Turkish-Syrian Relations Revisited

By Aras, Bulent; Koni, Hasan | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Turkish-Syrian Relations Revisited


Aras, Bulent, Koni, Hasan, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


THIS ARTICLE SEEKS TO ANALYZE the problems between Turkey and Syria and what has caused these problems in the relations between the two countries, as well as critically analyzing the nature and severity of these problems. Of special critical importance is the evaluation of the extent of the domestic political configurations in the relations between these two countries. We will also answer two other questions to provide a comprehensive analysis of the relations between Turkey and Syria, namely: Do Turkish decision-makers decide who their rivals are on the basis of intrinsic national interests, or have they merely been reacting to images projected by self-interested politicians and external actors? Is Turkey drifting into a potentially dangerous rivalry without sufficient reason with Syria as a primary opponent? In this paper, it is argued that Turkey's policy towards Syria has become hostage to the worldview of Turkey's governing elite, one that has demonstrated itself to be increasingly unable to cope success fully with political change on domestic, regional, and international levels.

Turkish foreign policy toward Syria has been shaped by both material and ideational factors. Any analyses ignoring ideational factors will fall short of explaining foreign policy behavior toward Syria. The official policy of Turkey can be defined as a concious alienation from and disregard within the framework of pursuing a controlled tension with Syria. The experiences in this process have shaped the cognitive map of Turkish establisment's identity, which give direction to foreign policy toward Syria. The Turkish conciousness of Arabs and Syrians has not occurred ex nihilo, but has been represented through the restructuralization of the past and its incorporation into a modern consciousness. Turkish-Syrian relations go back to the Ottoman era, and a comprehensive study is required to integrate the historical legacy and impact of historical imagination to the analysis of the relations in the contemporary era.

IDENTITY AND FOREIGN POLICY

The basic elements of the Turkish state identity were mainly constructed in the early Republican era, when the founding fathers of the Republic applied a reform project to create a "civilized and modem" nation. (1) This emerging new identity --later called the Kemalist identity- was the product of a pragmatic-eclectic ideology that took shape on an international level in the 1920s and 1930s. It was inspired by Comtean positivism adopted by certain Ottoman intellectuals at the end of the l9th century, as well as the process of westernization initiated during the same period. This project was basically a modernization project dependent upon the three pillars of nationalism, westernization and secularism. In this vein, the foundational elements of the Kemalist identity were the abandonment of the Ottoman past, the termination of Islamic power in the public sphere -preventing it from functioning as a source of political legitimacy- an understanding of citizenship that excludes non-Muslim minorities, all within an ethno-linguistic and territorial conception of state. While clamoring for increased modernization and Westernization so as to elevate Turkey to the economic level of the civilized world, official identity, at the same time, has been the source of distrust and a latent enmity towards the West inherited from the Ottoman administrative elite. Any careful analyst will recognize that official identity has been shaped not by limited westernization but through praxis of a third world nationalism deeply influenced from the 19th century nation-state model of Europe. (2)

Although the official identity was projected as a civic one, the burden of the Ottoman imperial past and Kurdish rebellions in early periods of the republic led to a shift to ethnic nationalism exclusively based on Turkishness. (3) The early steps of the Kemalist long march toward westernization were in conformity with creating an ethnic and homogenous national identity at home. …

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