- While mostly symbolic in its military significance, the Turkish-Syrian military exercise of April 2009 has important political ramifications for Syria, Turkey and the region.
- For Syria, the military exercise with Turkey allows it to send a political message to Washington and make Israel nervous. For Turkey, the military exercise with Syria helps it better protect its borders and develop more positive relations with its Arab-Muslim neighbours.
- Turkish-Syrian relations have come a long way since 1998, but they still fall short of a strategic alliance, which requires parallel political visions for, and positioning in, the Middle East.
On 27 April, Turkey and Syria launched their first joint military exercise. The three-day long land exercises between border forces involved an exchange of units to enhance joint training and enhance operability and are expected to be followed by similar exercises in the future. On the same day, the two countries signed a technical military cooperation agreement to deepen collaboration between their defence industries.
The view from Damascus
Syria’s decision to conduct a military exercise with Turkey comes in the context of its broader goal of boosting relations with Turkey. Unsure and somewhat nervous about US policy, Syria is taking steps to build a circle of friends in the region by turning its immediate neighbours from old foes into useful allies. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is trying to reverse decades of hostility and mistrust with Turkey and Iraq (relations with Jordan are still strained due to political differences and lingering mistrust), as evidenced in the latest agreement between Syrian Prime Minister Muhammed Naji al-Otri and his Iraqi counterpart Nouri al-Maliki on a plan to repair an oil pipeline through Syria and forge strategic agreements in the areas of oil, gas, power and trade.
Although the Turkish-Syrian exercise might be inconsequential militarily given its relatively small size (as described by General Ilker Basbug, Turkey’s Chief of the General Staff) and the fact that it is dwarfed by past Turkish-Israeli exercises, it has important political ramifications.
For Syria, this is yet another sign of the country confidently asserting itself in the region. Aside from developing defence relations with Turkey, the joint military exercise, the first ever for an Arab army with a NATO member, mainly serves two purposes: it sends a strong message to Washington and makes Israel nervous about its relationship with Turkey. At a time when Syria is expecting the Obama administration to embark on a policy of rapprochement, Damascus will employ a classic tool of diplomacy: raise the ante. Emboldened by its enhanced relationship with Turkey and its strong partnership with Iran, Damascus will increase its demands in its negotiations with Washington. Furthermore, by conducting a military exercise with Turkey, Syria is hoping to add to Israel’s serious concerns over Turkey’s foreign policy adjustment under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has seemingly brought it closer to Arab-Muslim interests and distanced it from Israel and the West. Certainly, Turkey’s dismissive reaction to Israel’s alarm over the exercise did not reassure anxious Israeli officials.
Ankara ’s broader aims
Turkey carried out the military exercise for the immediate goal of better protecting its borders from Kurdish infiltration and the long-term goal of creating a more positive relationship with its Arab-Muslim neighbours, among whom Syria is clearly a key state.
Under the leadership of Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayip Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkish-Syrian relations have improved significantly. Ankara and Damascus have overcome their old differences and improved their political, economic, and socio-cultural ties. Turkey resisted siding with former US President George W. Bush’s policy of isolating Syria, and served instead, alongside France, as a conduit for opening Damascus to the outside world. Most significantly, it acted as a mediator between Israel and Syria by arranging indirect talks between the two countries. In an interview on 28 April with pan-Arabic daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, Assad said that under Turkish mediation, Israel and Syria had come closer than ever before to a peace agreement.
Turkey wants to develop its relations with Syria for a number of reasons. First, it wants to have an honest and productive dialogue with Syria over Iraq and its territorial integrity, which has implications for Turkey’s domestic Kurdish issue (Ankara is concerned about Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq given the potential spillovers into Turkey). Second, it wants to boost trade with Syria which will greatly benefit the fragile Turkish economy (Turkish officials believe that Syria could become a gateway to the Arab world for Turkish goods, while Turkey could become a gateway for Syrian goods to the European Union and the West in general). Third, it wants to test whether Syria could be a reliable partner in the future, at a time when Turkish officials are increasingly uncomfortable with Israel’s behaviour in the region, especially after its assault against Hamas in Gaza in January 2009. Fourth, it wants to create for itself a powerbroker role in the region on issues that matter to the European Union and the United States. Getting leverage with Syria helps Turkey become a key player in the Middle East peace process.
The joint Turkish-Syrian exercise and the subsequent military technical agreement show further deepening of bilateral relations between Turkey and Syria. However, they are insufficient evidence that either country is contemplating radical shifts in its foreign policy or pursuing new strategic alignments. Neither is Turkey terminating its strategic alliance with Israel nor is Syria abandoning its olds allies and joining a Turkey-led camp in the region. Turkish-Syrian relations have come a long way since 1998, but they still fall short of a strategic alliance, lacing as they do the requisite parallel political visions for, and positioning in, the Middle East.