Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

Turkish-Syrian relations revisited

Turkish-Syrian relations revisited

Bulent Aras

THIS ARTICLE SEEKS TO ANALYZE the problems between Turkey and Syria and what has caused these problems in the relations between the two countries, as well as critically analyzing the nature and severity of these problems. Of special critical importance is the evaluation of the extent of the domestic political configurations in the relations between these two countries. We will also answer two other questions to provide a comprehensive analysis of the relations between Turkey and Syria, namely: Do Turkish decision-makers decide who their rivals are on the basis of intrinsic national interests, or have they merely been reacting to images projected by self-interested politicians and external actors? Is Turkey drifting into a potentially dangerous rivalry without sufficient reason with Syria as a primary opponent? In this paper, it is argued that Turkey’s policy towards Syria has become hostage to the worldview of Turkey’s governing elite, one that has demonstrated itself to be increasingly unable to cope success fully with political change on domestic, regional, and international levels.

Turkish foreign policy toward Syria has been shaped by both material and ideational factors. Any analyses ignoring ideational factors will fall short of explaining foreign policy behavior toward Syria. The official policy of Turkey can be defined as a concious alienation from and disregard within the framework of pursuing a controlled tension with Syria. The experiences in this process have shaped the cognitive map of Turkish establisment’s identity, which give direction to foreign policy toward Syria. The Turkish conciousness of Arabs and Syrians has not occurred ex nihilo, but has been represented through the restructuralization of the past and its incorporation into a modern consciousness. Turkish-Syrian relations go back to the Ottoman era, and a comprehensive study is required to integrate the historical legacy and impact of historical imagination to the analysis of the relations in the contemporary era.


The basic elements of the Turkish state identity were mainly constructed in the early Republican era, when the founding fathers of the Republic applied a reform project to create a “civilized and modem” nation. (1) This emerging new identity –later called the Kemalist identity- was the product of a pragmatic-eclectic ideology that took shape on an international level in the 1920s and 1930s. It was inspired by Comtean positivism adopted by certain Ottoman intellectuals at the end of the l9th century, as well as the process of westernization initiated during the same period. This project was basically a modernization project dependent upon the three pillars of nationalism, westernization and secularism. In this vein, the foundational elements of the Kemalist identity were the abandonment of the Ottoman past, the termination of Islamic power in the public sphere -preventing it from functioning as a source of political legitimacy- an understanding of citizenship that excludes non-Muslim minorities, all within an ethno-linguistic and territorial conception of state. While clamoring for increased modernization and Westernization so as to elevate Turkey to the economic level of the civilized world, official identity, at the same time, has been the source of distrust and a latent enmity towards the West inherited from the Ottoman administrative elite. Any careful analyst will recognize that official identity has been shaped not by limited westernization but through praxis of a third world nationalism deeply influenced from the 19th century nation-state model of Europe. (2)

Although the official identity was projected as a civic one, the burden of the Ottoman imperial past and Kurdish rebellions in early periods of the republic led to a shift to ethnic nationalism exclusively based on Turkishness. (3) The early steps of the Kemalist long march toward westernization were in conformity with creating an ethnic and homogenous national identity at home. As Kilinc argued: “in the early Republican era, there had not been seen identity crises. Contrarily, the foreign policy extensions of the Turkish identity shows us that the westernization and nationalism were the overlapping tendencies during the early Republican period.” (4) The 75 years of westernization process could not diminish the material and mental differences between Turkey and Europe. Indeed, the intrinsic enmity survived with the strengthening senses of Turkish self and European other. The limited nature of Turkish westernization reveals itself in limited changes, such as adoption of the Latin script and changes in family l aw.

The new Turkish republic had a defensive character and it would not be wrong to argue that this character is inherited from the Ottoman experience of preserving the country in the last three centuries of the empire. A taturk’s (the founder of modem Turkey) principle of “Peace at Home, Peace in the World” has long been a dominant rallying cry, and policy makers have conducted Turkish foreign policy in an introverted and reluctant manner. The paranoia, or Sevres Syndrome, which has a long history among the Turkish people, is based on the notion that the country is surrounded by enemies and constantly faces the danger of break-up or partition. This distinctively Turkish view of the world still plays a vital role in shaping the minds of Nationalist foreign policy makers. This explanation reminds us of Jutta Weldes’ argument that: “insecurity is itself the product of processes of identity construction in which the self and the other, or multiple others, are constituted…they can all be seen as resting on the assu mption that identity and insecurity are produced in a mutually constitutive process.” (5)

Thus, it is not appropriate to employ realist measures to explain Turkish foreign policy behavior. It has its own “rights and wrongs” and is heavily value oriented. Namely, official identity defines the threats based on its own culture of security. Foreign policies come to be extensions of domestic politics and the “others” excluded during the construction of the Kemalist identity provide negative input for foreign policy formulation, making foreign policy hostage to considerations of the establishment identity. In the end, ideological narrowing in domestic politics causes foreign policies to be harsher, less sensitive to change and less flexible.

