Turkish-Syrian Relations: Overview

From confrontation to partnership and back

Asma al-Assad (L), wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Emine Erdogan (R) wife of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visit the Sultan Ahmed Mosque.
Salah Malkawi/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Turkish-Syrian relations over the past 20 years went from entrenched hostility to a burgeoning strategic partnership and back to the brink of war.

Legacy of Ottoman Empire: Mutual Suspicion and Confrontation 1946-1998

There’s no shortage of historical baggage between the two countries. Syria was under Ottoman rule from early 16th century until the end of WWI, a period Syrian nationalists would later decry as an era of foreign domination that retarded the country’s development and indigenous culture. Quite similar to former Ottoman territories in south-east Europe, there was no love lost in Syria for the new Republic of Turkey, established in 1921.

And what better way to poison relations between newly independent states than a territorial dispute. In the interwar years Syria was under French administration, mandated by the League of Nations, which in 1938 allowed Turkey to annex the majority-Arab Alexandretta (Hatay) province, a painful loss Syria has always bitterly contested.

Relations remained tense after Syria had won independence in 1946, regardless of who sat in power in Damascus. Other sticking points included:

  • Cold War politics: Turkey’s membership of NATO, alliance with the US and military cooperation with Israel made it a natural foe for Syria, the closest Arab ally of Soviet Union.
  • Water disputes: Syria has complained that Turkey’s massive development program for the border region (“Southeastern Anatolia Project”), which included dams, power plants and irrigation systems, robbed Syrian agriculture of precious water resources.
  • Syria’s support for PKK: Lacking other means of pressuring Turkey, Syria’s Hafez al-Assad (1970-2000) backed the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist movement fighting for independence of Kurdish regions from Turkish rule.

Turkey Reaches Out to Its Neighbors: Rapprochement and Cooperation 2002-2011

The PKK issue brought the two countries to the brink of war in the 1990s, before Syria defused the tension in 1998 by kicking out Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader it had sheltered. The stage was set for a dramatic strategic realignment that took place in the next decade under two new leaders: Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

Under Turkey’s new “zero problem policy” with its neighbors, Erdogan’s government sought investment opportunities in Syria, which was opening its state-led economy, and assurances from Damascus regarding PKK. For his part, Assad desperately needed new friends at a time of great tension with US over Syria’s role in Iraq and Lebanon. An assertive Turkey, less dependent on the US, was a perfect gateway into the world:

  • Diplomatic alliance: Turkey was instrumental in breaking Syria’s international isolation, paving the way for Assad’s visit to France in 2005, and brokering peace talks between Syria and Israel in 2008.
  • Military cooperation: Joint military manoeuvres were held in 2009, coinciding with the souring of Turkey’s ties to Israel. Steps toward cooperation in defense industry was also announced that year.
  • Trade: The icing on the cake was the 2007 Free Trade Agreement that boosted bilateral trade volume from 796 million USD in 2006 to 2.5 billion USD in 2010. Visa regime was abolished in 2009, opening doors to a stream of visitors from both sides (see Turkish government data on trade with Syria).

2011 Syrian Uprising: Why Did Turkey Turn On Assad?

The outbreak of the anti-government uprising in Syria in 2011 put an abrupt end to a short-lived Ankara-Damascus axis, as Turkey, after a period of weighing its options, decided that Assad’s days were numbered. Ankara hedged its bets on Syria’s opposition, offering shelter to leaders of the Free Syrian Army.

Turkey’s decision was partly dictated by its regional image, so carefully nurtured by Erdogan’s government: a stable and democratic state, ruled by a moderate Islamist government that offers a model of a progressive political system for other Muslim countries. Assad’s brutal crackdown against initially peaceful protests, condemned across the Arab world, turned him from an asset to a liability.

Moreover, Erdogan and Assad didn’t have enough time to cement binding ties. Syria doesn’t have the economic or military weight of Turkey’s traditional partners. With Damascus no longer acting as a launching pad for Turkey’s inroads into the Middle East, there was little the two leaders could still do for each other. Assad, now fighting for bare survival and no longer interested in courting the West, fell back on Syria’s old alliances with Russia and Iran.

Turkish-Syrian relations shifted back to the old patterns of confrontation. The question for Turkey is how directly it should get involved: support for Syria’s armed opposition, or direct military intervention? Ankara fears the chaos next door, but remains reluctant to send its troops into the most intractable crisis point to have emerged from the Arab Spring.