The Great Restructuring: Syria and Turkey
January 05, 2004 2151 GMT
Syria is improving ties with Turkey in a bid to better its regional position, buffer U.S. pressure and strengthen its influence in Iraq. The Syrian-Turkish détente, part of a regional shake-up brought on by the U.S. occupation, will set the tone for future cooperation between Middle Eastern neighbors.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is scheduled to visit Turkey on Jan. 6 for the first visit by a Syrian leader in almost two decades. During the three-day trip, al-Assad reportedly will meet with Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss bilateral ties and mutual security concerns, which include the issue of Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq.
The landmark visit is the culmination of more than a year of diplomatic efforts on both sides to strengthen ties. Tensions became obvious several years ago, partly due to Syrian support for the Kurdish opposition and Turkey's military cooperation with Israel. But relations improved markedly in recent days, most notably with Syria's handover of several alleged militants suspected in a string of bombings in Istanbul in late 2003.
Al-Assad's visit also signals a dramatic shift in Syria's regional position and efforts to balance U.S.-Israeli pressure. Syria's friendliness toward Turkey is part and parcel of this repositioning. Closer ties will help Syria secure its western flank and allow Ankara and Damascus to present a united front against Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq.
The entire Middle East is repositioning itself in response to U.S. occupation, as Stratfor forecast in March 2003. Egypt and Iran are working toward normalizing ties; Tehran and Washington are openly in talks and probably working in concert on Iraq; Libya has opened its doors to weapons inspectors and U.S. oil firms; Syria and Israel have even talked lately about reviving peace discussions. The race is on for everyone to restructure foreign policy to avoid a confrontation with the United States and to exploit the changing geopolitical landscape.
Syria, one of the weakest and more isolated states, has fewer options than most in dealing with Washington, which cannot allow Damascus to remain uncooperative: Its location as Iraq's and Israel's neighbor makes Syrian cooperation a critical U.S. goal.
To heighten pressure, the U.S. Congress recently passed legislation expanding economic and political sanctions against Syria, and U.S. government officials continue to demand that Syria give up its weapons of mass destruction program and stop supporting Iraqi guerrillas. Damascus denies the allegation that it aided guerrillas, but it has few buffers for resisting U.S. demands.
Syria hopes to build resistance and strengthen its own hand through alliances with other Middle Eastern states, creating with them a unified front of common policies. Syria and Turkey share an especially critical concern: the Kurdish question. An estimated 25 million Kurds live in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. An autonomous Kurdistan in northern Iraq could pose serious political and security problems for both Syria and Turkey, where ethnic Kurds comprise an estimated 20 percent of the country's roughly 68 million people.
Indeed, on the eve of the trip, Bashar al-Assad gave an interview to a Turkish television channel in which he specifically speaks about the Kurdish question. He noted that Syria is "opposed, not only to a Kurdish state, but also to any action against the territorial integrity of Iraq." Al-Assad's statement reflects the effort to dovetail Syrian fears of a Kurdish state with Turkish fears of territorial incursion into a common political front.
Turkey is also fearful of greater Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq. At the same time, it is unhappy with the U.S. approach to the issue. The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq has refused to deal with it, instead arguing that the future status of the Kurdish region falls to an elected Iraqi government after the June 30 transfer of sovereignty.
Erdogan is scheduled to visit Washington in late January and will meet with U.S. President George W. Bush to discuss the Iraq situation and Turkish concerns regarding the Kurds. No doubt, Erdogan will also give the U.S. administration Ankara's view on its budding ties with Damascus and perhaps even convey a message from al-Assad.
Al-Assad's visit to Turkey is meant to lock down a common plan for dealing with the Kurds and the United States. The two states might not be able to block an institutionalization of a semi-autonomous Kurdish state, but they might be able to prevent a Kurdish exodus from Syria and Turkey into a newly independent Kurdistan.
In the longer term, Syrian-Turkish friendliness is far from assured. The countries are mutually wary, and reasons for disagreements -- like Turkish-Israeli military cooperation -- remain. The current reconstruction of Middle Eastern geopolitics, though, creates various opportunities for regional states to reshape their ties and reshuffle political blocs. Common interests now could become the building block of future alliances.