Syria–Turkey relations

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Syrian–Turkish relations
Map indicating locations of Syria and Turkey



Turkey shares its longest common border with Syria; various geographic and historical links also tie the two neighboring countries together.

The traditional tenseness in relations had been due to disputes including the self annexation of the Hatay Province to Turkey in 1939, water disputes resulting from the Southeastern Anatolia Project, and Syria's support for the Kurdistan Workers' Party (abbreviated as PKK) and the now-dissolved Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (abbreviated as ASALA) which has been recognised as a terrorist organisation by NATO, EU, and many other countries. Relations improved greatly after October 1998, when PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was expelled by Syrian authorities. However, the Syrian civil war has once again strained relations between the two countries, leading to the suspension of diplomatic contact.[1] A serious incident occurred with the Syrian downing of a Turkish military training flight in June 2012, resulting in Turkey calling an emergency meeting of NATO.

Syria had maintained an embassy in Ankara and two consulates–general in Istanbul and Gaziantep. Turkey had an embassy in Damascus and a consulate–general in Aleppo. Diplomatic relations between the countries were severed in March 2012, due to the Syrian civil war.[1] Turkey is a full member of the Union for the Mediterranean and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) while Syria's membership was suspended due to the civil war.


Hatay annexation[edit]

Protests in Damascus by women demonstrators against the secession of the Sanjak of Alexandretta in 1938 to become the Hatay Republic (and its joining of Turkey as the Hatay Province in 1939). One of the signs reads: "Our blood is sacrificed for the Syrian Arab Sanjak."

In 1938, the Sanjak of Alexandretta became independent from the French mandate of Syria as the Republic of Hatay, and following a referendum, 8 months later in 1939, it decided to join Turkey as the Hatay Province. This self-annexation was never recognized by Syria, which continues to show the Hatay Province of Turkey as part of Syria's territory on maps.[2]

At present, Syrians hold the view that this land is historically Syrian and was illegally ceded in the late 1930s to Turkey by France – the mandatory occupying power of Syria (between 1920 and 1946). The Turks remember Syria as a former Ottoman vilayet. In 1938, the Turkish Army went into the former Syrian Mediterranean province with French approval and expelled most of its Alawite Arab and Armenian inhabitants.[3] Before this, Alawi Arabs and Armenians were the majority of the provincial population.[3] For the referendum, Turkey crossed tens of thousands of Turks into Alexandretta to vote.[4]

In 1938, the province declared its independence from France and the following 29 June, the parliament of the newly declared Hatay Republic voted to join Turkey. This referendum has been labeled both "phoney" and "rigged", and that it was a way for the French to let Turks take over the area, hoping that they would turn on Hitler.[3][5] The Syrian government recognized this decision in 2004 and gave up on territorial claims.[citation needed] Syrians still consider this land as integral Syrian territory.[citation needed] Syrians call this land Liwaaa aliskenderuna rather than the Turkish name of Hatay.

Water politics[edit]

Water disputes have been a major source of conflict as Turkey has constructed several dams on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers as part of the Southeastern Anatolia Project- GAP to develop the region.[2] The project GAP was aimed at reducing the harsh living conditions of the Southeastern provinces of Turkey by building 19 dams on the rivers of Euphrates and Tigris. This project, however, would seriously reduce Syrian water resources.

In addition to this, Euphrates and Tigris are not the only rivers that tangles Turkish-Syrian relations, the water distribution of Orantes River which pours into Mediterranean from the province of disputed Hatay also rises problems between two states.[citation needed]

Support to the PKK[edit]

Turkey has condemned Syria for supporting the PKK, which is listed as a terrorist organization internationally by a number of states and organizations, including the US, NATO, and the EU and has claimed that Syria employed Alois Brunner to train Kurdish militants for attacks against Turkey.[6]

The two countries came to the brink of war when Turkey threatened military action if Syria continued to shelter Abdullah Öcalan in Damascus, his long-time safe haven. Relations have improved since October 1998, when Öcalan was expelled by Damascus and Syria pledged to stop harbouring the PKK militants and the 1999 signing of the Adana agreement, following his subsequent capture in Kenya, envisaged security cooperation between the two countries.[7]

Helicopter downing[edit]

In October 1989, 2 Syrian Mig-21's flew 12 miles (19 km) into Turkish airspace where they shot down a Turkish aircraft.[8] All five of the crew on the Turkish aircraft died.[9][10][11][12][13]