There is an imagined threshold that Turkish foreign policy behavior turns to be very responsive and even dares to undertake a high degree of risk. This dare to take risks also comes from the masculine nature of Turkish politics. Although the masculinity and iron-fist of “father state” is visible in domestic politics, it has rarely found expression in foreign policy. Foreign policy makers have often played an extremely cautious role and only in a few cases have dared to undertake risk. As explained, the intersection of high domestic sensitivities along with international ones (in conformity with the threat perception) and the suitability of international context give blood and spirit to repressed masculinity in foreign policy behavior. The Turkish threat to use military means to prevent Russian surface to air missiles’ transfer to Greek Cyprus, tension with Greece during the Kardak (Imia) crisis and the overtly exagerrated promise to be a panacea to all ills of the Turkish republics (in the former Soviet South ) are just a few recent examples in this regard. However, in each case, the reasons that stimulate passing this threshold are different, and each should be analyzed in its own domestic and international contexts.

We hold the premise that the October, 1998, crisis between Turkey and Syria, and subsequent relations can be explained through this theoretical framework. After discovering the Turkish cognitive map of identity and its reflection in Turkish foreign foreign policy in a comprehensive way, we will directly employ this framework to Turkish-Syrian relations, which will serve for a better understanding of relations, in comparison to traditional scholarship of Turkish-Arab relations that has generally been based on the realist assumptions.

In foreign policy, with respect to Ankara’s role in the Middle East, Turkey is seen as an important country in region-wide security issues with surrounding regions. Thanks to its military power, it is the second largest force in NATO and is far stronger and better equipped than the majority of the neighboring countries. In its political identity, torn between ties with Europe versus ties with the U.S., Turkey’s nationalist policies present an image of a country becoming more introverted, nationalistic and rapidly arming itself as a result of security concerns. Nevertheless, Turkey is still not included within the agenda of disputes over the security of the Middle East or the Gulf region. The reasons for Turkey’s exclusion are the controversial relations between Turkey and Israel, buffeted by their mutual close ties with the U.S. as well as numerous conflicts with Greece, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Although these disputes may be understood as an extension of traditional foreign policies, Turkey’s post-Cold War poli cies have sharpened Turkey’s anti-Arab and anti-European as well as pro-American and pro-Israeli attitudes and images. Turkey has lost touch with the psychological modes of the Arabic world, and has declined an unfavorable position within the Organization of Islam Conferences (OIC).


By generally ignoring the Ottoman past, however, the conductors of Turkish foreign policy have been anxious to separate Middle Eastern geography from its historical roots and geographical context, as if suffering from a shift of consciousness or amnesia. Numerous international developments, especially the previous Soviet threat towards Turkey and Turkey’s efforts to gain a place within the Western bloc, have helped foreign policy makers adopt new understandings that serve to compensate for Turkey’s post-imperial loneliness or marginalization; having disdained its imperial heritage, Turkey has tried to refresh its memory. The Middle East was among the first and most important areas to put Turkey’s post-Cold-War identity and mission to the test.

The Arab world has been considered problematic in the Turkish mental map, and to be associated with it has been considered something negative. A number of factors have contributed to this perception and stance. The first has been the early Turkish positivist explanation of the source of the backwardness in the country with Turks’ accepting Islam, which came through the teachings of Arabs. The second and the most popular explanation is Arabs’ stabbing Turkey in the back through their alliance with the British forces during WWI. The less crucial explanation is that most of the Arab countries chose to side with the Socialist bloc in the Cold War era. If one goes into detail regarding the shaping of the Turkish mental map towards the Arabs, it is not possible to find a serious enmity until the mid-1910s. One clear example is the absence of negative Arab images in Ottoman literature until this time. According to a recent doctorate thesis, there are only a few negative Arab figures in the novels of Ahmet Mithat Efe ndi, a late Ottoman intellectual and novelist, and the negative aspects have nothing to do with Arabness. Rather, Arabs are presented with their virtues and good traits, i.e., sincerity, hospitality and loyalty. (6) This sentiment changed quickly and found its expression in the literature of Zeytindagi by Falih Rifki Atay and also as “Ne Arab ‘in Yuzu, Ne Samin Sekeri” (7) in popular form, reflecting the anger against the Arabs. (8)

