The Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited Turkey on September 16-17 as the special guest of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during which the two countries signed landmark agreements to deepen their bilateral relations. Assad attended a Ramadan fast-breaking dinner on September 16, held in his honor by the Justice and Development Party (AKP). He expressed Syrian support for Turkey’s recent Kurdish opening. Both leaders emphasized their desire to end the terrorist problem in Turkey through democratic initiatives and transform the Middle East into an area of peace and stability. Assad also praised Turkey’s role as peacemaker in the Syrian-Israeli indirect peace talks, which he described as "reliable." He said that they still needed Turkey’s impartial mediatory role in the peace process (Anadolu Ajansi, September 16).
The first visible achievement of Assad’s trip was the lifting of visa requirements between the countries. In a related development, they also agreed to remove taxes on trailer trucks operating between both countries. Given the flourishing of bilateral trade, these developments were welcomed by many Turks, especially those living in provinces on the border, where trade with Syria constitutes a major source of economic activity. Representatives of the business community expect the trade volume to double following the agreement on these new regulations (Yeni Safak, September 18).
In a related decision a High-level Strategic Cooperation Council (HLSCC) was established between the two countries. Turkey has followed a similar pattern in its efforts to deepen its multi-dimensional political, economic and cultural ties with Iraq. The format of the Turkish-Syrian council will resemble the model used between Turkey and Iraq (EDM, August 12).
During his joint press briefing with his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu, the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mualem said that "this is the biggest demonstration of cooperation, solidarity and mutual trust." Davutoglu concurred by saying that this decision moved the brotherhood between the two nations to a political level (Anadolu Ajansi, September 17).
Meanwhile, the first ministerial meeting of the Turkey-Iraq HLSCC also took place in Istanbul on September 17. Speaking at this meeting, Davutoglu said that the two governments are willing to shape their countries’ future in line with the model partnership framework being developed. He added that their goal is to achieve the most comprehensive economic integration between the two countries. His Iraqi counterpart reciprocated by saying that "we desire cooperation that could help shape the future of the region" (Anadolu Ajansi, September 17).
This intensive diplomatic traffic also provides another opportunity for Turkey to act in a mediation role. On the sidelines of the Turkey-Iraq HSCC, Davutoglu brought together Mualem and his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari, joined by the Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa. The meeting was held to facilitate the ongoing dialogue between Syria and Iraq aimed at reducing tensions between the two countries following Baghdad’s claim that Damascus was behind the terrorist attacks in the Iraqi capital in August. They mutually withdrew their ambassadors and Turkish diplomats have been working intensively to heal the strained relations, which it views in terms of developing closer regional integration. Earlier, Davutoglu toured the two capitals and attended an Arab League meeting in Cairo to address this problem. Although no specific steps to solve Syrian-Iraqi tensions were announced, Davutoglu emphasized that Turkey would promote confidence building measures between the two brotherly nations, and he will also explore the involvement of the United Nations in the crisis (Cihan, September 17).
The removal of barriers between Turkey and Syria has a strong symbolic meaning, and reflects a deliberate attempt on the part of the two governments to overcome the political divisions that kept them apart for decades. When the Turkish-Syrian border was formed following the First World War, many families were separated on both sides of the border. During the Cold War even mutual family visits on the occasion of religious feasts were difficult to conduct. In the post-Cold War era, such border crossings were facilitated through the issuing of short term visas. Nonetheless, for decades, the Turkish-Syrian border and those visa difficulties symbolized the political and ideological isolation of Turkey from its Middle Eastern, cultural hinterland. This decision, therefore, complements earlier initiatives undertaken by the AKP government to normalize Turkish-Syrian relations, such as the clearing of the mines on the Turkish side of the border (EDM, May 21), or holding joint military exercises in border areas (EDM, May 1). Through such steps, Turkey has moved toward reconnecting with its Middle Eastern neighbors. Moreover, it sees this reorientation as more than a cultural project: rather, it is part of Turkey’s efforts to develop platforms to resolve security problems in the region through the involvement of local actors.
Indeed, Assad also underscored a similar vision when he addressed the fast-breaking dinner. After emphasizing that for centuries people sharing the same culture were divided, he maintained that this problem was caused by the local leaders’ failure to appreciate the pitfalls of acting in line with the manipulations of great powers. However, he avoided apportioning the blame exclusively on great powers, and engaged in self-criticism by noting that many of the problems in the region were of their own making. He called for the resolution of "regional problems by the regional countries themselves," a sentiment that resonates well with Turkey’s foreign policy vision (www.cnnturk.com, September 17).
Nonetheless, such initiatives raise the question of whether Turkey is reorienting its foreign policy priorities. Although the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Deputy Head Onur Oymen, a former diplomat, supported the establishment of the HLSCC and the normalization of relations with the country’s neighbors, he still raised key questions: "Given its values, Turkey belongs to Europe. We do not even have mutual visa lifting agreements with our E.U. neighbors… But we sign such agreements with Syria and other Muslim countries with which [we do not share the same world view]. Is this indicating a break with Turkey’s traditional foreign policy orientation?" (ANKA, September 17).