Ongoing crisis justifies Turkey’s policy of engagement with Syria

Ongoing crisis justifies Turkey’s policy of engagement with Syria

Syrian and Turkish ministers symbolically lift the “border line” between Turkey and Syria in August 2009 at the Öncüpınar border gate on the Turkish side of the border to highlight the remarkable progress in bilateral relations.

May 01, 2011, Sunday/ 12:52:00/ EMİNE KART

Commentators and politicians who suggest that the crisis in neighboring Syria has called into question Turkey’s policy of seeking “zero problems” with neighbors in its diplomatic efforts in the region appear to miss the point that it is this policy that now enables Ankara to hold a unique dialogue with Damascus and to urge and advise them to carry out reforms that could help end an uprising against authoritarian rule.

The fact mentioned above can solely be classified as a misinterpretation. There is also another group of commentators and politicians who suggest that Turkey’s actually carefully choreographed policy regarding Syria at bitter times of crisis has only served the prevalence of authoritarian rule because Turkey remained silent over the killing of civilians. This group also highlighted that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has talked to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at least three times since protests began in Syria, has not called for Assad’s ouster, in contrast with earlier calls for Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi to step down.

While underlining this difference in attitude by Erdoğan, this group misses the fact that Turkey is going case by case in dealing with issues in the region, paying heed to specific conditions in each country. And in the big picture, Turkey constantly says reforms are a must, as what happened with Syria with Erdoğan saying Turkey does not want to see an “an authoritarian, totalitarian, imposing structure” there.

As a matter of fact, what the second group has missed was the big picture itself -- due to their ill-disposed ideological approach, which is set on judging the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) on every occasion. If it was not the case, they would have remembered that it was the former president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who’s had a star-crossed relationship with the AK Party government, who had paid a landmark visit to Syria in April 2005 despite US calls for Ankara to join international pressure on Syria to pull troops out of Lebanon. It is interesting to see how almost the same names who at the time objected to Sezer’s visit to Syria. The way the Turkish media in general regarded that visit to Syria, which was facing international exclusion due to mounting pressure both from the United States and Israel -- particularly after former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri was murdered in a bomb blast -- actually reflected a dormant fear that lies in most of the Turkish intelligentsia’s collective consciousness: fear of Turkey’s exclusion from the international community.

At that time, then-US Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman’s remarks in March 2005 urging Turkey to join calls for Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon were interpreted by the Turkish media as an open warning from the United States to Sezer about his planned visit to Syria. The Turkish media was much more confident in its interpretation, so much so that even the US embassy felt the need to state that Edelman’s remarks had nothing to do with Sezer’s Syria plans.

Real steps and infrastructure

“For many years, for around a decade, our policy of engagement with Syria has been harshly criticized by different countries and different personalities,” a Turkish official told Sunday’s Zaman earlier this week.

“For example, Mr. Sezer’s visit, it was not the initiative of one individual, namely the former president. It was an initiative of Turkey, an implementation of the Turkish state’s policy of engagement,” the official, who requested anonymity, went on to say.

“And eventually this engagement policy has yielded fruit. What we always tell our partner countries, our allies, is the fact that nothing can happen overnight in this region. It can only happen through improving commercial ties, through social and cultural interaction and through, for example, easing restrictions on borders. These have all led to interaction between the peoples of Turkey and Syria,” the official stated.

The course of affairs in bilateral relations between Syria and Turkey over the last decade may be considered a bold example of the implementation of Ankara’s “zero-problems policy” in its neighborhood by reaching out to create an atmosphere of maximum cooperation among all its neighbors.

In the autumn of 1998, Syria and Turkey came to the brink of war over the presence of the now-jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, in Syria. At the time, Turkish troops were marshaled along the border with Syria, with Ankara demanding that Damascus cease its support for the PKK and hand Öcalan over. Then Syrian President Hafez al-Assad complied and eventually Öcalan was deported -- and subsequently captured by Turkish special forces in Kenya. PKK training camps in Syria and Lebanon were also closed down.

