Why Turkey Cautiously Urges Syria to Reform

The Turkish prime minister urged his Syrian counterpart to enact swift political reform. Why is Ankara so concerned?

Turkey advised Syria to “positively respond” to the people’s demands for political reform, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Monday. Shortly before leaving Ankara for a visit to Iraq, he told reporters that a “reformist approach would help Syria to overcome the problems more easily.”

After weeks of turmoil in the Middle East, protesters finally took to the streets in Syria as well. The country is the most repressive dictatorship in the Arab world and despite rumors to the contrary, its president announced on Wednesday that he would not lift a fifty year-old emergency law in the face of civil unrest.

An estimated one hundred demonstrators had died and hundreds wounded in clashes with security forces since the protests began two weeks ago.

Syria and Turkey share an eight hundred kilometer land border. Last year, along with Lebanon and Jordan, the two countries agreed to allow a free flow of people and goods to take place across their frontiers which has helped especially Turkish companies set up shop in Syria. As part of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy, Turkey never criticized Syria despite the vast political differences between the two.

As Syria has likely to prepare for a period of political upheaval, Turkey is careful not to offend the current regime nor alienate its potential successor.

Syria, moreover, has a Kurdish population of some 1.4 million. Were the Syrian government to collapse and the Syrian state to disintegrate, it could embolden Kurdish demands for sovereignty. Ankara and Damascus have held regular strategic talks in anticipation of such an event and they organized their first ever joint military exercises in April of last year.

With Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak gone from Iraq and Egypt respectively, Turkey, like all moderate Arab nations, worries that the Arab world might not be able to offer enough of a counterweight to the growing influence of Iran in the near future. Its burgeoning trade relations with Syria seemed to weaken the bond between the two remaining members of the “axis of evil” in the Middle East. The uncertain outcome of regime change in Syria probably upsets the Turks more than the current authoritarian government, no matter its close ties with Tehran.