Erdoğan's remarks came in Damascus as he delivered a speech at a meeting of the Syria-Turkey Business Forum during his official visit to this city to co-chair a high-level meeting between Syria and Turkey.
“Not only are we abolishing visas, we will remove other obstacles, too. We will append our signature on partnerships which could be a model for the world. We have this potential,” Erdoğan told the gathering, while he voiced a wish to expand the partnership between Syria and Turkey to encompass the entire region. In mid-October Turkey and Syria removed visa requirements and “symbolically” abolished their border. The move came following a visit to İstanbul by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The two countries signed a bilateral cooperation agreement in September under which top ministers from the two countries will meet each year. The accord, titled the “High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council Agreement,” is similar to a strategic mechanism recently established between Turkey and Iraq. It was during the first ministerial level meeting of the High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council between Syria and Turkey in mid-October, the first part of the meeting being held in Aleppo and the second in Gaziantep, that the two countries symbolically abolished the border between them.
Hatay row complicates water talks
The finalization of a mutual agreement on water issues between Syria and Turkey was delayed Wednesday by a disagreement stemming from the decades-long Hatay dispute between the two neighboring countries, news reports posted from Damascus have said.
Out of more than 50 bilateral agreements to be signed during Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s official visit to Damascus, one was about the amount of water Turkey releases to Syria via the historic Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
According to news reports, the Turkish side asked the Syrian side to make an official declaration recognizing Hatay province as part of Turkey’s territory before signing the deal. As of Wednesday afternoon, there had been no official statement or news report as to whether Syrian and Turkish officials were able to overcome the disagreement.
Syrian claims on the southern province of Hatay poisoned the bilateral relations between the two countries in the past. A few years ago, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has developed friendly relations with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, recognized Hatay as Turkey’s territory. However, Damascus did not formalize this with an official declaration and Hatay is still shown as Syrian territory on Syrian maps.
In a September interview with Today’s Zaman, Assad touched upon the issue of water: “In the recent past, Turkey fulfilled all its commitments regarding the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. But this year it has not been able to fulfill a portion of its commitments. The amount of water that was left to us was very little due to some investments Turkey made. However, the prime minister has said the amount of water which was supposed to be left over to us will be provided in the near future. Iraq, Syria and Turkey have reached an agreement over the Tigris.” Ankara Today’s Zaman
In Damascus, Erdoğan led the Turkish side during the first prime ministerial level meeting of the council, while the Syrian side was led by Prime Minister Naji Otri. State Minister responsible for projects concerning the Southeastern Anatolia region Cevdet Yılmaz; Foreign Trade Minister Zafer Çağlayan; Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin; Interior Minister Beşir Atalay; Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu; Health Minister Recep Akdağ; Energy Minister Taner Yıldız; Agriculture Minister Mehdi Eker; and Environment Minister Veysel Eroğlu participated in the meeting.
Turkey will continue its pro-active policy regarding the Middle East, Erdoğan said, adding that such activity will not only help strengthen bilateral relations between Turkey and Syria but will also help build an infrastructure for peace in the Middle East.
“Everyone is free to say whatever they want. However, I find these [arguments] malevolent. The rapprochement between Turkey and Syria is actually the normalization of bilateral relations. What is wrong is not today’s rapprochement; what was wrong was yesterday’s distance and the visa issue,” Erdoğan said, in an apparent reference to speculation over Turkey’s foreign policy direction.
Turkey’s expanded presence in the foreign policy arena has long been visible to many, with some commentators suggesting that this signifies a shift in foreign policy orientation, with Ankara turning its back to the Western alliance and moving toward a closer and institutionalized cooperation with the Islamic world instead. Ankara has constantly rejected such arguments, calling them reminiscent of the Cold War mentality.
Assad couple’s gesture
Upon their arrival in Damscus on Tuesday evening, Erdoğan and his wife, Emine Erdoğan, received unexpected guests at the Four Seasons Hotel, where they stayed during the visit. Assad and his spouse, Asma al-Assad, visited the Erdoğans at the hotel to welcome them.
The welcome visit was considered a “gesture” since the Assad family is still in mourning over the death of Assad’s brother Majd Assad, who passed away earlier this month. Majd Assad, 35, died at a Damascus hospital on Dec. 12. The mourning period lasts 40 days. The Assad family is not making any social visits during this period according to tradition, but they apparently made an exception as a gesture to the Erdoğans.