Turkey shares its largest common border with Syria, yet relations between the two nations have been weak and unstable for quite some time. Since the birth of both nations following the Fist World War their relationship has been complex and although attempts have been made to strengthen ties, unforeseen circumstances have caused efforts to be largely been unsuccessful.
According to the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon, a League of Nations mandate founded after the First World War and the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, The Hatay region, located in the coast of the north of Latakia, was originally a part of Syria. However, in 1936, after Turkey showed interest in the area and it’s large Turkish speaking community, the Turkish government began to push for Hatay’s reunification with Turkey.
Three years later in 1939, the French decided to hand it over to Ankara in accordance with a Turkish-French treaty guaranteeing their friendship during the Second World War. This caused heavy protests in Syria, which for decades, refused to recognize the border separating Hatay from Syria. This adverse territorial disagreement proved to be the first point of conflict in Turkish-Syrian relations.
Easing strained relations
Since disagreements over the Hatay region, many other problems have arisen between Turkey and Syria, with one of the most important being when Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, provided bases and support for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) during their conflict against Turkey in the 1980’s and 1990’s. In 1984, under the command of Abdullah Öcalan, the founder and historic leader of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, the PKK took up arms to battle against the Turkish state, and were supported by Syria’s former President, Hafez al-Assad.
In 1998, following Turkish threats to directly intervene in Syria as a means to end Syrian support to the PKK, Hafez’s son Bashar al-Assad, abandoned Öcalan, expelled him from the country and closed his Syrian PKK bases. The threat of military attack in Damascus brought an end to the refuge it had provided to the PPK, which led to both Turkey and Syria’s signing of the Adana Protocol to end hostilities and establish cooperation against the PKK organization.
During this period of détente, relations between Turkey and Syria flourished in political, economic, security and cultural aspects, and for roughly a decade the two countries became firm allies. The tenth president of turkey Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who was in office from 2000 to 2007 attended the funeral of Hafez Assad, Ankara helped the Assad regime escape international isolation, Syria became key to Turkey’s policy of ‘zero problems with neighbors’ and a number of agreements to increase cooperation between both states were also signed.
However, after the Civil War that erupted in Syria during 2011, relations between Turkey and Syria were reversed. Turkey sided with the popular uprising and backed the removal of Assad after accusing the Syrian government of acting in an ‘inhumane manner’ towards opposition. The opposition in the Syrian National Council, a council that was set up seven months after the uprising against the Assad regime, was allowed to move into Turkey, while Turkish borders and bases were also opened up to rebel groups.
Since the onset of Turkish support for rebel groups in Syria, approximately two million refugees have been allowed into Turkey and instead of being referred to as ‘refugees’ or ‘asylum seekers’, they have been labelled as ‘guests’. This has had huge implications for the relationship between Ankara and Damascus, which have been further devastated by tensions brewing over the 2013 establishment and granted autonomy of Syria’s Kurdish State, Rojava.
Ankara’s links to Syrian opposition groups has provoked many Kurds in Syria – who still support a strong central Syrian government. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Rojava political party established in 2003, have long benefitted from an agreement with the Syrian regime over the division of territory. Kurdish forces in Syria have been in conflict with Islamist rebels over territory since around 2012 and Ankara’s tolerance for opposition militias has further eroded the Syrian Kurd’s trust in the intentions of the Turkish state.
Iraqi Kurdish Support
This situation, though, has had important consequences for the development of the relations between Iraqi and Syrian Kurds who have been drawing closer together to fight against Syrian rebels. This is quite significant as the PYD -which is the most powerful political party in the Syrian Kurdish region – has previously had a tense relationship with the Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – one of the main Kurdish parties in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Syrian Kurdish party is significantly more left-leaning in its politics, unlike the more conservative KDP, who the Syrian Kurdish party previously perceived as being too close to Turkey. This perception drew a wedge in the relations between Syrian and Iraqi Kurds as Turkey is well known to oppose Syrian Kurdish power because of links to the PKK and threats to the Turkish-Kurdish issue that could be caused by their autonomy.
The KDP had previously supported Turkey’s views also because of threats that Syrian Kurdish autonomy could have on Iraqi Kurdistan’s status. Nonetheless, threats from the Islamic State and other Syrian rebels have forced changes in political relations across the region as Iraqi Kurds have become more suspicious of Turkey after it failed to combat the Islamic State’s advances both in Iraq and in Syria.
As a result, Iraqi Kurds have begun to defend the Syrian Kurds by sending forces through Turkey to strengthen defenses in Syrian Kurdish regions. The KDP-PYD relations have now improved, which has been especially highlighted in the Iraqi Kurd’s provision of weapons, training, funds and encouragement to follow their example and set up an independent region that will allow them to take care of their own interests.
Syrian Kurds have realized that they cannot depend on any other entity to ensure Kurdish rights in a post-Assad Syria. This awareness has caused Syrian Kurds to become heavily reliant upon themselves, and look towards the Iraqi Kurd’s independent autonomous region as a source of inspiration.
This scenario has had devastating consequences on the relations between Turkey and Syria, with Turkey fearing that the Kurdish population in Syria could push for a mini-state, which would broaden the vision of Kurdish independence, causing civil unrest within its own borders. The PYD’s deep political a military ties to the PKK further ignites fear in Turkey, which may have been reflected in the AKP’s 2013 revival of peace talks with the organization. However, similarly to other attempted negotiations between Turkey and Syria, this also failed.
As Kurds in Syria become more respected in the West for their success in battling against ISIS, Ankara’s worries continue to increase. Measures taken by Turkey in order to contain a growingly empowered Kurdish movement have caused the PKK to condemn the AKP government, resulting in the development of further tensions in the relations between Turkey and Syria.