The perception and interpretation of the Ottoman legacy has been widely different in Turkey and Arab countries. The Turkish establishment considered itself as the main successor state with negative memories of Arabs; in contrast, the Arab states interpreted the demise of the Ottoman Empire as their emancipation from exploitation by an imperial power. The identity construction and social engineering in both regions went hand in hand, with Turks referring to Hittite and Sumerian ancestors and Arabs referring to early Arab eras. Contemporary Arab political consciousness has been mainly shaped during the dissolution of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Ottoman Empire, colonial era and Arab anti-colonialist struggles. The late Ottoman rulers’ gradual shift from Ottomanism-Islamism to Turkism alienated the Arabs from the Ottoman Empire. Arab identity emerged as a politico-cultural alternative, facing the weakening of the Ottomans and oppressive policies of then ruling elite of the Committee of Union and Progress . This consciousness first emerged through Sherif Husayn’s (ruler of Mecca) activities against Turks. According to conventional historical understanding of this era, the harsh policies of Cemal Pasha, then ruler of Syria, against Arabs constituted a turning point understanding of this era. The Ottoman era has been considered an era of decay in Arab historiography and has been blamed as setting barriers to the spread of enlightened Western ideas in the Arab regions. Rifaat Ali Abou-El-Haj’s criticism of Arab historiography is important for understanding the general perception of the Ottoman era in Arab intellectual circles. He suggested: “Without either differentiation or specification, nearly four hundreds years [of Ottoman rule] are lumped together quite indiscriminately as a period of inhitat (decay) and therefore not worthy of serious historical consideration. As with previous attempts at linking together all Arab history, the consistent tendency is to turn to the first centuries of Islamic, “purely Arab” history to provide a basis for unity and serve as the foundation of a common Arab identity.”

Although these ideas dominated most of the 20th century, they began to change toward the end of the century. Since the end of the Cold War, a number of crises have emerged in the former Ottoman territories, and, due to the intensity of these conflicts, a romantic yearning for the security of the past in the form of the Ottoman government, with a particular reference to its multi-ethnic and diverse religious nature, has surfaced in former Ottoman territories. The process of remembering the Ottoman past in Turkey adds salt to injury and deals a harmful blow to the paradigmatic basis of Kemalist identity, which has long determined the guiding principles of domestic and foreign policies. The reassessment of the Ottoman past within the domestic arena has not been restricted to Islamist or nationalist segments of society, however, but has also found ground, although limited, within official Turkey–especially evident with the celebration of the 700th anniversary of the founding of the Ottoman Empire. On the Arab si de, remembering the Ottoman past has reversed some prejudices against its Ottoman past and increased sympathy toward the Ottoman state. Ibrahim Abu-Rabi’s explanation underlines the emergence of new interpretations: “[I]n a deeply philosophical sense, the actions of both the Arabists in the Arab world and the Unionists in Turkey were an expression of a larger problem: the decay and final disintegration of the Ottoman Empire.” (10) In addition, there is a widespread belief that the rivalry between Germany and Britain in former Ottoman Arab lands further complicated the situation in these areas.

The Ottoman impact on Syria has not been lesser than any other ex-Ottoman region. The Ottoman model of political power survived nearly four decades after the demise of the empire. As Khoury argued: “This political culture was distinctly urban and was shaped by a mixture of Ottoman administrative practices, local Arab traditions, and European intellectual and material influences.” (11) Arab nationalism in the Syrian province developed as an opposition movement and gained momentum as the nationalist Young Turks enforced measures to replace Arabs with Turks and enforced administrative centralization. The Ottoman state’s policies in this area led to the emergence of a new middle class, and their material expectations were much ahead of actual growth. Khalidi brings this new middle class and their connection to Arab nationalism to our attention and argues that new elites consisting of members of military, professionals, journalists and teachers found attractive and useful the ideas of Arab nationalism, which becam e a basis of their opposition to status quo. (12) The cognitive map of Syrian Arab nationalism has been shaped as anti-Turkish and this feeling has intensified over the question of the Sanjak of Alexandretta, over which the Syrian side continued to claim sovereignty rights, despite the fact that it remained in Turkish territory.

