IR & Politics

An Overview of the Turkey-Syria Relations Until Today

Relations between both countries were never warm after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. The early years of Arab nationalism fanned anti-Turkish sentiment throughout Syria. The loss of the Sanjak of Alexandretta to Turkey in 1939 only made the relationship appear irreparable. Turkey shares the longest land border with Syria, 910 kilometers. There are many relatives on both sides of the border, but this friendship did not always ensure good relations between the two states. There have always been ups and downs in our relationships. Turkey while its liberation struggle, Syria was trying not to succumb to the French mandate. During the First World War, Syria was planned to be given to the sovereignty of Britain with the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, however was given to France in the context of the treaty signed between England and France after the war. France established a mandate regime in Syria during the League of Nations period. Turkey, established the Republic in 1923, Syria was doomed to the French mandate until independence in 1946. During this period, Hatay Problem was the most important issue between Turkey and Syria. Although the Syrians continued to live in Ottoman-built buildings, work with Ottoman laws, and enjoy Ottoman cuisine, culture, and language, they had become increasingly anti-Turkish by the mid 1950s. The rift solidified further when Syria sided with the Eastern bloc, while Turkey allied with the United States and became a member of NATO. Under the regimes of presidents Shukri al-Quwatli and Celal Bayar, both countries worked vigorously against each other. Turkish troops even threatened Syria to prevent becoming a Soviet satellite in 1957. In 1984, Syria extended support to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), heading a Kurdish rebellion in Turkey. Although Syrian-Turkish relations improved somewhat in July 1987, during a visit by Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Özal to Damascus, when a security protocol was signed between both countries, Syria got quite into an unease position when the Turks began constructing a number of dams on the Tigris and Euphrates. Turkey was controlling much of the water flow of the Euphrates according to Syria. Problems escalated once again in 1998 when the Turkish army again mobilized on the Syrian-Turkish border, threatening to go to war against Damascus if Syria did not extradite head of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan. Syria’s president Hafez Al-Assad complied and Öcalan fled Syria, he got caught in Kenya in November 1998 and deported to Turkey. Now he currently languishes in a jail. In 2000, wanting a clear page with the past, President Ahmed Necdet Sezer took part in Hafez al- Assad’s funeral. He then turned a new page in bilateral relations with Syrian President Bashar al- Assad, who visited Turkey in 2004, being the first Syrian president in-office to visit Turkey since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. Assad and Sezer were opposed to the Iraq War and both were furious over US support for Kurdish autonomy and the support granting to the PKK’s military activities in northern Iraq. When the Turkish Parliament refused to give the Americans access to Turkish territory for their war on Iraq in 2003, the Syrian press was given a wake-up call; Turkey was not as bad as they had thought. Strong editorials in the news published for Ankara, it signaled that the hostility between the two countries was slowly becoming history. The Turkish-Syrian rapprochement was sealed when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power in Turkey in 2003. In 2004, Erdoğan refused an invitation from Israel. Instead of this Erdoğan received a delegation from Hamas shortly afterwards. In December 2004, Erdoğan landed in Damascus. In March 2005, a Turkish people’s delegation visited Syria and gave a press conference at the gates of the Syrian parliament expressing solidarity with Damascus. Erdoğan’s rise was warmly received by the Syrians because it coincided with a time when most of its regional allies were backing off, under US pressure, after the onset of war in Iraq and the assassination in Lebanon. Principally Turkey-Syria relations can be explained with three key issues. These problems started with the Hatay Problem, continued with the Euphrates and Tigris Problems and continue with the Arab Spring today.

We’ve been experiencing in late years between Syria and Turkey a refugee problem and a civil war in Syria which affected Turkey enormously. All these problems reshaped today’s Turkish economy, foreign policy, politics and security areas. In this part I hope to explain current issues going on between Turkey and Syria shortly.

Turkey-Syria relations, except the period between 1998-2011, have been generally troubled in the past. Normalization in the relations started with Adana Treaty signed in 1998. Turkey-Syria relations have been developed on the social geographical base, with the death of Hafez Assad his son Bashar al-Assad started to rule the country in 2000. Relations between the two countries developed intensively, both politically, socially and economically, after a short while, with the positive developments in the political field. However, in Spring 2011 across the civil war in Syria, Turkey, in terms of social geography have entered into a difficult situation and made a special effort to overthrow the current regime publicly.

