February 7, 2017

Erdogan — Assad: from Friendship to Enmity

Oleksiy Volovych

In the early 1990s, the role of Turkey as a NATO outpost in the Middle East, South–East Europe and the Black Sea–Caspian region gradually began to decline, and its independent activity in adjacent regions to grow. After the collapse of the bipolar world order, Ankara's geo-political ambitions, which the researchers define as “neo-Ottomanism” or “panturanism” have increased significantly. According to the “neo-Ottomanism” concept, Turkey's foreign policy is aimed at its transformation into a leading regional power due to the growing influence in the adjacent regions.

In Turkey's foreign policy concept, special attention is paid to creating an outer security belt. The basic principle of Turkey's current foreign policy is “zero problems with neighbors”. But Turkey's bilateral relations with most of the neighboring countries are far from stable. With Iraq and Syria Turkey for several years has been in state of war. A special place among these countries is taken by Syria, Turkey's border with which is more than 800 km. Over the past 5 years, Turkey's relations with Syria have radically changed — from strategic partnership to a military confrontation. Let's try to trace and analyze how it happened, what it led to, and what it can end in.


Normalization of the Turkish-Syrian Relations

In the second half of the twentieth century, the Turkish-Syrian relations were characterized by mutual mistrust and suspicions. Ankara accused Damascus of complicity with the Armenian terrorists in their actions against Turkish diplomats overseas. One of the sources of tension in bilateral relations was Turkey's construction of the dam on the Euphrates River without prior consultations with Syria. Among other reasons, complicating the Turkish-Syrian relations in the 90-ies of the last century are Ankara's accusing Syria of assisting the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), as well as the Greek Cypriots. The signing in February 1996 of the Turkish-Israeli agreement on military-technical cooperation also sharply exacerbated the already tense relations between Turkey and Syria.

After coming to power of the party “Justice and Development” in November 2002, the Turkish regional policy has undergone significant changes, aimed at reviving Turkey's leading role in the Middle East through a rapprochement with Arab countries and weakening the Turkish-Israeli relations, as the former “strategic alliance” between the Israel and Turkey almost blocked the activation of this role.

B. Assad's first visit to Turkey in early January 2004 was called “historic” in both countries. During the visit, the sides expressed a desire to develop cooperation in various fields. The talks emphasized that Turkey and Syria had more in common than differences, which was a solid foundation for further development of good neighborly relations. From that moment began Erdogan and Assad's friendship began, as well as that of their wives. Their families were friends and spent holidays and weekends together, as good neighbors...

Within the framework of the established in 2009 Strategic High-Level Cooperation Council, 50 agreements have been signed in the political, socio-economic and commercial spheres. The trade turnover between Turkey and Syria has grown from 730 million US dollars in 2000 to 2.5 billion US dollars in 2010. Turkey's annual exports to Syria from 2001 to 2010 rose from 281 million US dollars to 1 billion 845 million US dollars. Turkish investments in Syria in 2010 reached 1 billion US dollars. In 2009 Turkey and Syria signed a memorandum on uniting the gas transmission systems of the two countries, allowing Syria in the future to receive natural gas from Iran or Iraq through Turkey in the amount of 0.5–1 billion cubic meters for five years, starting in 2011. Turkish-Syrian ties were strengthened at the level of ordinary citizens. Thus, in 2010, 750 thousand Syrians visited Turkey and 1 million 350 thousand Turks visited Syria.

Damascus and Ankara condemned the occupation of Iraq by the Western Coalition led by the United States. During the Arab leaders' meeting in Cairo at the beginning of March 2003, B. Assad called the US plans for Iraq “robbery on the high road”. Ankara's condemnation of the USA's operations in Iraq caused excitement in the Arab world. Being the USA and NATO's strategic member, Turkey, nevertheless, did not allow US troops to be deployed in its territory on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. The development of good-neighborly relations between Ankara and Damascus in the situation where Syria was subject to massive pressure from the USA, was a definite challenge to the United States and Israel on the part of the Turkish leadership, headed by R. Erdogan.


Turkey's Relations with Syria in 2011

The so-called “Arab revolutions” of early 2011 gave Turkey an additional opportunity to show its activity in the Middle East process. Prime Minister R. Erdogan strongly supported the “revolutionary movement” in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria. In his speech, February 1, 2011, R. Erdogan said that “Turkey is playing a role that will change the course of history and help rebuild the Middle East region from scratch”. Turkey's leadership hoped that, if the authoritarian regimes in the Arab countries were replaced with Islamists, it would strengthen Turkey's intermediary positions between the new governments in the Arab world and the West.

From the very beginning of the unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, Ankara stood for peaceful resolution of conflicts between the authorities and the opposition in the Arab world. Turkey's leadership constantly stressed that Ankara developed its relations with the Arab countries, not only on the basis of cooperation between the governments, but also, first of all, on the basis of cooperation and direct contacts between the peoples, based on the fact that the authorities are subject to change, while the peoples always remain. The Turkish leadership had repeatedly warned “behind closed doors” the leaders of the Arab countries about the need for reform in order to avoid social unrest.

