Syria

Syria, Turkey, and the Four Seas Strategy

Haaretz correspondent Yoav Stern has written an interesting article for Syria Comment called “Syria’s Four Seas Strategy“. It’s worth a read, but if you’re too busy to click over, here’s the executive summary.

  • turkey-israelTurkey’s cancellation of a joint air force exercise with Israel last week is just the latest nail in the coffin of the Turkish-Israeli diplomatic relationship, which many have been warning is headed for serious trouble.
  • Syria is naturally thrilled about this turn of events and is trying to exploit it by cozying up to Turkey in every way it can.
  • Stern says that the move towards Turkey is actually part of what Bashar al-Assad has been calling a Four Seas Strategy, a regional alliance between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Syria (i.e. the countries that lie at the shores of the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Black Sea, and the Persian Gulf).
  • What Syria hopes to get out of this is increased infrastructure and investment opportunities, and a hedge against the isolating tactics of successive U.S. administrations.

If you’re Syria, the strategy is a no-brainer. But I’m wondering what Turkey gets out of this. I had dinner with a Turkish friend a couple of nights ago who suggested that the AK party is committing a major blunder by jeopardizing its relations with Israel in favor of Syria.

I personally wonder whether the current spat between Turkey and Israel amounts to much more than a slap on the wrist, rather than a fundamental shift in a long-standing foreign policy.

Thoughts?

PS: This article in al-Akhbar by Jean Aziz is worth reading. Unfortunately, he does not identify his sources beyond implying that they are Syrian and Saudi officials, but it’s an interesting illustration of the fundamental difference in worldview between the two sides of the Middle East’s mini Cold War.

Update: Every now and then, someone leaves a comment that addresses the topic in a way that is far more informed and incisive than the original post. I try to make a habit of bringing those comments up to the main page. See below for one from J of Chalcedon, who knows the political economy of the Eastern Mediterranean better than a Kipchak slave sultan:

Sorry to come to this late. It’s quite important, but doesn’t bear directly on Lebanon. Leitmotif for QN’s future efforts?

The Turkish stake in this is both obvious, and more nuanced than readily assumed. The obvious: First, Syria is a howlingly obvious emerging market. Turkey’s largest mobile service provider wanted, and would likely have received, a concession to enter the Syrian market. American pressure to demur has generally been understood to be decisive in preventing such a deal, which in my opinion may yet happen.

More importantly, why wouldn’t a government whose raison d’etre is market-friendliness embrace a neighbor which might want to buy plastic buckets that don’t have holes in them? A strong retail business that originated in AK party ties, the hard-discount retailer BIM, has already set up shop in Morocco. The point is not that this government embodies a “Neo-Ottoman” policy as its way in the world. BIM is, last time I check, about 49 percent floated and not simply a surrogate for politics by way of commerce. But why wouldn’t people who like the idea of regional influence with vague historic connotations encourage the radical idea of selling Arabs groceries and the odd school supply through a vertically integrated chain of producers?

Less apparent is the presumptive Turkish reading of the regional situation. Do they think that Obama may stare down this Israeli government, and cause it to fall? Either way, commit to an unwieldy pariah ally, when your stock in trade is relations with all? There’s no doubt that the AKP mandarins have no real fondness for Zionism, but they’re also keen not to be overtaken on the (pious/isolationist/chauvisnist) right in holding this Israeli government at arm’s length. Who ever won an election shaking hands Benjamin Netanyahu?

In short: there’s nothing to lose by being nice to Syria – they’ll never be on the hook for the real burden of a Syrian-Israeli deal, namely paying to relocate Golan settlers. And they couldn’t possibly provide Syria’s real demand in that equation, which is a Libyan-style grand bargain, or at least a guarantee of non-intervention. So why over-interpret the matter?