Diplomatic thaw 2003–2011[edit]

In The New Turkey (Granta Books, 2005), BBC correspondent Chris Morris claims that Syria was "for years a bitter foe"[14] as "Turkey's secular democracy, its application for EU membership and its close relationship with the United States have long been regarded in Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus with intense suspicion. Islamists look at the secular state which buried the caliphate and think 'betrayal'; and Arab nationalists still haven't forgotten that Turks are their former colonial rulers." "But there's been a thaw, especially since the AKP came to power," and "the new Turkish model – trying to mix greater democracy and Islam together – is now the subject of curiosity and not a little envy."[2]

The Turkish Parliament's refusal to cooperate militarily with the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a turning point in Syrian-Turkish bilateral relations as Syria's perceptions of Turkey as incapable of acting independently were altered.

The first ever visit to Turkey by a Syrian President was made by Bashar al-Assad to Ankara in January 2004.[15] In late 2004, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan flew to Damascus to sign a free trade agreement[14], in the follow-up to former Turkish President Turgut Özal's high-level trade negotiations with Syrian authorities in the 1990s[2] and Erdoğan's own recently successful bid to initiate a Turkish EU accession which would allow Europe, "to extend its reach to the borders Syria, Iraq and Iran."[16]

In 2005, Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer went to visit Damascus, despite U.S. objections, during the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon.[17]

In 2008, Turkey was, as a sign of mutual trust in Damascus and Tel Aviv, invited to play the role of facilitator between Syria and Israel to solve their dispute over control over the Golan Heights, but these talks were abandoned after four rounds, which included a visit by Syrian President Bashir al-Assad to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan at Bodrum in August,[18] following the deterioration in Turkey-Israel relations over the 2008–2009 Israel-Gaza conflict,[19][20][21]

Military cooperation[edit]

On 26 April 2009, the two states announced an "unprecedented" three-day military manoeuvre involving ground forces along their mutual border in what was described as "a step farther in their ever-expanding cooperation." According to Turkish military sources, "The aim of the exercise is to boost friendship, cooperation, and confidence between the two countries land forces, and to increase the ability of border troops to train and work together." The exercise which commenced on 27 April involved teams from each country crossing the border to visit outposts.[20]

Visiting Syrian Defense Minister Hasan Turkmani and Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gönül also signed a letter of intent giving the green light for cooperation in the defence industry, on the sidelines of the 9th International Defence Industry Fair (IDEF'09) that commenced in Istanbul the same day, as a sign of the level of political relations reached between the two states, although a Turkish defence industry source emphasised that, "it does not mean that the two countries will immediately enter into cooperation in arms production."[19][20]

2009 Turkish Presidential visit to Syria[edit]

Turkish President Gül's 15–17 May official visit to Syria was made at the invitation of Damascus in reciprocation of Syrian President Assad's 2007 official visit to Turkey. A senior Turkish diplomat confirmed that, "The main topic on the agenda and the goal of the visit is the maintenance of momentum that has built up in bilateral relations within the last decade."[22] The Turkish delegation included Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Foreign Trade Minister Zafer Çağlayan, Agriculture Minister and Culture and Tourism Minister Ertuğrul Günay.[23]

Shortly before the visit new Syrian Ambassador to Turkey, Nidal Qablan confirmed that Syria was ready to restart the Turkish mediated peace negotiations with Israel[24] and Gül supported the call, following his meeting with Assad, stating that, "We have heard Syria say it is ready to resume the peace talks from the point where they stopped with the previous [Israeli] government. We in Turkey are also ready."[25] Assad confirmed, "Turkey's role is important because we have trust in Turkey."[26] Israeli President Shimon Peres dismissed these calls stating, "The Syrians should be ready to talk. If President al-Assad wants peace, why is he shy? We suggested direct talks many times. He thinks direct talks are a prize for Israel. It's not a prize. It's normal."[27]

Friction due to Syrian Civil War[edit]

Since the start of Syrian Civil War, relations between Syria and Turkey greatly deteriorated. The Syrian conflict began to impact Turkey when at least 3,000 Syrian refugees fled Syria as a consequence of such incidents as Syrian army operation in Jisr ash-Shugur in June 2011.[28] In June 2011, Turkish prime minister Erdogan described to Anatolian Agency his feeling that "They [Syria] are not acting in a humane manner. This is savagery."[29] However, at the beginning, the Turkish government refrained from describing the Syrians who fled to Turkey as "refugees" or "asylum-seekers", instead referring to them as guests,[30] and Erdogan, while demanding the implementation of promised reforms by the Syrian government, initially refrained from calling for Bashar al-Assad's departure, although he later would.


