Turkish-Syrian Crisis of 1998 and Its Aftermath: A Constructivist Approach

Selen Tonkuş, ORSAM Ortadoğu Uzman Yardımcısı
1. Introduction     

Syria and Turkey have witnessed a dramatic change in bilateral relations, which can be regarded as a fairly exceptional phenomenon in international relations. They went from the brink of war, to amity, even cooperation.      

The aim of this paper is to analyze the change in Turkish-Syrian relations over time from the deterioration into near war during October 1998, followed by the normalization of relations and then the move toward cooperation through the lenses of constructivist theory of international relations. To this end, firstly the assumptions of the constructivism are underlined. Secondly, the developments that paved the way for crisis and the realignment, including the very recent situation of the relations are mentioned. Thirdly, the event; crisis and realignment and the theory; constructivism are blended. Finally the prospects for future relations are expressed in the light of the constructivist theory.

2. Constructivism      

Constructivism assumes that states are the unitary and principal actors of international relations. They behave in accordance with their national interests which are shaped by their identities. Wendt describes identity as “relatively stable, role- specific understandings and expectations of self”.  Like interests, identities are not given, rather indigenous to interaction , thus changeable.      

States acquire identities as they interact with each other. Namely, during interaction, they produce intersubjective meanings which include perception of the self and the others’ identities, motivations and actions. This leads us to the fundamental principle of constructivism, “people act toward objects, including other actors, on the basis of the meanings that the objects have for them'.  

Namely, states act towards each other on the basis of those intersubjective meanings, rather than exogenously- driven interests.     

Identities and interests together form institutions. Institutions are the cognitive entities that provide states the lenses to understand how the world operates.  

Institutions together form the collective knowledge, namely ideational, intersubjectively constructed structure of identities and interests” , namely the “real” structures as they perceived, which can be conflictual or cooperative.      

Constructivism explains cooperation with a process of interaction and learning. Wendt argues that states once perceive each other as friends, through iterated interaction they learn to cooperate. Therefore anarchical international system doesn’t lead to self-help behavior or security dilemma. States can construct competitive, individualistic or cooperative systems and transformation from one to another is possible. Thus what matters is identity and mutual perceptions of the states in shaping relations of enmity or amity.      

To clarify one more point, as Guzzini argues that there is a reflexive relationship between constructed knowledge and the social reality  which means that the intersubjective knowledge that the states construct, constitutes the very reality of their social world. Maloney’s argument further explains the case; the specific role and identity that a state has chosen and perception of the others, in turn, can lead the state to behave in accordance with the realities that it created, namely shape and constrain state behavior. 

3. The way to the Crisis, Realignment and Cooperation 
  3.1 Background of Relations

                  History has an important share in the course of Turkish- Syrian relations that were culminated in 1998 crisis. The two countries, for centuries, were the parts of the Ottoman Empire. The growth of Arab nationalism in the early 20th century led the Arabs to ally with the Europeans against the Ottoman Empire in the World War I. The unification of the Hatay with Turkey in 1939 further injected hostility to the relations.  The Cold War placed Turkey and Syria at the opposite sides which consolidated their hostility  and witnessed the emergence of the two main issues of debate; water and the Kurds.         

3.1.1 Water and Linkage with the Kurdish Issue      

The apportionment of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers’ water reserves has been a serious problem between Turkey and Syria for over three decades.Turkey controls the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers that Syria depends on. The problem arose during the 1960s due to Syria's increasing demand for water in fear a drastic reduction on the water it receives  due to Turkish dam projects and for the GAP.  Different understandings of the sides on the legal status of the rivers exacerbated the problem. Syria adopted the doctrine of limited territorial sovereignty; considered the river as an international watercourse and demanded equal division. Turkey, on the other hand, defined the rivers' status as transboundary, adopted the legal doctrine of absolute territorial sovereignty, namely claimed exclusive sovereignty until they reach to Syrian border, thus opposed the division formula arguing that it will allocate enough water to Syria.      

Syria by linking the two issues, began to back the PKK; training Kurdish militants for attacks and sheltering its leader Öcalan. It increased its support after the 1980 military coup in Turkey, when many of the dissidents sought refuge abroad. Turkey, abandoning its general idea to deal with the two issues separately, guaranteed a flow of 500 cubic meters per second to Syria in 1987 protocol to end the problem.  However it didn’t satisfy Syria who continued to use Kurdish problem as leverage against Turkey in the water question.      

3.1.2 The Kurdish Issue

Turkey and Syria share a cross-border Kurdish community, although the proportion of Kurds in Syria is much lower than in Turkey.  Kurdish separatism is accepted as one of the main threats to national security and unity, hence it came to be a determiner for Turkey’s foreign policy towards its neighbors. Syrian support for the PKK, began in 1960s, was seen as the main factor enabling the insurgency; thus the need to end it became a high priority when the violence reached at unprecedented levels in mid- 1990s.       

