Posted by Joshua on Saturday, September 19th, 2009
Turkish-Syrian relations are going through dramatic changes, as the four articles copied below suggest. All are from Turkish papers. (Shami kindly pointed us to them. )
Let us review some of the more important changes that free trade and the circulation of people and ideas between Syria and Turkey may bring.
- psychologically: The estrangement between Turk and Arab will break down. For too long suspicion and distrust has divided the two. Turks have tended to look down on Arabs as backward and un-Westernized. Arabs have looked on Turks as oppressors who colonized them, undermined Islam, shoved Arabs onto the margins of world history, degrading their culture and national purity, not to mention Islam. Also, Arabs have viewed Turkey’s fixation with joining Europe and willingness to ally with Israel as a betrayal. The fact that Turks seemed so willing to turn their backs on Arabs reenforced the ethnic distrust founded in Arab nationalism and hardened by Baathism.
- Many Syrians have Turkish relatives, traditions, and a powerful Ottoman heritage. Rather than hide this background for fear of being accused of being less than 100% Arab, they will now be able to take pride in their cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic background and perhaps even exploit it to make money and gain social cachet.
- Sectarian impact: Sunni opponents of the Assad government accuse it of “Shiitizating” Syria because the government has allied Syria with Iran and Hizbullah. Both are allowed certain liberties to preach and build mosques in Syria. For their part, Syria’s non-Sunnis have long complained of the flow of Saudi and Gulf money into Syria, which they insist has Wahhabized the country. They speak in horror of how Saudi influence since the post 1973 explosion of wealth has flattened the texture of Islam in Syria, undermining Sufi orders, imposing a uniform and traditional dress code on Syrians, in particular on women, as well as undermining Syria’s religious tolerance and openness. Now, presumably, Turkish religious groups will have a countervailing impact. This should help variegate the texture of Sunni Islam once again and tip the balance away from Wahhabism. Sufi orders have always had a powerful presence among Turks. Along side the older orders, such as the Bekdashis, Mevlevis, and Shazilis, new movements, such as the Gulen movement, have become a driving force in Turkish Islam. They will put down roots in Syria in short order.
- Turkish minorities are also coming out of their shell and will surely influence their brethren across the border. Turkish Alawites, Alevis, Kurds, and even the remains of Christian sects will reconnect with communities across the border. President Assad mentioned that Turkey’s policy toward the Kurdish Communist Party would impact Syria. But more generally, Turkey is a bellwether for regional relations with Kurds. If Erdoghan can find an accomodation between Turks and Kurds, it will have a major impact on the way Syria treats its Kurds.
- Baathism and regime stability: Improved relations with Turkey will help strengthen the Assad government in the short run. This will distress some opposition members as it will annoy neocon and some pro-Israeli analysts, who insist that only way to end one party rule and the sway of Arabism and the Assads in Syria is to uproot the present government violently. For chronic Syria bashers, Damascus’ integration into the region is distressing. For those who seek change without violence and force, it is promising. Evolutionary change can only be hastened by Syria’s improved relations with its neighbors. It gives the lie to those who argue that Syria exports violence and can deal with its neighbors only through force. This is why analysts such as Shenker, Young, Tabler, Abrams, Milhem, Bolton, have engaged in a feeding frenzy on Maliki’s accusations but ignore the more important news coming from Turkey. Those who want more sanctions can only be dismayed.
- In the long run, better regional integration that comes from recognized borders and ending irridentism will moderate the xenaphobic edge of Arabism and strengthen the inclusiveness of Syrianism. Economic growth will bring rising expectations and dampen fatalism. It should bring more travel and education which can only undo some of the sectarian estrangement and ignorance that plagues Syrian society. It will bring Syria out of its fortress mentality.
- Economy: The impact can only be possitive. Sure some industries will face harsher competition, but growth will be the rule.
- Israel: Regional integration will create political unity. This will attenuate divisions between Arabs and between Middle Easterners in general. It will allow Syria to press more effectively for the application of international law on the Golan. It weaken support for Damascus’ detractors who claim it is a rogue nation, underserving of regional, not to mention, world support.
This change will be slow, as Soli Öze explains below.
Deal with Syria brings European Union spirit to Middle East
by AYŞE KARABAT, 18.09.2009, Zaman
[News Analysis]Deal with Syria brings European Union spirit to Middle East
Turkey and Syria’s decision to remove visa requirements for the nationals of the two countries and establish a high-level strategic council is bringing the spirit of the European Union, based on integrated economic relations and political cooperation, to the Middle East, pundits say.
Experts add that cooperation between Ankara and Damascus will gradually spread throughout the Middle East and that extra-regional powers that really want peace and stability in the region should support this process.
Turkey and Syria announced on Wednesday evening that they would create a high-level strategic council, modeled on a similar mechanism launched earlier by Turkey and Iraq, and would remove visa requirements between the two countries, during a one-day visit by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to İstanbul.
