Syrian Uprising Tests Turkey’s Middle East Policy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 90

Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, receives Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, in Aleppo, Syria on Wednesday, July 22, 2009.

Turkey still remains occupied with the popular uprising in the Middle East and North Africa. Although some critics argued that Turkey reacted rather late to support the pro-democratic demonstrations in Egypt, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s strongly-worded call for Hosni Mubarak to leave power boosted his reputation (EDM, February 3). This first statement of its kind by a Muslim leader was meaningful, as it signaled that Turkey might not tolerate authoritarian leaders’ efforts to cling to power. As such, it created an expectation that Turkey would be forthcoming in support of Arab masses seeking to overthrow their regimes. As the popular uprisings spread to other countries and took a bloody turn in Libya, however, criticism started to be raised against Turkey’s position on the Arab spring. Many interpreted Ankara’s rather lukewarm policies on the Gaddafi regime as evidence that Turkey had no principled position on democratization in the Middle East (EDM, March 30).

Yet another challenge has been presented to Turkey with the rapid deterioration of the situation in Syria. In recent years, Turkey rapidly improved its conflict-laden relations with Syria, as was reflected in the establishment of a High Level Strategic Cooperation Council with that country, the mutual removal of visa requirements and the plans to develop a joint economic zone in the Levant. This new era created a rapid flow of goods and people across the Turkish-Syrian border, deepening societal interaction between the two nations. Moreover, the Turkish government has also worked to promote Syria’s interests in international platforms. For instance, Turkey tried hard to mediate in Syria’s political disputes with Israel and Iraq. More importantly, Turkey objected to US efforts to isolate Syria, and instead sought to “engage” the Assad regime, arguing that doing so would facilitate its integration into the international community, generate an impetus for domestic reform, and perhaps convince it to steer away from Tehran’s orbit (EDM, September 18, 2009).

Arguably, Turkey’s policy of engagement with Syria was seen to pay off. When French President Nicholas Sarkozy visited Syria in September 2008 as the first Western leader since the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, Erdogan also claimed credit for his government’s engagement with Syria when he joined the Syrian and French leaders in Damascus. Later, as the Obama administration sought to reach out to Syria, Ankara once again felt vindicated for its policy towards Damascus (EDM, July 23, 2009).

The Baath regime’s violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators, however, risks throwing serious doubt over Turkish policy on Syria in particular and its policy of engaging authoritarian regimes in general. When the demonstrations started in Syria in March, Turkey followed the developments cautiously. While concerns were raised over the Syrian security forces killing demonstrators, Assad’s announcement of a partial reform package came as a relief for Turkey. In a telephone conversation with Assad, Erdogan reportedly praised the reforms. The Turkish foreign ministry issued a statement expressing concern over the loss of life, calling on Damascus to implement the reforms (, March 25; Cihan, March 26). While the official Syrian news agency SANA claimed that Erdogan expressed his support for Assad during their conversation, questions started to be raised as to how far Ankara could stand by the Baath regime (ANF, March 26,, April 4). This question was relevant, because, obviously encouraged by Turkey’s earlier expression of support for the Egyptian people the Syrian population were expecting Turkey to be more forthcoming in pressing Assad.

However, Damascus’s violent crackdown on the demonstrations spreading throughout the country and the deployment of the Syrian armed forces in various towns invited increasingly harsher rhetoric from Turkey. A foreign ministry press release called on the regime to act cautiously, avoid the use of disproportionate force and employ correct measures to quell popular unrest (, April 22). Meanwhile, Erdogan had telephoned Assad several times, as well as sending special envoys, to convey Ankara’s discomfort over the developments. In response to the rising death toll, Erdogan said that Turkey would not wish to see anti-democratic, authoritarian and totalitarian structures, and would hope for the continuation of the democratization process (Yeni Safak, April 26).

The deterioration of the situation prompted Turkey’s National Security Council to evaluate possible scenarios and draw up contingency plans for responding to a possible outbreak of civil conflict and an influx of refugees into Turkey. Moreover, Erdogan discussed the developments in Syria with President Barack Obama by telephone, where the two leaders agreed to coordinate their policies, arguing that they find the use of force against civilians unacceptable (, April 27). In addition to advising Assad to avoid using force in a subsequent telephone call to Damascus, Erdogan sent his special envoys to Damascus, headed by Hakan Fidan the chief of National Intelligence Service. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also met Assad to express similar concerns. Sources close to the Turkish government argued that Erdogan advised Assad to declare a multi-party regime and run for office in free elections. He urged Assad to lead his country’s reform process, and extended Turkey’s helping hand during the transition period. Some sources also noted that Erdogan had asked Obama to refrain from imposing sanctions on Syria, as they would do more harm than good (Sabah, April 29).

Faced with the Syrian security forces’ continuation of their operations, in a live TV show Erdogan lamented Assad’s failure to realize the reforms and warned that Turkey would not want to see another Hama massacre, referring to the 1982 crackdown in the Syrian city. Noting that Turkey could not remain aloof to developments in Syria, given its proximity, shared border and common history, he called on Assad to act with common sense and prevent the country from sliding into disintegration (Show TV, May 1). Nonetheless, despite the announcement by the US and European Union of sanctions against Damascus, Ankara has not taken any steps in that direction (Anadolu Ajansi, May 7).

In many ways, Turkey’s seemingly successful engagement with Syria had been treated as the hallmark of its new opening to the Middle East and its policy of engagement. However, although Turkey relentlessly advised Assad to change course, the Baath regime continues with mass arrests, storming of cities and shooting of peaceful protesters. Ironically, despite the proximity, shared border and common history, Ankara has so far managed to exert only limited influence over Damascus.