While Syria and Turkey have called it quits for now, a possible regime change in Syria could bring them even closer together.
The sultans must be green with envy. At no time since the fall of the Ottoman Empire have Turks held such sway over the Middle East. In the context of Arab uprisings, Turkey has been able to solidify a position it has been carefully trying to establish for the past decade. So far, Turkey appears to have made all the right choices. Now, it is navigating everyday turns in the Arab uprisings with a dexterity that is only more salient when juxtaposed with the failed, often barbaric attempts by the region`s bumbling dictators to quash revolts, which never fail to pop back up.
Ankara is now in frequent communications with and is hosting elements of the Syrian opposition, which looks poised to become the future Damascene government. It can only be expected to wield an even greater soft power over Syria and the region as events unfold. To reach this fortuitous position, Ankara took significant risks, not the least of which was spearheading opposition to the brutality of Bashar al-Assad`s regime, even when its fall from power was far from certain and few Middle Eastern countries had voiced any condemnation of Assad`s actions.
In just over a decade, up to the Syrian uprising, Turkey’s relations with Syria went from being among its worst in the Middle East to its best. Historical enmity between the two nations stemmed in part from a colonial-era “gift” from France to Turkey in 1939: Syria’s province of Alexandretta, today known as the southern Turkish province of Hatay. Furthermore, the two countries were aligned at opposite poles during the Cold War. The speed at which their relationship bloomed in a little over ten years since 1998 has been nothing less than extraordinary. Therefore, Ankara`s recent bold stance against Damascus seems to be a peculiar twist.
Yet Turkey`s abandonment of Syria since the uprising is not inconsistent, especially when we examine motivations behind these two countries` rapprochement in the first place. Syria`s and Turkey`s separate but similar policies of deepening economic and political ties with countries in the region has produced very different outcomes, given their distinct circumstances. On the one hand, the power base of Bashar al-Assad`s regime has been so eroded as to allow for the current Syrian political crisis. On the other hand, Turkey has become so powerful that it now is in a position to significantly affect the outcome of the Syrian uprising.
In the 1990s, Syria and Turkey, like many other countries, faced new globalization pressures. The Soviet Union’s collapse further strengthened the view that the integration of Soviet-allied Syria into the world economy would be a vital step to guarantee its future economic prosperity and stability. Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War allowed Turkey a greater space to navigate in its foreign policy. Having long faced threats from the Soviet Union, Turkey had been forced into a close alliance with the United States, membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and an opposing stance towards countries in the Middle East under the influence of the Soviet Union. This changed after the Cold War.
This is not to say that Turkey initially recognized or immediately took advantage of this navigating room. In fact, Turkey first pursued a policy of further liberalizing its foreign economic policy by deepening its engagement with the West. It made few efforts to connect with its Arab neighbors or Iran. The 1990s saw Turkey submit its application for European Union membership and have been considered a “golden age” in Turkish-Israeli relations. Until the decade’s end, Syria and Turkey continued to butt heads. Suspecting that Syrian domestic opponents found safe haven in Turkey, Syria had allowed Abdullah Öcalan, the Parti Karkerani Kurdistan (PKK, Kurdish Workers’ Party) leader, to base himself in Damascus. Turkey’s frustration, along with Syrian weakness as Russian support waned, brought matters to a head in 1998. Amid Turkish military posturing on the heavily armed border, a top Turkish general issued an ultimatum and Damascus asked PKK leader Öcalan to leave, paving the way for his capture in Kenya.
The scope and speed of economic liberalization that took place in Syria in the 1990`s was expected and promised to increase when President Bashar al-Assad took office in 2000. The “Chinese Model” was upheld as Syria`s new path towards progress. This model suggested that by opening up economically, developing countries could promote economic growth, which would quash dissent yet maintain authoritarian grips on political power. Though Syria did not pursue the “Chinese Model” as aggressively as did other Arab countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, the past decade ushered in a proliferation of reforms, including dramatically liberalized trade policies, commodity price liberalization, private bank licensing, and the deregulation of Syria’s real estate market.
