Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s recent remarks about Syria have sparked a debate aboutpotential Turkish-Syrian normalization. An updated version of the Adana Accord between the two countries in 1998 would be a convenient tool to pave the way for a Turkish-Syrian rapprochement.
In 2012, when Ankara-Damascus relations started to deteriorate, I was among the few journalists who referred to the Adana Accord, which provides the legal ground for Turkey to take military action to protect its security. The accord was sidelined from 1998 to 2011, the golden era in Turkish-Syrian relations, but since 2011 Turkey has on several occasions pressured the Syrian regime to act in accordance with the agreement.
The Adana Accord was signed at a time when Turkey and Syria were on the brink of war due to the latter’s support of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK. Damascus had been allowing PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan — who is now serving a life sentence on the Turkish island of İmralı — to take shelter and direct the group’s activities from within its borders. When Turkey threatened to invade Syria, amidheightened rhetoric from Turkish leaders and the increasing deployment of Turkish troops, Damascus deported Ocalan and closed the PKK camps in the country. Through the mediation efforts of Egypt and Iran, the Adana Accord was signed to restore relations. Some described the deal as a Turkish-Syrian version of the Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel.
The accord was further formalized with the signing of another document in 2010 by the former foreign ministers of Turkey and Syria, Ahmet Davutoglu and Walid Muallem. The Agreement on Joint Cooperation Against Terrorism and Terrorist Organizations took effect in 2011, following governmental and parliamentary approval.
Turkey’s policy toward its southern neighbor has undergone significant changes as a result of the shifts in the regional order
Although the agreement is technically in force, it was not enough to restore relations since 2011 as it requires coordination between two sides. In brief, the agreement means the start of direct security contacts between intelligence heads, and diplomatic contacts between top officials. It also means re-activation of embassies in the two capitals, which eventually means Ankara’s recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government. Russia, for a while, has been pushing for a dialogue and coordination between the two countries within the framework of this agreement. Thus, the agreement requires dialogue and negotiation without mediation of a third party, such as Russia or Iran.
Adjusting the agreement to the current situation is the real question here. Turkey’s policy toward its southern neighbor has undergone significant changes as a result of the shifts in the regional order. Currently, the new dynamics in Syria have forced Turkey to find a new route forward. For a rapprochement in relations, a similar agreement to the 1998 Adana Accords is needed while taking the new realities in Syria into account. Even if Ankara and Damascus sit at the negotiating table starting off with the Adana Accord, it is likely that they might end up with a new deal, or an updated one.
In the 1998 Adana Accord, the Turkish army’s target was the PKK. Ankara and Damascus have buried the hatchet and formed a common cause against the PKK. In today’s conjuncture, the PKK’s Syrian branch, US-backed YPG) is Turkey’s target; however, this time the issue is contentious. In the Adana Accord, the Syrian government recognized the PKK as a terrorist group; however, during the past decade, Damascus has used the YPG as a tool against Turkey.
If the 1998 agreement is to be renewed, it will require new conditions: peaceful repatriation of Syrian refugees to their places of origin; a constructive formula between the Syrian opposition and the regime; formation of a common front to eliminate the YPG’s presence in northeast Syria; and an understanding on the situation of the Turkish-held areas in the north.
Turkey’s economic problems and refugee issue pressure the government, which has fixed eyes on presidential and parliamentary elections by June next year. The aims of the parties are clear. For Russia: curtailing American influence and preserving its position. For Turkey: eliminating the YPG and securing domestic territory gains. For Assad: gaining legitimacy and control over areas it has lost. Although a new deal may resolve the Syrian refugee crisis, which has affected political, economic and sociological dynamics in Turkey, how it is going to work is a huge question. In any case, it would be unrealistic to expect dramatic changes in Turkish-Syrian relations in a short period of time, especially in light of the heavy legacy of the past 11 years and the new realities on the ground.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz