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Turkey-Syria Relations

Several disputes made relations between Syria and Turkey uneasy. However, Syria's limited military potential and the alignment of Syrian forces on the Israeli front precluded any immediate threat along the 900-kilometer border between Turkey and Syria. The events that erupted in Syria in March 2011 have transformed into a major conflict, closely affecting regional security and stability, particularly in Syria.

Erdogan proposed the joint management of oil fields in eastern Syria to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and suggested that Russia and Turkey can manage the oil fields in place of the "terrorists" who controlled them. Speaking to reporters 10 March 2020, Erdogan said that Putin was evaluating the offer, which the Turkish president said he made during talks in Moscow last week. "Deir ez-Zor is another territory with oil reserves. In that province, terrorists exploit the oil resources. America has its own plans here," Erdogan said, recalling the conversation. "I made the offer to Mr. Putin that if he gives financial support, we can do the construction and through the oil obtained there, we can help destroyed Syria get on its feet," he added. "If such a step can be taken here, I can even make the same offer to Trump," Erdogan said. However, on previous occasions, Russian officials had criticized efforts by any country to violate Syria's territorial integrity or plunder its resources.

The conflict in Syria has claimed the lives of a great number of innocent people, caused millions of Syrians to be displaced to various regions within their country or to other countries including Turkey. Turkey has been facing serious political, security and humanitarian challenges and responsibilities caused by the conflict. Since the outset, the basic parameters of Turkey’s policy with regard to the developments in Syria have been the preservation of the territorial integrity and unity of Syria, ending the bloodshed and the peaceful conclusion of the political transition process that would address the legitimate demands of the Syrian people.

In order to preserve the ceasefire regime and to ensure the adoption of confidence building measures between the conflicting parties, High Level Meetings are regularly being organized at capital of Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan (previously called Astana) since January 2017 with the participation of Turkey, the RF as well as Iran.

In addition to the regular meetings, the three Astana guarantor states held five Summits (Sochi, 22 November 2017; Ankara, 4 April 2018; Tehran, 7 September 2018; Sochi, 14 February 2019; Ankara, 16 September 2019), and six Foreign Ministers’ meetings (Astana, 16 March 2018; Moscow, 28 April 2018; New York, 26 September 2018; Geneva, 18 December 2018; New York, 25 September 2019; Geneva, 29 September 2019).

The Astana platform, which plays a significant role in the establishment of de-escalation areas, the launch of the Constitutional Committee and the adoption of confidence building measures between the Syrian parties, remains the only international initiative that made a concrete contribution to end the conflict in Syria.

Like Iraq, Syria was an Ottoman province until 1918. Subsequently, it was governed by France as a League of Nations mandate. In 1939 France detached Hatay (formerly Alexandretta) province from Syria and ceded it to Turkey, an action bitterly opposed by Arab nationalists. Syria thus became independent in 1946 with an irredentist claim against Turkey. The Arab-Israeli conflict soon developed as another source of Syrian antagonism toward Turkey, which extended diplomatic recognition to Israel in 1948. Syria's staunch Arab nationalists also condemned Turkey's participation in NATO and other Western defense arrangements during the 1950s and 1960s.

Syria never abandoned its claim to the Turkish province of Hatay, which includes the city of Iskenderun. France, the mandatory power over Syria from 1920 to 1941, ceded the area to Turkey in 1939 after a disputed plebiscite, in violation of its League of Nations mandate. Tensions with Syria are compounded by Turkey's control over distribution of the waters of the Euphrates River. Turkey's huge Southeast Anatolian Project, with its dams and hydroelectric plants, threatens to deplete Syria's water resources. In addition, Syria has a history of permitting hostile political movements — Armenian, Marxist, and Kurdish — to conduct anti-Turkish operations from Syrian-controlled territory in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. To a considerable degree, the issues of access to water and Syria's support for the Kurdish insurgency were linked. To the extent that Turkey attempts to accommodate Syria on water sharing, Syria limits its backing of the Kurds. In December 1993, the Syrian government took into custody the Kurdish rebel leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in what was seen as an attempt to strengthen Syria's hand in water negotiations.

