Syria: From friend to foe

Syria: From friend to foe

As Turkey’s Customs and Trade Minister Hayati Yazıcı sighed relief on the failure of an ambitious project with Syria, he was also providing a stark example of Ankara’s breathtaking U-turn regarding relations with Damascus. It was “fortunate,” in the words of Minister Yazıcı that the agreement to establish a joint customs gate fell through.

Indeed, such a scheme could have been an embarrassment for Turkey, considering the increasingly aggressive policy regarding the Bashar al-Assad regime. After all, a “joint-use customs gate” is a rare example of strong ties and confidence between countries.

Those ties culminated with the “High Level Strategic Cooperation Agreement” signed between Turkey and Syria on Sept. 16, 2009, which ended visa requirements for visits under 90 days for citizens of both countries. Assad and Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan enjoyed such good ties that the two governments held joint Cabinet meetings on Oct. 13, 2009 in Aleppo and Gaziantep, followed by a joint military exercise.

Those were the “golden days” of analysts who claimed that Turkey was “choosing East over West,” and that there was a “growing rift” between Ankara and Washington. Their opinions frequently showed up in major Western newspapers and magazines.

Not anymore. The Turkish government now is positioned at the sharp end of the sword that dangles over Damascus, lending full support to Syrian opposition groups and urging other nations to “join the struggle.” In this respect, today’s visit to Ankara by French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe could be crucial, as the two countries that nurture separate “Syrian oppositions” could forge a tactical alliance. If that happens, it will also be of interest whether this alliance will spread over to Libya, which looks increasingly unstable after the bloody overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi.

Meanwhile, Turkey-Syria trade, amounting to $2.5 billion last year, will inevitably suffer. Turkish companies’ investments in Syria have reached $260 million, according to official data. Apart from this, Turkey uses Syria as a “transport route” to deliver goods to other Middle Eastern markets.

Focusing on the effects of sanctions against Damascus, Said Hirsh of Capital Economics estimates that Syria’s gross domestic product (GDP) may contract by 10 percent in the next 12 months. This estimate excludes the possibility of imposed no-fly zones, buffer zones or a maritime blockade. If such harsher penalties come into effect, the blow would become much more pronounced. Meanwhile, Syria’s merchandise exports could be halved in the same period, Hirsh estimates, noting that these account for a quarter of Syrian GDP.

Syria’s economy accounts for only 3 percent of the Arab world’s output, and Turkey’s exports totaled $1.86 billion last year - not much compared to, say, Iraq, which bought $6.6 billion of goods from Turkey this year. Still, business losses should be expected especially in Turkish border cities, which thrived on improving ties with Damascus until a few months ago. They should have prepared for what the most pragmatic government in Turkish history is capable of doing.