On 9 August 2011, the BBC and other news sites reported that Turkey sent its foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, to Syria to give the government a "tough" message. Erdogan has said that he is becoming impatient with the "savagery" of Bashar al-Assad's government.[31] Ahmet Davutoğlu also announced that "We are completely suspending all of these trade relations, all agreements between Turkey and Syria have been suspended."

The Turkish pilgrim bus attack occurred on 21 November 2011 when two buses carrying Turkish pilgrims returning from Saudi Arabia came under fire from Syrian soldiers.[32][33] The attack occurred at a checkpoint near Homs, as a convoy of eight or nine Turkish buses was making its way towards Turkey via the Bab Hawa border crossing.[32] The gunfire left two people injured. According to a driver, when told that the passengers were Turks, "Syrian soldiers emerged from behind sandbags and cursed Recep Tayyip Erdoğan... Then they suddenly opened fire at the bus."[32][33]

On 9 April 2012, the Syrian envoy to Turkey was summoned after Syrian forces fired across the Syria–Turkey border. At least two were killed and many others injured in the incident.[34]

On 22 June 2012, Syria shot down a Turkish Air Force RF-4E reconnaissance jet near the Turkish-Syrian border.[35] The Syrian military alleges the jet had violated Syrian airspace. However, Turkish president Abdullah Gül and other spokesmen have not confirmed this and emphasized that brief incursions into neighboring airspace by high-speed jets are routine occurrences. Gül stated that "it is not possible to cover over a thing like this. Whatever is necessary will no doubt be done."[36] The Turkish and Syrian navies conducted a search for Turkish airmen downed by the incident.[37]

In August 2012, Turkey began to hold high level meetings with the USA on plans to replace the Syrian government.[38]

On 3 October 2012, Turkey attacked troops in Syria, after a Syrian mortar shell killed five people. Turkish parliament approved cross border operations.[39] Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan announced 5 October "We are not interested in war, but we're not far from it either,"

On 10 October 2012, Turkish Air Force F-16s intercepted a Syrian Air Airbus A320, flight RB442 from Moscow to Damascus, in Turkish airspace and forced it to land at Esenboğa International Airport, suspecting it was carrying Russian-made weapons.[40][41] Inspectors confiscated military communications equipment and items "thought to be missile parts".[42] Syria accused Turkey of "air piracy".[43] On the same day the airline chief said in an interview that Turkey violated the Convention on International Civil Aviation[44] Syria subsequently banned Turkish civilian flights from its airspace.[45]

On 23 October 2012, an anti-aircraft shell from Syria hit a health center in Turkey's Hatay province.[46]

On 11 May 2013, two car bombs exploded in the town of Reyhanlı, Hatay Province, Turkey. At least 43 people were killed and 140 more were injured in the attack.[47] The car bombs were left outside Reyhanlı's town hall and post office. The first exploded at around 13:45 local time (10:45 GMT)[47] and the second exploded about 15 minutes later. People attempting to help those injured in the first explosion were caught in the second blast.[48] This attack was the deadliest single act of terrorism to occur on Turkish soil.[49][50]

SDF-controlled territory (green) and Turkish-occupied territory (red) in October 2019

On 23 March 2014, Turkey shot down a Syrian combat jet in Hatay near Turkish-Syrian border. The initial announcement was made by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a speech during the 2014 Turkish local elections campaign. Turkey claimed that two Turkish Air Force F-16s downed the plane that breached Turkish airspace and ignored warnings, as a result of the infringement of the new engagement rules declared by the Republic of Turkey, after Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance plane on 22 June 2012.[51] The pilot jumped off the plane according to witness reports. Syria condemned the aggression and argued that the plane was following rebels and it did not violate Turkish airspace. However, according to the new engagement rules, two countries could defend themselves if the other come close to their borders, perceiving the action as a threat.[52]

