How quickly things change in the Middle East. In 1998, Turkey massed troops on its border with Syria to coerce the regime of President Hafez Assad into relinquishing its support for the Syria-based Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Within days, Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader, was forced to leave Damascus and was eventually apprehended in Nairobi by Turkish intelligence officers tipped off by the CIA and the Mossad. Those were the good old days of the Turkish-Israeli-American strategic alliance in the Middle East.
That has changed. Turkey now makes the news because of its growing anti-American and anti-Israel feelings. The flashiest symptoms are the two bestselling books in the country: The first is a novel about a Turkish-American war depicting Washington’s decision to use nuclear weapons. The second is Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” In such atmospherics, it is no wonder that Syria and Iran have turned into natural allies. When Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer visited Syria last week, he was hailed as a hero not only by Syrians but also by a Turkish public that admired his willingness to resist American pressure. No one in Turkey seems to remember that Syria is still governed by a regime that supported the PKK. Anti-American solidarity can indeed work wonders.
That Syria and Turkey now see convergent interests in the Middle East is an unexpected result of the war in Iraq. It is also an unpleasant surprise for Washington. Yet there should be nothing startling about Syria’s attempt to forge better ties with Turkey. The regime of President Bashar Assad is facing unprecedented isolation. After being rebuked by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Assad is looking for a sense of legitimacy anywhere he can find it. What seems more astonishing is Turkey’s willingness to play along.
For those confused about Turkish sympathy for Syria, it is important to understand that Turks never truly developed an interest in Arab politics. Turkey’s focus has historically been on the West. The Middle East became relevant for Ankara only in the framework of two issues: Kurdish nationalism and great-power politics. The current malaise in Turkey, reflected by the growing anti-Americanism, is a direct result of these two dynamics interacting in the worst possible way. Almost all Turks believe that current U.S. policies in Iraq will end up creating an independent Kurdish state. Needless to say, this is a nightmare scenario for Turkey.
Although the Turkish government is now trying to warm up to Jalal Talabani’s presidency in Iraq, the sad fact is that Ankara until very recently discounted Talabani and the other powerful Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani, as “tribal leaders.” So much for a visionary approach in Turkish foreign policy.
Syria’s Kurdish problem captured the headlines in April 2004 when riots erupted in the northeast of the country. The regime quelled the uprising by combining force and compromise, including a recent decision to grant citizenship to 300,000 Kurds. Whether this solution will prove durable is far from certain. Syria’s Kurds, like Kurds in Iran and Turkey, are watching the prospects of their Iraqi cousins improve with considerable envy. Syria’s ethno-sectarian fabric is fragile, and tensions have so far been contained through a delicate mix of repression and cooptation. The Assad regime now fears that a combination of external and internal forces might bring it down.
Syria feels encircled these days. The consequences of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri have been very damaging. Under international pressure, Syria is withdrawing from Lebanon and is facing international scrutiny. Its relations with Iraq are at best frosty. Iraqi and coalition authorities complain about Syria’s failure to prevent the infiltration of foreign fighters, and Damascus still harbors former Baathist officials. Even worse, the belief is strong in Washington and Baghdad that Syria is actively contributing to the Iraqi turmoil. Despite a thaw on border issues with Jordan, Syria is eying with great concern the strong relationship between U.S. President George W. Bush and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
Meanwhile, Israel is now in a stronger position vis-a-vis Damascus. Washington firmly supports Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s focus on the Palestinian track, and shares the view that Syrian calls for peace talks are just a ploy to buy time and counter mounting pressure. And, as usual, no help is to be expected from the Arab League, both because of its irrelevance and Arab fatigue with Syrian posturing.
There is some apparent justification for Syria’s anxiousness about U.S. intentions toward Assad’s regime. Reports that American officials have met with Syrian opposition members lend credence to Syrian suspicions that the crisis over Lebanon is more than that: in Syria’s eyes, it is essentially an attempt to weaken and eventually overthrow its leadership. While it is clear that the Bush administration has decided to isolate Syria, whether induced regime change has become policy still remains unsure.
Syria’s foreign-policy priority is regional relevance. This is a game that Damascus is losing. Without regional alliances or a strong voice in Middle Eastern politics through involvement in Lebanese and Palestinian affairs, Syria would no longer be an important player. The crisis over Lebanon has already cost Damascus its buttresses in the Sunni Arab world. However, because Syria is engaged in a subtle balancing act, tying its fortunes to Iran is not yet the preferred option in Damascus. Syrian officials worry this will be interpreted as an irreversible decision to join the dark side. But more importantly, Syria might learn the hard way that Iran’s interests do not always intersect with Syria’s, and that Tehran regards the present Syrian dilemma as secondary to the great power game in the Persian Gulf.
Because Syria currently feels insecure, it needs to illustrate a sense of regional importance. That’s why Turkey’s open arms were much appreciated. No wonder Syria’s information minister, Mehdi Dakhlallah, described his country as Turkey’s closest Arab ally. The Syrians probably believe that Turkey’s important ties with the U.S. and NATO will help them avert a showdown with the West. But Damascus also has practical motives for deepening relations with Turkey: its economy is likely to become more dependent on trade with its northern neighbor, especially if sanctions are imposed on Syria.
Turkey and Syria are coming together because of shared concerns about U.S. policy in the region. Still, whether such courtship will turn into a more permanent alliance remains to be seen. After all, Turkey is still an official ally of the U.S. and has embarked on a historic journey into the Europe Union. Ankara has nothing to gain by cozying up to dictators. In contrast, the Assad regime may have already overplayed its hand in the current crisis. Because the stakes for Syria are much higher than what Turkey has to gain, the rupture between Damascus and Ankara might come more rapidly than expected.
Much depends on how the Kurdish question in the region will evolve. Iraq’s Kurds will play a decisive role in this regard. Talabani’s election as president is a sign that the Kurds see their future as part of a new Iraq. If Talabani wants, he could also win over Turkey by clearing northern Iraq of the PKK. This, after all, would be a small price to pay for pleasing a powerful regional state.