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Turkey-Syria Relations: Between Conflict and Cooperation

Asi (Orontes) River, Hama, Syria Turkey-Syria Relations
Photo 1: Asi (Orontes) River, Hama, Syria. (Source : SyrianSindibad, Flickr).

The Hatay dispute

The name Hatay was given to the region of İskenderun-Hatay by Ataturk in 1936. It was referred to as a “Sanjak” in Turkish and international documents during the Ottoman period. The region was handed over to France by the British as part of the Mondros Armistice Treaty that was signed in 1918. The border between Turkey and Syria and the İskenderun Sanjak was indicated in the French-Turkish Treaty of 1921, and was also adopted in the Treaty of Lausanne, the peace treaty signed on 24 July 1923, after the end of the Turkish war of independence. Following the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, the French mandate of Syria and İskenderun province entered into force through the League of Nations. While France, the mandatory power, was dividing Syria and Lebanon into four parts, İskenderun was kept away from Aleppo by setting it up as an autonomous Sanjak.[1]

In 1926, a friendship and good neighbourliness contract was signed between France and Turkey. This served to improve relations between Turkey and France as well as between Turkey and the Turks living in the Sanjak. On 9 September 1936, France signed a pre-contract with Syria, which ended France’s mandatory power over Syria. Accordingly, France ceded all its rights and obligations regarding Syria-related agreements, contracts and international pledges. This also affected the status of the Sanjak. Turkey responded angrily, stating that the agreement should have included and been signed by the people of the Sanjak. France objected in turn, and the dispute was brought before the League of Nations. According to the subsequent Sandler Report issued by the rapporteur of The Council of the League of Nations, he offered concerning the Sanjak that a coalition must be formed between Turkey and Syria, and each district must be separate assets on all issues except foreign affairs, customs and common currency. But France did not accept this offer.  The committee that was formed according to the report prepared the status of the Sanjak and its constitution and those texts were ratified by the Council of the League of Nations on 29 May 1937.[2]

Turkey and France signed two more agreements in 1937. These covered the issues of international contracts that formed the separate existence of İskenderun Sanjak; ensuring the territorial integrity of the Sanjak; and securing the border between Turkey and Syria.[3]

On 3 July 1938, Turkey and France signed a military agreement. This again affected the Sanjak, because According to the Agreement, territorial integrity and political status of the Sanjak were going to be provided by Turkey and France. During this process, a new friendship agreement was signed between Turkey and France and the validity of the Ankara Agreement from 1921 was reiterated. In the elections held on 22 July 1938, Tayfur Sokmen became the state president in the Grand Assembly, which was opened on 2 September 1938, and the name of the Sanjak was changed to Hatay.[4]

In 1939, upon entering the Second World War, the United Kingdom went in search of an ally in the Mediterranean. It formed an alliance with Turkey, publishing the Common Declaration. However, Turkey wanted to do the same with France and expressed its desire to incorporate Hatay into Turkey. On 23 May 1939, the second step in the tripartite alliance was taken with the publication of the Common Declaration of Turkey and France. On the same day, Turkey and France signed the Agreement on the Absolute Solution for the Territorial Problems between Turkey and Syria. In this agreement, Hatay was included in Turkey. On 29 June 1939, the people of Hatay unanimously agreed to this incorporation, and on 7 July 1939, Hatay province was established and the incorporation process was completed. Syria refused to accept the incorporation, however, and insisted that Hatay was within its boundaries. In protest, it sent a telegraph to both the French government and the League of Nations.[5]

For a long time afterwards, Syria regarded Hatay as its own territory and the Asi as a national rather than a transboundary river. This would persist until well into the 2000s.

The Cold War period

The relations between Turkey and Syria were affected throughout the Cold War era and into the 1990s. The water issue became a foreign relations matter once again when both countries began using the waters of the Euphrates-Tigris basin in the 1960s and building irrigation and energy-related projects. When Turkey, the upstream country in the basin, focused on using the water resources, this caused concern for Syria and the wider Arab world as it was seen as contrary to their own interests and sense of sovereignty.[6] Relations became strained during the construction of the Keban, Karakaya and Atatürk dams on the Euphrates. Syria began to play its cards against Turkey by supporting the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party). In 1983, tensions escalated further when Turkey launched the multi-decade GAP (South-East Anatolia Project).[7] Turkey initially hoped to fund the project with international loans. However, its loan applications were turned down following lobbying by Syria and Iraq and protests from other Arab countries. As a result, Turkey has had to finance the project from its national budget. In 1987, Turkey’s Prime Minister Turgut Özal visited Syria. During the visit, Turkey demanded that Syria cease its support of the PKK and Syria demanded that Turkey sign an agreement regarding the use of the Euphrates. Turkey prepared a protocol pledging to bring about 500 cubic metres per second to Syria from the Turkey-Syria border. Both countries signed the protocol.[8] Furthermore, they signed a security protocol stating that neither country would support any anti-Turkish or anti-Syrian movements within their bounders. Despite this protocol, however, the PKK continued its activities in Syria.[9]

