Back to the Cold War years in Turkish-Syrian relations?

With the increasing involvement of Russia in the Syrian conflict, relations between Turkey and Russia have also soured, and a bitter taste has been left with the recent downing of a jet. As Assad’s regime has weakened, Russia has begun directly intervening in Syria and Turkey has begun interpreting the relationship between Russia and Syria as a return of the Cold War years. Russia’s involvement in regional conflicts in general and in Syria in particular led people to establish similarities with the 1950s, as it benefits from the chaos in the region and aims to fill the gap left by the disengagement of the US.. In those years, as a new member of the NATO alliance, Turkey was very concerned by the ideological and military connections between the Soviet Union and Syria. With the longevity of the conflict in Syria and increasing involvement of Russia, there is the danger of a similar scenario—possibly in a different form—emerging in Turkish-Syrian relations.

The downing of a Russian military jet by the Turkish air force on November 24t represents an important point in the history of the Syrian conflict which has now been going on for more than four years. Russian military operations began approximately two months ago were aimed at preventing the collapse of the Assad regime, but also increased tensions on the Turkish-Syrian border. There were violations of Turkish airspace in October by Russian aircraft, and at that time Turkish authorities warned their Russian counterparts about possible repercussions. Many see Russian military actions in Syria as a highly important factor for the future of the Syrian conflict. The crashing of the Russian jet and Russia’s response will have consequences for the future of Syria at a time when talks for a political solution to the conflict are ongoing.

This event also has important implications for Turkish policy towards Syria and the Syrian conflict.  Although we have witnessed the downing of military jets, helicopters and unmanned air vehicles on both the Turkish and Syrian side, with the crashing of the Russian military aircraft, the situation has become more complicated. This event came just after the ISIS attacks in Paris, which claimed lives of 130 people, as well as talks in Vienna to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict. There were early signs of consensus among some actors, such as the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict. Despite diplomatic efforts, from the very beginning of the conflict huge differences remained between Turkey and Russia over Syria. Turkish political figures made their displeasure obvious on several occasions following Russia’s decision to dispatch military aircrafts and helicopters to Syria. Besides the displeasure over the support given to the Assad regime, the Turkish authorities were also mindful of the potential for a crash of this type.

The differences between Turkey and Russia over Syria were obvious. From the early days of the conflict, Turkey and Russia had conflicting agendas in Syria. Despite their differences on this and several other international relations issues, such as Ukraine, Crimea, and conflicts in the Caucasus, Turkey and Russia managed to compartmentalize their relationship and develop cooperation, especially in areas of economic interest. With the latest crisis, however, the compartmentalization of issues seems to have come to an end. Unable to prove that their military aircraft did not violate Turkish airspace, the Russian response in different issue areas shows that they are aiming to hurt Turkey with every possible means.

From the Turkish point of view, the latest Russian deployments and operations in Syria are aiming to weaken moderate opposition and pave the way for a solution with Assad. Russian military operations started with the realization that Assad regime is weakening day by day and it needed to be shored up before a political settlement could be agreed.  At the same time, Russia aims to shut down the possibility of a no-fly zone in the north of Syria. Despite the stated aim of fighting with ISIL, Russia has only focused on areas where opposition forces advanced during 2015 and consequently made the fragility of Assad’s forces obvious. Turkish officials voiced their displeasure with the attacks on the moderate opposition and the huge loss of civilian lives from the Russian attacks, and also warned over the possibility of an accident of this type. Despite being aware of this possibility, the Russians continued their attacks, which can also be interpreted as being carried out to irritate Turkey.

Implications for Turkish-Syrian Relations

Besides the implications of this accident for Turkish-Russian relations, there will be knock-on effects on the wider Syrian conflict and at the same time on Turkish-Syrian relations. In analyzing these effects, historical examples may help us categorize the different factors into a regional and bilateral framework.

The Assad regime—which is aware of its declining capacities—wants most of all to make the conflict in Syria as regional or as international as possible. Unable to control important chunks of its territory and killing its own citizens with barrel bombs, the Assad regime has blamed Turkey for its problems and tried to use the Kurdish card in the form of Democratic Union Party (PYD). Besides using the PYD card, the Syrian regime has also supported other terrorist groups against Turkey and aimed to create the conditions for the spillover of the conflict into Turkey. The downing of a Turkish jet in the Mediterranean in June 2012 and twin bombings in Turkey’s southern town of Reyhanlı in May 2013 are clear examples here. Similarly, Turkey intercepted a Moscow-Damascus Syrian Airlines flight in October 2012 with military equipment among its cargo. After the change of Turkey’s rules of engagement in 2012, Turkey shot down a Syrian combat jet in March 2012. So, we have a track record of military tensions between Turkey and Syria during the conflict and this tension being in some ways connected to Russia. Despite these events, Turkey has refrained from being a direct party to the conflict in Syria. The latest incident can be interpreted in the light of these examples.