Selim I (r. 1512-20) extended Ottoman sovereignty southward, conquering Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. He also gained recognition as guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Muhammad Ali, an Ottoman officer who had been designated pasha of Egypt by the sultan in 1805, had given substantial aid to the Ottoman cause in the Greek war. When he was not rewarded as promised for his assistance, he invaded Syria in 1831 and pursued the retreating Ottoman army deep into Anatolia. Under the London Convention of 1840, Muhammad Ali was forced to abandon his claim to Syria, but he was recognized as hereditary ruler of Egypt under nominal Ottoman suzerainty.

Sharif Husayn ibn Ali, the sultan's regent in Mecca and the Hijaz region of western Arabia, launched the Arab Revolt in 1916. The British provided advisers, of whom T.E. Lawrence was to become the best known, as well as supplies. In October 1917, British forces in Egypt opened an offensive into Palestine; they took Jerusalem by December. After hard fighting, British and Arab forces entered Damascus in October 1918. Late in the campaign, Atatiirk succeeded to command of Turkish forces in Syria and withdrew many units intact into Anatolia.

The terms of a peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire were presented by the Allies in April 1920 at San Remo, Italy, and were embodied in the Treaty of Sevres the following August. The treaty was shaped by the wartime agreements made by the Allies. In addition, France received a mandate over Lebanon and Syria (including what is now Hatay Province in Turkey), and Britain's mandate covered Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine.

Turkey's boundary with Syria — 822 kilometers long — had not been accepted by Syria. As a result of the Treaty of Lausanne, the former Ottoman Sanjak (province) of Alexandretta (present-day Hatay Province) was ceded to Syria. However, France agreed in June 1939 to transfer Hatay Province to Turkish sovereignty, despite the strong objections of Syria's political leaders. In the late 1930s, France was growing increasingly worried about an impending war with Hitler’s Germany and French diplomats were desperately trying to sign up potential allies in Europe and the Middle East. Ataturk died in 1938 and his successor, Ismet Inonu, was keen to continue his Turkish nationalist fervour. So when the French suggested a treaty of friendship during the upcoming war, Inonu was willing to accept, on one condition that Turkey recover Hatay. France agreed, but was technically breaching the Treaty of Lausanne, so in order to give it a fig leaf of respectability, the French suggested a referendum.

Since achieving independence in 1946, Syria has harbored a lingering resentment over the loss of the province and its principal towns of Antakya and Iskenderun (formerly Antioch and Alexandretta). This issue has continued to be an irritant in Syrian-Turkish relations.

While the Syrian Government publicly downplays any feelings of resentment between Turks and Syrians, highlighting that although Turks are not Arabs, they are "friendly neighbors," such resentment does exist amongst the larger Syrian population. Some Syrians still harbor feelings of resentment towards the Turks for injustices perpetrated under the Ottoman rule and for "taking" the Alexandretta/ Iskanderun/ Hatay area. Although Syria has "officially" recognized the Hatay area as Turkish, Syrian claims to this land have only been temporarily suspended. The underlying meaning here is that Syria is not pressing Turkey on this issue while Syria needs Turkey's support internationally. However, given that Turkey has occupied this region for decades, the decision under Bashar al-Asad to shelve its irredentist claims would likely make it difficult at a later date to re-activate such claims.

Since the restoration of civilian rule, Turkish governments faced an armed insurrection of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (Partiya Karkeran Kurdistan—PKK). The PKK, one of several armed Kurdish guerrilla organizations, was founded by Abdullah Ocalan in 1978. Ocalan fled to Syria after the 1980 coup where he continued to maintain his headquarters. Ankara was concerned that Damascus and Tehran might exploit the Kurdish issue to put pressure on Turkey to compromise on other issues over which there were deep disagreements. Some Turkish officials believed that if an appropriate opportunity presented itself, Syria would use the Kurdish issue to create a Kurdish state in parts of both Iraq and Turkey. Such pessimistic views stem from Syria's long support of the PKK. Turks believe that Syria permits the PKK to maintain a training base in Lebanon— where Syrian troops had been stationed since 1976 — and allowed PKK leaders to live freely in Damascus. Since Syria's expulsion of Ocalan in 1998, Syria and Turkey gradually increased cooperation on what they believe was a shared threat from separatist Kurdish elements. Syria and Turkey held bi-annual ministerial level discussions on border security, largely related to Kurdish issues.

