What Does the Future Hold for Syrian-Turkish Relations?

Recent rigorous border incidents that transpired between Syria and Turkey brought several questions to the front. Will the internal instability of Syria that has hurdled over its border with Turkey cause a “Syrian-Turkish war” and enkindle a regional conflagration? How could this unfavorable situation of war be prevented?

Conventionally, studies of war and conflict suggest that a civil war in one country signi?cantly elevate the probability that neighboring states experience con?ict and/or an interstate war. I think that one of the ways to recognize propensity of war is to initiate it with the conditions of war. In order to do this, I emphasize five fundamental conditions for war, namely the clashing interests of states, geographical proximity, power proximity, determination to war and self-reliance in victory.

Turkey and Syria indubitably retains contradicting interests, which are also discernible in a brief overview of their historical relations. For a long time, Turkey has been traditionalist and driven by internal policy interests toward Syria. However, this situation has started to alter by the new foreign policy of Turkey as the “zero-problem with neighbors”. The rising potential of Turkey as the regional leader consequently stimulates several reforms in existing relations with its neighbors, specifically with Syria. Since 2002, Turkey has accelerated its diplomatic and economic investments in Syria, which has altered their relationship from antagonism that instigated cold war politics and Syria’s alleged support for secessionist terrorists who belong to Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), to economic collaboration. All in all, visible instability in the region is not the interest of Ankara’s new foreign policy. Therefore, it will be ideal to conclude that Turkey will not support conflicts with its neighbors.

On the other hand, the outbreak of civil war has altered Syria’s foreign policy interests by ultimately turning its relationship with Turkey into an incongruent setting. The failure of the Syrian government’s initial assurance of terminating their violence against civilians has led to Ankara’s call for the removal of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and unilateral sanctions by the Turkish government on the Syrian regime. But why did the Syrian regime favor such a jeopardizing position that clearly opposes the interests of its citizens?

Considering that President Bashar al-Assad had inherited power directly from his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for 29 years, the current Syrian regime perfectly fits the definition of dictatorship. Thus, the query must look at what the interests of President al-Assad are, rather than what the Syrian people want. Nevertheless, if we could lucidly understand the President’s interests, the issue would resolve itself. One of the principal exercises of a dictator is to convey national sentiments in tune with his own will in order to mobilize masses. Assad positions himself far away from the bourgeois concept of objectivity[i] by creating an external enemy, in this case Turkey, to flame up national sentiments and collect masses against a foreign target in order to regain power while, in essence, overlooking the disapproval of his regime by the Syrian citizens.

The second condition I wish to bring up is that interstate friction is more likely to occur between states that are geographically proximate, particularly in between countries that share a common border-zone. Turkey and Syria share more than 800 km long-winding border territory, making cross-border incidents more ostensible day-by-day due to the proximity of the Turkish border to the location of the Syrian army and rebels conflict. The most recent example of these cross-border incidents occurred last Friday, 12 October 2012 when Syrian helicopters attacked Azmerin, one of its cities in the Idlib region bordering major cities of Osmaniye, Gaziantep and Adana in Turkey. This has considerably raised the fear of another incursion in Turkish territory pushing the Turkish government, which previously held hesitant stance to go to war with Syria, to take greater security measures in the region. Such measures include organizing antiaircraft batteries and placing F-16 fighter jets near the border, which are prepared to initiate airstrikes when needed. In fact, it is not a new phenomenon that countries are driven into conflict out of responsibility to protect their citizens’ safety, when they feel that their borders are threatened. This is exactly what is going on between Turkey and Syria at the moment.

Analogously, sharing a long borderline with a country that faces a civil war also feeds contention between two states, which changes their attitudes. The major reason behind this attitude change is difficulties to prevent insurgents’ use of territory of an adjacent state as basing area, which essentially creates an unwelcomed degree of interdependence between states and hostility toward each other. In such a setting, interstate conflict is just a matter of timing. The change in attitudes is not only limited to nation-states but also involves attitudes of ordinary citizens toward each other, which gradually transforms into resentment. Explicitly, growing amounts of refugees on the borderline and closing of trade routes generates economic, social welfare and security concerns for locals.  An insightful evaluation of this point could be seen by the president of Hatay Industrialists and Businessmen Association (HASIAD), Gulay Gul’s public statement on 29 July 2012:

Borderline cities have never seen such an economic crisis that detrimentally affect the industrial, transportation, tourism companies as well as the agricultural sector and put these companies on the verge of bankruptcy.

