With the possible exception of Lebanon, the Arab state with the worst 20th century relations with Turkey has been Syria. In the late 1930s, some Syrians objected to the incorporation of the former Sanjak of Alexandretta (part of French Mandate Syria – a de facto colony of France) into the Republic of Turkey as Hatay Province. This followed a 1939 referendum in Hatay which Turkey and France both recognised as legitimate, but which subsequent Syrian governments did not.
Relations remained strained throughout the Cold War era but became worse in 1984 when Syrian President Hafez al-Assad allowed the PKK terror organisation and its leader Abdullah Ocalan to set up base in Syrian territory along the Turkish border. While Damascus’s relations with the PKK were subsequently touch and go, from Damascus’s perspective, by hosting an anti-Turkish terror group, it supposedly gave Syria a form of leverage against a more militarily powerful northern neighbour.
Then however, in 1998, a new era in Turkey-Syria relations was inaugurated. In the final two years of Hafez al-Assad’s Presidency, Ankara and Damascus signed the Adana Agreement. This agreement stated that Syria would forevermore reject the PKK. Syria vowed to take action steps to prohibit the terror group from operating on Syrian soil and would instead cooperate with Ankara in taking measures to assure that the PKK would no longer be welcome in Syria. Crucially, in 1998, PKK terror leader Abdullah Ocalan was forced out of Syria by the Assad government in accordance with the Adana Agreement. It is also important to note that experts interpret the Adana agreement as a justification for Turkey’s right to use force against the PKK in Syria, should the the terrorists return to Syrian soil in the event that the Damascus government should be incapable of acting against the PKK.
It is therefore significant that during the latest bilateral meeting between Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdoğan, Putin referenced the Adana Agreement as a basis behind both Russia’s affirmed support for would-be Turkish anti-PKK operations in Syria and a related anti-PKK de-escalation zone along the Turkish border. Putin’s referencing of the Adana agreement also appears to indicate a parallel trend of Turkey moving quietly along the road to re-opening dialogue with Damascus. This was in fact alluded to earlier today when Turkey’s Foreign Minister acknowledged that Ankara and Damascus already have indirect contacts with one another, ostensibly through an Iranian or Russian intermediary.
– Turkey-US discussing who will be in Manbij administration
– Turkey in indirect contact with Syrian government
— Yusuf Erim (@YusufErim79) January 24, 2019
It is against the context of these latest developments that one ought to remember that between the signing of the Adana Agreement in 1998 and the outbreak of the present conflict in Syria in 2011, relations between Turkey and Syria were at an all time high.
In 2003 US President George W. Bush labelled Syria 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 Erdoğan would soon grow into one of Syria’s most meaningful partners.
In 2004, the then Prime Minister Erdoğan signed a free trade agreement with Syrian President Bashar 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 anti-Assad and more recently equally anti-Erdoğan Guardian newspaper described Erdoğan’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”.
With this in mind, it becomes clear that there was never a plan in Ankara to become involved in the Syria conflict but instead, the collapse of Syria’s government in regions near to Turkey’s border combined with public sentiments in Turkey which turned rapidly against Assad, led Turkey to commence with Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 in order to avoid the terrorist infestation in Syria from spilling over the border.
Today though, with Daesh defeated and with Turkey successfully constructing a border wall along much of its border with Syria, with Assad’s government bending but not ultimately breaking and with the last major pocket of terror concentrated in the north-east of Syria – it appears that the following steps to finally bring the conflict in Syria to an end will happen sooner rather than later:
1. The Astana Trio of Turkey, Russia and Iran will coordinate a Turkish led anti-YPG/PKK operation in northern Syria whilst also working to establish the last major Syrian de-escalation zone (aka safe zone) in the region, subsequent to the penultimate US withdrawal – a withdrawal that Donald Trump remains reportedly committed to in spite of domestic pressures arguing for the maintenance of an American troop presence in north-eastern Syria.
2. Turkey will work with the US to assure Washington that neither Iran nor Russia will have a great deal of political influence in north-eastern Syria. This is something ultimately Russia and Iran don’t mind because Iran has no natural ideological constituents in north-eastern Syria whilst Russia is happy to prove that it can compromise with the US via Turkey.
3. As Ankara and Damascus continue to speak via proxies, it appears that an eventual restoration of ties will depend on both the finalisation of a new constitution for Syria and fresh elections along with more importantly, a commitment by Damascus to uphold the Adana Agreement in exchange for normalisation of ties with Turkey. Here, Russia is all too willing to push Damascus in such a direction.
While there will certainly be bumps along this road to peace and reconciliation, the final result appears to increasingly be a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’.