My two cents. The grand regional/civilizational  interpretations re Turkey and the “”West” are mostly silly, in my view. Their EU accession process may be doomed for other reasons, including the EU’s constitutional crisis prior to the last round of expansion. (Ghassan Karam,, they’re not negotiating the “if” of membership – it’s supposed to be the modalities of when at this point, which makes makes Romania and Bulgaria a complete snub.) Today’s foreign policy is entirely mercenary, or rational, if that’s better, as yesterday’s. These guys are just better than their predecessors at not spitting in their own faces for no good reason.

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Discussion

18 thoughts on “Syria, Turkey, and the Four Seas Strategy

  1. As an Islamic party, AK wants to see Turkey a leader of the Muslim world. It is a strategy similar to what Iran is doing in trying to lure the Arab and Muslim street with it anti-Israel rhetoric.

    Of course, there is a cost to such a strategy.
    The Turks should remember that it is always best to be “the tail of the lions and not the head of the foxes”.

    Posted by AIG | October 23, 2009, 12:58 pm
  2. Reading a google translation of that Aziz article, I’m always amazed at the level of intimidation displayed by certain Arabs toward their Iranian cousins.

    They would do well to accept advice from Professor Richard Nelson Frye of Harvard University:

    “Arabs no longer understand the role of Iran and the Persian language in the formation of Islamic culture. Perhaps they wish to forget the past, but in so doing they remove the bases of their own spiritual, moral and cultural being […] without the heritage of the past and a healthy respect for it […] there is little chance for stability and proper growth.”

    Posted by Pirouz | October 23, 2009, 2:02 pm
  3. QN,

    I couldnt agree with you more. Below is my comment on SC to Yoav. its almost identical to your queries.

    Dear Yoav,

    Excellent article, but I have a couple of questions I can’t find convincing answers to yet. What can Syria offer Turkey and some of the “four seas” countries in exchange for their financial & strategic support that Israel & US can’t match? And more importantly, is it valuable enough to allow Turkey to be OK with angering these two very powerful nations?

    Many believe that Turkey has given up on becoming a full EU member and has shifted its strategy towards becoming the new leader of the Middle East and is doing so by distancing itself from Israel/US. But I highly doubt that Turkey is completely committed to this strategy for several reasons. It’s more likely that its rapprochement towards Syria is a strategic move specifically to “blackmail” the US & Israel into supporting Turkey’s regional and international national interests. Turkey’s long term interest has always and will continue to be with the US led NATO sphere of influence and will never go too far to jeopardize it. More importantly for Syria, this warming up of relationship with Turkey is almost exclusively dependant on the “Islamic” friendly AK Party. And just like all democratic nations the tide is bound to change to a less friendly party that can annul all progress made with Syria.

    So while I commend the Turkish move toward a more “balanced” Middle Eastern policy I feel that one (especially Syrians) should not bet too heavily on the Turkish card as their long-term way back to the international community. Only a healthy mix of relations with most regional/international powers can be the soundest strategy.

    Posted by Innocent Criminal | October 23, 2009, 6:06 pm
  4. IC

    What you say makes sense. So which cards do you think the Syrians should bet on?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | October 23, 2009, 8:46 pm
  5. QN,
    Some Turkish freinds of mine and I have been convinced for a couple of years that Turkey will move its attention to the East. When it became apparent that Turkey will have to adopt more than a few changes in order to satisfy the rules and regulations of the EU many in Turkey thought the price was too high especially that the EU cannot guarantee membership even if the changes are adopted.
    The AK finds it easier to be accepted not only on equal terms by its eastern neighbours but is often regarded as a progressive leader. In that regard it appears that Turkey is interesting in breathing life into the old Ottoman empire structure. If the AK are to pursue these policies and if they find out that they have to make sacrificies on secularism then the Turkish backlash could be overwhelming.

