Time to stand up, Turkey

Turkey’s close relations with Syria could be used as leverage to pressure the abdication of Bashar al-Assad.

turkey and syria - Elizabeth Hurd article
Syria’s close relations and regional alliance with Turkey could be used as an important tool to keep the Bashar al-Assad’s administration from indiscriminately killing their own people – but only if enough pressure is applied [EPA]

Two years ago, while visiting Damascus for the first time, I was walking down a dusty street in Bab Touma when someone tapped my shoulder ever so lightly.

“Open, madam, the bag,” said a short, older man, before disappearing into the crowd.

The snap on the bright orange backpack that hung off my shoulder had become unfastened, and the contents were about to spill onto the street.

“Thank you,” I said, but he was already gone. It occurred to me how unlikely it would be for someone to look out for me like that in downtown Chicago.

On Friday April 22, more than 100 peaceful protesters, perhaps more, were massacred by Assad’s security forces in Syria, including a seven-year-old girl killed by a bullet while standing in her parents’ kitchen.

Now is the time for the rest of the world, and particularly regional democratic powerhouse Turkey, to look out for the Syrian people. They are being shot and left to die in the streets.

As Bashar al-Assad desperately attempts to crush the latest democratic rebellion to shake the Middle East, foreign minister Ahmet Davotoglu has an opportunity to put into practise his lofty pronouncements about Turkey’s sphere of influence and beneficent “soft power” in the region.

It is time for the Turkish government to push for Assad’s immediate resignation and a genuine democratic transition in neighbouring Syria, with whom Turkey shares an 800-mile border.

The “zero problems with neighbours” policy, if it is to have any meaning, cannot extend to government brutality on this scale, so close to home, against so many innocents.

But does Turkey have this kind of leverage? Syrian-Turkish animosity certainly has run deep in the past.

Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago, suspicions have been fuelled by disagreements over territory, water rights, and divided Cold War rivalries.

Two issues persist: the 1939 annexation of Hatay (Alexandretta) by Turkey, and water issues.

Yet even the controversial Hatay – granted to Turkey in 1939 by Syria’s former coloniser France – has disappeared from discussions since 2005, when Syria scrapped its claim to the province, though most Syrian maps still show it as part of Syria.

The water issue dates to a 1980s programme, launched by Turkey to build irrigation networks using the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates. The result was less water flowing downstream for Syria.

Syria brought this to the Arab League in protest in the 1990s, and in 2001 the two countries signed a joint protocol calling for co-operation.

Both Turkey and Syria also have been forced to confront the legacy of Ottoman rule and the myths and realities surrounding it.

An Arab nationalist narrative, powerful in Syria and other former Ottoman provinces, depicted the Ottomans as colonisers and imperialist land-grabbers.

The Turks, on the other side, told a story of betrayal by the Arab Revolt. Negative historical memories were kept alive in schoolbooks and other collective representations.

Other sources of tensions include Ankara’s alliance with Israel and Syria’s former support for the PKK, including sheltering PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

This culminated in a military standoff in October 1998, when Turkey threatened Syria with the use of force if it did not withhold its support for the PKK.

Syria let Ocalan leave the country, and the Adana Accords were signed in October 1998 – the beginning of the thaw.

Detente has taken hold. A newly-formed Syrian-Turkish High Level Strategic Cooperation Council met in Aleppo and Gaziantep in October 2009; 40-50 protocols and agreements came up for negotiation – and an action plan developed.

Trade in services, energy issues, and a natural gas pipeline project were front and centre. A Free Trade Agreement was signed in late 2004 and ratified in early 2007.

A Turkish-Syrian Business Forum was established. Trade increased. Visas eliminated. Tourism took off. Turkish products flooded the Syrian market. Turkish soap operas are immensely popular.

Turkey has leverage. Strong links with Turkey have formed one of the linchpins of Assad’s economic strategy. He is vulnerable to pressure. Now is the time to apply it.

In an interview with Al-Arabiya television in October 2009, prime minister Erdogan punned on the Arabic word for Syria and its surrounding region, Sham: “They may have the Schengen visas in the EU, so we decided to create a Shamgen visa.”

With economic integration comes political accountability. It is time for justice and development in Turkey’s neighbourhood.

It is time for the Turkish government to stand up for the Syrian people in their hour of need. The people are spilling onto the streets.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd writes and teaches about political culture, political theory, international relations, and foreign policy at Northwestern University. She specialises in relations between Europe, the United States, and the Middle East. She is the author of The Politics of Secularism in International Relations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.