The “zero problems” policy and “strategic depth” are the brainchild of academic-turned politician, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and he is often criticized for being too “naïve,” although Turkish diplomats tirelessly explain that “zero problems” is an ideal and what Turkey has been trying to achieve is minimal problems via eliminating more serious problems.

In August 2009, the Öncüpınar border gate on the Turkish side of the Turkish-Syrian border served as the venue for a symbolic gesture reflecting remarkable progress in bilateral relations between the two countries with the signing of a historic deal by the foreign ministers of the two countries, which came to the brink of war with each other more than a decade ago. At a joint news conference held in the border city of Gaziantep and along with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, Davutoğlu particularly highlighted the notion of “moral depth,” which he said should not be ignored when pursuing foreign policy goals.

“We attach great importance to countries having infrastructures that enable them to resolve their own problems. The infrastructure of regional unity projects should be well settled through gradually developing bilateral relations between countries and through gradually developing infrastructures, but not via slogans and assertive remarks. If we had attempted to hold much more comprehensive meetings with Syria instead of lifting the visa requirement, then we would not have seen any results. The real step is establishing a concrete ground in the real field,” Davutoğlu said at the time, in remarks reflecting Turkey’s awareness of the long and winding road ahead for building a fully peaceful atmosphere with its neighbors.

In December 2009 a New York Times articles posted from Aleppo and titled “Relations With Turkey Kindle Hopes in Syria” stated: “The two countries have embarked on a very public honeymoon, with their leaders talking about each other like long-lost friends. But this reconciliation is about far more than trade, or the collapse of old Turkish-Arab enmities. At a time of economic and political uncertainty here, the new warmth with Turkey has stirred hopes about Syria’s future direction, in areas that include religion, oil and gas, and peace with Israel. For some here, the new closeness with secular, moderate Turkey represents a move away from Syria’s controversial alliance with Iran. For others, it suggests an embrace of Turkey’s more open, cosmopolitan society. And for many -- including Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad -- it conjures different dreams of a revitalized regional economy, less vulnerable to Western sanctions or pressure.”

‘Syria’s best hope?’

“Turkey may be Syria’s best hope,” was the headline of Monday’s editorial article of leading Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail.

“Turkey (which not long ago was on bad terms with Syria) may be the country best positioned to do some good. The government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made a point of busy diplomatic engagement with numerous -- and ideologically diverse -- nations. Mr. Erdoğan and his colleagues ought to do their best to dissuade the Syrian government from further resort to slaughter. They can present to Mr. Assad the example of their own country’s healthy secular democracy with a largely Muslim population -- a model that Syria could move toward,” the article said.

A Western diplomat based in Ankara who in the past served in Syria told Sunday’s Zaman: “We are on the same page with Turkey regarding the Syrian crisis. There is nothing more and better Turkey can do; if we were Turkey, we would have done the same thing.”

Back in October 2009, during a ceremony at the Öncüpınar border gate on the Turkish side of the Turkish-Syrian border, which was the location for symbolic gesture reflecting remarkable progress in bilateral relations between the two countries, young men and women together danced the “halay,” a dance widely performed in the Middle East, arm in arm, while women’s voices ringing out the “zılgıt,” or ululation, were heard in the background.

The halay is performed both in times of joy and sadness, while, zılgıt, or “tilili,” is the cry of the Kurdish woman, who through her voice’s exclamation, a shout trill of the tongue, expresses emotions that cannot be voiced with words both in cheerful times and times of mourning. Zılgıt is also done twice during weddings, firstly when the bride leaves her father’s house and secondly when she arrives at the groom and his family’s house. The ululation during weddings celebrates the union of the two families.

That day on the border gate on the Turkish side of the Turkish-Syrian border was a cheerful day, but today the zılgıt in Syria is done by Syrian women mourning the loss of their beloved ones. Only time will show whether Turkey’s efforts to turn mourning into rejoicing over a hopeful future for the Syrian people will yield results.

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