For Syria, although Kurdish population constitutes an important part of identity- sovereignty problematique since the Syrian state is an artificial creation lacking legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens , Syrian concerns over Kurds, wouldn’t come to surface earlier than Iraq War as a foreign policy issue and as a concern within Syrian relations with Turkey.

3.2 Towards the Crisis      

After the failure of 1987 protocol to end Syrian support, Syria increasingly began to present the water issue as part of pan-Arab agenda, got support of the Arab League members, the oil- rich Arab countries in order not to finance the GAP Project.  Besides, Syria developed its relations with anti- Turkish states; Armenia, Greece, and Iran and in response Turkey signed a military agreement with Israel in April 1996.  As the PKK violence rose to unprecedented levels, Turkey decided to de-link the issue from water and began to adopt a harsher stance.    

In January 1996, the Turkey sent a memorandum to Syria asking to cease its support for the PKK, as Syria did not respond Turkey froze all relations between the two countries. The same period witnessed border skirmishes between the two countries.       

In September 1998, Turkish Chief of Staff Kıvrıkoğlu said that Syria had been waging an ‘undeclared war’ against Turkey.  This was followed by President Demirel’s speech before the Parliament on 1 October 1998, in which he declared that Turkey was running out of patience.  The Syrian regime persistently refused to admit that Öcalan was in Syria or Syrian-controlled parts of Lebanon. This time Turkey decided to use force if necessary, referring to Article 51 of the UN Charter and mobilized 10,000 troops on the Syrian border.

3.3. The step back from war and normalization of relations      

Recognizing the seriousness of the Turkish demands, Syria stepped back and expelled Öcalan and the two sides signed Adana Accords on 20 October 1998 , which met all of Turkey's main demands; PKK training camps in Syria were closed and logistical support for the organization was stopped.       

The Accords provided immediate developments in bilateral relations; especially in security field; regular meetings of a joint security committee, appointment of special representatives in each country’s diplomatic missions and increased visits.  In 2000, the attendance of Turkish President Sezer at the funeral of Hafez Asad became the sign of the normalization. In 2002, the parties signed a military training agreement.  However, the main developments came in 2003; with the AKP’s holding power and the Iraq War.

3.4 Toward Amity and Cooperation      

In the AKP period, the bilateral relations deepened at different levels. In the security field, the already existing military cooperation was extended and culminated in joint military exercise and technical military cooperation agreement in April 2009.       

In the political field, following the similar opposition that two states showed to the Iraq war the developments after, became an important case of political consultation. Bashar Asad in his visit to Turkey on 6–8 January 2004 declared that the creation of a Kurdish entity in Iraq would cross the red line of both for Syria and Turkey.  In addition to Iran–Syria–Turkey trilateral meetings, Syria became part of the ‘Iraq’s Neighbors Initiative’ started by Turkey.  Also with regard to the other regional issues they adopted favorable approaches towards each other. To illustrate, President Sezer visited Damascus in April 2005   at a time Syria was under Western pressure to withdraw from Lebanon; Turkey received a Hamas delegation and refused to join the Western powers in isolating it after it came to power in 2006   and more importantly Turkey began to mediate the indirect Syrian-Israel peace talks in 2008.  The visit of Turkish President Gül after two countries reacted in a similar way to the Gaza war of 2009  , became the latest sign that the relations has moved beyond peaceful-neighbor relations.      

In the economic field, two sides opened up a consulate in Gaziantep and border trade centers in several Turkish cities. In December 2004, a Free Trade Agreement was signed and put into effect in 2007   and since trade volume between the states has reached 2 billion Dollars.       With respect to Kurdish issue, following the Iraq war, Syria began to share a common threat with Turkey due to a possible establishment of separate Kurdish entity . Thus, the issue ceased to constitute a problem.      

Regarding the water issue, Turkey and Syria are in the reflexive, namely learning stage and has not reached the integrative stage yet.  Nevertheless, it came to be seen as a technical issue, rather than a security one. In 2001, a joint protocol was signed calling for cooperation in training, study missions, technology exchange, and the conducting of joint projects.  Recently, on May 25, 2009 Minister of Foreign Affairs Davudoğlu declared that Turkey will give water to Syria as much as it can.   That is to say, throughout the 2000s, without any formal agreement, Turkey and Syria managed the issue by respecting each others’ needs and enhancing cooperation as they decided to share benefits rather than sharing the water.  Thus water began not to occupy central place in political relations   as manifested in recent joint dam projects. 

4. Constructivist Analysis of Turkish- Syrian Crisis of 1998 and Its Aftermath      

The negative intersubjective meanings and conflictual ideational structure between Turkey and Syria began to be constructed with the alignment of the Arabs with Europeans against the Ottoman Empire in World War I. This left a negative mental map for Turkey in which the Arabs and Syrians in particular, are seen as untrustworthy , exemplified by this common expression; "neither face of Arab, nor candy of Damascus."  Syria on the other hand, perceived itself as victimized by Turkey by linking Arab underdevelopment to the Ottoman imperialism and due to the unification of Hatay which was a sign of Turkish expansionism in Syrian perspective. These initial perceptions of each other along with the perceptions for the self, namely the identity of the sides shaped the future relations.      