These reforms were serious efforts to rectify substantial, long-term problems of the Syrian economy but they created their own problems. They intrinsically entailed a turning away from regime`s traditional power bases, such as the urban working class and peasantry, towards capitalist and business classes who have been given a prominent role in the new market-based economy. However, the Syrian state was unwilling or incapable of taking on the technocratic role needed to manage this transition. Instead, the Syrian economy witnessed a growing wealth gap, as well as a rapid and poorly-managed deterioration of the public sector. Despite wide-spread acknowledgement of these escalating problems and the marginalized role of the Ba`ath party in certain spheres, the Syrian regime was thought to be exceptionally stable—even in the eyes of many prominent Middle East analysts when the “Arab Spring” erupted in full force across the region but had yet to touch Syria.
To realize its goal of increased global integration, Syria sought to join larger regional economic bodies. Syria began negotiating an Association Agreement with the European Union (EU). For years, the EU had been cultivating regional partnership agreements with the goal of designing a free trade zone encompassing the Mediterranean and Europe, from which Syria was, up to that point, prominently absent. 
However, isolationist Syria found that achieving its economic goals would require political sacrifices. Progress on the EU Association Agreement was continually delayed as a result of European hesitations amidst negotiations about the amounts and types of political conditions to attach to the agreement, the list of which continued to grow. Critics contended that these conditions had not been imposed on other countries that signed partnership agreements with the union, which was unfairly targeting Syria for its independent and controversial foreign policy.
Meanwhile, other external political factors increased pressures coming from the West. Following the relatively facile invasion of Iraq and toppling of Saddam, some hawks of the Bush administration targeted Syria as the next goal for a US [Nabiha4] “Greater Middle East” agenda. Under this pressure, in addition to widespread accusations of Syria`s responsibility in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Syria redirected its globalization efforts towards the East.
In 2005, Bashar al-Assad became the first Syrian head of state to make an official visit to Turkey. Syria scholar Joshua Landis wrote: "I think [Assad saw Turkey as] a world that was dynamic, that branched east and west, was creative and vital. I am sure he thought: `Why should not Syria get a piece of this? This is the model. We do not want to be Iran. We want to be Turkey.`" Soon afterwards, Assad began to publicly articulate what he dubbed as his "Five Seas Vision". Looking locally and eastward for business partners meant that Syria was not held political hostage to the whims and demands of western countries in order to develop economically. In October 2009, after many years of waiting on Syria`s side, the EU signed the Association Agreement and put it on the table for Syria to sign. It was deferred after President Assad declared that Syria wanted "to revise" certain clauses. Since then the signing has been indefinitely postponed.
Turkey, like Syria, appeared to initially equate “global integration” almost exclusively with integration with the West. The Adelat ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP, Justice and Development Party), which came to power in 2002, appeared just as determined as its predecessors on pursuing full EU membership. It gave into European demands to soften Turkish policy on Cyprus and back the Annan Plan proposed by the United Nations (UN) to federate the island’s two states. AKP leader Erdoğan met with US then-President Bush even before he became Prime Minister.
But just as Syria faced the stumbling blocks of US regional aggression and the weight of Europe`s political conditions for further engagement, so did Turkey. Turkish-American relations were put under great strain, primarily due to Turkish popular disapproval of the US invasion of Iraq and US reluctance to allow Turkey to take direct military action against the PKK. Further exacerbating matters, in 2004, Greek Cypriot voters overwhelmingly rejected the UN Annan Plan for a Cyprus settlement. Turkish and EU leaders failed to manage the great difficulties of this outcome. In 2006, a French bill criminalizing denial that Turks committed genocide against Armenians was perceived by Turks as a further affront. Years later, Turkey’s EU negotiations remain hostage to the Cyprus and Armenian genocide disputes. This was compounded by opposition to Turkey’s EU accession by demagogic politicians in France, Germany, and other EU states.
A consequence of these stumbling blocks was a decline in respect for the West in the eyes of Turks melded with a sense of bitterness from “unfair” attacks. It would be inaccurate to say that Turkey turned away from the West. Turkey is still a NATO member, continues to pursue EU membership, and conduct half of its trade with EU states. However, Turkey has realized that it need not be only allied with the West but can credibly pursue relationships with both East and West. It could even become stronger as a result. This is why those who claim the AKP pursues an Islam-centric foreign policy have not truly understood their objective, which is not to break with Turkey’s traditional cooperation with the United States and EU but to increase Turkey’s relative autonomy from these powers.
