Hot Issue– The Strategic Implications of the Syrian Uprising: A View from Turkey

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, left, meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Executive Summary:

Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist regime, once considered the Middle East region’s most secure, is showing signs of vulnerability in the wake of the Syria uprisings. Al-Assad’s violent crackdown in recent weeks has emboldened his opponents and driven them to demand that he step aside. While thousands of Syrians have been injured by government security services and a further 1,400 Syrians have been killed in protests, al-Assad still enjoys popularity among Syrians. Although there is a lengthy history of religious and ethnic division in Syria, it is the absence of political freedom under the rule of an authoritarian regime which has caused Syrians to unite in protest. As a member of the ‘Resistance Axis’ and located in a politically turbulent part of the Middle East, Syria has a high level of geopolitical importance, particularly in its relations with Turkey. Turkey, a close ally of Syria, has continued to support al-Assad and urge him to implement meaningful reforms. Turkey stands as a prime example of how a Muslim nation can embrace development and democracy in the Middle East. As a consequence, Turkey’s actions and response to the crisis in Syria are being closely watched by the international community. In the Arab Spring uprisings, Turkey responded cautiously to Tunisia and with a declaration of peoples’ rights in Egypt. The geopolitics of the Turkey-Syria relationship dictates that Turkey stand by al-Assad, but it is losing the admiration of the Arab and Muslim publics throughout the Middle East as it does so. As Turkey looks to what a post-Assad relationship with Ankara might entail it also sees the loss of its favored status quo in the Syrian government. The difference between what lies ahead under a continued crackdown by a harsh al-Assad regime and in a post-Assad government bears a great deal of importance for Turkey.


As the uprising in Syria rages into its sixth month, the impact of the rapidly transpiring developments is reverberating across the broader Middle East. Emblematic of the power of what, in essence, represents a kind of demonstration effect, the ruling Baathist regime headed by President Bashar al-Assad – once thought of as one of the region’s most entrenched and secure regimes – proved vulnerable to the mobilization of people-power that has gripped the Arab world. The regime’s harsh crackdown against demonstrators in the southern town of Deraa in mid-March – a move designed to cow demonstrators into submission – achieved the opposite effect, emboldening demonstrators throughout Syria. Initial calls by the opposition for the regime to institute modest political reforms have since been replaced by outright demands that al-Assad step down. The intensity and geographic scope of dissent has since grown exponentially, engulfing towns and cities across Syria. Over 1,400 Syrians have been reported killed since the uprising began with thousands more injured or detained by the security services.

The fallout of the unrest for Turkey, which has forged a close bond with Syria in recent years, warrants a closer look. Turkey continues to stand by al-Assad in spite of growing international condemnation of his actions, urging for him to implement meaningful reforms while opposing calls for regime change. Ankara’s position towards Damascus may, however, be witnessing a shift. While affirming his support for Damascus and his confidence in the regime’s capacity to reform itself, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the protests as a “fight for freedom” (Today’s Zaman [Istanbul], May 25). Turkey has also hosted two conferences organized by Syrian opposition members where attendees called for, among other things, the end of al-Assad’s rule (Hurriyet [Istanbul], June 1). [1] Against the backdrop of Syrian refugee flows into Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan appealed to al-Assad to end his violent crackdown and to make concessions to the protesters (Today’s Zaman, June 15). As of July, over 11,000 Syrian refugees have sought refuge in Turkey since the start of the violence (Today’s Zaman, June 26).

As the international community steps up pressure on Damascus, the unfolding events in Syria are having far reaching strategic implications for Turkey. Tough rhetoric and sanctions aside, the international community, including Turkey, continues to take a measured approach to the situation in Syria, avoiding calls for al-Assad to step down, an indication, perhaps, of concerns about the regional repercussions of what further instability in Syria would mean. [2] Further complicating matters is the strong support al-Assad continues to enjoy among many Syrians. Overall, the crisis in Syria has presented Turkey with a series of serious challenges to its diplomatic, economic, and security interests.

The Geopolitics of Syria

To appreciate how the unrest in Syria impacts Turkey, a synopsis of Syria’s geopolitics is in order. Situated between Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel (Israel continues to occupy Syria’s Golan Heights region it captured in the 1967 War) [3] and serving as a member of the so-called “Resistance Axis” – an alliance made up of Iran, Syria, Hizballah, and Hamas that stands as the antithesis to the U.S.-shaped order in the region that rests on alliances with Israel and autocracies such as Saudi Arabia – Syria is uniquely placed to impact events in the Middle East.

