Turkish-Syrian Security Cooperation Testing Turkish Foreign Policy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 84

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

On April 27, Turkey and Syria launched their first joint military exercise on their border. The three-day long land exercises between border forces involved an exchange of units to enhance joint training and interoperability, and are expected to be followed by similar exercises in the future. On the same day, during the 9th International Defense Industry Fair in Istanbul, both countries signed a bilateral security cooperation agreement to deepen collaboration between their defense industries (www.tsk.tr, April 26, Hurriyet, April 28). These developments once again strained Turkish-Israeli ties, re-opening the debate on Turkey’s commitment to its Western orientation.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, called the exercises disturbing, though noting that Turkish-Israeli strategic relations will survive this challenge (www.ynetnews.com, April 27). Israel’s Ambassador to Turkey, Gabby Levy, told reporters that Tel Aviv was following the drill closely to understand its goal and content (Cihan Haber Ajansi, April 28). DEBKAfile reported that, to protest against this development Israel was preparing to "slash its military exchanges with Turkey to prevent the leakage of military secrets to an avowed Arab enemy" and it would "discontinue sales of its … drones and sharply reduce its military ties with Turkey" (DEBKAfile, April 27).

Moreover, an Israeli strategic analyst Efraim Inbar, referring to unnamed Turkish military officers, maintained that the joint exercise not only raised questions over Turkey’s relationship to Israel, the United States and NATO, but also "the Turkish military is not happy about this. It does not like Syria, and views it as a problematic state" (Jerusalem Post, April 27).

During his second press briefing within the past fortnight, Turkish Chief of Staff General Ilker Basbug was asked to comment on Israel’s reaction to the Turkish-Syrian exercise. Basbug criticized the remarks of the Israeli sources by saying "Shall we ask for Israel’s approval? Israel’s reaction does not concern us. This is between Turkey and Syria" (www.cnnturk.com, April 29). Other Turkish military officers talking to the press reportedly held similar views (Star, April 30).

In addition, though noting that it was only a small-scale exercise, Basbug described it as important because it was held for the first time. A Turkish military analyst Nihat Ali Ozcan, added that "Turkey has similar deals with more than 60 countries. Besides, the exercise involved at most a total of 60 men from both sides. If it is held only at platoon level as reported, then really it holds only a symbolic value aimed against smugglers and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, operating along the border" (Hurriyet Daily News, April 29).

Although the exercise might be inconsequential militarily, it has enormous political significance, which partly explains Israel’s reaction. Turkey and Syria came to the brink of war ten years ago over the latter’s harboring of PKK militants, their new security cooperation heralds a significant transformation in Turkish foreign policy. More importantly, it highlights the changing alignments of Turkey within the region.

One explanation for the flourishing of the so-called Turkish-Israeli alliance throughout the 1990’s, which led to the establishment of closer military cooperation, was the common threat perceptions concerning Syria. Turkey was so frustrated by Damascus supporting the PKK that in 1998 it had to amass its army along the border and threaten to use force unless Damascus ceased its support. Following the expulsion of the PKK from Syria in the late 1990’s diplomatic relations improved, reflecting Turkey’s new policy of normalizing relations with the Middle East. The real push came with the accession to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002. Fostering closer ties with Turkey’s Middle Eastern neighbors became one of the cornerstones of the AKP’s new multi-dimensional foreign policy -which is attributed to Ahmet Davutoglu, chief foreign policy advisor to the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (EDM, March 25).

Under the AKP, Ankara and Damascus have overcome their differences and promoted the growth of economic, social and cultural ties between the two countries, as expressed symbolically in the close personal ties between Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey resisted attempts to isolate Syria diplomatically, and has served as the conduit for opening Damascus to the outside world. Most significantly, it has acted as a mediator between Israel and Syria by arranging indirect talks between the two countries.

Diplomatic analysts had once discussed a Turkish-Israeli axis against Syria, while clearly the interests of Turkey and Syria are now converging, which permits the development of military cooperation. These alternating roles have naturally raised questions as to whether Turkey might be trading its strategic ties with Israel for a new partnership with Syria. Although many Western analysts argue that Turkey may be drifting away from the West under the AKP’s new foreign policy, the crucial support of the secular Turkish military must be considered before reaching any conclusion.

Israeli and some Western sources criticize the AKP for following an ideological foreign policy agenda and seeking to decouple Turkey from its traditional transatlantic orientation, instead increasingly serving Islamist and Arab interests. The AKP, in contrast, presents its search for autonomy and normalization of its relations with its neighbors as reflecting geopolitical reality, and argues that this serves both Turkish and Western interests in the surrounding regions.

The military leadership’s expression of support comes to the aid of the AKP as it pursues several controversial foreign policy initiatives. These include the rapprochement with Syria and criticism of Israel, notably during the Gaza crisis. This approach does not represent parochial "Islamist" concerns, but rather they enjoy the backing of broader segments of the Turkish political and military elite. Despite their occasional differences of opinion over domestic political issues, particularly on the question of secularism, the government and the military have managed to reach a consensus over foreign policy, which suggests that a simple distinction along Islamist versus secular might no longer be relevant to understand Turkish foreign policy.