Turkey`s approach for the past decade marks a change in tactics in pursuit of the same goal. As Turkish columnist Sami Kohen proposes, “Turkey is not abandoning the West and does not want to. The EU remains the main incentive for the reform process. I have never seen the parliament work day and night for anything else. But our posture in the world is enhanced by this policy [of Middle East activism].”
Turkey`s relationships with its Middle Eastern neighbors have been especially focused on establishing economic ties. Today, Turkey is unequivocally the economic power house of the Middle East, producing the equivalent of half the gross output of the region, without the aid of abundant oil reserves. Pursuing the economic if not the authoritarian side of the “Chinese Model”, Turkey aspires to be an export-led economy, and its proportion of foreign trade to overall gross domestic product continues to grow steadily over time. In 2010, Turkey posted growth rates of nearly nine percent, while the average growth rate for the region was four percent. This explains why, in the Middle East, talk of the “Turkish Model” has become as pervasive as talk of the “Chinese Model”.
As both Syria and Turkey have begun to look eastward to leverage negotiations with Western countries, their first gesture of cooperation in 1998 regarding PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan has now bloomed into a close friendship characterized by a particularly strong economic relationship. Eleven years after their rapprochement, the two sides have signed fifty-one protocols on trade, development, and cultural exchange. And in 2007, Syria’s free trade agreement with Turkey came into effect.
Debates abound over the balance of power in this relationship, which has not produced two-way economic flows. Instead, the vibrant Turkish economy, totaling about one trillion US dollars, has overwhelmed its much smaller counterpart, worth only one hundred billion US dollars. Syria is not even one of Turkey`s most important economic partners. Trade with Syria made up less than one percent of Turkey’s total trade in 2009.
Turkey has, in the span of a decade, become vital to Syria`s economy through foreign investment and Turkish loans for infrastructure development. Just three years after the 2007 signing of the Syrian-Turkish Free Trade Agreement, forty percent of businesses in Aleppo`s Sheikh Najjar Industrial Zone were backed by Turkish partners, fifty percent of the zone’s investments emanating directly from Turkish funds. In October 2010, the Syrian Finance Minister Muhammad al-Hussein announced that Turkey earmarked one hundred and eighty million euros (247 million US dollars) in loans to Syria for infrastructure projects. This aid came at a time when Syria, due to its new neoliberal policies and loss in oil revenue, was more often than not failing to offer government financial support to build infrastructure at a pace matched with population growth and the rate of deterioration due to neglect. 
Syria has seen a wealth of Turkish products flood its markets, and Syria’s trade deficit with Turkey has widened to more than one billion US dollars. This, perhaps with good reason, has made many Syrians nervous. Turkish officials have countered that Ankara felt the same economic pressures when it opened up its borders to an EU customs union in 1996 but in the end it allowed them to build a more competitive economy. They claim Turkish investments have helped Syria work through the same painful process of liberalization that it started decades ago.
Some in Damascus agree and think that opening up to Turkish competition is preferable to opening the floodgates to an even more powerful Europe. Leon Zaki, a board member of Aleppo`s Chamber of Commerce, initially opposed the agreement, fearing that Syrian industries might be swallowed up by Turkish competition. But Zaki later acknowledged: "There are positive and negative aspects for Syria but when you put both on balance the good things far outweigh the bad. If I am a Turkish businessman, and I move production to Syria, I get complete, customs-free access to Turkey… and three-hundred and twenty million consumers in the Arab world. On the Syrian side, we get investment, Syrian workers get jobs, and the final product goes out into the world with a `made in Syria` label. It is win-win."
Not only have Turkey and Syria embraced each other, they have invited other neighboring countries into the fold through initiatives such as the 2009 joint lifting of visa requirements for movement between Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Libya, as well as a seventy million dollar railway line between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq to be matched by rail links between Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Using its Syrian relationship as a launching point, Turkey has developed bilateral relations with many Middle Eastern regimes as part of a larger Turkish strategy of encouraging these states to integrate economically, perhaps in a Middle Eastern version of the Schengen zone.
During an August 2010 meeting, an agreement was signed between Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon to launch a planning process for a free trade zone to be established between the four countries. Erdoğan has spoken of his ambitions to further expand such initiatives and his anticipation that Turkey’s “model” dealings with Syria will show the way to better relations between Damascus, Riyadh, and Beirut.