“You will travel to Syria as you have been traveling from İstanbul to Ankara. Likewise, travel to Turkey for Syrian citizens will be like traveling between Aleppo and Damascus,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said after signing an agreement with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoğlu.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who spoke with Assad at a meeting and a fast-breaking dinner on Wednesday, said during the dinner that the Middle East should no longer be a region whose name is associated with problems. Assad added that with these agreements, it has been proven that the people of the Middle East have the ability to determine their own future.
Sedat Laçiner from the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (ISRO/USAK) told Today’s Zaman that these decisions are the core of a future integration, if not a union.
“Freedom of movement, very high economic relations and trade volume, joint cabinet meetings, integrated energy corridors, close cooperation on water issues — all these are functional principles of the EU,” he said.
According to Laçiner, when the other countries in the Middle East realize that the cooperation between Ankara and Damascus is working, they will joint it.
“Turkish-Syrian cooperation will be an enlargement corridor toward Egypt, Jordan and also toward North Africa and Gulf countries,” Laçiner said.
He noted that the personal efforts of Foreign Minister Davutoğlu were an important element for the development of the Turkish approach. Another analyst, Bülent Uras from the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), said that after Davutoğlu became the foreign minister, Turkey stepped up its foreign policy. “Until recently the aim of Turkish foreign policy was zero problems with neighbors. Now it is maximum cooperation,” he said.
According to Uras, Turkey is trying to change the status quo in the Middle East, which is currently based on freezing problems. “Turkey’s message is: ‘We don’t have any chance to put our problems on a shelf any longer. We have to solve them.’ The Middle East is being reshaped. Turkey is participating in this reshaping process through democratization, mediation and pushing away the possibility of a conflict. The problems of the Middle East cannot be solved by one country; there is a need for coordination, and Turkey is trying to do this,” Uras said.
He also underlined that such cooperation would bring Syria closer to the West via Turkey, while its other option is to become closer to conflict via Iran. “Under these circumstances, powers such as Israel and US should be happy about this development,” he said.
Hüsnü Mahalli, a journalist and an expert on the Middle East, also believes that the future Middle East will be very different from today’s in a positive way. He added that whatever its name will be — integration, union or something similar — through the agreements between Turkey and Syria, a common platform has been established and the destiny of the Middle East is now in the hands of its people. Other Arab countries will join in, and even Iran in the near future, he said, noting that he believes that despite the traditional policies of Iran, Syria will be able to draw Tehran into this process.
But another expert, Soli Özel from Bilge University, has a cautious approach. According to Özel, Middle Eastern countries should cooperate more and the status quo cannot continue and must be changed, but that does not mean that this will happen easily.
“For Turkey to even realize the realities of life and enter into a process of change took a very long time. I think for Syria, starting the process of change will take time, too. Sure, there is an intention for it, but the abilities are limited,” he said.
Özel recalled that in the past, there was criticism of Davutoğlu’s efforts for regional cooperation, but everyone now understands that his efforts are paying off. “My impression is that Turkey’s efforts are highly coordinated with the US administration,” he said.
Syria-Turkey strategic cooperation
Syria and Turkey have signed an agreement on high-level strategic cooperation, which means that these two neighbors will pursue, from now on, a very close relationship, maybe the closest ever in the history of their bilateral relations.
Although its content hasn’t been completely released, it seems that the agreement aims to create something like a Schengen zone in our region. The abolishment of visas and the development of bilateral free trade will be accompanied by the joint fight against terrorism and against other transborder threats. Naturally, the general thought of good neighborly relations constitutes the basis of this agreement. The peaceful core in the region established by Turkey and Syria can be expanded to a wider area in the future, including Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, even Israel and Palestine, or even the Caucasus, including Armenia.
It’s not possible to predict to which point this initiative will be developed. Yet it is possible to predict how the world will perceive this close relationship between Ankara and Damascus. Some will think that this is a natural outcome of Turkey’s process of transformation. They will admit that it is wise to chose Syria as a key player in Turkey’s foreign relations, while Ankara’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy necessitates the simultaneous resolution of Turkey’s problems with Iran, Iraq, Israel and EU countries. Those who will defend that this agreement brings Turkey closer to the EU will say Turkey is succeeding in what the EU failed in its common foreign and security policy and neighborhood policy.
Nevertheless, others will believe that this is one of the signs that Turkey intends to abandon the EU path. For them, Turkey is trying to become a pivotal country in its region using its geographical advantage, at the crossroads of the Middle East, the Caucasus and the Balkans instead of joining the EU. Some people will even see it as the resuscitation of Ottomanist policies, thinking that this may help Europe get rid of Turkey more easily. But it would be a mistake if they think that is worth celebrating. I don’t believe that Turkey will adopt such a plan, but if it does, the EU will not be the one that will benefit from it.
