Even after the start of the Syrian unrest, Turkey was slow to respond to the atrocities that were being carried out by the Syrian regime. Nearly going to war with Syria in 1998, Turkey had employed a “zero problems” on its borders policy, in an attempt to improve relations. This policy proved successful with Turkey heavily investing diplomatically and economically in Syria and eventually bearing fruit, when the two countries carried out joint military exercises in 2009.
However, throughout this time, it was always Turkey that seemed to be initiating efforts to improve relations with Syria. Even after the international condemnation of President Assad’s crackdown on peaceful protest in May 2011, Turkey did not desert its friend. This only came a month later, after prolonged attempts by Turkey to persuade President Assad to carryout reform. It was reported that Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Erdogan was personally offended by President Assad’s disregard of his advice. In a TV interview in June 2011 Mr Erdogan stated that “Turkey can no longer defend Syria”. Since then, Turkey Syrian relations have steadily worsened, with Syria appearing not to care about its increasing isolation. Relations were further affected from the influx of several thousand Syrian refugees into Turkey in late 2011, the firm establishment of the Syrian opposition in Turkey and most recently, the downing of a Turkish plane over Syria in June 2012.
Today, President Assad appeared to reach out to Turkey. In an interview with Turkey’s Cumhuriyet Newspaper, Assad was quoted in saying “I wish we had not shot it [the Turkish Jet] down” and that he regretted “100%” the incident. Stating that the incident could have been prevented if channels of communications between the two militaries had remained open, President Assad offered no apology, but did state that he would not allow the tension to turn into open combat between the two countries.
From the interview it would seem that Syria could be slowly realizing that it has lost an important ally. Perhaps a year of increasing isolation is taking its toll as well as a realization that Turkey with its military superiority as well as open support for the opposition could dictate events in Syria. Now Syria is getting a taste of a one sided relationship, but despite the regret shown, has Syria left it too late to repair its relationship with Turkey?
J Robinson – Twitter: @jprobinsons