Before the beginning of 2011, Ankara and Damascus sought to make their relationship a model for cooperation between Turkey and other Arab countries. But it was not to be. The Syrian opposition's demonstrations, which began in mid-March in the city of Daraa, soon spread to the central and northern cities: Banias, Idlib, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Latakia. The Turkish leadership was closely monitoring the situation in Syria and repeatedly expressed its concern officially. Unlike Western countries, Ankara initially avoided harsh statements regarding the actions of the Syrian leadership. R. Erdogan maintained a constant dialogue with B. Assad, urging him to make effective political and economic reforms in Syria.

Already in April 2011, in the border area of Turkey with Syria in the camp there were about 250 Syrian refugees. (To date, according to different sources, their number has grown to 3 million). Turkey's National Security Council called on Syria to “immediately implement reforms to address the Syrian people's rightful political, social and economic demands”. The statement also reaffirmed Turkey's support for the Syrian leadership's actions in the reform. However, in early May, R. Erdogan's rhetoric about the situation in Syria changed significantly. May 2, 2011, Erdogan harshly criticized the Syrian leadership over the incident in Hama, killing a large number of anti-government demonstrators. By the end of 2011, relations between Turkey and Syria had extremely deteriorated and turned from friendly into hostile ones.


The Turkish-Syrian Confrontation after 2011

August 9, 2011, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Damascus in order to express to the Syrian government “R. Erdogan's indignation due to the Syrian government's uncivilized actions against the opposition”. During the visit, A. Davutoglu announced the termination of all deals between Turkey and Syria. On 22 June 2012, Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance aircraft RF-4E near the Turkish-Syrian border. According to the Syrian military, the aircraft had violated Syria's airspace. The Turkish side denied the trespassing.

October 3, 2012, the Turkish army attacked the Syrian troops after the Syrian mortar shell killed five people in Turkey. After this incident, the Turkish parliament voted in favor of possible military intervention in Syria and actually gave R. Erdogan's government carte blanche on a military operation in Syria. R. Erdogan and B. Assad continued to exchange “pleasantries”. Erdogan said that Assad had to go, while Assad advised Erdogan not to interfere with sovereign Syria's internal affairs.

October 10, 2012, F-16 fighter of Turkish Air Force intercepted a Syrian Airbus A320, flying from Moscow to Damascus and forced it to land at Esenboga International Airport, 28 kilometers north-east of Ankara. On board the plane was discovered a cargo of Russian-made weapons. Syria accused Turkey of air piracy and closed its airspace to the Turkish Civil Aviation. March 23, 2014, Turkey downed a Syrian warplane near the common border. Syria condemned the Turkish actions, claiming that the aircraft was after the armed forces of the Syrian opposition, without violating the Turkish airspace.

In November 2012, National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCORF) — a Syrian opposition association which includes 16 organizations — was formed in Doha (Qatar) with the active support of Turkey. Head of the NCORF became Ahmed Jarboe. As a “legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” the Coalition was recognized by six Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, Turkey, France, Great Britain and the United States. Saudi Arabia and Qatar became the main financial sponsors of the Syrian opposition. The main part of the organized Syrian opposition (“Syrian National Council”) is based in Turkey.

Having found his former “friend” B. Assad's chances for survival minimal, R. Erdogan began to support the Syrian opposition. In August 2011, the Turkish authorities equipped a camp on their territory for formation and training of armed units of the so-called “Free Syrian Army” (FSA), composed of deserters, initially about 300 officers and ten thousand soldiers. The FSA was headed by the Syrian deserter Colonel Riyad al-Asaad.

Apart from Syrians, in Turkey were formed squads of radical Islamists from Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Somalia, Chechnya and many other countries, including European ones, who were trained by military instructors from western countries. According to the Turkish “Newspaper of Northern Anatolia” (“Kuzeyanadolugazetesi”), the Turkish state provided “full support” to the a terrorist organization “Jabhat al-Nusra” and other radical Islamist groups, leading the fighting in Syria.


Erdogan's War against Assad

August 24, 2016, Turkey launched a military operation “Shield of Euphrates” in Syria near Dzharablus to clear the border areas with Turkey from ISIS militants and armed forces of the Syrian Kurds, considered by Turkey terrorist and affined with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). At this, Turkey, under Russia's mediation, warned Damascus of the beginning of the operation. The Turkish Armed Forces' operation in northern Syria had been planned long before August 2016, however, the extreme sharpening of Russian-Turkish relations due to the downed on 24 November, 2015 Russian bomber Su-24 forced Turkey to postpone the military operation for 10 months.

Syria called Turkey's military operation in its territory “invasion and violation of Syrian sovereignty”. Damascus stated that the Syrian air defense would shoot down any aircraft of Turkish Air Force if it appears in the airspace of the SAR. November 24, Syrian Air Force for the first time since the beginning of the operation “Shield of the Euphrates” in the North of Syria, attacked the Turkish troops resulting in several Turkish soldiers being killed and wounded.