In today’s world, where policies of exclusion are no longer favored, Turkey is trying to apply a strategy aiming at winning over its neighbors. It appears that the US and Russia support the rapprochement between Turkey and Syria but also the one between Turkey and Armenia. After all, one shouldn’t think that the initiatives on Syria and Armenia were implemented without consulting Washington or Moscow first.
These initiatives can please countries that want Turkey to become the leader in a newly shaped region. But there is another initiative, which is of key importance for determining whether Turkey will stay on the EU track or not: the Kurdish opening. If the newly designed “region” will include only countries with doubtful democracies and countries with no democracy at all, then a democratic leap like the Kurdish opening will be irrelevant. But it appears that Turkey wants to pursue the development of good relations with neighbors and Turkey’s process of democratization simultaneously. This is compatible with the philosophy of the Copenhagen criteria, or it can even be seen as the first demonstration of the “Ankara criteria.” The appellation will not really matter as long as the content of these two criteria remains. Hence, these initiatives may help both to accelerate Turkey’s accession process and to help build a new and stable region. And perhaps this is the beginning of a period during which Europe will think how to win Turkey back.
BÜLENT KENEŞ Chief foreign correspondent of Zaman, who recently visited Damascus to report on Syria in advance of Assad’s visit to Turkey.
We found a part of ourselves in Damascus
I must confess that our interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday in Damascus had a very special meaning for me. Thanks to this interview, I made my first visit to Damascus, which gave me the enthusiastic sensation I would feel if I were paying a visit to relatives that I lost years ago.
I felt the same sensation, which sent chills down my spine when I went to Athens for the first time several years ago. At that time, the following words had come out of my mouth involuntarily: “So close, yet so far away.”
Actually, these words do not hold true for the current state of bilateral relations between the two countries. During the 1990s, which corresponds to my career as a foreign news editor at the Zaman newspaper, when I had a closer interest in foreign policy and diplomacy, the main items on the agenda included the support Syria gave to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist organization and claims about land and conflict over Turkey’s water policies toward Syria. Likewise, the never-ending disputes between Turkey and Greece over the territorial waters in the Aegean Sea, the flight information region (FIR) demarcation, small islands, the mutual armament race, Cyprus, military excises and dogfights were our main areas of occupation. Bilateral relations were so complicated that a friend of mine who is an academician and an expert on Turkish-Greek relations had once joked, “As long as there are hostile relations between the two countries, I will never lose my job until my retirement,” and we had burst into laughter at this tragicomic revelation. Today, those unlucky years when Turkish-Greek and Turkish-Syrian relations were defined as hostile are long past. The concrete results of the “policy of zero problems with neighbors,” the theoretical framework of which was drawn up in the post-2002 era by Ahmet Davutoğlu, acting first as a chief foreign policy adviser to the prime minister and then as a foreign minister, are now visible everywhere.
Seeing that we were engulfed by a friendly atmosphere during our visit to Damascus struck not only me but also the editors-in-chief of leading Turkish newspapers with whom I was touring around the streets of Damascus, which felt so familiar to us. We were extremely happy to observe that despite the false stories about hostility that we have been hearing since the 1970s, we are so close to the beautiful people of this beautiful country, and we are like each other.
The fact that when the last of the Ottoman sultans, Vahdettin, who is depicted by our distorted official education system as a traitor, died in Italy in exile with many debts, our Syrian sisters and brothers brought his corpse to Syria and laid him to rest in a tranquil place that they carefully selected shows me a gleaming sign of the loyalty our Syrian sisters and brothers feel toward us Turks and to their past. While we failed to ask the simple question, “How can a sultan betray the country that is accepted as his own property?” and we labeled Sultan Vahdettin a traitor with blind fanaticism. The Syrian subjects of Sultan Vahdettin did not regard him a traitor but brought his corpse from Italy in order to bury him in the cool courtyard of Suleymaniye Complex, built by Mimar Sinan, in Damascus.
If we recall the sad story of Sultan Vahdettin, the following can be said: On Oct. 17, 1922, 16 days after the bill abolishing the sultanate was passed on Oct. 1, 1922, he left İstanbul and spent his last years in San Remo, Italy, where he died on May 15, 1926. When he died, he was so poor that even his coffin was confiscated, and his corpse was transported first to Beirut and then to Damascus in the company of his son-in-law Ömer Faruk Efendi. The Syrian government had held an official funeral ceremony which then-Syrian President Ahmed Nami Bey, who was the first husband of Ayşe Sultan, the daughter of Sultan Abdülhamid II, attended, too. Later, some other members of the Ottoman dynasty who were living in several European cities were also laid to rest next to him. His burial place, which is held in high esteem by Syrians, and Suleymaniye Mosque are now being renovated with sponsorship from the Ministry of Culture and the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA). Learning that Turkey has done something, though a bit late, to place importance to its past, which was never betrayed by Syrians, was like receiving a nice present in Damascus.
