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Turkey, Syria and the Geopolitics of Identity

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The Syrian shelling of Akcakale -- a Turkish village on the Syrian border -- and Turkey's military response against Syrian targets was shocking. Personally, it made me think of a 2009 trip I took to Antep and Urfa -- cities in southeastern Turkey -- sponsored by the Rumi Forum. The region, long underdeveloped, was experiencing a boom thanks to infrastructure investment and trade with Syria, as I saw in both of these cities. I wondered what a trip there would be like now, given Urfa is less than an hour from Akcakale and Antep two and a half hours away.

What happened? How did the Turkish-Syrian relations go from close-and-getting-closer to on-the-brink-of-war?

Only a short time ago, Turkey was establishing unprecedented ties with its Middle Eastern neighbors. Although much has been made of Turkey's break with the United States over the Iraq invasion and tensions with Israel, more dramatic changes occurred with states like Syria and Iran. Turkey almost came to blows with both in the 1990s over the insurgent Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), which found support in Iran and Syria. Likewise, Turkey had generally not been involved in Middle Eastern politics. Turkey's improved relations with these states under the currently-governing Justice and Development Party (JDP) -- and the popularity of JDP Prime Minister Erdogan among Arab societies -- is thus a major development.

This occurred for two reasons.

First, tensions over the Kurdish issue had dissipated by the JDP's rise to power. Syria had been harboring PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in the 1990s but forced him to leave the country in 1998. And Iran also moved to limit PKK access to Iranian territory.

The second had to do with the dramatic changes to Turkish politics. The JDP is not an Islamist party, but it did focus on expanding the space for religion in Turkey's domestic politics; this brought with it the promise of broader democratic opening in the state (although some back-tracking may have occurred on this point recently). The JDP also challenged previous taboo subjects, like the Kurdish issue and relations with Armenia. Moreover, Erdogan and -- first foreign policy advisor and later Foreign Minister -- Ahmet Davutoglu moved to make Turkey a bigger player in regional politics. The two aspects of JDP policy were connected; as the previous secularist hold on domestic politics loosened, so did the official hesitation to be too involved in Middle Eastern affairs.

Turkey's improved ties with Syria -- and the dramatic changes I witnessed in Antep and Urfa -- flowed from these developments. The removal of the PKK issue from Syrian-Turkish relations allowed other aspects -- like trade and tourism -- to flourish. And Erdogan's desire to increase Turkey's regional profile and -- in my opinion -- sincere hope to improve the lot of Arab societies inspired him to grow closer to leaders like Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

These changes to Turkey's politics also prompted Ankara's active support for anti-Assad forces. Assad's brutal suppression of opposition movements created a refugee crisis for Turkey, partially enabled by the steadily opening border of the preceding years; this gave Turkey an incentive to prevent the conflict from persisting and spreading. But there was an identity-based element to this as well. Erdogan's outreach to Syria was motivated -- and strengthened -- by identification between Turks and Syrians through both a shared religion and normative concerns for human rights.

This interaction between geopolitics and identity set the stage for both increased ties between Turkey and Syria and the current tensions. The changing political situation in the region since the JDP's rise created an opening for identity-based outreach to Middle Eastern states. This outreach -- and the normative commitment behind it -- in turn gave Turkey a geopolitical incentive to increase its regional profile and, later, stand up for the peoples of Middle Eastern countries when their leaders repressed them.

Thus, the very impetus behind the boom in southeast Turkey set the stage for the tragic violence in that area. Identity and geopolitics are not always in tension, and at times can work in tandem to strengthen a country's position. But this complicates things, as it's easier to ignore humanitarian crises -- like the one in Syria -- when you are a hard-nosed realist.

The hope of idealists and many international relations scholars alike is that this complication is worth it. If the JDP had never risen to power, Turkey and Syria would have maintained a calm but cool distance and would not be coming to blows over Turkish support for anti-Assad rebels. But Turkish support for the rebels -- while possibly provoking a Turkish-Syrian conflict -- may strengthen reformist voices throughout the region. In the long-run, which of the two outcomes would be better?

An earlier version of this post appeared at The Duck of Minerva.