    AIG,
    As is often the case every proverb has one that negates it: It is better to be the head of a mouse than the tail of a lion 🙂

    Posted by ghassan karam | October 23, 2009, 8:57 pm
  6. QN,

    Like i mentioned in my last line syria should bet on a basket of allies and regional/international powers including eventually Israel. Hafez Al Assad did that well enough to allow Syria to punch well over its weight on many occassions.

    with the exception of the Arab-Israeli issue, Syria has very little long-term ‘beef’ with most regional and international powers so it is certainly possible to play the influencial middle man. But i remain a pessimist in the sense that Syria’s own failings in economic and social development will keep it behind in the region. Because until they solve/improve these issues there will be little Syria can utilize as leverage with other nations.

    Posted by Innocent Criminal | October 24, 2009, 2:24 am
  7. Syria’s attempt to gain importance will bear no fruit. Syria’s constant belief in its strategic importance is actually absurd. I am happy the question of what Syria can offer these potential ‘allies’ was raised in the main article? The answer is obviously nothing. Syria is still pursuing the same failed strategy in different forms. Previously Syrian government exported terrorism to Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and other places hoping to get paid in return by the Americans for the information it can provide about Syrian grown terrorists – blackmail. Syria is now trying to cultivate a seemingly constructive attitude but with no real substance behind it. Syria and its so-called leadership suffer from a severe chronique symptom of immaturity.

    Pirouz,
    The Arabs will begin to deal with the Iranians as partners once the Iranians come forward unambiguously with the resigned attitude that the old empire of Khosroe is gone forever with no possibility of it being revived. That is exactly what their (Arabs) religion teach them – and thus will his empire (Khosroe’s) be shattered forever is a famous prophecy of the Prophet of Islam which came to pass as we all know. As long as the Persians continue to dream of such lost history, the Arabs will have no need for such partnership.

    Posted by mike | October 24, 2009, 3:24 pm
  8. ummm ok Mike, easy on the green stuff

    Posted by Innocent Criminal | October 24, 2009, 3:37 pm
  9. Good point Innocent. But, I did not yet name the Gulf Arab. I’m just establishing some broad parameters, so we know where things stand.

    Posted by mike | October 24, 2009, 4:23 pm
  10. A little off topic here but congratulations are in order to all my Lebanese brethren for the newest divine victory
    We won the Hummus War!!
    That’ll teach those Israelis a lesson…
    Let them drop their claim to Hummus once and for all and stick to wining Nobel prizes

    Posted by V | October 25, 2009, 12:08 am
  11. AIG, IC and Ghassan Karam,

    I disagree with you. I am not convinced that the foreign policy perspective of the JDP is simply a reflection of the “Islamic” character of the party. The JDP leadership proved to be pragmatic and very willing to be in good terms with Germany, Russia and Italy when it comes to energy markets and gas routes. Also, Erdoğan and Gül were arguably the two leaders that most worked to achieve Turkey’s accession to the EU.

    The Jerusalem Post article is interesting, but I am also not convinced when Martin Indyk claims that Turkey’s drift towards the Arab countries is a result of the business class being “in no position to stand up”. Conversely, you may argue that there’s a generation of JDP-friendly businessmen, in particular from Anatolia, pushing for further economic integration with the Arab markets. So there is neo-Ottomanism perhaps, but there may also be economic interests that lie behind a strengthened regional cooperation.

    Finally, would a CHP government drastically reverse this rapprochement with Syria? I am not sure.

    Posted by Wa Law | October 26, 2009, 1:59 am
  12. QN,

    Syria Comment has a very interesting post on the Association Agreement [with the European Union] that, apparently, the Syrians did NOT sign on Thursday.

    “Syrian officials have not publicly commented on the reasons for not signing the deal, beyond saying that they needed more time to study the agreement, although the draft text was finalised and initialled in a ceremony in Damascus last December.

    Assad did not mention the association agreement directly. He said a drive by Syria to strengthen relations with its northern neighbour Turkey in the last several years would not come at the expense of Europe.”

