Turkey's Akp Foreign Policy toward Syria: Shifting Policy during the Arab Spring

By Islam, Thowhidul | International Journal on World Peace, March 2016 | Go to article overview

Turkey's Akp Foreign Policy toward Syria: Shifting Policy during the Arab Spring


Islam, Thowhidul, International Journal on World Peace


INTRODUCTION

Being located at the crossroads of Asia, Europe, and Africa, connecting the troubled zones of the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus, where a predominant Muslim population bridges the West (Bagci & Kardas, 2003), Turkey occupies an important geopolitical and geostrategic position in global politics that plays a vital role in determining its foreign policy. As the inheritor of Ottoman empire, Turkey plays a dominant role in regional politics. The Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi) (AKP) was formed in 2001 with an Islamic ideological background under the leadership of Recep Tavyip Erdogan and swept victory in the general elections of2002, while major political parties that ruled the country for decades failed to secure 10 percent of the vote (Carkoglu, 2002). Since then, the AKP had ruled the country with an increasing voter percentage. Turkey's AKP government has initiated a diversified foreign policy prioritizing its Ottoman legacy and geostrategic importance. This contradicts the traditional Kemalist1 policy. Proposing a "zero problem"2 principle in the vicinity around Turkey, it has developed closer ties with neighboring areas, including the Middle East, Eurasia, Balkans, and Caucasus regions, contrary to the more seclusionist foreign policy of the Kemalist predecessors (Aras, 2009). It called for an activist engagement with all of the regions in Turkey's neighborhood, specifically with Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf states (Davutoglu, 2001). This foreign policy emphasized the importance of economic interdependency and the need to build strong economic linkages with all regional states and to eliminate all the conflicts with neighbors.

Turkish-Syrian interactions can be traced back to the 8th century under the Umayyad3 caliphate. During the Scljuk time, Turks captured Syria and replaced the regime with Mamluks.4 The Ottomans gained sovereignty in Syria in the 16th century and continued to rule until the end of the First World War. Then, Turkish-Syrian relations developed as mandate shaped by France. This led to some conflicting issues in Turkish-Syrian relations such as the Hatay province of Turkey (formerly Sanjak of Alcxandrctta, Syria) issue, water sharing,5 and security issues. During the recognition of Syria's independence by France in 1936, Turkey demanded Hatay's independence. This was denied by France. But on the eve of the Second World War in 1939, Hatay was ceded to Turkey. Since then, it has remained an issue of conflict between Turkey and Syria.

Concerning security issues, both countries took opposite sides on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PICK). Syria provided material support to the PKK, which Turkey regarded as terrorist group and fought against. This hostile attitude gradually changed under the AKP's soft policy towards Syria. After the Iraq war, the potential Kurdish state risk and post 9/11 security perceptions created common threats that compelled Turkey and Syria to adopt collective security measures. Assad's visit to Turkey and Erdogan's visit to Syria in 2004 was a milestone for Turkish-Syrian relations. Syria terminated support for the PKK and recognized Hatay as an integral part of Turkey. Economic relations also bloomed. The Regional Cooperation Program was created and a military cooperation agreement was signed. Bilateral relations entered into a new phase with the removal of the visa requirements for travel between the countries in 2009.

All these positive developments were challenged due to the mass upsurge against the Assad regime with the emergence of Arab Spring. Ankara, from the beginning, warned Assad to undertake democratic reforms and consistently called upon him to stop the violence. Turkey tried to negotiate between the Assad government and the opposition, but Damascus ignored all the steps, rather expressing its determination to continue the harsh crackdown on protestors. Realizing this, Turkey started to shift its policy toward criticizing Syria publicly. …

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