The Middle East is arguably the world's most volatile region today. Although there are other areas that are prone to violence, the aspect of Middle Eastern politics that usually highlights its volatility is its inclination towards sudden, even unexpected, shifts and changes in the previously prevalent political, diplomatic, and military currents. In this sense, Turkish-Syrian relations have been and remain one of the most debated issues in Middle Eastern politics.

For years, foreign policy experts have been sceptical about the possibility of building good relations between the two countries. Mainly of realists and neo-realist leanings, those scholars believed that the likelihood of reconciling the differences between Damascus and Ankara is almost non-existent.

Any talk about cooperation between the two countries reflects an idealist way of thinking in a region dominated by a balance of power concept. These theoretical incentives would almost inevitably drive the interests of both Syria and Turkey into total conflict.

The historical and geographical context in which the countries find themselves would also deem cooperation impossible. The history of Syria and Turkey reveals that most of these relations have contributed to their physical insecurity with regard to each other, and their persistent endeavours to bring about their security requirements.

Since Turkey and Syria emerged as new states after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War, border disputes dominated their agenda. Both Syria and Turkey claim unquestionable sovereignty over Uskandaron province (Turkey calls it Hatay) which came under Turkish control in 1938.

Disputes over water distribution — the problem of the Euphrates, the Orontes and Tigris — have also hindered the establishment of good relations between the two countries. This is especially an important issue wherein both sides try to meet their developmental requirements.

Further, for most of the 1990s, Turkey used to accuse Syria of providing the separatists Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) with weapons and logistic support to gain concessions on other fronts.

The most outstanding difference between Syria and Turkey was the Turkish-Israeli military agreement of 1996, which Syria considered as a major threat to its security and national interests. This alliance shifted the balance of power in the region in a fundamental way and was considered to be a major development in the 1990s. The decision by Turkey to collaborate militarily with Israel left a deep negative impact on its relations with Syria.

These problems and many others have been presented by many scholars and analysts to support the argument that Syria and Turkey are meant to remain foes. Recent developments in Turkish-Syrian relations point to the opposite, however, discrediting most of the confrontation argument.

After years of heightened tension and a close-to-war crisis in 1998, Syria and Turkey have succeeded in transforming the nature of their relations from conflict to cooperation.

Changing nature

This dramatic shift must have frustrated and bewildered advocates of the neo-realist school in international relations, who have always argued that the nature of the international system — particularly in the post-Cold War era — would not allow the neighbours to cooperate.

Furthermore, and to the chagrin of structural realists, it is precisely the nature of the international system — unipolar — that have made rapprochement between Syria and Turkey possible and desirable.

The post-9/11 world, the militaristic approach of the George W. Bush administration, resulting from his "revolution in foreign policy"; and the change of leadership in Syria and Turkey have all served as auxiliary factors to bring about a fundamental change in the two countries' foreign policies.

Today, Syria and Turkey understand pretty well the merits of cooperation; and by adopting a neo-liberalist perspective, concentrating mainly on commercial opportunities and free market economy, issues of conflict, such as water and border disputes, were transformed into incentives for cooperation.

In addition, the two countries came to realise that some of their problems were of their own making; others were forced upon them by the nature of the international system. Regional developments of the past few years have brought the two countries closer together.

Both have opposed the US invasion of Iraq and expressed their interests in that it must remain a unitary state. They have also mutual concerns about what they see as a dangerous American temptation, to weaken Iraq by re-building it on a federal basis without a strong central government — thereby paving the way for the establishment of an independent Kurdish state.

In the light of the longstanding animosity that marked the relationship between the two countries, establishing good neighbourly relations was a big challenge for Syria and Turkey. Clearly, they have succeeded in dealing with it and by doing so they have also taught a lesson to theorists of foreign policy.


Dr Marwan Kabalan is Director at the Damascus Centre for Economic and Political Studies.