The implications of this incident for Turkish-Syrian relations can be analyzed in reference to several factors in the Syrian arena. From the point of fighting with ISIL, attempts to unify the anti-ISIL coalition with that of Russia will be harmed by this event. For nearly a year, the US and other members of the coalition have been carrying out air strikes against ISIL. Turkey is taking part in these attacks and recently discussions have been going on between Turkey and the US to broaden the scope of fighting against ISIL, including ground operations. The latest incident will definitely affect discussions between the coalition and Russia regarding the fight against ISIL in Syria. Although some members of NATO and the EU are not that critical of the Russia’s role in Syria, in contrast to its role in Ukraine, because of the ISIL threat, this incident has showed them once again the intentions of Russia, be it in Ukraine or in Syria.

From the point of view of the moderate opposition, the Russian bombings and ground attacks by Syrian and Iranian forces and Hezbollah toward opposition forces will affect Turkey’s policy. These incidents occurred because of Russian military operations against the Turkmen opposition forces near the Turkish border. We have witnessed the heavy bombardment of these forces in the last couple of weeks to both protect Russia’s airbase in Latakia and also to control the areas bordering Turkey.  Russia intensified its attacks after the incident and these attacks caused the death of a number of civilians. Russian aircraft also bombed trucks carrying humanitarian assistance and a bakery operated by an NGO. These bombings have led to an increased flow of Syrians seeking sanctuary in Turkey.

From the perspective of relations with the Assad regime, this incident will increase Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict and this will please the Damascus regime and increase the friction between Ankara and Damascus. The regime may feel emboldened by the Russian presence and increase its bombings in the north, which in turn may increase the number of people escaping from the violence. The indiscriminate attacks in the north of the country also aim to force as many people as possible to move into Turkey.

In terms of finding a solution to the conflict by negotiation, this incident has showed the urgency of a solution and the necessity of negotiations. On the other hand, however, a quartet-type meeting between the USA, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey might be difficult for some time to come because of differences between Turkey and Russia. In terms of an enlarged dialogue, different interpretations of this incident will affect the outcome of negotiations.

Historical Context

When we analyze the history of Turkey’s relationship with Syria, apart from a period between 1999 and 2011, we see several problems and a distant relationship in spite of being neighbors. Being in two different camps during the Cold War years limited the contacts between Damascus and Ankara. As with current security relationships, Turkey’s membership of NATO and Syria’s close relationship with the Soviets during the Cold War defined the general framework of bilateral relations. Russia’s current interest in Syria can be traced back to those days. Besides the ideological differences, the issues of Hatay province and the waters of the Euphrates were used by Syria to criticize Turkey. In order to irritate Turkey and gain some concessions in water issue, Syria supported the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which Turkey, the US and EU consider to be a terrorist organization, within Turkey during the 1980s and 1990s.

This period came to an end with the expulsion of PKK’s leader Abdullah Öcalan from Syria and signing of the Adana Protocol in 1998. When we analyze the golden era of relations, 1999-2011, we can talk about several factors that led the two countries to pursue better relations. On Turkey’s side, Ankara governments aimed at preventing the emergence of an atmosphere reminiscent of the 1990s. Turkey aimed to overcome its security problems and negative propaganda by Damascus in Arab capitals. In addition to these motivations, engaging with Syria was economically beneficial from the perspective of Turkey’s export-oriented economy. From the point of view of cultural engagement, AK Party governments were in favor of developing better relations with the Middle East, and Syria was a good testing ground.

From the Syrian perspective, changing its attitude towards Turkey was beneficial as well. Bashar Assad was new in his position and he needed to consolidate his power in order to deal with domestic challenges. Instead of having problems with Turkey, it was in his interest to develop friendly relations with Ankara. Political isolation by the US left Damascus in need of political contacts with other countries. In terms of economic relations, the Syrian economy was in need of reform and better economic relations with Turkey were seen as part of the remedy.

Turkish-Syrian relations are now showing signs of historical patterns again dominating the agenda. Today, security dynamics are the defining characteristics of bilateral relations. Similar to the Cold War years, the Syrian security apparatus is increasingly dominated by a Russian presence. During the 1950s, Turkey was very concerned with the presence of increasing number of pro-Soviet officers in the Syrian army. The crisis in 1957 between Turkey and Syria is explained by these concerns in books on Turkish foreign policy of that era. Similarly, with the decline of the Syrian army’s capabilities, we see an increasing Russian military presence in the territory, air space and waters of Syria. Given Russia’s recent record in Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine, Turkey is concerned in terms of its security in the south of the country. The Syrian regime and Russia have also aimed to use the PYD card against Turkey in a way reminiscent of the 1980s and 1990s.

Obviously we are not living under Cold War conditions and the security architecture of the world at present has dramatically altered the possibility of military conflict. The declining capabilities of the Assad regime in terms of control of the country has led Damascus to demand the presence of more and more Russian and Iranian military troops in Syria. The increasing Russian presence in Syria and Russia’s track record of use of military power over the last couple of years is reminiscent of the Cold War rivalry of spheres of influences in the Middle East. This is not a desirable scenario for Turkey and for this reason Turkish policy makers have been trying to de-escalate conflict while protecting the sovereignty of the country. The example of Turkish-Syrian relations in the Cold War years, however, may be useful in understanding the current atmosphere.

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