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Politics, religion, and culture where East meets West

Turkey sells al-Assad short

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With the recent uprisings in the cities of Deraa, Homs, and Banias, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad apparently feels he has everything to lose. Despite Syria’s best efforts to keep journalists out of the country, reports of the ongoing military violence against protestors—as well as imprisonment and torture of civilians—have made their way into mainstream news. Unsurprisingly, the US and the EU have invoked sanctions, and anyone with an interest in political self-presevation has been condemning al-Assad’s “regime.”

This includes Turkey, for which al-Assad can no longer be a legitimate diplomatic partner. No doubt, this ends an era of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Syria, for better or worse.

Turkey’s relationship with Syria has been cold and confrontational for the vast majority of the history of the Turkish republic, marked by continual territorial disputes over southern Turkey’s Hatay province and differing opinions on Israel, among other things. For example, Turkey, projecting power over its downstream neighbor, constructed dams on the Tigris and Euphrates, threatening Syria’s water supply. In turn, Syria harbored and aided Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and bitter enemy of the Turkish republic. During the course of these events Turkey threatened to invade Syria on numerous occasions. It would be understatement to call their status-quo relationship “on the rocks.”

But these difficulties have recently been put on the back burner in favor of more amicable diplomacy. Recent relations have been relatively warm, beginning–perhaps–with the Iraq War in 2003, to which both countries were vehemently opposed.  Since then, Turkey’s relationship with Israel declined (Syria approved), free-trade agreements were signed between Turkey and Syria, and Syria withdrew troops from Lebanon, making Syria a more eligible parter for diplomacy in the eyes of the international community. Things were looking up.

But in its current state, Syria is more frowned-upon by the international community than ever. Ever since his reaction to the uprisings as they became more prominent, President al-Assad has flushed his legitimacy down the drain. In the wake of the fall of Egypt’s Mubarak, and with the eyes of the world on Middle Eastern “autocracies,” al-Assad’s hardline approach will reflect even more poorly on his government than it usually would. And with Turkey publicly—and powerfully—declaring its support for what some have coined the “Arab Awakening” or the “Arab Spring,” supporting Syria and its government is no longer appropriate.

Will al-Assad leave his post in the near future? It’s anyone’s guess, but it has no bearing on Turkey’s policy toward Syria. If Turkey is to “trust the masses” and maintain its role as a supporter of the Arab Awakening, it cannot support a Syrian regime that appears to oppress its citizens, and it must sell al-Assad’s government short—in spite of recent amicability—to retain its legitimacy.

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Written by M. James

May 17, 2011 at 9:21 am

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