Only 13 years ago, the Turkish and Syrian governments came close to war, a culmination of long-existing tensions over borders, terrorism, water, contending alliances, and domestic factors. From an account of mine about the mood in October 1998:
On Friday, [Oct. 2,] the Turkish chief of staff Huseyin Kivrikoğlu said relations with Damascus had already become an “undeclared war.” President Suleyman Demirel announced that “we are losing our patience and we retain the right to retaliate against Syria.” He also put the Syrians on warning: “Those who expect benefits from terrorism have to know that they will also suffer from terrorism in the future.” Prime Minister Mesut Yılmaz accused Syria of being “the headquarters of terrorism in the Middle East” and reportedly warned Damascus that the Turkish army is on stand-by, “awaiting orders” to attack. A “crisis committee” has apparently been put together at the Turkish prime minister’s office to deal with this issue.
Newspapers bristle with talk of military plans. A leading daily announced that the army’s plans begin with air strikes on Syrian military airports as well as radar and missile installations; a land-based incursion could be considered later on. Another newspaper predicted that Turkish planes could reach the terrorist camps in Lebanon in a half-hour.
I quoted a former U.S. ambassador to Damascus to the effect that “the only thing that would delay the Turks in an invasion of Syria would be the need to stop and drink tea.”
But the crisis was averted, then Hafez al-Assad died in 2000 and the AK Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) came to power in 2002. For nine years, relations improved between the two states. In October 2009, for example, Turkish and Syrian forces carried out joint military maneuvers near Ankara and a “Turkey-Syria High Level Strategic Cooperation Council” came into being, then promptly announced the signing of almost 40 agreements to be rapidly implemented. Even the border problem concerning the Turkish province of Hatay was shelved, if not solved.
Then, of a sudden, the intifada in Syria has challenged if not wrecked this near-decade of comity. As Bashar al-Assad cracked down on his rebellious subjects and they fled to Turkey, a new crisis, quite unrelated to the old one, emerged. Muhlis Kaçar reports in Zaman newspaper that “Syria’s operations close to border may spark clash with Turkey,” relying on the analysis of Veysel Ayhan of the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM). Ayhan warns that
Turkey will not be a bystander if and when the Syrian army, which is located close to the Syrian-Turkish border, starts killing civilians in front of the eyes of Turkey. “Remember when NATO was accused by the international media and public of not being able to prevent 8,000 Muslim Bosnians from being murdered in front of the world’s eyes? As a member of NATO and a country whose border is about to witness such a massacre by the Syrian army, Turkey will not allow such a thing to happen again, especially before its own eyes,” Ayhan told Today’s Zaman.
Top Turkish political and military officials have been paying visits to the border region lately to check on the status of Syrian refugees and get a perspective on the situation first hand. The high-level appearances sent a strong message to Syrian leadership that Turkey will not remain indifferent to what has been happening along the border areas with Syria, experts argued. … According to Ayhan, all of these top-level visits of Turkish officials to the region send a clear and serious message to Syria that Turkey will not close its eyes to the killings of civilians at its elbow. “Yet I have doubts about how much of those messages will be understood by the other side,” Ayhan said. …
Ayhan says that if the Syrian army steps in and harms those people along the border this will have grave consequences. He also warns that Turkey will not stay put in the event that the Syrian army moves into the area, especially with an intention to conduct mass killings of its own people with whom many in Turkey share historical, cultural, religious and familial ties. …
Comment: In contrast to 1998, when I saw the Turks spoiling for a fight with Assad over a host of unresolved issues, this time I see the signals from Ankara as defensive and humanitarian in nature; more than anything else, Erdoğan et al. really want to get back to business-as-usual with their Damascene counterparts.
Syrian refugees in a refugee camp in a border town in Hatay province of Turkey on June 13, 2011. (Reuters/Osman Orsal)