Improving Syrian-Turkish ties warm private sector

Published June 22nd, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

What ordinarily may have been regarded as a rather innocuous economic gathering may indeed be indicative of a significant process underway. On Tuesday, June 19, the Turkish-Syrian Business Council held its first meeting in Istanbul. This is one of the first signs of economic cooperation between the private sectors of the two countries, and one that could only have come about as a result of a warming political climate. 


The meeting, which aimed to bring together representatives of the Syrian and Turkish business communities, including officials from some of the countries’ most important companies, also included some political hard hitters. They were Recep Onal, the Turkish minister of state, and Mohammed Al-Imadi, the Syrian minister of economy and foreign trade, who during the course of the gathering signed the agreement that formally created the joint business council. 


Speaking to the Ankara Anatolia, Turgut Doyran, the chairman of Turkish-Syrian Business Council, said that the development of business ties would serve to erode the animosity that had developed between the two countries. Business, he said, transcends politics. “We expect the economic relations not to be affected by the political relations,” Doryan stated. 


The volume of trade between Syria and Turkey, as reported by the Turkish government, is not negligible, although it does not reflect the potential existing between two neighboring countries. Bilateral trade equaled $539.2 million in 1999, and stood at $724.7 million during 2000. Turkish exports to Syria totaled $232.2 million in 1999, and $84.4 million during the first six months of 2000. 


Undoubtedly, the seeds of economic cooperation have been showing in the political field, and most recently in April, when a Turkish army delegation to Damascus, led by the military’s planning chief General Resat Turgut, met with Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas and the Syrian chief of staff, General Ali Aslan. What was discussed was a framework for military cooperation, which would include mutual visits by officers, joint training and invitations to each other’s exercises. 


The agreement was remarkable inasmuch as only thee years earlier, Turkey’s president, Suleyman Demirel, threatened the use of military force against Syria, if did not end its support for rebels of the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). There even was speculation Damascus may relocate some of its military forces away from the border with Israel to its border with Turkey. 


Turkey enjoys a close relationship with Syria’s arch-nemesis, Israel. Israeli pilots train in Turkish air space and Turkish military aircraft are allowed to fly over Israel during exercises. The Turkish and Israeli navies have held joint exercises. Israel is currently refurbishing 50 F-4 Phantom warplanes for the Turkish air force, and is bidding on a massive contract to supply the Turkish armored corps’ main battle tank. 


The warming of Syrian-Turkish relationships can be traced back to March 1999, when a Syrian deputy prime minister for economic affairs traveled to Ankara in the highest-level visit by a Syrian official to Turkey in more than a decade. The visit, which was part of an effort to improve commercial ties between the two countries, took place in the aftermath of the capture of PKK chief Abdullah Ocalan. 


Later that year, a protocol was signed by the railway director at the Syrian Transport Ministry and the Turkish deputy transport minister. It stated that measures would be taken to begin trips of passenger trains between Istanbul and Aleppo, noting that they would link up with the Syrian capital of Damascus. 


But contentious issues still remain, the most volatile being that of water. Some 88.7 percent of the total water potential of the Euphrates basin originates in Turkey, while only 11.3 percent, originates in Syria. For its part, Syria has demanded 22 percent of the water from the Euphrates basin. 


Another unresolved issue involves Syria's refusal to come to terms with its loss of Antakya and the surrounding Hatay province to Turkey in 1939. Syrian maps continue to show Hatay as part of Syria. The province still has a sizeable Syrian-Arab population. ― (MENA Report)

© 2001 Mena Report (

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