Washington called for the immediate cessation of fighting between the Turkish Armed Forces and the forces of Syrian Kurds in northern Syria. August 29, the Chief of Pentagon E. Carter said that Turkey should focus on fighting militants and ISIS, and not the Kurds. September 4 during the meeting with his Turkish colleague R. Erdogan, US President Barack Obama criticized Turkey's advance to the south of Syria and combat actions against the Kurdish “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), supported by the United States. Ankara called such statements unacceptable and inconsistent with the allied relations between Ankara and Washington.

Map of Kurdish settlementMap of Kurdish settlement

According to official statements, the compromise was never reached, and the parties stayed in their positions. The head of the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces, General Hulusi Akar, in his statement confirmed that the military operation in the north of Syria, “Shield of the Euphrates” would continue “until the elimination of the last terrorist”. The Turkish leadership has repeatedly stated that it considers the Syrian Kurds a strategic enemy, and about Turkey's negative attitude to the American plans to use them in the war against the ISIS terrorist organization. During his speech at the UN on 23 September 2016, R. Erdogan sharply criticized Washington's support for the Kurdish militias from the Democratic Union Party (DUP).

The United Nations, the Foreign Ministries of Russia and Iran also expressed “deep concern” about the actions of the Turkish Armed Forces in Syria. September 15, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation V. Gerasimov pointed to the illegality of the actions of the Turkish Army in Syria, and to the risks in case if the “Shield of the Euphrates” operation continues for too long. However Washington's and Moscow's demarches did not stop Ankara. By mid-October 2016, the Turkish troops and allied rebel groups had created a 10-kilometer “security zone” on Syrian territory along the 800-kilometer Syrian-Turkish border. Later, Turkey announced its readiness to expand the “security zone” from 10 to 50 kilometers into Syria. On 18 October, Ankara announced that within two months of the “Shield of the Euphrates” operation, the FSA's formations with the support of the Turkish troops cleared of the ISIS militants 1250 square kilometers. December 11, the FSA's formations with Turkish Armed Forces' support captured El-Bab, 36 km from Aleppo.

R. Erdogan's statement of November 29, 2016, at the Symposium of the Inter-parliamentary “Jerusalem Platform” in Istanbul that Turkey began the operation “Shield of the Euphrates” in Syria “in order to put an end to the rule of the tyrant Assad, terrorizing the population”, caused obvious confusion and anger in the Kremlin, which demanded explanations from R. Erdogan. S. Lavrov, who on 1st December was in Turkey on an official visit, said that “demanding the resignation of Syrian President B. al-Assad is not acceptable as no one had concluded such agreements”. This statement by R. Erdogan shows that Ankara, despite the formal agreements with Russia, pursues its own goals in Syria, which obviously do not coincide with Russia's ones, especially concerning the fate of President of the SAR B. Assad.

October 13, 2016, in an interview to “Komsomolskaya Pravda” B. Assad expressed hope that Russia would be able to influence Ankara, so that it changed its policy towards Damascus and the Syrian conflict. However, in response to Moscow's repeated appeals to the Turkish side about the need to establish a dialogue with Damascus, Turkish Foreign Minister A. Cavusoglu said that the normalization of relations between Turkey and Russia “does not imply a change in Ankara's position on Syria and Assad”. According to him, Turkey has not and will not have any negotiations with President of SAR B. Assad.

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History and international relations are never spoken about in the subjunctive mood. But still, if Turkey remained neutral and, according to international law, did not interfere with the internal Syrian conflict, it seems that there would not be such devastating and tragic consequences there. However, this applies not only to Turkey but also to many other countries, who interfered with the Syrian conflict, quenching, first of all, their geopolitical ambitions, and not caring about the interests of the Syrian people. However, it is Turkey which has become, unfortunately, the main bridgehead for the foreign intervention against a sovereign Syria.

No matter how for long the wars continue, they do come to an end some day, but not always the way the participants would like them to. It is obvious that the Turkish leadership and its allies completely exclude B. Assad's remaining president of the postwar Syria. This is not just excluded by other countries (Russia, China, Iran, Iraq, Egypt), but they also consider it necessary to leave B. Assad president of Syria during the transitional period and to let him participate in the upcoming presidential elections. But this should be decided by the Syrian people alone, not by external forces. The duty of the international community is to ensure and guarantee the right of the Syrian people to free expression of its will. And whom the Syrians will be elected to the presidency — it is up to them to decide.

23–24 January, in Astana was the beginning of the talks between the representatives of the Syrian government and a part of the Syrian opposition. It is hoped that the two sides will finally agree on a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis. But even if the Syrian crisis is resolved peacefully, the old friendship between Erdogan and Assad will not return. The point of no return has already been passed. But then the personal relationship between the two leaders is not so important. Leaders come and go. It is important for the Turkish and Syrian peoples to live in peace, harmony and good-neighborliness. And this time will surely come.