The examination of public opinion on the Syrian conflict in the bordering cities in Turkey also reveals how locals slowly developed steaming antipathy towards the hundreds of thousands of refugees due to visible decrease in their quality of life in the villages. Currently, those burdens are more deeply felt by locals through their fear of the future. For instance, Mr. Davut Bayramoglu, a local farmer in a border town, sates his dissatisfaction with the growing number of refugees as follows:

I don’t like this, because these people are going to be here forever, and they will cause problems. Now, as my grape and cherry farm is plundered by Syrian refugees, the only source of my income is my tea stand which I earn no more than 10 Turkish lira after a whole day of working. We keep saying that they are Muslim and we have to help them, but are there no other Muslims to help them? [ii]

 All these gradually evolving amendments in the attitudes of people and states escalate the tension between people in the region and intensify the propensity of immediate military action on the border.

Another factor that increases the likelihood of interstate war is the status of power among states. The prevailing assumption in this regard originates from the idea of traditional balance of power, which suggests that power parity between states is more likely to lead war whereas preponderance of one state over the other decreases the tendency of war. This is an assessment that I essentially agree with. However, designating the opponent’s power status is not an easy task, as both sides might possess asymmetric information in regard to their strength. The failure to identify the opponent`s strength increases the risk of a breakdown of bargaining. It is therefore important to analyze what the states know about their armaments, military structure, tactics, geography, and political climate. Whether an interstate war will occur or not depends on the extent to which information of these parameters can accurately be revealed. In case they are impossible to reveal, war must always be expected at least with some probability.

Without a doubt, Syria and Turkey are not exempted from asymmetric information in regard to their power status. That the Syrian government has lost control of the villages along the Turkish-Syrian border reveals that its power is limited. But why does it still continue to signal that it might be willing to undergo a war with Turkey? This question can only be understood by recognizing the involvement of other countries in the Syrian civil war. Most prominently, Iran has a great stake in Syria, as it is Iran’s firmest Arab ally and has delivered a station for Iran’s support to Lebanon’s Hezbollah in the past. Over the last months, Iran has assisted the Assad regime by delivering military training assistance, arms, technology to intercept communications and monitor the Internet, among other things. Not only Iran but also Iraq has been supportive of Assad regime by allowing Iran to use its air space. I believe that the underlying motive of Iran’s support for the Assad regime is to maintain provision for Hezbollah or similar groups by either keeping Assad in power or creating another Iraq or Afghanistan. On the other hand, this motive clearly clashes with regional security interests of surrounding countries as well as of the US; thereby, various countries with different interests than those of Iran would respond to such an attempt. The spread of the conflict across the region, in this regard, is possible between countries that have stronger relations with the existing power holders in Iraq and Iran, and countries that do not share the same vision, for instance, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

It seems to me that the Syrian government substantiates its belief in a possible victory in the case of a war with Turkey merely on the support that it might receive from other states holding interests in the endurance of the current regime. However, I think that this is a false interpretation by Syria. In addition to Turkey’s unwillingness to go to war, the international community`s support is the key to prevent a war between Syria and Turkey, regardless of the existence of clashing interests, geographical proximity, gradually increasing hostile attitudes and asymmetric information on power status. The Syrian government’s cognition of the high costs of going to war is, therefore, crucial to prevent a catastrophic regional conflict. A supportive attitude of alliances of Turkey, primarily by NATO, could starkly delimit Syria`s false interpretation of its power status while endorsing a reluctant stance towards war. In other words, by delimiting the Syrian government’s faith in the outcome of a conflict, war could no longer be seen as a victory. What is also needed to minimize the risk of a Turkish-Syrian war and/or regional conflict is a more resilient representation of sanctions and preventive measures applied by the United Nations.

All in all, will there be a war between Turkey and Syria in the future? Of course, it is very hard to say yes or no at this stage. Yet, the potential for aggregating attentiveness of the international community, as well as the aforementioned conditions that decrease the prospect of war, offer hope and a possible way to stabilize the region.

Text: Ayse Alkilic

[i] The bourgeois concept of objectivity implies that when understanding reality of the complex society, people and history, one must analyze the accumulated consequences of individual actions under the objective law.

[ii] Interview is conducted by Tim Arango and Sebnem Arsu (New York Times).


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