Some 25 years ego when I was serving at the Turkish Embassy in Damascus, once I asked a Syrian journalist friend of mine why so few positive news were reflected in the Syrian press regarding Turkey? His answer was rather revealing the attitude adopted by many high officials at that time. He said that some times ego, he handed over to the editor of his newspaper a piece of news telling the story of a major economic achievement in Turkey. The editor told him: “But there is nothing offending Turkey in this news item. So why should we publish it?” I do not know whether the editor was joking, but I was not surprised. I simply wondered whether I would see some times in the future Turkey and Syria become two countries that their people wanted them to become.
I am extremely happy today that this question has now been answered positively. Did we achieve everything that we ought to achieve? Certainly not, but we are on the right track.
The relations started to improve when Syria took the critical and bold decision to force Ocalan, the leader of the terrorist gang PKK, to leave the country. It gained a new momentum with the Turkish President Sezer’s decision to attend the funeral of the late President Assad, because Sezer insisted to attend the funeral despite pressures not to do so.
The visit by the President Bashar al-Assad to Turkey in 2004 was a resounding success. The Turkish press and media commented extremely positively until several days after the visit. Subsequent visits to Syria by the Turkish President and Prime Minister were for me dreams becoming true. Though this has materialized with a delay of a quarter of a century, it is still good to see this happen.
Prospects for cooperation at bilateral level
What are the future prospects for closer cooperation between Turkey and Syria? The future looks full of opportunities both at bilateral and regional levels. At the bilateral level economic cooperation seems to be in full swing. A major breakthrough was achieved when the Free Trade Agreement between Turkey and Syria was enacted on the 1 January 2007. Turkey is trying to introduce free market economy since several decades. We thought that we made tremendous progress in this field. However a comparison between the Turkish and European Union rules governing the free market economy indicates that there are still discrepancies in the Turkish legislation and implementation. I know that Syria has also made tremendous progress in this field. However, the more you get in touch with the free market economies the more you become aware of new discrepancies.
The economic relations strengthen the interdependence. Turkey discovered belatedly the advantages of the interdependence and the contribution that the economic interdependence could make to the political stability between the countries of a region. This is one of the reasons why Turkey is contributing to the establishment of an industrial zone in Erez, Gaza. If it becomes fully operational it may contribute to the political stability of the region.
Regarding the political relations at the bilateral level between Turkey and Syria, we may use the dynamics to be created by the closer economic ties and the mutual trust that will ensue to carry further ahead the political relations. Such an environment will ease the hand of political decision makers to take bolder decisions.
Cooperation on regional issues
Another factor that may contribute to the further improvement of the bilateral relations between Turkey and Syria is to engage in closer cooperation at the regional level.
The Middle East offers wide opportunities to cooperate at the regional level, because crises offer also opportunities and the Middle East is full of crises: Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, the Mecca agreement etc. Syria may play positive roles in many of these problems. Turkey as a country that is closely interested in the development in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and that maintains good relations with both Israel and Arab countries may bring its own contribution to the easing of some of these problems.
I always regarded Syria as a pivotal country in all Middle-Eastern equations. I was happy to see that Baker-Hamilton report came to the same conclusion several years later. It emphasized this role by suggesting to the US President Bush to engage Syria, together with Iran, in the efforts to seek ways of exit from the Iraqi imbroglio. There is little sign that the President Bush is following these suggestions, but the Baker-Hamilton suggestions are on the table for the US administration to benefit from them when it wishes.
Syria may engage itself in the Iraqi affairs in many different ways. One of them is the control of the Syrian-Iraqi border. I believe that progress is made in this area. Syria knows very well that, in the international relations, the way your policy is perceived by other countries is more important than what you actually do.
On the question of the dismemberment of Iraq and the possible establishment of an independent Kurdish State in the north of Iraq, Turkish and Syrian positions are relatively close to each other because of its eventual effects on the Kurdish speaking minorities within their own territories. Iran has also a sizeable Kurdish minority in its territory, but it may emerge as a winning party from the dismemberment of Iraq. Therefore, on this particular issue, we may consider Iran as boarding another boat than Turkey and Syria.
In Palestine, Syria may play a very positive role in the implementation of the Mecca Agreement to form a national unity government. “Positive” is a relative concept, because the Hamas dominated government as agreed in Mecca may not be perceived as a positive development by all. The idea of forming a national unity government had come initially from the UK (most probably with the endorsement of the US), but it remains to be seen now whether the initiators of the idea will stand behind their initial position after this idea produced a Hamas dominated government.
Hamas will continue to face the pressure from the international community to give up the armed struggle and to recognize earlier agreements that Palestine had accepted. After the election victory of Hamas, Turkey was prompt to invite Khaled Meshaal to Ankara to encourage him to do so. The financial support promised by the Saudi government is extremely important but not sufficient to gain universal recognition. Syria may help Hamas to understand the difference between a resistance movement and a responsible government.
I was heartened when Israeli newspaper Haaretz published last month a report claiming that back channel talks had taken place between Syrians and Israelis regarding the Golan Heights with the knowledge of high officials on both sides. This news was not confirmed, but I find it only natural that such talks might have taken place. The Golan Heights problem has both emotional and military dimensions. However, the lack of mutual trust is perhaps the most important obstacle to a solution.
Lebanon continues to be a country where Syria could be instrumental in moving ahead several initiatives. It is not realistic to expect quick-fix type solutions to the domestic problems of Lebanon. However, the withdrawal of the Syrian forces from Lebanon removed a major mental bloc in the mind of many decision makers outside Syria.
The decision of the Syrian leadership to cooperate with the international community in the assassination affair of Rafiq Hariri is another positive step.
Hezbollah has emerged as a strong power especially in the south Lebanon after the recent invasion of Israel. It is important to use this position of strength to become a part of the political process. Hezbollah is supported by Iran, but without Syrian assistance Iran cannot extend easily this assistance to Hezbollah. Therefore Syria may again play an important role in reconciling Hezbollah with the major domestic or foreign actors in Lebanon.
Syria knows Turkey’s position on all these subjects. It knows where it can count on Turkey’s support. Turkey may cooperate with Syria in many issues, either because of its involvement in the regional issues or because of its relations both with Israel and the Arab countries. Such cooperation may also pave the way to closer cooperation in bilateral issues.