In late December, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a two-day visit to Syria, which abounded with optimistic prospects for future bilateral relations. Until recently, official Turkish policy toward Syria could be defined as one of conscious alienation and controlled tension. The changing nature of the relationship, however, is highly commendable if one considers the enduring problems between Turkey and other Middle Eastern states.
Turkey's three major problems with Syria, particularly during the 1990's, were water, the activities of the former Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and Turkey's rapprochement with Israel.
The apportionment of the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers has been a serious problem between Turkey and Syria in recent decades. For the Syrians the rivers are international waterways whose waters must be divided equally. The Turks, on the other hand, define them as trans-boundary watercourses and argue that Ankara is required only to allocate enough water to Syria and Iraq. Damascus and Baghdad had demanded a trilateral agreement over sharing the waters, and representatives of the three countries met several times for that purpose. However, the meetings did not go beyond agreeing technical issues. Iraq and Syria have an agreement over sharing the water that Turkey releases to them, but they never succeeded in bringing Turkey to accept their terms.
Turkey guaranteed a flow of 500 cubic meters per second to Syria in a protocol signed in 1987. Interestingly, the flow was raised to above 900 cubic meters in the aftermath of Turkey's crisis with Syria over Abdullah Ocalan in October 1998 (when Turkey demanded that the PKK leader be expelled from Syrian territory). During Erdogan's recent visit, the Turkish prime minister indicated that Syria could make further use of the Tigris waters, which may help put the water problem behind both countries.
A second problem between Syria and Turkey was Turkey's accusation that Syria provided help and shelter to the PKK, which has been at war with the Turkish state for the last two decades. Before the October 1998 crisis, it was clear that Syria sought to exploit the Kurdish problem and use it as leverage against Ankara in the dispute over water and other minor regional issues. The escalation of nationalist sentiment in Turkey, domestic uncertainties in Syria, Russia's withdrawal from Middle Eastern politics, and the suitability of the international environment, provided Turkey with an opportunity to take action.
As the tension between Syria and Turkey escalated, Ankara openly began to talk about a military operation against Syria to capture Ocalan and associates. Egyptian officials engaged in shuttle diplomacy between the two countries. This, and the constructive engagement of other countries in the region such as Jordan, led to Syrian President Hafez Assad's accepting Turkish terms, which was formalized with the signing of the Adana Accord. Even before agreeing to the Turkish demands, Assad had deported Ocalan. The entire process satisfied the Turkish side, and bilateral relations improved once the PKK crisis ended.
A third issue affecting Syrian-Turkish relations was the rapprochement between Israel and Turkey in the late 1990's and Syria's perception that the alliance was directed against it. With its main security threat to the south, Damascus now felt that the Turkish-Israeli alliance sandwiched it between two unfriendly states. However, relations between Turks and Israelis have not been as good in recent years, once the Justice and Development Party took over leadership of the Turkish government. Erdogan's harsh criticism of Israeli policies in the occupied Palestinian territories (not to mention shared Syrian and Turkish attitudes toward the war in Iraq) has helped reduce Syrian worries that it might soon pay for the relations between its northern and southern neighbors.
For a long time Turkey and Syria were locked in a relationship shaped by historical enmity, the prevalence of hostile establishment ideologies, and the attempts of policymakers to "externalize" some major domestic problems. However, the more recent changes in Turkey's domestic politics and international orientation have brought political maturity, helping to push to the background the country's national security apparatus. Meanwhile, though change has not occurred there to the same extent as Turkey, Syria has also undergone transformation. Both countries' reform processes and mutual goodwill paved the way for a solution to the three major problems between the two states.
While Turkey is accustomed to balancing between the chaotic Middle Eastern system and the peace and stability of Europe, it now appears to be moving closer to the European Union. It has succeeded in minimizing its problems with surrounding countries, even as Iran and Syria have made positive approaches to Turkey in the context of their possible future proximity with an EU state
More specifically, close relations between Turkey and Syria are highly meaningful from both commercial and security standpoints. President Bashar Assad has pursued a more pragmatic line in Syria's relations with the West, particularly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. His pursuing a constructive policy line will help get rid of the suspicions directed at Syria and also delegitimize attempts to isolate it in the international system. Turkey and Syria have legitimate concerns about the future of Iraq and should cooperate in every possible way, as they already have started doing, to enhance peace and stability.
Indeed, Turkish policymakers have, on a regular basis, brought together the countries bordering Iraq. Turkey and Syria have actively cooperated in these meetings, which has certainly helped spur improved ties. The United Nations Security Council has also taken these meetings seriously and has requested further regional cooperation on the Iraqi question.
During Erdogan's recent visit to Damascus, Syria and Turkey signed a free-trade agreement, which should be expanded to the regional level. In this way, the two countries may help catch the spirit of time, namely cooperation and interdependence for enduring peace and stability, which would be an exemplary pattern for other neighboring countries to follow.
Bulent Aras is an independent political consultant on Turkish and Middle Eastern affairs and an associate professor of international relations at Fatih University in Istanbul. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR