equally anti-Erdogan Guardian newspaper described Erdogan’s position vis-a-vis Syria in the following way,
“Despite its expressed support for the Arab uprisings, Turkey has exhibited some signs of favouring self-interest over principle. For example, until recently, Erdogan was reluctant to criticise his close ally, Bashar al-Assad, even though the Syrian regime’s suppression of protests has been among the most brutal and ruthless in a region whose political elites are not known for their squeamishness”.
Turning attempts at pragmatic policy making into nationalist mythology
Therefore, while politically incorrect to admit this to most Syrians and to most Turks, the reality is that Erdogan’s Turkey slid in to an adversarial position regarding the Syria conflict more by accident than by design. When Turkey ultimately decided to throw its weight behind the pro-US/anti-Assad proxies in Syria, he did so for a variety of non-ideological reasons. It goes without saying that he thought he was joining the “winning team” and that a few years of friendship with Syria did not justify throwing away an opportunity to be the most influential regional power in a would-be post-Assad/pro-American Syrian regime. But it is also clear that by 2015 when the situation in Syria became ever more chaotic, Turkey was concerned that some of the extremism in Syria could spread to Turkey and therefore, the thinking at the time in Ankara was that it was better to secure the trust of the violent forces who at the time looked like they would win the war, rather than risk living next to a war hardened new regime that could easily turn on an internally peaceful Turkey if trust was not established early on.
Today however, these realpolitik decisions are being misconstrued by both Turkish and Syrian patriots due to the conception of an ideological narrative wherein each side paints itself as fighting for good while naming the other as evil. The reason this narrative has arisen is that it is far easier for people to digest than the reality. Just consider how today most Americans think that Washington fought the southern secessionists of the 1860s over slavery. This was not the case. The American Civil War was mostly faught over the potential loss of revenue from southern states (southern products like tobacco and distilled alcohol were major sources of federal revenue at the time), the fear that a new Confederate States of America could ally with Washington’s geopolitical enemies and lastly because Abraham Lincoln did not want to set a precedent for newly conquered western states and territories to form their own Western States of America. After all, unlike the USSR which was theoretically a voluntary union where any member could leave at any time, the USA was and remains an involuntary union of states. President Lincoln who is revered as a hero to anti-slave campaigners could therefore equally be remembered as a kind of leader who if a Russian in 1989 would have acted to prevent the Baltic states from leaving the USSR or if he was a modern day EU President, he would be campaigning actively against the UK’s Brexit ambitions. It was only half way through the American Civil War that President Lincoln invoked a moral argument regarding the abolition of slavery. Likewise, it was only half way into the present Syrian conflict that Turkey and Syria developed their Manichean narrative about one another. In both cases, the mythology of moral appeal has resonated more widely than the more mundane realpolitik realities.
Russia as a barometer for realism
Throughout the Cold War and into the present day, Moscow has been a close partner of Syria. That being said, even Russia is not calling for a return to the pre-2011 status quo in Syria. Likewise, Iran too seeks to imbue Syria with characteristics that are more of a Ba’athist/Islamic Resistance hybrid rather than a return to pure Ba’athism. Therefore, if Syria’s two partners are even admitting (in Iran’s case semi-unintentionally and in Russia’s case openly and even adamantly) that the situation in Syria has irrevocably changed, then Turkey’s views must also be seen in this light rather than in an envisaged paradigm where both Russia and Iran are fighting for pure Ba’athism while Turkey is the odd regional player out.
At present, Russia, Turkey and Iran are working together in the Astana format to bring a negotiated settlement to the conflict. Thus far, Russia and Turkey have been more vocal as part of the process than Iran although all three have made important contributions to say the least. Turkey has long since renounced a policy of regime change in Damascus and has committed along with Russia and Iran to preserving and protecting Syria’s political and territorial unity. Turkey’s calls for the US to exit Syria, even in the aftermath of the Ankara-Washington agreement over anti-terrorist operations in Manbij, remain stronger than Russia’s and because of Turkey’s NATO membership, more geopolitically novel and hence more meaningful than Iran’s more predictable desire to see the US exit Syria.
With Damascus now embracing a Constitutional Convention which was made possible through the efforts of the Astana format, a new reality is dawning where in spite of the fierce rhetoric on both sides, Syria and Turkey are slowly on the long road to normalisation.
Muharrem Ince – the insincere Turkish opposition leader trying to seduce Syria into a trap
Many Syrians have noted that Turkish opposition Presidential candidate Muharrem Ince has called for a more or less immediate restoration of relations with Damascus. But in the same interview with Iran’s Mehr agency, the CH Party’s candidate also said that one of his main goals is to see Turkey joining the European Union if he becomes President.
These policies effectively cancel each other out as the EU’s sanctions on Syria meant that even if a Turkish leader wanted to re-open ties with Syria, the EU would just as rapidly shut that same door for all intents and purposes. The EU’s increasingly octopus like foreign policy mechanisms mean that few EU states really have an independent foreign policy of their own. Just ask Brussels-sceptic Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban how easy a time he is having in restoring trade with Russia. One can now ask the leaders of Italy, one of the EU’s largest states, the same question.
While under Erdogan, there is no chance that Turkey would ever be allowed by Turkophobic Brussels to make the nationally counter-productive decision to join a Union whose economic systems and ideology is totally alien to Turkey, if Ince was successful at turning Turkey into a European client state on the model of an Ankara-Maidan minus the fascism and economic idiocy, Brussels could in fact change its mind and this would mean that Turkey and Syria would stand no chance of any meaningful reconciliation in the near or medium term future.
While such things might still sound counter-intuitive, Syria and Turkey stand a far better chance of reconciliation if President Erdogan is re-elected on the 24th of June. Unlike Ince, who seems willing to surrender Turkish policy making to western partners, Erdogan remains fiercely independent in this respect and will likely grow more so if re-elected. Furthermore, unlike members of Ince’s party under whom Syria-Turkey relations were generally abysmal, Erdogan has a longer history of being friendly with Syria under President Al-Assad than he does of being an opponent.
With Turkey’s ever growing partnership with Russia, China and also Iran, Turkey has an important role to play in balancing out the all important perception politics in a post-conflict Syira. In other words, Erdogan’s position next to Presidents Putin and Rouhani is assuring to opponents of President Al-Assad that the post-conflict settlement won’t be a glorified victory lap for the perceived winners. Likewise, Erdogan’s clear pragmatic streak which is often misunderstood due to his bold rhetoric can make it so that the settlement does not prolong the conflict but allows it to settle into a status quo that will likely see President Al-Assad stay in power for the foreseeable future but with a constitution that offers concessions to various groups that aligned with his foreign enemies – something fully in line with the desires of Syria’s long standing Russian partner.
A symbolic handshake in a year’s time between Al-Assad and Erdogan could therefore be vital to a prolonged peace. One should think of this as the Middle Eastern equivalent of Kim Jong-un shaking hands with Moon Jae-in. In terms of significance it would be just as great.
Al-Assad’s supporters and Erdogan’s supporters will never fully embrace each other ever again, but when it comes to pragmatism, Syria would be better off living next door to a country governed by the fiercely independent and multipolar President Erdogan than a would-be pro-western prostitute in the form of Muharrem Ince.