Arab spring, starting with peaceful protests in North Africa in 2010 spread all over the region. It affected millions of people and tens of countries. One of those countries Syria. Syria is home to one of the harshest and arduous regions in the World. The protests starting with the Arab Spring turned into a 4 sided war over 9 years. And the tension between these forces affected the whole region. Syria is split between 4 sides; 1)Assad regime with Russia and Iran supporting the regime. 2) Syrian opponent seen as rebels by the regime, Turkey supporting the opponents. 3) Acknowledged as the Syrian arm of PKK; YPG/SDG with the United States of America. 4) last one is having activities in many countries: ISIS. This chaos in Syria turned into a ruined country with wounds that will not heal for a long time. Syrian people were having a hard life under the Esad regime conditions. The government had built an empire of fear over its people. The people stopped bearing this situation and rose up against the government. The Assad regime put down these protests violently afterwards the civil war has begun. The civil war has affected Turkey the most after Syria. Turkey’s politics, security and economy suffered a blow. Millions of refugees fled to the border countries but most of them came to Turkey. European countries was afraid of the refugees. Europe made a deal with Turkey. European countries offered Turkey to close its borders with Syria and then they volunteered to pay for the refugees living in Turkey. Turkey accepted but payments weren’t completed. It was a refugee crisis in Turkey. Turkey wanted to create a safe zone to prevent the refugee wave with diplomatic way however this was not possible. Despite the warning of Turkey, since the beginning of the civil war Assad regime and Free Syrian Army’s conflicts had reached the border with Turkey. Bombs hit Turkish regions during the conflicts. Turkey wanted them to stay away from its borders, normally. These issues led to a political crisis between the two countries. Turkey bombed for two hours the Syrian army which made a border violation. This attack was also supported by NATO. One of the most wounded countries is Turkey in Syrian civil war. This war in Syria affected Turkey in many aspects such as security, economy, internal and external politics. Suicide bombers entered Turkey over Syria have committed many acts of terrorism all over Turkey. Hundreds of civilians have died and thousands wounded. Syria affected Turkey in an economic aspect as much as it affected it by terrorism. According to data from October 2020, the refugees coming to Turkey from Syria is 3.624.517 people. The amount of money spent on the refugees by the Turkish government approximately 50 billion dollars. Turkey wanted the destruction of terrorist organisations which targeted Turkish borders. Controversial issues also started at this point. Turkey affected by the chaos in Syria has never left the Syria issue from its agenda and confronted many countries. One of those countries is the United States of America. The USA is in cooperation with YPG which considered a terrorist group by Turkey. The USA sees YPG as a formation fighting against terrorist organisations, but Turkey sees YPG as the Syrian branch of the PKK. One of the main reasons that put Turkey and the USA against each other. Turkish government wanted YPG to retreat from the Turkish border completely. A strong organization at the border will always be against the country. Turkey was determined to clean its borders, thus organized military operations in northern Syria. The USA continued to support the YPG. Turkey’s operations led the US to react.

This brought the two countries face to face under the name of a cold war. A trade war with the United States made Turkey economically weak and the economy is collapsed. The bad economy brought unemployment. Unemployment has increased substantially. With economic recession many people see Syrian refugees as the guilty ones.

 So that the migrant crisis broke out. The Turkish people want the Syrian refugee influx to stop. During this period of both economic and cultural conflicts, the Turkish government wanted to settle immigrants in the safe zone they created in Syria to eliminate this situation. Turkey also presented this offer to Russia and America. This offer was not welcomed by the US and Russia. Turkey also took a very hard decision because and made preparations to enter Syria again. However, when American soldiers settled on the border, this operation was shelved and verbal conflicts began between the two countries. Donald Trump’s policy was: The US should never spend billions of dollars on restructuring. He wanted to partially abolish the imperialist US order. Therefore, the United States withdrew from the region and an opportunity for Turkey was born in the north to continue the operation. The government’s intention was to expand the safe zone and settle the Syrian refugees there after completely cleaning this area from ​​war. Foreign media said that one power went away a new one came and Turkey came because the government wanted to win power in the region. The problems turned out to be inextricable. As a conclusion, the Civil War started with the Arab Spring in Syria brought catastrophic destruction to the country. The worst thing is, no one knows when this will end. What is happening in Syria is a great human tragedy, it is the shame of those who allow all this happen. 

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Ecenaz Değirmenci

Ms Ecenaz Değirmenci is studying political science and international relations. She is currently senior student at the Muğla Sıtkı Koçman University. Ecenaz makes researches about Balkans, Northern Cyprus and especially Greek- Turkey relations mostly but she is interested in any international issue.
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