Historical myths, legends, narrations, convictions about the past events and beliefs about historic figures, all constitute a general historical imagination, which can affect the choices of the peoples, their responses to the challenges, their behavioral tendencies, and their fundamental attitudes. Most Middle Eastern leaders conduct foreign policies as if history has been frozen in the 19th century. That is why, inter alia, an important part of this region gives an image of living out of historical reality. The dilemma we face here is that legitimacy of living out of history comes from the distorted views of historical interpretation and imagination. Turkey’s relations with Syria should be understood within the general context of Turkish-Arab relations and also through examining major particular issues between these two countries. It will be only repetition to say that the relations should be analyzed through taking both the ideational and material factors together in a meaningful theoretical construction th at we attempted to offer in this analysis.


The ruling elites of Syria and Turkey seem stuck in the early 20th century, and, interestingly historical imagination’s creation of informational products and cognitive possessions prevent them from recognizing the changing realities. In other words, the ruling elites’ worldviews and identities constitute the main obstacles behind the formation of rational foreign policy behavior. The mutual imaginary barriers create filtering mechanisms that result in misperception of the other’s behavior in most cases. The same mechanism also creates enough incentives to keep a critical distance and to ignore each other as much as possible. The ruling elites also try their best to keep this distance alive and consider the mutual enmity as a useful tool to manipulate or exaggerate real or perceived threats for the sake of justifying their rule at home.

The apportionment of the Euphrates and Tigris river’s water reserves has been a serious problem between Turkey and Syria for over three decades. The problem dates from World War I; only after the demise of the Ottoman empire has the flow of the two rivers become a regional problem. After that date until the l970s, the protocols and agreements signed between Turkey and the exmandatory powers–France and Britain on behalf of Syria and Iraq–prevented a conflict since use of water was at minimal level. (13) The problem arose, on the Syrian side, because of Syria’s increasing demand for water, due to two subsequent agriculture based export development programs in 1987 and in 1992. On the other side, Turkey’s attempt to hold water for the Ataturk and Karakaya dams and for the irrigation schemes of the Southeast Anatolian Project complicated the water problem. The problem is mainly related to the different understandings of Turkish and Syrian sides.

Syrian foreign policy makers consider the river as an international watercourse and demand equal division of water. The Turkish side, on the other hand, defines the rivers’ status as transboundary water and argues that it will allocate enough water to both Syria and Iraq. The latter two demand a trilateral agreement over the share of the waters, and, indeed, representatives of the three countries have met several times for this purpose. These meetings did not go beyond agreements over some technical problems. Iraq and Syria have an agreement over sharing the water that Turkey released to them, but they failed to convince Turkey to accept their terms regarding water allocation.

Turkey continuously opposes the division formula and argues that it releases enough water to Iraq and Syria, even offering them water from its own resources when water flow decreases in certain periods of the year. More specifically, Ankara considers the Euphrates as a cross-boundary waterway and claims exclusive sovereignty until it reaches the Syrian border. Turkey accepts only those rivers that form a border between two or more riparians as international rivers. Turkey guaranteed a flow of 500 cubic meters per second to Syria in a protocol signed in 1987. (14) However, some diversions occurred through time and have been considered as a fait accompli by the Turkish side. For example, although the flow was reduced to 165 cubic meters per second with a forewarning, in November 1991, this reduction has been interpreted as an hostile attempt by the Syrian side. The flow of 500 cubic meters does not satisfy the Syrian side since it was demanding 700 for irrigation purposes. Interestingly, the flow was raised to above 900 cubic meters in the aftermath of October 1998 Ocalan crisis with Syria.

The second problem between the two states is Turkey’s continual claim that Syria provides help and shelter to the separatist Kurdish group, the PICK, which has been at war with the Turkish state for the last two decades. According to David McDowall, the total Kurdish population is estimated at about 22.6 million and this population is mainly spread in four states. These countries and their respective Kurdish populations are Turkey (7-10 million), Iraq (5-6 million), Iran (3-4 million) and Syria (2-3 million). The Kurdish tribes are internally diverse and there is no common loyalty among them in a region-wide sense. (15)

Beginning in the 1970s, with the pretext of leftist opposition to the state, the Kurdish groups evolved to a position that the Kemalist establishment had never imagined. The policy of non-recognition did not make the problem disappear but rather led to the emergence of the PKK in the 1980s and its subsequent warfare with the state forces; this resulted in the death of 35.000 people from both sides and widespread Kurdish demands for more recognition. After one and half decades of warfare, the Turkish state gained a decisive victory over the PKK when its leader, Abdullab Ocalan, was abducted and sentenced to death after a humiliating trip from Syria to Russia and then to Italy and Kenya, where he was arrested and brought to Turkey. It is safe to argue that the Kurdish problem then entered a new phase, which can be called the post-PKK era. The PKK had adopted a Marxist-Leninist strategy and ended up with a pragmatic ideology that aimed to mobilize support from different segments of Kurdish society and indeed it succeded in this goal to a considerable extent.