Having largely retained its influence in Lebanon after withdrawing its troops from the country in 2005, Syria remains the main powerbroker in Lebanese politics. Syria continues to count on Hizballah in Lebanon while providing the group with the strategic depth it needs to maintain its deterrent capability against Israel. Syria is also Iran’s most important ally in the region and is host to the political leadership of Hamas. From the onset, Syria was integral to shaping the course of Iraqi politics in the post-Saddam era. On the international front, Syria outwitted efforts by the United States and Israel to isolate it in recent years, shoring up diplomatic contacts and business ties with the European Union, Turkey, Russia, China and Latin America; even Washington modified its stance toward Damascus, appointing Ambassador Robert Ford to Syria, the first U.S. ambassador to serve in Damascus since 2005. Despite its weak economy, Syria has leveraged its diplomacy and geography to nurture a web of alliances with both state and non-state actors that have enabled it to punch well above its weight in international affairs. Until recently, Syria’s domestic political situation was also seen as highly stable. Al-Assad consolidated his position after being thrust reluctantly into the political spotlight following the untimely death of his older brother and heir apparent to succeed Hafiz al-Assad. The junior al-Assad became president in 2000 at the age of 34, carrying with him a reputation as a reformer that elicited cautious optimism among democracy activists in Syria and abroad who believed that he would charter a path of political and economic reform.

As one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse countries in the region, Syria’s demographics also shape its geopolitics. In spite of the secular pan-Arab and Syrian nationalism promulgated by the Baath Party, the prominent place of Alawis among the Syrian leadership, a Muslim sect widely considered to be heterodox by many Muslims that represents about 12 percent of the total population of around 22 million – al-Assad and many of the regime’s most sensitive positions in the political, military, and intelligence sectors are occupied by Alawis tied to the state – is often cited as a source of discontent, particularly among Sunni Arabs, who number around 75 percent of the population. The elder al-Assad’s razing of Hama in 1982 – some estimates place the number of dead as high as 20,000 or more – is a focal point of Sunni Islamist opposition led by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and is cited as an example of the lengths to which the regime will go to quash threats to its rule. Even with the prominence of Alawis tied to the regime, however, the sectarian aspects of al-Assad’s rule are exaggerated; through an elaborate system of patronage and political clientelism, the regime has cultivated a diverse support base, especially among Sunni Arab business classes and other elites, particular in urban areas, as well as among the Syrian middle classes, that cuts across sectarian identities. At this point, there is little evidence to indicate that the rebellion has taken on a sectarian face.

Syria is also home to a significant Arab Christian population – among the oldest and largest in the Middle East – as well as smaller communities of Shia Muslims and Druze. Syria also boasts Armenian and Kurdish populations; Syria’s northern and northeastern regions are home to a largely underserved Kurdish community numbering between one and a half and two million. [4] Syria is also home to Turkish (often referred as Turkmen), Assyrian, and Circassian populations, as well as large Palestinian and Iraqi refugee populations. [5]

The Syrian regime – even while enjoying loyal support in many circles – has failed to satisfy the expectations of large segments of its population. The absence of political freedoms and accountability in government, widespread corruption, economic failures, and disregard for human rights – all symptoms of the brand of authoritarianism typical of the sitting governments in the region – has inspired many Syrians to revolt. Meanwhile, Damascus has accused various currents for the ensuing instability, including radical salafists – Damascus has long been a target of radical salafist and al-Qaeda-inspired militancy – as well as foreign-directed conspiracies from regional rivals and criminal gangs.

Syria, in many respects, is a lynchpin of stability for both its allies and foes alike. While the outrage over the regime’s response to protesters grows more strident, criticism of Damascus is often qualified by expressions of support for al-Assad, however, lukewarm, due to his credentials as a reformer and fear of what continued instability would mean for the region. Syria’s arch rival Israel has also expressed unease over the instability there. Notwithstanding their mutual hostility, Syria has engaged in backchannel peace talks with Israel. While tensions between both sides may play out in full view in places such as Lebanon, Syria has, for all intents and purposes, abided by its ceasefire agreements with Israel in regards to the Golan Heights and other areas, a reality that has allowed Israel to expand settlements on Syrian territory virtually uncontested. A new government in Damascus, however, may not prove so accommodating to Israel’s position in the Golan Heights. Taking a page out of Hizballah’s successful strategy of employing armed resistance against Israeli forces in southern Lebanon, a post-al-Assad Syria may adopt similar measures to expel Israeli forces and reassert its control over the region, upending the unwritten rules of the game that have guided Syria’s relations with Israel for decades.

Turkey’s Stakes in Syria

Given Turkey’s relationship with Syria, a relationship both sides tout as a strategic partnership, coupled with its growing diplomatic and economic prowess in the Middle East, have placed it in a difficult position with respect to the unrest in Syria. The upheaval in Syria also shines a spotlight on Turkey in another crucial aspect. With its marked rise in influence and its status as a strong and stable Muslim democracy and its commitment to engaging Arabs and Muslims, Turkey has also emerged as an example of progress and development and a potential model for its neighbors to emulate. It is no surprise, therefore, why Turkey’s rhetoric and positions on the turmoil in the wider region, including in Syria, are being closely scrutinized.

