Syria – Turkey relations go back in history

Ottoman-Safavid historic connection with Syria

Turkey for 5 centuries was the center of sunni muslims’ political and military supremacy. Teheran on the other hand became the shiite capital after the 1979 revolution which brought the shite vilayete faqih (rule of the jurists) to power. The Grand Ayatollah of the Islamic Republic is considered as the global religious leader of shite muslims. Former sultans in the Ottoman empire enjoyed that same status in the sunni world before the abolishment of the caliphate in 1924.

In the age of empires Turkish Ottomans and Persian Safavids rivalry for supremacy continued in the larger Islamic empire that stretched from Morocco to Indonesia. Their last war was the Ottoman–Safavid War of 1623–1639 as the last of a series of conflicts over control of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and Syria). After initial Persian success in capturing Baghdad and most of modern Iraq, the war became a stalemate, as the Persians were unable to press further into the Ottoman Empire, and the Ottomans themselves were distracted by wars in Europe and weakened by internal turmoil. Eventually, the Ottomans were able to recover Baghdad, and the signing of the Treaty of Zuhab ended the war in an Ottoman victory, with Mesopotamia remaining thenceforth in Ottoman hands, until lost in the aftermath of World War I.

Syria-Turkey relations

9 people have so far been killed in clashes in southeast Turkey. Syrian rockets fired into Turkish territory killing 4 people triggering a volley of Turkish wrath as a result. Fighting remained limited on both sides though  knowing that an all out war would be suicidal and war with Syria is considered as a “worst case scenario” by the Turkish government. Damascus-Istanbul relationship go back in history as the Turkish Ottoman provincial capital was located in Damascus which they lost in large part due to the Arab revolt in WWI.

The Arab Revolt

Until the end of WWI Syria, Iraq, Hejaz (Saudi Arabia), Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and most of North Africa were under the Ottoman rule. The Arab revolt which started in the Hejaz went against time honored Islamic tradition as muslim Arabs joined hands with non muslim Allied forces to fight against their co-religionists the Ottoman of Turkey. On the night of September 30, 1918 Allied forces led by General Edmund Allenby marched into Damascus as Turkish authorities abandoned the city.

That night, Turkish authorities fled the city in anticipation of the Allied occupation, ending hundreds of years of Ottoman rule in Damascus. Allenby’s forces were aided in their campaign in Syria by a force of Arab nationalists, led by Faisal, the son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca. Since 1916, Hussein and his sons, encouraged by British contacts such as T.E. Lawrence—the famous “Lawrence of Arabia”—had given their support to the Allies backstabbing their co-religionists. When the Allies occupied Damascus, Arab riflemen fired their guns in the air to celebrate the fall of the Turks in that city. Barely a month later, Turkey sued for peace, signing an armistice with the Allies on October 30, 1918. Turkey without its caliphate could be compared to a Great Britain without its monarchy.

Modern Turkish Model

Dictators like Mubarak were experts at suppressing the thoughts and opinions of their citizens. Use of secret police (mukhabarat) for spying on opposition, rights activists and free thinking writers marked the high points of their tyrannical career. Freedom and liberty of people were crushed for the sake of financial aid which mostly ended up in the elites’ pockets anyway.

Turkey after the end of the Ottomans built a pluralistic republic without totally abandoning its Islamic history, culture and civilization. Its more open to modern ideas, science, technology and progress in general. Religious clergy has its place in houses of worship and society is governed by politicians and administrators. There may be issues concerning governance or economic development from time to time as is the case with any administration anywhere in the world but the Turkish system stands out shining in a region where the dark forces reigned in Stalinist police state models.

Arab youths want a better future, they deserve a better future, like their Turkish brothers and sisters. They would like to see an open, pluralistic, democratic and liberal society built on the principles of Justice and Freedom. This is the model AKP ruling party of Turkey has been advocating for its people. And hence the “Turkish model” has become a spiritual inspiration silently shaping the Arab youths’ mindset.

Revolutionaries during the height of protests at Tahrir Square very clearly expressed their dreams to fashion their society along the Turkish model. One Egyptian newspaper ran a headline “lend us Erdogan for a month” echoing the Turkish spirit solemnly whispering amongst the people at that time. In 2011 Arabs revolted against their authoritarian rulers hoping to bring in the Turkish Model for the Arabs.

Turkey wants to avoid war

Syrian forces shelled its northern border area where the rebel fighters are said to be headquartered. Fighters are apparently receiving ammo from there and naturally Syrian forces pounded those sites in order to cut off the vital link for the arms supply. However, shelling the rebels also meant firing on Turkish lands. Turkey responded in kind but stopped short of a full blown ground assault.

Bashar Assad has his hands full fighting a civil war, and Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan would presumably like to avoid war. His administration suggested this weekend that Syria’s vice president would be acceptable as the leader of a transitional government. It’s a frantic effort to avoid war which may not be avoidable in the future.

But wars are often fought by countries whose leaders didn’t really want them. (See World War I.) A common reason is that neither regime feels it can afford to be seen by its people as backing down. But perhaps more important are some other dynamics pushing these countries toward war:

[1] Turkey could decide before long that war is preferable to the alternatives. Many of Syria’s Kurds hope to use the civil war as an opportunity to carve out an autonomous or even sovereign Kurdish region in Syria, and Turkey fears that this could prove contagious, emboldening Kurdish separatists in Turkey and energizing longstanding dreams of a new Kurdish nation that comprises parts of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran.

[2] NATO: The fact that a Turkish-Syrian war could draw America into the conflict will make such a war more attractive to some backers of American intervention. That includes presumably leaders of some Arab states.

[3] The Syrian regime is fighting for its life, and along the Turkish-Syrian border lies the lifeline of its enemy. The rebels are being supplied with weapons via Turkey and are seizing control of border crossings inside Syria, and their goal is to build, from there, an expanding zone of control. It would be in the loyalists’ best interest to keep control of border crossings and disrupt the rebels’ supply of arms and ammunition near the point of origin. It means shelling along the border will not stop any time soon.

“Those who attempt to test Turkey’s deterrence, its decisiveness, its capacity, I say here, they are making a fatal mistake,” Mr Erdogan said. “We are not interested in war, but we’re not far from war either. This nation is where it is today having gone through inter-continental wars.”

By going to war Turkey could risk its own trajectory of power and supremacy in world politics risking many of the economic and social achievements it has worked so hard for. Turkey cant fall into another fatal war where its territorial unity could come under the scanner. But can Turkey back down from its superior moral position as the leading muslim state in the world having the ability to save the Syrian people from Bashar Al Assad?


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