Turkey’s nationalist elite tends to argue that regional economic differences and the legacy of feudal power relations are internal dimensions of the Kurdish problem, while they attempt to blame Turkey’s problems on an international conspiratorial web, which uses the PKK as its agent to weaken and divide Turkey. They place Syria as number one on the enemy list for its support to the PKK and sheltering its leader in Damascus. The Turgut Ozal era in Turkey witnessed a departure from the traditional policy line and a number of new measures. Ozal explicitly recognized the Kurds as a distinct ethnic group and made a serious effort to lift the ban over the use of the Kurdish language. As Yavuz argued: “To achieve this goal, he introduced a set of bills including one designed to remove restrictions on the Kurdish language. In 1991 he met with the leaders of two Iraqi Kurdish factions, Mustafa Barzani and Jalal Talabani and granted amnesty to many Kurds, initiatives that were welcomed by the Kurds. He repealed the dra conian language law, Law 2932, in 1991, in response to European Community conditions for closer European-Turkish relations. Kurds were now free to sing songs in Kurdish and to publish in Kurdish, but not to use their language in public.” (16) This policy line, however, did not survive since the nationalist elite turned to conservative policies and even abandoned some novel applications adopted in the Ozal era.

The Kurdish question, with its transnational and sensitive character, turned into a Trojan horse, which has been used by global and regional powers in Middle East politics. During the October 1998 crisis between Turkey and Syria on the Kurdish issue, it became clear that Syria exploited the Kurdish problem of Turkey through supporting the PKK in different ways and attempted to use it as leverage against Ankara in the water question and some other minor regional issues. For example, during prime minister Turgut Ozal’s visit to Syria in 1987, this issue was on the table and Ozal was able to get some support from Syrian policy makers; this was also reflected in a security protocol signed at that time. Several security protocols were signed over time, but Syria never fully granted support to Turkey in its war against the PKK and continuously denied the existence of the PKK members in Syrian and Lebanese territories. Syria was hesitant even to describe the PKK as a terrorist organization. Up until the capture of t he PKK leader, the Turkish establishment considered Syria as the main reason for its Kurdish problem. For example, in early 1996, Ankara suspended all official contacts with Syria after it refused to deliver Abdullah Ocalan to Turkey. The escalation of nationalist sentiments in Turkey, domestic uncertainties in Syria, Russia’s withdrawal from Middle East politics, and the international environment created a harsh and decisive Turkish policy toward Syria in the last months of 1998 as Turkey sought to resolve the Syrian involvement with the Kurdish question. The tension between Syria and Turkey rapidly escalated and Ankara openly began to talk about a military operation to capture Abdullah Ocalan and other Kurdish insurgents. A shuttle diplomacy by Egyptian officials, in addition to constructive engagement of some other regional countries such as Jordan, and Syrian leader Hafez Mad’s acceptance of Turkish terms, prevented further escalation of the conflict and resulted in the signing of the Adana accord. Even b efore signing this accord, Mad deported the leader of the PKK. The accord was therefore clearly dictated by Turkish demands. Prevention of Syrian support for the PKK satisfied the Turkish side and relations improved after this accord.

According to the official Turkish line, the Kurdish question had entered into a new phase, and foreign elements lined up to support the so-called politicization of the Kurdish question. The allegations that Syria was responsible for the main bulk of the Kurdish question and the idea that the problem would cease to exist if Syria did not provide support to the PKK proved false even after the deportation of Abdullah Ocalan by Syria. The tendency to blame Syria for a major domestic problem and to externalize the problem continued. On the contrary, Syria has only been replaced by putting the blame on a number of European states. It is interesting to see that the two middle powers’ rivalry is based mainly on an exagerrated threat and, indeed, the real cost of this rivalry is much less than projected at domestic and regional levels.

