Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrived in Turkey yesterday (October 16) at the beginning of a four-day visit, in another sign of a deepening rapprochement between the two countries less than a decade after they almost went to war over Damascus’s support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Assad last came to Turkey in January 2004 when he became the first serving Syrian head of state ever to pay an official visit to the country. In fall 1998 Turkey threatened to invade Syria, and massed troops and armor on the two countries’ border, unless Damascus expelled PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who had spent most of the previous 20 years either in Damascus or the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. After initially prevaricating, Syria agreed and subsequently also dismantled PKK camps in the country. Turkish intelligence reports suggest that today the organization has only a token presence in Syria, although it continues to use the country as a conduit for supplies and personnel going to the main PKK camps in northern Iraq.
Although bilateral ties had already improved considerably before the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in November 2003, there is little doubt that the party has been particularly assiduous in cultivating a better relationship with Damascus, not only on a political level but also in the economic sphere. In the last two years the Syrian authorities have approved more than 30 Turkish investment projects in the country with a total value of over $150 million (Zaman, October 17). Bilateral trade is expected to be around $1.5 billion in 2007, more than triple the figure when the AKP came to power.
When Israel launched an air strike against Syria on September 6, Turkey was not only vigorous in its condemnation of the raid but — amid speculation in the international press that the Israeli planes had used Turkish airspace — publicly reassured Syria that it would never allow its territory to be used for an attack against the country.
The rapprochement with Syria forms part of a strategy of what Professor Ahmet Davutoglu, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s chief foreign policy advisor, describes as “strategic depth” (Ahmet Davutoglu, “Stratejik Derinlik,” Küre Yayınları, 2004). Davutoglu maintains that the emphasis of previous governments on relations with Europe and the US has created an imbalance in Turkey’s foreign policy, which needs to be redressed by a more active engagement with the region.
However, there is little doubt that the concept also has considerable emotional appeal for the AKP and its supporters, not only because countries such as Syria are predominantly Muslim but also because the idea of Turkey playing a more active role in the Middle East plays into the AKP’s strong Ottoman nostalgia and its vision of Turkey emerging as a neo-Ottoman regional power.
In this context, it is not surprising that in their background briefings to Turkish journalists, AKP officials have been playing up the possibility of Assad’s visit forming part of a Turkish attempt to broker an agreement between Syria and Israel or at least lower tensions between the two countries (NTV, CNNTurk, October 17). Last week the official Syrian news agency, SANA, reported that Assad had confirmed in interviews with two Tunisian newspapers that Turkey was trying to mediate between Syria and Israel.
During his time in Turkey, Assad is also expected to discuss Turkey’s threat to launch a cross-border military operation against PKK camps in northern Iraq (see EDM, October 11) and plans for a ministerial meeting of Iraq’s neighbors in Istanbul at the beginning of November; although it is difficult to see how the meeting will be productive if Turkey defies the Iraqi government in Baghdad and launches a military strike against the PKK presence in northern Iraq.
In addition to meeting in Ankara with Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, Assad is also expected to spend two days in Istanbul, where he will visit a shipyard and meet with members of Turkey’s business community.
It is a sign of the dramatic change in the bilateral relationship that Assad’s visit has so far received very little coverage in the Turkish press. In the late 1990s, it was Syria that was vilified for its alleged complicity in the killings conducted by the PKK. In recent weeks, it has been the United States for opposing Turkey’s plans to launch a military strike against the organization’s camps in northern Iraq. Anti-Americanism has risen still higher since the October 10 approval by the House Foreign Affairs Committee of a resolution characterizing the massacres and deportations of Armenians by the Ottoman authorities during World War I as a genocide.
During an October 7 visit to Damascus, several days before the resolution was passed, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan described ties between Turkey and Syria as being “at their highest possible level” (CNNTurk, NTV, October 7). Such enthusiasm is in marked contrast to the distrust and distaste with which many in Turkey currently view the United States.