Syria, as an artificial state, developed an anti-imperialist, anti-Westernist, pan-Arab and revisionist identity.   Turkey, in contrast, created a Western, secular and nation-state identity and preferred to stay distant from the Arab neighbors, including Syria, since they were the resources of the threats to Turkish identity; Kurdish separatism and political Islam.  

Similarly Syria perceived Turkey as a threat due to its secular democratic and non-Arab, in deed European identity as manifested in its application for EU membership and its close relationship with the US and Israel. As the champion of Arab nationalism and in accordance with its relations with fundamentalist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, which also is a part of Syrian identity, Syria did not hesitate to support the PKK.      

Barnett argues that threat is constructed through interactions and interpreted through the lens of identity.  Moreover, Weldes argues that insecurity for future relations is produced through the processes of identity construction (self and the other).  These two arguments explain how Turkey and Syria came to see the bilateral issues from the lenses of security as they perceive each other as threats to own identities and dependently constructed interests as exemplified by the securitization of the water by Syria and externalization of the PKK issue by Turkey.       

With regard to the water issue, Syria perceived Turkish dam projects as threats, not as means to store water.  Those negative imaginary barriers of Syria led it misperceive the real motivations of Turkey and it began to believe the story that itself created; Turkey was aiming regional hegemony by using the water regardless of Arab interests. In addition, the issue was closely related to identity of Syria based on its ideology of self-sufficiency, full independence, and Arab nationalism.      

The Cold War consolidated the negative intersubjective structure among the sides. Syria strongly consolidated Turkey as the “other”, perceiving it, due to its NATO membership, as serving the interests of the West at the expense of Arab needs and interests. Similarly, Turkey perceived Syria’s Arab nationalism as providing an opportunity for Soviet influence in the region.  

Syria, in response to Turkish threat, developed relations with Armenia, Greece, and Iran which were perceived by Turkey as attempts to encircle it and led it sign a military agreement with Israel in April 1996, as both Turkey and Israel shared a common threat perception from Syria. That is to say, with the culmination of decades of threat perceptions and iterated conflictual interactions caused Turkey and Syria to construct competitive inter-state relations.  These developments can be explained by the argument of Stephan Walt that states balance against threats, threats being socially constructed. 

During October 1998, the construction of a strong threat perception based on Turkish discourse, actions and the legacy of the past interactions, Syrian policy turned into an accomodationist one. After the signing of the Adana Accords, both countries revisited their mutual perceptions and reconstructed their behavior. Once they perceived each other as friends, in a short period of time, the lenses that they used to look through at the problematic issues have changed. However until 2003 it is only possible to talk about only a period of trust- building, namely interaction and learning. 

With the developments of 2003, Turkey and Syria have moved towards realignment to amity and cooperation due to changes in their perceptions and interpretations of interest associated with identity or role alterations and importantly, due to change in threat perception.      

Turkey with the AKP, began to embrace a more Middle Eastern and Moslem identity and invest more heavily in playing a role in the region.  Additionally, anti-Americanism as part of this new identity played role in cooperation with Syria.  Moreover the cleavage between the two is blurred, considering the secular regime in Syria, albeit with Islamic motives.      

Syria has foregone irredentist interests due to a more Syria-centric identity and as the Ottoman period is being reinterpreted in a positive light illustrated by the popularity of Turkish TV dramas in Syria, the relations with Turkey has improved.      

With regard to the changing threat perception, there has been a change in the threats from those perceived from each other to the common threat from US policy in Iraq.       

In terms of the changed role perceptions; Turkey came to regard itself as a soft power in the Middle East, being at the crossroads of the West and the East through established relations in all levels with both, to promote stability and peace in the region.      

Syria has adopted a new role as to revive the image and influence in the Arab world after the death of Hafez Asad but this time not on radical, rather accomodationist terms. Rather than threat, Syria came to see Turkey as a "window to Europe and the US”       

To sum up, Turkey and Syria revisited their perspectives and redefined their cultural spaces which led the deepening of bilateral relations.  In addition they learned the costs of the conflict and benefits of cooperation through iterated interaction and summoning positive meanings towards each other.      

The changed perceptions can well be exemplified by the expression of the Speaker of Congress in Syria; “we do not see the border between us as a boundary, rather we see it as a line of integration” 

5. Conclusion: Prospects for Future Relationship in the Light of Constructivism      

Turkish- Syrian relations have been improving based on mutual trust.  Syria perceives Turkey as offering opportunities for political and economic cooperation to the welfare and security of both countries and as a reliable partner for all the regional issues including solution to the problems with Israel, the securing of territorial unity in Iraq and for its part, to achieve integration into the international community in accordance with new Syrian role and identity.  And Turkey perceives Syria as its “brother” as President Gül underlined in his latest visit to Damascus.       To conclude, the cooperation that has been created between Turkey and Syria is the product an alteration of identity and mutual perceptions of each other, rather than a mere temporary adjustment to threat and interests, thus it is likely to be durable.



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