The Kurdish problem in the beginning of the third millennium is not in a better position than in the 1970s. If one ignores the change in mentality in the Kurdish inhabited areas, it would not be anachronistic to argue that the armed struggle of the PKK did not serve the cause of Turkey’s Kurds. The Kurds believed that pursuing a war against it would weaken the Turkish state. However, this should not be regarded as a major advance considering the long years of the PKK violent struggle and the state violence it created, in particular in Kurdish areas. The Kurdish masses were confused by state oppression and the PKK brutality. Economic backwardness, warlords, a strong and widespread sense of hopelessness and disappointment, a civil war atmosphere with a sort of Vietnam syndrome, the development of a problematic and responsive nationalism, and an increased sense of “us” versus “other” between Turks and Kurds, created a new fault zone in Turkish politics. Contrary to the republicannationalist perception of the pro blem, the democrat bloc focused on solving the Kurdish problem within the context of further democratization and appreciation of ethno-lingnistic rights.

The democrat-globalist elite in Turkey tends to establish rule of law in the country and make necessary amendments to create a suitable environment for the solution of the problem. Their focus is on proposals that emphasize common elements rather than differences with respect to questions of citizenship and nationality. Such a new orientation would most certainly bring discussions on possibilities of cultural pluralism based on the Ottoman-Islamic legacy shared by Turks and Kurds to the forefront. Although the state policies failed to produce a common identity and citizenship notion for Kurdish populations, the Islamic and Ottoman legacy has been utilized as a common identity and strategy for daily life between the Kurds and other peoples in these four different states. The softening and bridging role of Islam is visible, in particular, if one considers that repressive policies by these countries against the Kurds did not generally lead to internal conflicts between Kurds and local peoples in these states.

Another issue at stake in bilateral relations is the recent rapproachrnent between Israel and Turkey and Syria’s perception of this alliance as anti-Syrian. Although there are a number of problems between Turkey and Syria, Damascus’ main security problems are on its southern border and mainly with Israel. The issue of Golan Heights and the Israeli security zone in Lebanon have constituted the crux of the question between Israel and Syria for decades. Following military cooperation agreements between Turkey and Israel, Syria’s security concerns rose as it felt besieged by unfriendly states. Syrian policy makers continously claimed that Israel aimed to exert pressure over Syria through its alliance with Turkey. Turkish foreign policy makers said that the alliance did not target any third party, in particular Arab countries, but suspicion continues.

Turkey and Syria have the largest land border with one another and both are the gateway to the South and North respectively. Turkey witnessed an export-oriented economic boom in the last two decades in some of its eastern cities like Konya, Kayseri, Adana, Kahramanmaras and Gaziantep and this dynamism can easily be extended to Aleppo and Damascus. (17) However, the relations between the two countries are a never ending struggle, which does not allow them to reach an agreement. The inactivity and the lack of initiative prevented the emergence of multidimensional relations at various levels between these two states. If one compares the relations of Syria-Israel and Turkey-Greece, both countries pursue much more complicated policies toward their other “rivals” in the region. After the escalation of the Ocalan crisis, the relations rapidly returned to their old track giving signals that there will be no major change in the foreseable future. The Kurdish question is the only problem that could lead to a major cris is between Ankara and Damascus. Other problems do not have the potential to evolve into a serious conflict.

Turkish-Syrian relations also have serious impacts on the geopolitical balances of the eastern Mediterranean and Turkey’s relations with Iran and the Arab countries, in particular with Iraq and Egypt. The absence of regular diplomatic channels prompts third countries to utilize their relations with Turkey and Syria for their own causes and to create difficulties for their regional rivals. For example, Israel put forward the idea of water compensation from the Euphrates-Tigris rivers in return for water reserves in the Golan Heights, thereby bringing the Turkish-Syrian water dispute into the agenda of the Middle East Peace Process. In addition, Greece has used Turkish-Syrian tension to mobilize support for the Cyprus question from the Arab world. Turkish and Syrian establishments reflect their insecure identities in their policy formulations and conduct their foreign policies in this line of logic. Both seem to forget that they are representatives of legitimate and integrated countries of the Middle East, whic h could play vital roles for regionwide cooperation and stability projects.


An analysis of the three main issues, discussed above, that give shape to the relations between Turkey and Syria made it explicit that both sides are locked into a vision that is shaped by historical enmity, mutual negative images, establishment ideologies, and policy makers’ attempts to externalize the sources of some of their major domestic problems. The perception of being surrounded by unfriendly states also prevails in Syria. Indeed keeping relations under some stable tension helps policy makers hold on to their power through creating an omnibalancing. This situation prevents any constructive attempts to discuss, let alone to solve, the problems between each state. Progress only can be realized if decisive political will exists to overcome the imaginary barriers defined above.

