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Syria and Turkey

Relations between Syria and Turkey, which share a long border, have ranged from normal diplomatic ties to political and military tension. Conflicts have arisen over border problems, the apportionment of river water flow, smuggling, and charges of internal subversion. Some of these conflicts have historical roots, particularly in Syrian resentment at the arbitrary transfer in 1938 of the province of Alexandretta (or Hatay, as it was named by the Turks) to Turkey by the French Mandate authorities.

Turkey has charged Syria with supporting Armenian, Kurdish, and Arab terrorist groups operating against Turkey. Turkey believes Syria offers training facilities and arms to Armenian terrorists belonging to the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) and assists them in infiltrating across their common border and into Western Europe for attacks against Turkey and Turkish targets, particularly diplomats. Turkey has also charged that Syria was behind the activities of anti-Turkish Kurdish separatist groups. Syria, in turn, has asserted that Turkey gave refuge to members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition elements at the height of agitation in Syria in the early 1980s.

Delineating the 1,347-kilometer-long border between the two countries has been another sensitive issue. Border problems have included smuggling illegal narcotics and arms by individuals and militant groups on both sides and (because of the arbitrary border demarcation) illegal crossings by related peoples, leading to clashes between border guards and at times, military maneuvers. Border crossing has remained a problem in the absence of a Turkish-Syrian agreement on border security and the "right of hot pursuit," which in Turkey's view would prevent acts against it by separatist groups tied to the Syrian government.

In the mid-1980s, Syria was implicated in two terrorist attacks in Turkey. In the July 1985 murder of Jordanian diplomat Ziad Sati in Ankara, an arrest warrant was issued for a Syrian diplomat. However, the Syrian was allowed to leave Turkey shortly before the trial because Turkey did not want the incident to affect its relations with Syria. The chief defendant in the trial, who was employed as a translator in the Jordanian embassy, carried a Syrian passport. During the trial, he confessed to having worked for Syrian intelligence, stating that his control officer was a Syrian diplomat in Turkey who had given the order to assassinate Sati. The same Syrian diplomat was also suspected of complicity in the terrorist attack on the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul in September 1986, in which twenty-two people were killed.

Relations between Turkey and Syria were thorny before 1998. Historical tensions rooted in former Ottoman control of Syria, its wresting away from Syria -- through French concessions on the mandate -- in the late 1930's of the Alexandretta / Iskanderun / Hatay province, Turkey's support for Israel, and Syria's sheltering of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan (for use as a lever with Turkey in water and border disputes) started to improve in 1998.

Contentious issues included Syria’s claims over Hatay, disputes over water and Syria’s support to PKK, the terrorist organization. Syria, facing the collapse of its patron, the Soviet Union, and the direct threat of armed conflict with Turkey over the Syria's support for Ocalan, agreed to expel him and end support to his Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK). The signing of Adana Agreement on 20 October 1998 marked a turning point in relations between Turkey and Syria. The agreement established cooperation against PKK terrorist organization and relations subsequently flourished in all aspects, i.e. political, economic, security and cultural.

The importance attached to improving and expanding relations to the best possible extent, both by Turkish leaders and the Syrian President Assad, who took office in 2000, played a crucial role in furthering relations between the two countries. Accordingly, the number of official visits increased steadfastly at various levels, including Presidential, Prime Ministerial and Foreign Ministerial levels.

Economic and political relations between Syria and Turkey improved, albeit unevenly, since the year 2000. Subsequent Syrian efforts to strengthen ties with Turkey led, in 2004, to a series of high-level bilateral visits that culminated with the signing in December 2004 of the Turkish-Syrian Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Around this time some observers quietly insisted that Bashar al-Asad, to confront international pressures and mounting isolation, essentially caved to long-standing Turkish-imposed realities and effectively conceded long-held Syrian claims to the sovereignty over the Hatay area. After the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri and increasing international pressure against Syria, Turkish-Syrian cooperation slowed somewhat and the FAT's ratification was put on hold. Syria and Turkey continued to cooperate on some bilateral issues, including border security and intelligence sharing, but Turkey suspended efforts to ratify the FTA.

President Bashar al-Asad's 16-17 September 2009 working visit to Istanbul produced agreement on the creation of a high-level strategic cooperation commission, visa-free travel between Syria and Turkey, and a Syrian offer to work to rehabilitate Syrian PKK members. The deliverables represented a modest step in strengthening bilateral ties, but they symbolized a deepening of strategic coordination in which Ankara figures more prominently in Syria's approach to the region. The October 13 meeting of Turkish and Syrian ministers in Aleppo and Gaziantep produced an ambitious action plan in energy, water, trade, cultural, and security cooperation for PM Erdogan and President Asad to formalize when Erdogan visits Syria in December. Turkey's methodical deepening of relations with Damascus offers Syria a strategic buffer against international pressure and a ready mediator willing to help Syria mend strained relations with neighbors, such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and even Lebanon.

The High Level Strategic Cooperation Council convened for the first time at ministerial level on 13 October 2009 in Gaziantep and Aleppo. Over 10 ministers from the two countries participated in the meeting. It was followed by High Level Strategic Cooperation Council meeting at prime ministerial level on 23 December in Damascus.

A Visa Exemption Agreement was signed on Turkish-Syrian border in October 2009 within the scope of HLSCC meeting at Ministers Level. Shortly after, a total of 50 agreements and MoU’s were signed in Damascus at the HLSCC meeting in December 2009. Those agreements and MoU’s emphasized cooperation on various areas, i.e. political, security, commerce, culture, health, agriculture, environment, transportation, education and water.

HLSCC’s subsequent meetings took place at ministerial and prime ministerial levels respectively, on 2-3 October 2010 in Latakia and on 20-21 December 2010 in Ankara. The parties signed 13 additional agreements within the scope of those meetings.

The thriving relations between Turkey and Syria contributed positively to bilateral trade, investment and tourism. The entry into force of the Free Trade Agreement on 1 January 2007 led to a swift increase in trade volume between Turkey and Syria. As a result, the trade volume rose from 796 million USD in 2006 to 2.5 billion USD in 2010. Turkey’s imports from Syria is 663 million USD and Turkey’s exports to Syria is 1.85 billion USD in 2010.

The Turkish investment in Syria has also increased considerably as well as the number of tourists travelling across Turkish and Syrian borders. The touristic visits between the two countries more than doubled especially after the Visa Exemption Agreement was signed in 2009.

A Quadripartite High Level Strategic Cooperation Council was established among Turkey, Syria, Jordon and Lebanon, at a meeting at Foreign Ministers level, which took place in Istanbul on 10 June 2010. This Council aims to create a zone of free movement of goods and persons among those four countries.

Following the gradual escalation of the crisis unfolding in Syria since March 2011 which has acquired a grave dimension threatening international peace and security, the resolution submitted to the UN General Assembly by the co-sponsorship of 70 countries, including Turkey, was adopted on 16 February 2012 with 137 votes in favor. The support lent to this resolution by such an overwhelming majority constitutes the clearest indication that the conscience of the international community will no longer remain indifferent to the bloodshed and tears in Syria.

As a result of the attacks carried out by the Syrian security forces with heavy weapons against the besieged cities, the death toll has escalated and led to a humanitarian crisis causing pangs of conscience in the international community. In response to this situation, the draft resolution on “Human Rights and the Humanitarian Situation in Syria”, submitted under Turkey’s leadership to the 19th Session of the UN Human Rights Council, was adopted yesterday (01 March 2012) by 37 votes in favor versus 3 votes against.

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Page last modified: 26-03-2012 18:41:01 ZULU