Turkey and Syria bury the hatchet
In recent weeks there have been some interesting changes in the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East. Some of it is internal reconfiguration, but much of it has been in reaction to changes in the broader international sphere. Saudi Arabia, it is rumored, has potentially made a covert agreement with Israel to free its airspace should Israel need it to strike Iran. Israel needed an alternate route given Baghdad’s factional-driven denial and the US politically expedient refusal to allow Israel to access Iraq airspace. This rearranging of the chess pieces and other developments left two other powers looking for partnership support, namely Syria and Turkey, and they may have found the support they wanted in each other.
Syria and Turkey have a checkered history and a deep historical distrust of each other. It was only a decade back that Turkey amassed troops on Syria’s border and a military clash narrowly avoided at the last minute. Such Syrian-Turkish animosity runs deep for historical and modern reasons. Since the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, there are rancorous disagreements about territory and water rights. Tensions escalated in recent times over Turkey’s sometimes closeness to Israel and Syria’s support for Turkey’s PKK enemies. Times change however and circumstance makes odd bed fellows. Turkey has distanced itself from Israel post-Gaza, and Syria has oft shown its ability to be flexile in its friendships where it needs.
In a sign of a new happy neighbor relationship, Syria and Turkey in the last few weeks signed an agreement allowing for visa-free passage between the two states. Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, now describes Turkey as Syria’s best friend, while Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, publicly calls Syrians his brothers.
Syria is looking for a way back in from the cold of international isolation, needs friends to bolster its standing, and believes Turkey can aid its efforts as a trusted friend to the West and other nations in the region. Turkey is disappointed by a delayed EU accession process, the US invasion of Iraq, and so has adopted the arch-realist position of foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Chris Phillips of the Guardian newspaper, descries the new political pragmatism as a position of “…zero problems with neighbours”, whatever their past or current misdeeds. This has allowed the regime to put aside its ideological differences and historical disagreements with Syria, as it has with Greece, Iran and, increasingly, Iraq and Armenia.”
Syria has a lot at stake in rapprochement of relations. Until recently is has been ostracized by the US, the EU and other Arab states after the 2003 Iraq war and the 2005 Hariri assassination in Lebanon. However, along with warmer ties with Turkey, there are early signs of a thawing of relations between Syria and the US. Damascus announced recently that for the first time in five years a senior Syrian diplomat is visiting Washington, DC for talks with the Obama Administration.
From the Obama Administration, this sudden welcome mat may have a lot to do with the potential Syria channel into Tehran. If the Obama regime can rebuild the bridges with Syria and bring them back in from the cold, it opens a back door to negotiations with Iran. There is a wrinkle in the mix though despite the best efforts of Ankara and Washington to encourage Syria towards the straight and narrow. Iraq is giving Syria the cold-shoulder making embraces fro other fraternal allies of Baghdad more reserved.
Tensions between the newly US minted Iraq and Syria are high. The Iraqi government accuses Syria of serving as a launching pad for violence in Iraq and is demanding Damascus hand over two members of the outlawed Baath Party, blamed by Baghdad for truck bombings that killed more than 100 people. Syria rejected Iraq’s request, saying it had failed to provide evidence implicating the two suspects. The US State department will need to smooth ruffled feathers on both sides if it wants dialog with Syria without causing offence to Iraq. It is a complex region, and the power are always shifting and sliding. We have long been advocates of engaging Syria and driving a wedge between them and Tehran, perhaps Washington finally agrees with us.
Syria relations stand at a delicate maturation point. Turkey has reached out a hand and offered Damascus a welcome as a potential friend and ally. Washington has at least opened the door a little to Damascus, and any improvement in relations between these two has to be a step towards the light. Syria appears almost on probation, and it will be what it says or doesn’t about Tehran that will be most telling on its prospects. In the case of Damascus, its best chance for reengagement may lie in the old Arab proverb, ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend as far as the West is concerned.