Turk & Syria – Assad Interview: Muslim Brothers, Kurds, Iraq, Israel By Joshua Landis in Syria Comment

Turk & Syria – Assad Interview: Muslim Brothers, Kurds, Iraq, Israel

Monday, September 14th, 2009

President Assad heads to Turkey Wednesday, Sept 16, 2009.

The Turkish paper Zaman has carried a number of articles on Syria in preparation for his visit.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met with the editors-in-chief of several Turkish newspapers, including Today’s Zaman Editor-in-Chief Bülent Keneş (L), over the weekend.

An article by Muhammet Minhac Çelik – Turkey’s role in Syrian detente with West crucial, experts say.

The article quotes me, but I copy below the fuller version of what I wrote to Muhammet in response to his question: “Was Turkey an influential player in the recent reconciliation between Syria and the US as well as the EU? (I mean the fact that the US is considering retunring an Ambassador to Damascus and the EU’s future signing of the Partnership Treaty with Syria.)” I wrote him:

Dear Muhammet,

Turkey is a key player in the new Middle East and has great leverage with Syria, Israel and the US. This was very clear in the central role it played in initiating talks between Israel and Syria 2008.

Syria values Turkey’s support over almost all other Middle Eastern countries, and it should. This gives Turkey considerable influence in Damascus. When Ankara asked Damascus to begin talks with Israel, Damascus complied, in part, to strengthen its relations with Turkey.

Turkey is the central player in Syria’s plans for economic growth. Turks form the largest number of foreign entrepreneurs opening new businesses in Syria. Syrian-Turkish trade doubled in three years from 1 billion dollars US in 2005 to 2 billion in 2008. Syria and Turkey plan to double this again in the next three years and they stand a good chance of doing it. Turkey is the doorway for Syrian goods into European markets. Oil and Gas pipelines to and from Syria go through Turkey.

Also, because of Turkey’s leadership of the Ottoman Empire, its economic success, and its pioneering role in developing democracy in the Middle East and finding a progressive balance between Islamic and secular government, Syrians of all classes and ideological outlooks look up to Turkey.

I could also add the importance of Turkey in Syria’s approach to the Kurdish question – not only in Iraq, but in Syria itself. The Turkish government’s success in forging a new, more equitable relationship between Turks and Kurds will surely influence Syria. If Turkey is successful in finding an accommodation with Kurds, it will help Syria do the same. In particular, it will pave the way for the Syrian government to offer citizenship to those 250,000 Kurds living in Syria, who have been denied Syrian citizenship because their male ancestors are believed to be refugees from Turkey or Ottoman Anatolia.

Many Syrians look to friendship with Turkey as an important addition to friendship with Iran.

When Imad Mustapha – Syria’s ambassador to Washington – came to speak at the University of Oklahoma, he was asked by one Syrian doctor, “Why does Syria have Iran as its best friend?” He answered, “Turkey is Syria’s best friend.” Many Syrians believe that Syria would not have come out of its struggle with George W. Bush so well had Turkey and Syria not been on friendly terms.

The importance of Turkey to Syria goes back a long way in history. Before Syria sent its army into the 1948 War in Palestine, one parliamentarian – Farzat Mamlouk – argued passionately in Parliament that Syria and the Arabs should postpone war and wait until Turkey was on their side before taking on Zionist forces. He argued that Turkey had great influence in the West, had major moral importance in the Islamic World, and had the strongest military of all Middle Eastern countries. He insisted that Syria should not go to war without Turkish backing and diplomatic support. This was wise advice in 1948; it is wise advice today.

Bashar al-Assad is keenly aware of Turkey’s role in assisting Syria to break out of isolation, grow its economy, and improve its leverage within the Middle East and international community. The fact that the Syrian government gave up Ocalan, ended its support for Kurdish militias fighting Turkey, and tried to put the Hatay or Liwa affaire behind it, as well has opening up the border with Turkey to free trade and easy movement of people is a very big turnaround. Syria has done all this despite Turkey’s very ambitious plans for Euphrates water, which hurt Syria.

In improving relations with Syria, Ankara is building a very important bridge to the Arab World and a good neighbor.

Best, Joshua

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