    Full text here: http://joshualandis.com/blog/?p=4229

    Posted by Wa Law | October 26, 2009, 2:06 am
  13. hey Qifa Nabki,

    what about containing Iran’s influence in the Middle East? Containing the Kurdish situation developing near their borders? Turkey has urgent security needs.
    I think the last Iraqi war has pushed Turkey to reconsider involving itself in the turmoils of the Middle East. Also, the cold war is over, and Turkey is more free to take a more independent role with no Soviet Union hovering around, giving her more interest in expanding towards the Balkans and maybe our side.
    I think also, the turkish leadership is tired of the EU. Maybe for Turkey to go west, it has to go east first. Furthermore, we should not forget the internal dimension. The Turkish-Israeli relations are based on a positive relation between the two military establishments. Maybe the AK is trying to somehow settle some accounts with the generals and cutting some of their power.
    This topic is so interesting. I have more questions than answers. Lets wait and see.

    Posted by Niz | October 26, 2009, 9:44 am
  14. Sorry to come to this late. It’s quite important, but doesn’t bear directly on Lebanon. Leitmotif for QN’s future efforts?

    The Turkish stake in this is both obvious, and more nuanced than readily assumed. The obvious: First, Syria is a howlingly obvious emerging market. Turkey’s largest mobile service provider wanted, and would likely have received, a concession to enter the Syrian market. American pressure to demur has generally been understood to be decisive in preventing such a deal, which in my opinion may yet happen.

    More importantly, why wouldn’t a government whose raison d’etre is market-friendliness embrace a neighbor which might want to buy plastic buckets that don’t have holes in them? A strong retail business that originated in AK party ties, the hard-discount retailer BIM, has already set up shop in Morocco: http://www.bim.com.tr/en/bim_2q09_results_presentation.pps . The point is not that this government embodies a “Neo-Ottoman” policy as its way in the world. BIM is, last time I check, about 49 percent floated and not simply a surrogate for politics by way of commerce. But why wouldn’t people who like the idea of regional influence with vague historic connotations encourage the radical idea of selling Arabs groceries and the odd school supply through a vertically integrated chain of producers?

    Less apparent is the presumptive Turkish reading of the regional situation. Do they think that Obama may stare down this Israeli government, and cause it to fall? Either way, commit to an unwieldy pariah ally, when your stock in trade is relations with all? There’s no doubt that the AKP mandarins have no real fondness for Zionism, but they’re also keen not to be overtaken on the (pious/isolationist/chauvisnist) right in holding this Israeli government at arm’s length. Who ever won an election shaking hands Benjamin Netanyahu?

    In short: there’s nothing to lose by being nice to Syria – they’ll never be on the hook for the real burden of a Syrian-Israeli deal, namely paying to relocate Golan settlers. And they couldn’t possibly provide Syria’s real demand in that equation, which is a Libyan-style grand bargain, or at least a guarantee of non-intervention. So why over-interpret the matter?

    My two cents. The grand regional/civilizational interpretations re Turkey and the “”West” are mostly silly, in my view. Their EU accession process may be doomed for other reasons, including the EU’s constitutional crisis prior to the last round of expansion. (Ghassan Karam,, they’re not negotiating the “if” of membership – it’s supposed to be the modalities of when at this point, which makes makes Romania and Bulgaria a complete snub.) Today’s foreign policy is entirely mercenary, or rational, if that’s better, as yesterday’s. These guys are just better than their predecessors at not spitting in their own faces for no good reason.

    Posted by J of Chalcedon | October 26, 2009, 6:58 pm
  15. multiple typos, sorry for that. but you get the thrust of the screed.

    Posted by J of Chalcedon | October 26, 2009, 7:01 pm
  16. I’ve pulled J’s comment up to the main page.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | October 26, 2009, 7:37 pm
  17. Here’s a good article exposing the pathetic nature of Syria under the rule of the Assads

    http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=123456

    Posted by mike | October 31, 2009, 7:49 pm

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