On 18 June, based on information provided by a Euro-Med Monitor team, Turkish border guards have killed eleven Syrians, including four children and two women, while they were trying to cross the Turkish-Syrian border by opening the fire directly on them once they reached Syria's Idlib province. The Turkish government claimed that the authorities meant to kill the smugglers and terrorists not the civilians in search of protecting their borders. Some eyewitness testimonies from refugee families confirmed to the Euro-Med Monitor team that all the ones who were killed by the Turkish guards were civilians. Most of the deaths, reached to the borders, ran away from ISIS control before they got and hid in the northern Aleppo countryside for 15 days. Testimonies collected by Euro-Med Monitor team said that a smuggler help the victims get to the Syria's Idlib province. The victims were deceived by the smuggler when he told them that the Turkish borders are safe and gave them the legal permission to cross the borders. Turkish border guards have killed 60 Syrians before as they were trying to cross the border.[53]

On 24 August 2016, Turkey and Turkish backed rebels attacked ISIS positions across the border, from Jarabulus west to Al-Rai, taking a series of towns and taking a hold of a strip 5 to 20 km deep. Turkey called this operation Euphrates Shield.

In recordings released in 2014, Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan suggests that rockets should be fired from Syria into Turkey to justify military action in retaliation.[54]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Syria: Turkish embassy closed, senior intel officer assassinated. Al Bawaba (26 March 2012). Retrieved 23 June 2012.
  2. ^ a b c d Morris, Chris (2005). "Chapter 9: Crossroads". The New Turkey. London: Granta Books. pp. 203–227. ISBN 1-86207-865-3.
  3. ^ a b c Jack Kalpakian (2004). Identity, Conflict and Cooperation in International River Systems (Hardcover ed.). Ashgate Publishing. p. 130. ISBN 0-7546-3338-1.
  4. ^ Robert Fisk (2007). The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East (Paperback ed.). Vintage. p. 335. ISBN 978-1-4000-7517-1.
  5. ^ Robert Fisk (19 March 2007). "Robert Fisk: US power games in the Middle East". The Independent. London. Retrieved 15 December 2010.
  6. ^ U.S. Embassy Damascus (Eagleton) to Secretary of State, No. 00319, NA, RG 59, N-111. Quoted in Richard Breitman; Norman J.W. Goda; Timothy Naftali; Robert Wolfe (4 April 2005). U.S. Intelligence and the Nazis. Cambridge University Press. p. 161. ISBN 0-521-85268-4. Brunner is known to be protected in Syria by armed guards, presumably from the Syrian intelligence services. In the past, our source added, Brunner has done work on behalf of the Syrian intelligence services in training Kurdish guerrillas who operate from Syria against Turkey.
  7. ^ Interview with Erdogan in Forward Magazine (Syria)[permanent dead link]
  8. ^ The Air Force Law Review. Air Force Judge Advocate General's School. 1990. p. 200.
  9. ^ "World : IN BRIEF : TURKEY : 5 Die as Syria MIGs Down Survey Plane". Los Angeles Times. 22 October 1989.
  10. ^ "Chicago Tribune - Historical Newspapers". Chicago Tribune.
  11. ^ "The Stanford Daily 23 October 1989 — The Stanford Daily". Retrieved 26 May 2016.
  12. ^ "NATO to hold emergency meet over Turkish jet shot down by Syria". National Post. 25 June 2012. Retrieved 26 May 2016.
  13. ^ "The Pantagraph from Bloomington, Illinois · Page 8". Retrieved 26 May 2016.
  14. ^ a b Morris, Chris (2005). "Introduction". The New Turkey. London: Granta Books. pp. 1–10. ISBN 1-86207-865-3.
  15. ^ "Warm welcome for Assad's Turkey trip". BBC. 6 January 2004.
  16. ^ Morris, Chris (2005). "Chapter 8: Euro-Turks and Europeans". The New Turkey. London: Granta Books. pp. 186–202. ISBN 1-86207-865-3.
  17. ^ "Syrian President looks forward to Sezer's visit to Damascus". Hurriyet. 7 April 2005.
  18. ^ "Syria's Assad meets Erdogan for peace talks". Reuters. 5 August 2008.