A far cry from the days when Turkey threatened to invade Syria in late 1998 in response to the latter’s support for the Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK, Kurdistan Workers Party), Turkey and Syria staged a joint military exercise in April 2009 and signed a range of military agreements laying the groundwork for continued security cooperation. Territorial disputes revolving around Syria’s claim on Turkey’s southern Hatay Province as well as disagreements over Turkey’s water usage and management of rivers on which Syria relies have been sidelined in favor bolstering diplomatic and economic ties. Turkey and Syria have inked a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and other economic accords (Hurriyet, January 2). [6] Visitors to Syria are quickly struck by the ubiquity of Turkish products available in the marketplace, from basic consumer goods to household appliances to textiles to construction materials. [7] To encourage greater contacts in the business, tourist, and cultural sectors, both Turkey and Syria removed mutual visa requirements for visitors (Anatolia News Agency [Ankara], September 17, 2009).

The renaissance in relations between Ankara and Damascus is best understood in the context of Turkey’s efforts to assert itself as a Muslim power in the Middle East. As a U.S. ally, NATO member, and aspirant to join the European Union (EU), Turkey’s overt Western orientation over the years came at the expense of friendlier ties with its Muslim neighbors, a region comprising much of its former Ottoman sphere of influence. While Turkey never abandoned its pro-Western posture, growing unease over U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq in the form of U.S. support for the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) – a quasi-independent Kurdish state – coupled with the repeated denials by Brussels to grant it entry into the EU, prompted Ankara to redefine its foreign policy, broadening the concept of Turkish strategic interests. The meteoric rise of the moderately Islamist Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP, Justice and Development Party) also underlines the important shifts in Turkish domestic politics as well as foreign policy. Encapsulated through its philosophy of “zero problems with neighbors,” where they were once viewed through the lens of a security prism, Turkey’s Arab and Muslim neighbors are now seen as partners and allies. Turkey has also raised its profile on issues related to the Iranian nuclear program and talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. Turkey also mediated indirect talks between Israel and Syria. Turkey’s break with Israel over the latter’s December 2008 invasion of Gaza and assault against the MV Mavi Marmara, the Turkish-flagged ship that was traveling as part of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in May 2009 to highlight Israel’s siege against the Palestinians of Gaza, further endeared it to Middle Eastern publics long wary of what is widely viewed as a hostile U.S.- and Israeli-led hegemony over the region.

Turkey’s star remained high amid the wave of revolts that spread across the region. Much like the United States, which wavered in its response to the uprising that threatened its ally in Tunisia, Turkey responded cautiously to the fall of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (Today’s Zaman, January 16). Yet when the United States moved to shore up President Hosni Mubarak’s rule after the unrest reached Egypt, Turkey earned the admiration of Egyptians and Arabs when Erdogan declared: “Hear the cry of the people and their extremely humane demands. Meet the people’s desire for change without hesitation. No government can stand against the people” (Christian Science Monitor, January 27; Hurriyet, February 1). In contrast to its strong words supporting the opposition in Egypt, Turkey appears invested in al-Assad even amid the crackdown and while it issues calls for Syria to institute reforms. While Turkish support for al-Assad cannot be considered a foregone conclusion in the long-term, the nature of Turkish-Syrian relations shapes Ankara’s approach to the crisis in Syria. This reality places Ankara in an uncomfortable spot; while the geopolitics dictates that Turkey stand by al-Assad, continued support for the Baathist regime amid the escalating violence is sure to harm Turkey’s standing among Arab and Muslim publics who just recently lauded it for supporting reform in the region.

The ongoing turmoil in Syria threatens Turkey in a multitude of ways. The refugee crisis along its southern frontier with Syria is likely to grow amid the violent crackdown by Damascus. As both countries share an open border, the flow of Syrian refugees into Turkey will continue commensurate with the scale of the violence in northern Syria. The relatively flat terrain as well as ethnic and familial ties shared by ethnic Arabs in southern Turkey with their Syrian kin will also likely induce Syrians to see Turkey as a refuge from the violence back home. In the event of a full-fledged civil war fought along ethnic, sectarian, regional, or ideological lines in Syria, Turkey would likely become host to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.