In 1995 Turkey's ethnic Arab population was estimated at 800,000 to 1 million. The Arabs are heavily concentrated along the Syrian border, especially in Hatay Province, which France, having at that time had mandatory power in Syria, ceded to Turkey in 1939. Arabs then constituted about two-thirds of the population of Hatay (known to the Arabs as Alexandretta) , and the province has remained predominantly Arab. Almost all of the Arabs in Turkey are Alevi Muslims, and most have family ties with the Alevi (also seen as Alawi or Alawite) living in Syria. As Alevi, the Arabs of Turkey believe they are subjected to statecondoned discrimination. Fear of persecution actually prompted several thousand Arab Alevi to seek refuge in Syria following Hatay's incorporation into Turkey. Because most of Turkey's Arabs belong to Islam's Alawi branch, whose adherents also include the leading politicians of Syria, Ankara's often tense relations with Syria tend to be further complicated.

Turkey's adoption in 1974 of a more evenhanded policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict failed to impress Syria. Much to Turkey's disappointment, Syria supported the Greeks in the conflict between the Greek and Turkish communities on the island of Cyprus. By the mid-1970s, Turkey was convinced that Syria was facilitating Armenian terrorist operations against Turkish diplomats abroad. Given the coolness and mutual suspicions that have characterized their relations, neither Syria nor Turkey was prepared to be sensitive to the other's interests.

One reflection of this attitude was Turkey's decision to proceed with plans for a major dam project on the Euphrates River, apparently without adequate consultation with Syria. The Euphrates rises in the mountains of northern Anatolia, and Syria's territory is bisected by the river before it enters Iraq on its way to the Persian Gulf. Upon completion of the project, Turkey demonstrated the way control of the flow of water to downstream users in Syria could be used for political purposes, provoking a minicrisis in already tense relations. Thus the dam became yet another source of tension between the two countries.

Under the influence of islam oriented chief foreign policy advisor Ahmet Davutoglu, PM Erdogan and FonMin Gul promoted improved relations with Syria as a major achievement of the ruling AKP government. While relations have been on an upward trend since hitting bottom in 1998, Bashir Assad's Jan. 2004 visit to Turkey (ref A) signaled an acceleration. As part of a broad push to ease tensions with its neighbors, Turkey focused on developing political, cultural, economic -- but not military -- ties with Syria. Syrian PM al-Utri and FonMin al-Shara came to Turkey in July 2004. In October 2004, Turkey helped Syria extinguish a serious forest fire near the border. PM Erdogan received Syrian Baath Party Deputy SecGen al-Ahmar in November 2004.

With a series of high-level Turkish diplomatic visits and Turkey's much-delayed implementation on 01 January 2007 of the Syrian-Turkish Free Trade Agreement (FTA) signed in December 2004, the Syrian government publicly hailed the beginning of a new era of cooperation between Syria and Turkey. The Syrian government believed that the strengthening of relations with Turkey was critical to achieving its national interests, particularly its political ones, including: easing Syria's international isolation; building a bridge to Europe at a time when Europe was worried about Syria-Iran ties; achieving regional stability; creating an arena for cooperation on controlling regional Kurdish aspirations; and building strategic ties, to include several potential energy projects between Syria, Turkey, and Iran.

Turkey signed a bilateral defense industry cooperation agreement with Syria on 27 April 2009 and conducted the first ever bilateral military exercise with Syria from April 27 to 29. The significance of these developments should not be exaggerated. The Turks stressed that the agreement was not intended as a political statement, but as an attempt by the Turkish military to draw the Syrian military toward the West. The MFA also downplayed the bilateral military border exercise, characterizing it as "more sightseeing than a military exercise" and a baby step toward building confidence and cooperation focused on combating smuggling and terrorist threats posed by the PKK. The agreement signed is part of a menu of standard agreements Turkey signs with many countries. According to the MFA, Turkey has signed over sixty such agreements, most of which have not translated to any practical follow through.

Turkey has since 1921 (when Syria was a French protectorate) a military relationship involving the permanent rotation of an honor guard unit to the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, in northern Syria.

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Page last modified: 06-12-2021 10:04:30 ZULU