In recent years, the regional popularity of political leaders of each country has dramatically shifted.In 2008, an opinion poll conducted by the University of Maryland, with 3,976 respondents in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE asked Arabs which current political figures outside their own countries they most admired most. In 2008 Erdoğan received zero percent of votes, while Bashar al-Assad received 18 percent, putting him in third place, just behind Hassan Nasrallah and Jacques Chirac for most admired politician in the world by Arabs. By 2010, polls showed that Erdoğan was the most admired figure for 20 percent of surveyed Arabs, surpassing Bashar al-Assad, and indicating that the Turkish PM had become the most widely admired political figure in the Arab world. Only seven percent of Arabs surveyed in 2010 responded that Assad was their most admired political leader outside of their own countries, placing him as the fifth most popular political leader in the Arab world.
The rising popularity of Erdoğan relative to Assad can be explained to a great deal by regional perceptions of these leaders` foreign policies and their abilities to implement them. The Assads, père et fils, have enjoyed a certain amount of legitimacy within and beyond Syria as a result of their foreign policies perceived to be independent of the West and close relationships with resistance movements in Palestine and Lebanon. Indeed, in an interview in January 2011, Bashar al-Assad implied that the popularity stemming from this foreign policy would immunize the regime from the kind of political unrest experienced in Egypt and Tunisia.
Syria’s autonomous foreign policy has historically been coupled with state-led socialist development programs, which cultivated alliances with the regime’s social base of urban workers and peasants by protecting them from the market. Decades of infitah (opening) policies, however, have done much to erode the regime`s traditional autonomy from opposition forces both inside and outside of Syria.
Meanwhile, Turkey`s credibility in the Arab world has greatly been bolstered by a shift in foreign policy, which is increasingly independent from the West. In addition to newly cultivated ties with Arab counties, Turkey has become increasingly critical of Israeli policies towards Palestinians. Relations between the two nations have grown tense following the December 2008 Gaza massacre and the 2010 Israeli raid on the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza, which led to Turkey losing nine countrymen.
Turkey`s rising popularity among Arabs—an unprecedented phenomenon since the end of the Ottoman Empire and the nation’s founding—has offered Turkey a unique opportunity to take on a very particular leadership role in the region. It has very easily painted itself in contrast to other countries like Syria, Egypt or Saudi Arabia who aspire towards a similar goal but differ by not being a democracy that confers greater respect for human rights. Turkey has, often times quite successfully, presented itself as a more legitimate moral arbiter in conflicts. While Saudi Arabia for example, because of its oil wealth and geographical importance for Muslims, similarly feels a right to involve itself in the affairs of other countries in the Middle East, it is frequently criticized as having little moral ground to stand on because of its own highly repressive and corrupt practices.
Ankara`s abrupt and decisive schism with Damascus after a decade of close relations appears less strange when we understand why Syria and Turkey came together initially. Both pursued a rapprochement from desires to strengthen their respective positions vis-a-vis Europe and to expand their policies of economic liberalization by opening up to new international markets. However, each country has seen very different outcomes from these policies, and the results have accumulated in cooling events of the past nine months. Liberalization policies in Syria have done a great deal to undermine the regime`s traditional pillars of support and created a discontented populace. Syria is now in the throes of a full-blown political crisis in which the regime is likely to be overthrown. Syrian-Turkish economic integration has also made Syria acutely vulnerable to the political will of Turkey.
At the same time, Turkey`s economic integration with the Middle East, because of its economic clout and democratic credentials, has made it a strongman in the region, capable of issuing diktats and acutely aware that it needs to maintain its image by pushing other countries to promote political freedom and modernization. The embarrassment Turkey would have faced in standing uncritically by its Syrian ally would have been too great a loss of stature, and the potential credit due to Turkey should they successfully manage the Syrian crisis was so great an opportunity, that Turkey decided its best bet is to rein in and put pressure on Assad. Essentially, Turkey now believes that being proactive in directing the course of reforms in Syria was the only option to holding together the Northern Alliance it has been building in the Middle East.
Turkey has seen the Arab uprisings as its “time to shine” after a decade of carefully cultivating a regional image as a state founded on the principles of democracy, equality, and political freedom. Erdoğan was the first Muslim leader to tell Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to step down. As for Syria, Turkey had already spent several years deeply involved in shaping its economy and consulting with Syrian leadership. Soon after protests began, Turkish experts who visited Damascus provided guidance on legislation for a multiparty system and new laws on local administration and peaceful demonstrations. In late March 2011, Erdoğan announced that Bashar al-Assad had not given him "a negative answer" when he urged him by a series of telephone calls to meet some of the demands of Syrian protesters. Erdoğan said the regime claimed to be working towards lifting the state of emergency and on political parties, stating: “We hope these measures are actually implemented."