  19. ^ a b "Turkey, Syria to forge defense industry cooperation". Today's Zaman. 27 April 2009.
  20. ^ a b c "Turkey, Syria conduct military drill, Israel disturbed". Today's Zaman. 28 April 2009.
  21. ^ "Turkish PM Erdoğan slams Israel". Hürriyet.
  22. ^ "Gül to urge Syria to contribute to Palestinian unity in visit". Today's Zaman. 12 May 2009.
  23. ^ "Gül begins three-day visit to Syria, Israel talks on the agenda". Today's Zaman. 15 May 2009.
  24. ^ "Syria says ready to resume talks with Israel". Today's Zaman. 13 May 2009.
  25. ^ "Turkey urges Israel to accept Syria's overtures". Today's Zaman. 17 May 2009.
  26. ^ "Assad: Syria has total confidence in Turkish mediation". Today's Zaman. 18 May 2009.
  27. ^ "Peres urges Syria to join direct peace talks". Today's Zaman. 19 May 2009.
  28. ^ Chulov, Martin; Hassan, Nidaa (7 June 2011). "Syrian town empties as government tanks mass outside". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 June 2011.
  29. ^ "Turkish PM warns Syria against second Hama massacre". Dünya Bülteni. 2 May 2011.
  30. ^ SEVİL KÜÇÜKKOŞUM (10 June 2011). "Turkey slams Damascus, refrains from calling fleeing Syrians 'refugees'". Hurriyet Daily News.
  31. ^ BBC News – Syria unrest: Turkey presses Assad to end crackdown. (9 August 2011). Retrieved 23 June 2012.
  32. ^ a b c Turkish pilgrims attacked as four die in Syria,, 22 November 2011.
  33. ^ a b Turkish Muslim pilgrims' bus 'shot at in Syria', BBC, 21 November 2011.
  34. ^ Muir, Jim. "Turkey Protests as Syrians Open Fire at Border". BBC News. BBC. Retrieved 9 April 2012.
  35. ^ Reuters (23 June 2012). "Syrian military says it downed Turkish fighter jet". BBC News. BBC. Retrieved 23 June 2012.
  36. ^ Stack, Liam (23 June 2012). "Turkey Vows to Take Action After Downing of Jet by Syria". The New York Times. New York Times Company. Retrieved 23 June 2012.
  37. ^ Jonathon Burch & Erika Solomon (23 June 2012). "Turkish, Syrian forces seek downed Turkish jet". Reuters. Retrieved 24 June 2012.
  38. ^ "Turkey, U.S. Officials Hold First Operational Meeting On Syria." AFP, 23 August 2012.
  39. ^ Turkey-Syria border tension, Guardian, 4 October 2012
  40. ^ "Turkey, Seeking Weapons, Forces Syrian Jet to Land". New York Times. 10 October 2012.
  41. ^ "Turkey: Syrian plane was carrying ammunition". San Francisco Chronicle. 11 October 2012.
  42. ^ "Turkey: Syrian plane was carrying ammunition". The Associated Press. 12 October 2012.
  43. ^ "After civilian plane grounded, Syrian minister bashes Turkey's 'air piracy'". The Times of Israel. 11 October 2012.
  44. ^ "'Turkey violated Convention on International Civil Aviation' – airline chief to RT'". Russia Today. 11 October 2012. Archived from the original on 12 October 2012.
  45. ^ "Syria bans Turkey civilian flights over its territory". BBC News. 14 October 2012.
  46. ^ "UPDATE 1-Shell from Syria hits Turkish health center – CNN Turk". Reuters. 23 October 2012.
  47. ^ a b "Death toll rises to 42 as explosions hit Turkish town on border with Syria". Hurriyet Daily News. 11 May 2013. Retrieved 11 May 2013.
  48. ^ "Blasts kill dozens in Turkish town Reyhanli on Syria border". BBC News. 11 May 2013. Retrieved 11 May 2013.
  49. ^ "Deadliest Terror Attack in Turkey's History Might Be Another Attempt to Derail Peace Talks? But Which One? Syria or PKK?". The Istanbulian. 11 May 2013. Retrieved 11 May 2013.
  50. ^ "Turkey Blames Syria's Assad for Its Deadliest Terror Attack". Bloomberg News. 11 May 2013. Retrieved 11 May 2013.
  51. ^ "Turkish Armed Forces shot down Syrian jet". BBCTurkish. 23 March 2014. Retrieved 23 March 2014.
  52. ^ "Turkish Armed Forces shot down Syrian jet". CNNTurk. 23 March 2014. Retrieved 23 March 2014.
  53. ^ Monitor, Euro-Med. "Turkish border guards use lethal force with Syrian asylum seekers". Retrieved 24 August 2016.
  54. ^ "Sur la piste des commandos d'Erdogan". 16 June 2018.

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