During the Cold War, water and security concerns affected the policies of both countries. As irrigated agriculture was an important part of development, the water issue, in particular, was not just a technical concern but was associated with ideas of identity, self-sufficiency, independence and Arab nationalism. Turkey regarded the water improvement projects that it had started in the Euphrates-Tigris basin as an important investment for Southeast Anatolia where prosperity was low and unequally distributed. Security became one of the most important concerns for the internal policies of both countries, with the PKK playing a leading role in Turkey-Syria relations.[10]

These relations were affected by changes at the global and regional levels in the 1980s and 1990s. The collapse of the Soviet Union, of which Syria was a close ally, left Syria in a particularly disadvantageous position.

In the mid-1990s, reports emerged that the PKK had moved into Hatay. Turkey and Syria came to the brink of war when Turkey threatened military action if Syria continued to support the PKK. This eventually led to the 1998 signing of the Adana Agreement, which stipulated that Syria would not allow ‘any activity that emanates from its territory aimed at jeopardizing the security and stability of Turkey’. Syria also recognized the PKK as a terrorist organization, banned the supply of weapons, logistical material and financial support to the PKK on its territory and expelled Abdullah Öcalan, one of the PKK’s founding members, who had been hosted in Damascus for a decade.[11]

The Death of Hafez al-Assad

After the signing of the Adana Agreement, initiatives to improve relations based on mutual trust extended into the 2000s. The attendance of Ahmed Necdet Sezer, then Turkey’s president, at the funeral of Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad on 13 July 2000 was a potent symbol of the countries’ warmer relations. The official visit of Syrian Vice Prime Minister Abdulhalim Haddam to Ankara in 2000 was a turning point in an important, positive process.

The trust that developed between the two countries also allowed for closer economic ties. On 22 December 2004, Turkey and Syria signed their first free trade agreement. As part of the agreement, the neighbours established their borders and Syria officially accepted that Hatay was part of Turkey.[12]

At the same time, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered Syria technical support for a proposed joint dam project on the Asi River that aimed to irrigate 10,000 hectares in Syria and 20,000 hectares in Turkey.[13]

Multiple top-level visits cemented the relationship. One of the most significant was the 2004 visit to Turkey of Hafez al-Assad’s successor Bashar al-Assad, the first by a Syrian president since Syria’s independence in 1946. The visit was interpreted as the start of a new period of regional balance and stability.[14]

Turkey and Syria decided to arrange meetings in the framework of The Council of High Level Strategic Cooperation after 16 September 2009. During the Turkish-Syrian First Ministerial Meetings of The Council of High Level Strategic Cooperation, which were held in Damascus on 22-23 December 2009, a total of 50 memoranda of understanding (MoU) and agreements were signed.[15]

[1] Oran, B. (ed.), 2001. Türk Dış Politikası: Kurtuluş Savaşından Bugüne Olgular, Belgeler, Yorumlar, Cilt 1: 1919-1980. İletişim Yayınları, İstanbul.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Altunışık, M.B., Tür Ö., 2006, ‘From Distant Neighbours to Partners? Changing Syria-Turkish Relations’. Security Dialogue, SAGE Publications, vol. 37, no. 2.
[7] Olson, R., 1995, ‘Turkey-Syria Relations Since the Gulf War: Kurds and Water. Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, vol. XIX, no. 1 (fall).
[8] Olson, R., 1995. ‘Turkey-Syria Relations Since the Gulf War: Kurds and Water’. Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, vol. XIX, no. 1 (fall).
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Larrabee, F.S., 2007. ’Turkey Rediscovers the Middle East’. Foreign Affairs, July/August.
[12] Kibaroğlu, A. et al., 2005. Cooperation on Turkey’s Transboundary Waters. Adelphi Research and the German Federal Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Larrabee, F. S., 2007. ‘Turkey Rediscovers the Middle East’. Foreign Affairs, July/August.
[15] Ayhan, V., 2009. ‘Türkiye-Suriye İlişkilerinde Yeni bir Dönem: Yüksek Düzeyli Stratejik İşbirliği Konseyi’. Ortadoğu Analiz, vilt 1, sayı 11, p. 27. Turkish Republic Ministry of Interior, Press Briefing, no: 2009/107.