Actually, the warm welcome offered by Syria, which very much resembles Turkey, and by Syrians, who embrace Turks with strong feelings of love and fraternity was the real present we got in Damascus. When we walked in the majestic Hamidiye Bazaar, which was crowded until very late at night, and when we visited the grand 1,300-year-old Umayyad Mosque, which was converted from a church, Damascus always gave us that striking sensation of happiness one can get when he meets relatives whom he hasn’t seen for years.
Compared to the atmosphere of hatred and hostility and the likelihood of an imminent war just 10 years ago, there is a completely different climate between Turkey and Syria. No doubt that not only the existing Turkish government’s foreign policy, which radically changed the way Turkish people view their neighbors, and also Syria’s young, moderate and far-sighted leader, al-Assad, have played a big role in this meeting between two countries who have long established friendly ties. At this point, I would like to express my thanks and gratitude to all the leaders who contributed to the creation of this friendly atmosphere that brought these two sister nations together once again.
Strengthening Turkey-Syria ties put Israel on backburner
ANKARA – Hürriyet Daily News
Friday, September 18, 2009
With its policy of developing a regional vision and maintaining ’zero problems with neighbors,’ Turkey is turning to Syria to transform its relationship from cooperation to integration. Turkey’s move raises questions about whether the strengthening ties with Syria signal a shift in regional balances and its strategic alliance with Israel
With Turkey’s foreign policy appearing to shift toward the Middle East, the government’s rapprochement with Syria and Iraq is raising questions about the country’s future political relations with Israel, its close ally since the early 1990s.
Turkey and Syria announced plans to establish a high-level strategic cooperation mechanism to deepen ties in every sphere, similar to Turkey’s agreement with Iraq.
Analysts have confirmed a considerable change in Turkish-Syrian relations compared to the 1990s, when strained ties were evident due to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, problem. Relations with Israel, however, received a boost in the 1990s when the two countries struck military deals, sowing the seeds of a strategic alliance. The Turkish-Israeli relationship has since moved in the opposite direction in the wake of the Gaza war. This is the current reality, although, both sides downplay the diplomatic chill, saying that it is only temporary.
“It is too early to say that what was often described as Turkey’s strategic alliance with Israel is being replaced by Syria,” Bülent Alirıza, director of the Turkey Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.
“However, the increasingly close relationship with Damascus, combined with the recent strains in the relationship with Tel Aviv, seems certain to raise additional questions about a possible change of direction in Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East,” he said.
The government’s sharp criticism of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza opened a rift with Israel. Ankara’s frustration was also revealed in the suspension of Turkish-mediated indirect talks between Israel and Syria, which were on the edge of being raised to the direct level. However, the Gaza war and the recent election of a right-wing government in Israel have since frozen talks.
Now, with its policy of developing a regional vision and maintaining “zero problems with neighbors,” Turkey is turning to Syria to transform its relationship from cooperation to integration. Both sides have already announced a decision to lift mutual visa requirements.
“For Syria, it is important that Turkey distance itself from Israel but it probably does not realistically expect that the Turkey-Israel relation will be ended and replaced by relations with Syria,” according to Raymond Hinnebusch, professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the University of St. Andrews, who has written a series of books on Syria and the Middle East.
“Rather, the heart of the alignment with the two countries is political: to manage the shared water, to avoid problems of irredentism from escalating, to avoid destabilizing interventions or civil wars in the region. The relation also has an economic dimension with cross-border business increasing,” said Hinnebusch.
“And in identity terms the perceptions of Turks and Syrians/Arabs as rivals or even enemies has been replaced by a feeling of amity, even some overlap in identity,” he added.
Political relations vs military enthusiasm
Despite strengthening relations with Damascus, some observers say that the Turkish military’s enthusiasm is not the same as that of the government. In the case of Israel, improved relations began with a military partnership and developed on the civilian level. This prevents a complete breakdown in relations with Israel, as military exercises and deals are ongoing despite occasional problems on the political level.
However, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on the eve of a visit to Turkey that his country would welcome PKK members if they decided to lay down arms, which was interpreted as clear support of the Turkish government’s Kurdish initiative. Thus, security concerns over a PKK-originated threat could bring the military into the picture, alongside the fostering of political ties with Damascus.
“I would not expect the Syria-Turkey relationship to be military-centered; the two sides do not really share the same threats, except for a shared perception of the dangers created by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, particularly in empowering the Kurds,” said Hinnebusch.
“Syrian and Turkish weapons systems are different so I’m doubtful there is much scope for cooperation along these lines. Perhaps intelligence sharing, confidence-building measures etc. can develop at a fairly low level of salience,” he said.