Both sides’ inability to understand concerns of the “other” also raises barriers to realizing some common interests and options for cooperation. The mutual suspicion and imaginary threshold results in regarding the other’s attempts as dishonest initiatives, tactical maneuverings and simply lies. There are at least three vital cooperation prospects that would serve for a stable and secure Middle East in the long run. The unity of Iraq is a common problem for Turkey and Syria and until 1996, officials from Ankara, Tehran and Damascus met to coordinate their Iraqi policies. Given the PKK leader’s departure from Syria, however, a more pragmatic approach may lead to a rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus. In this sense cooperation and effective use of water is a must for both Syria and Turkey. As Eder and Carkoglu stressed in a recent article: “At a time when the terms of trade in agriculture are steadily declining, for instance, there is indeed no reason why food self-sufficiency policies which essentially l ead to ineffective allocation of resources can not be replaced by policies of food interdependence and food trade.” (18) Related to the water question, there is a growing suspicion in the Arab world that the GAP project will fall into the control of Israel, which will ultimately be the main beneficiary. The regionalization of the South-eastern Anatolia Project (GAP) as a wider development program would not only break this bias and perception, but would also create a region-wide chance and opportunity for greater gain to involved countries.

The nationalist discourse of the foreign policy elite in Turkey is by nature exclusionist; it constantly seeks to justify itself by, among other things, dramatizing the dangers posed by enemies. As in the case of relations with Syria, perceived or alleged threats to national interest may not be simply imaginary, but they are frequently subject to manipulation at the bands of the ruling elite. (19) For example, although both the establishment and their loyal media outlets gave an image that they had returned from the brink of war, Syria had not even reinforced its lightly policed Turkish border with the troops based in its southern border. Over time, this exclusionist policy has become disconnected from its origins; the initial context that gave rise to it have come to have a life of its own, and is accepted as an integral part of the general state of affairs. Thus, the ruling elite has consistently held Turkey’s foreign policy hostage to domestic politics. Foreign policy elites should be aware of the fact tha t the policy formulation process includes multiple identities, and any a priori and exogenous attribution of state identity is invalid; in turn, they serve to restrain their ability to cope with change in the context of international politics. The relations should not be held hostage to relations with third countries. This requirement becomes clearer when it is remembered that the Israeli government announced on 4 October 1998, that it would not be involved in the confrontation between the two countries. (20)

From whatever perspective one looks at the issue, close relations between Turkey and Syria are desirable from both commercial and security standpoints. Syria’s new leader, Bashar Asad, follows a more pragmatic line in its relations with the West. The developments following the terrorist attacks to the U.S. soil in September 2001 will force him to close the gap with the Western world. The old divisions of the Cold War have given way to new divisions, in particular in the aftermath of the attacks to the U.S. As Buzan and Little underlined, the new division, is between the “zone of peace” and the “zone of war.” (21) Turkey and Syria have no choice but to be active participants in the zone of peace, which will open new horizons for bilateral cooperation. In this way, Turkey and Syria may catch, using the Hegelian notion, the zeitgeist (spirit of time), namely cooperation and interdependence for an enduring peace and stability, which will be exemplary for other neighboring countries.


(1.) “Civilized and modern” nation was the basic discourse and the main rationale of the reforms pursued in the early Republican era. Turkish modernization has a distinctive character of being defensive; the main aim was to provide a rapid bureaucratic and military development to counter foreign threats. In this sense, it differs from other Middle Eastern modernizations.

(2.) Third World nationalism firstly expressed itself in the cultural field due to the backward state of political and social development. Kohn writes that this nationalism later became a protest against the West, which for a long time remained the teacher and the model for them: “this very dependence on the West often wounded the pride of the native educated class, as soon as it began to develop its own nationalism, and ended in an opposition to the ‘alien’ example and its liberal and rational outlook.” This also consolidates the ‘ethnic’ nature of those nationalisms. In the same vein, Motyl also analyzes the rise of nationalism in the East Europe and in the Third World within the context of modernization. He equates the attempts ‘to be nationalist’ with the attempts ‘to be modern ‘in these countries. The Turkish case in the early Republican era best exemplifies the arguments of Kohn and Motyl. See: Hans Kohn, The Idea of Nationalism (New York: Macmillan, 1945), p. 330; Alexander J. Motyl, “The Modernity of (Nationalism:) Nations, States, and Nation-States in the Contemporary World,” (Journal of International Affairs, Volume 45, No. 2, (1992), pp. 174-75.