The continued unrest also threatens the security cooperation Ankara has built with Damascus, namely in the form of Syria’s efforts to root out PKK guerillas that organize and operate against Turkey from Syrian soil. Reports that Syrian Kurds are mobilizing under a Kurdish nationalist banner and statements issued by the PKK in support of the plight of Syrian Kurds amid the current tumult raises the specter of adding another front to an already emboldened Kurdish militant campaign in Turkey and the wider region. The continued instability in Syria also threatens to leave Turkey’s southern flank increasingly vulnerable to infiltration by al-Qaeda-style militants who may seek to target Turkey or U.S. interests there.

The notion of what a post-al-Assad Syria would look like and mean for Turkey is also ambiguous. It is unclear whether the diplomatic and economic gains Turkey has reaped in recent years will remain in place in a post-al-Assad Syria. Turkey will surely attempt to shape the trajectory of the Syrian opposition forces to coincide with its vital national interests if it determines that al-Assad’s position has become untenable, cultivating and bolstering potential allies while, in the process, sidelining unfavorable actors. The opposition forces mobilizing against al-Assad are diverse and complex, embodying myriad players and diverging interests that cut across Syrian society and the broader spectrum of Middle East geopolitics; Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Europe, China, Russia as well as the United States will jockey for position in any post-al-Assad scenario, a reality that threatens to undermine the favorable status quo cultivated by Ankara in recent years.

Turkey appears keen to see al-Assad weather the storm of revolt. Syria’s neighbors likely share a similar view with respect to al-Assad. For all of its rhetoric, the United States is uneasy about the further breakdown of order in Syria and what a post-al-Assad scenario portends. Syria recognizes the forces at play and is operating accordingly. At the same time, Turkey’s genuine concerns with the violence in Syria coupled with its calls for al-Assad to institute substantive reforms may also signal an effort on its part to lay the groundwork for a shift in policy down the line. While al-Assad may be confident in the support he continues to receive from Turkey, however tepid, Turkey’s about-face with respect to the situation in Libya, which saw Turkey shift from a nuanced position towards Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi ostensibly to protect its economic interests in Libya, only to later reverse its position and side with the opposition, is certainly weighing heavily on Damascus. Turkey is also wary of losing the goodwill it has earned among Arab and Muslim publics, as its longing for the previous status quo may engender feelings around the region that it is actively assisting the violent crackdown against protesters.


   1. A meeting of Syrian opposition forces dubbed the “Conference for Change in Syria” was held between May 31 and June 2, in Turkey’s southern city of Antalya. The event attracted secular liberals, Islamists affiliated with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, human rights and civil society activists, representatives of Syria’s Kurdish minority, business and youth leaders, among others. The official website of the “Conference for Change in Syria” offers details on the group’s official positions, (accessed June 2011). In a sign of their enmity toward the regime, some conference attendees brandished the green, white, and black flag that predated Baathist rule in Syria. A meeting of Syrian opposition figures dubbed the “National Salvation Congress” was also hosted in Istanbul on July 16.
   2. France led the way with its call for a vote in the United Nations Security Council on a resolution condemning Syria’s response to the protests. The United States and European Union have already slapped unilateral sanctions on individual members of the regime. Even U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s description of al-Assad rule’s as having “lost legitimacy” stopped short of calling for him to step down. See Al-Jazeera, “Clinton says Assad has ‘lost legitimacy,” July 12, 2011.
   3. Israel unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, a move that was condemned globally and that remains unrecognized by the international community. Approximately 20,000 Israeli settlers and 20,000 Syrians live in the area under Israeli occupation.
   4. Further complicating matters for the position of Syrian Kurds is the fact that as many as 300,000 do not hold Syrian citizenship. In an apparent attempt to appease dissent in Kurdish-dominated regions such as al-Hasaka in Syria’s northeast, al-Assad issued a decree in April granting citizenship to Kurds. For more background on the position of Kurds in the current uprising in Syria, see Chris Zambelis, “Unrest in Syria Inspires New Wave of Kurdish Activism,” Terrorism Monitor (Jamestown Foundation), Vol. 9, Issue 22, June 2, 2011.
   5. Over 450,000 Palestinian refugees reside in 13 refugee camps (nine official and three unofficial camps) in Syria. In addition, as a destination for Iraqis – Sunnis, Shia, and Christians – escaping the violence back home, Syria is also host to over 1 million Iraqi refugees who fled the country following the U.S. invasion and subsequent breakdown of order there.
   6. The volume of bilateral trade between Turkey and Syria reached $2.5 billion in 2010, a 43 percent increase from the previous year. Both sides have also committed to expanding trade to reach a volume $5 billion in the next couple of years. In addition to being among Syria’s most important trade partners, Turkey has also spearheaded an effort to establish regional FTA’s and related Free Trade Zones (FTZ) linking its Arab neighbors, namely Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.
   7. Personal observations based on author’s two-month stay in Syria, March-April, 2010.