Turkey`s initial optimism was understandable after the relatively facile stepdown of dictators in Tunisia, then Egypt. But as the death toll continued to rise while members of the Ba’ath regime blithely asserted that Syria had no interest in giving into the demands of “terrorists”, it became clear that Syria would not pursue a path of reforms. Syria`s refusal to demonstrate any attempts at reform following Turkey`s depiction of itself as competently managing the conflict was a turning point. Erdoğan, who had confidently asserted that his personal appeals to Assad had spurred the regime into action, had been humiliated on the international stage.
Before the Tunisian revolution, opinion polls of the Arab world showed that Erdoğan had become more popular than Assad. Turkey must have recognized that the regime`s shockingly brutal oppression would only serve to lower esteem for Assad and those who might choose to stand beside him in the eyes of Arabs participating in the wave of pro-democracy movements throughout the region.
Nevertheless, it was an incredibly risky gamble that Turkey took early on. A renewed enmity with Syria, in the event that the regime survives and is able to rebuild, would cut off reliable access to Jordan and Lebanon, who would be the next Arab states to fall under Turkey`s influence. Regardless, Turkey had huge potential gains in popularity for being seen as a leader, if it spearheaded support for Arab uprisings, a role it could be certain would not be taken on by any of the region`s now-nervous dictators. Turkey has been especially effective in taking on this new role given its 450-mile border with Syria, which has allowed it a variety of options for supporting the opposition while undermining the regime.
In April 2011, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood gathered in Istanbul, where a press conference was held by Riad al-Shaqfa, its mentor, and organized by Gazi Misirli, a Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader who has been living in Turkey and who has Turkish citizenship. Nidal Kabalan, the Syrian Ambassador to Turkey, expressed his strong offense in an interview with Hürriyet Daily News: “For us, the Muslim Brotherhood is like the PKK is for Turkey. The Muslim Brotherhood has been attacking the army. You have to understand that sensitivity.”
Since then, Turkey has increasingly served as a safe haven for various facets of the opposition: hosting further opposition conferences, sheltering Syrian refugees, and most recently, harboring defecting soldiers of the Free Syrian Army. In August, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu went to Syria to give a "tough message” about the "savagery" of Bashar al-Assad`s regime, and cautioning Assad on repeating atrocities like those committed in the 1982 Hama massacre.
In November, the Arab League took an unprecedented decision to impose economic sanctions on a fellow member. It voted to stop trading with the Syrian state in all but essential goods, to ban Arab investments in Syria, to freeze assets held by senior members of the regime abroad, and to end dealings with Syria’s central bank. Three days later, Turkey said it would follow suit. Nowadays, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu hint at military intervention against Assad, should he continue along the path of bloody crackdowns.
The final outcome of the Syrian uprising is far from clear. Speculations range from descent into a sectarian civil war, an economic collapse which would cripple the regime or Assad managing to quash revolts and keep a hold on power. It is rather apparent that Turkey, at one point or another, would have had to cut its ties with Assad, whose brutal and violent treatment of largely peaceful protesters has left at least five thousand dead and fourteen thousand arrested. Whether the final outcome of the uprisings is positive for Turkey hinges upon a multitude of possible outcomes. The worst case scenarios—a sectarian civil war, which could destabilize neighboring Lebanon and Iraq or Assad successfully suppressing the opposition and shutting down Syria to the outside world— would be a tangible loss for Turkey, essentially reversing all the progress it has made with Syria in the past decade.
Should the Syrian opposition successfully overthrow Assad and establish a democratic government, it is hard to imagine that Turkey and Syria would not continue to grow closer. Their relationship may progress at an even faster pace, as Turkey would take a special interest in nurturing and mentoring a burgeoning Syrian Republic. And Turkey’s ability to ensure Syria`s success would be deeply entangled with its own reputation on the world stage.
 David Lesch, The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 208-214.
 Eyal Zisser, Asad`s Legacy: Syria in Transition (London: C. Hurst and Company, 2001), 14.