(3.) Scholars of ethnicity and nationalism generally deduce two main types of national identities: ethnic and civic nationalisms. In the words of Charles A. Kupchan “ethnic nationalism defines nationhood in terms of lineage. The attributes that members of an ethnically defined national grouping share include physical characteristics, culture, religion, language, and a common ancestry. Individuals of a different ethnicity, even if they reside in and are citizens of the nation state in question do not become part of the national grouping.” On the other hand, “Civic nationalism defines nationhood in terms of citizenship and political participation. Members of a national grouping that is defined in civic terms share participation in a circumscribed political community, common political values, a sense of belonging to the state in which they reside, and, usually, a common language.” Thus, “a citizen is a national, regardless of ethnicity and lineage.” See Charles A. Kupchan, “Introduction: Nationalism Resurgent,” in Charles A. Kupchan (ed.), Nationalism and Nationalities in the New Europe (New York: Cornell University Press, 1995), p. 4.

(4.) Ramazan Kilinc, “Westernization versus West: The Resurrection of a Never Ending Dilemma in Turkish Modernization in the Post Cold War Era,” Unpublished Research Paper.

(5.) Jutta Weldes, Cultures of Insecurity States, Communities, and the Production of Danger (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), pp. 10-11.

(6.) Ali Yildiz, Ahmet Midhat Efendi’nin Hikaye, Roman ve Tiyatrolarinda Insan, Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, Istanbul University, Institute of Social Science, Istanbul, 1999, pp.384-390.

(7.) It can be translated as “neither face of Arab, nor candy of Damascus.”

(8.) Falih Rifki Atay, Zeytindagi (Istanbul: Bates Yayinlari, 1981).

(9.) Rifaat All Abou-El-Haj, “The Social Uses of the Past: Recent Arab Historiography of Ottoman Rule,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, No. 14 (1988), p.190.

(10.) Ibrahim Abu-Rabi, “Arabism, Islamism and the Future of the Arab World,” Arab Studies Quarterly, Volume 22, No. 1 (Winter 2000), p.95.

(11.) Philip S. Khoury, “Continuity and Change in Syrian Political Life: The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” American Historical Review, Volume 96, No. 5 (December 1991), p. 1375.

(12.) Rashid Khalidi, “Social Factors in the Rise of the Arab movement in Syria,” in Said Amir Arjomand (ed.), From Nationalism to Revolutionary Islam (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1984), pp.53-70.

(13.) Morhaf Jouejati, “Water Politics as High Politics: The Case of Turkey and Syria,” in Henri Barkey (ed.), Reluctant Neighbor: Turkey’s Role in the Middle East (Washington, D.C.: USIP, 1996), p.132.

(14.) Ozlem Tur, “Turkiye-Suriye Iliskileri: Su Sorunu,” in Meliha Benli Altunisik (ed.), Turkiye ve Ortadogu: Tarih, Kimilk, Guvenlik (Istanbul: Boyut, 1999), pp.110-111.

(15.) David McDowall, The Kurds (London: Minority Rights Report, (1991), p. 9.

(16.) M.Hakan Yavuz, “A Preamble to the Kurdish Question: The Politics of Kurdish Identity,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Volumel8, No.1 (April 1998).

(17.) Ahmet Davudoglu, Stratejik Derinlik: Turkiye’nin Uluslararasi Konumu (Istanbul: Kure Yayinlari, 2001), p.404.

(18.) Mine Eder and Ali Carkoglu, “Water Conflict Over Euphrates-Tigris River Basin,” Middle Eastern Studies, Volume 37, No.1 (January 2001), p.65.

(19.) See, Berdal Aral, “Turk Dis Politikasi Soylemine Elestirel Bir Yaklasim: Turkiye-Avrupa Birligi Ortakligi,” Liberal Dusunce, Volume 4, No.13, 1999, 58-71.

(20.) Milliyet, 5 October 1998.

(21.) Barry Buzan and Richard Little, “Beyond Westphalia? Capitalism after the ‘Fall’,” Review of International Studies 25, No.5 (1999), pp. 89-104.

Bulent Aras is Associate Professor, Department of International Relations, Fatih Univesity, Turkey; Hasan Koni is Professor, Department of International Relations, Ankara University.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Association of Arab-American University Graduates and Institute of Arab Studies

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group