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lundi 18 juin 2012

A Bold Idea for Syria

Turkey + Syria = a way out?
Eighteen months ago, all kinds of people had opinions about how Syria wouldn't be swept up in the Arab Spring, and said things about Syria needing a strong leader to enforce unity. That didn't work out they way some people expected. The MENA region today is far from what most people imagined a scant two years ago and is still in flux. Anything can happen.Commentators are often faulted for criticizing and not proposing solutions. Your blogger enjoys an exercise in creative problem solving, so here's a far-outside-the-box idea for Syria.

Let's consider some of the problems facing Syria and any transition scenario:

  • Syria has some perceived unsavory allies, including Russia and Iran, as well as Hezbollah
  • Syria is riven with ethnic and Sectarian divides: Kurds, Alawites, Christians, Druze.
  • Alawite domination and army control create the possibility of purges and revanchism in the case of a transition.
  • Syria has a young, poor population and significant economic problems. Additionally, Syria is not well integrated into international governance structures.

To remedy these problems, Syria should affiliate with Turkey. The actual adhesion process would need to be negotiated, although the Syrian territory could be grafted onto the Turkish province and district system without too much trouble, especially since the train systems link up. Of course, this couldn't happen without the Syrian population being consulted, ideally through a referendum.

Here is what Syria could gain by affiliating with Turkey:

  • Access to Turkey's growing and diversified economy. Syria's economy is dominated by state-run industry, and who controls these industries following a transition is a problem. Opening them up to bids from Turkish business would allow integration into Turkey's economy and would spread gains both within Turkey and Syria, helping to alleviate Syria's high unemployment.
  • Access to Turkey's institutions, including multi-party democracy, independent judiciary, and educational system. Also to Turkey's status in international organizations like NATO, OECD and the G-20. This would avoid the necessity of building these institutions and institutional relationships from scratch and would ease Syrians' transition by allowing them to adapt incrementally to pre-existing institutions instead of creating their own from scratch.
  • Merging with Turkey would prevent an Iraq-style sectarian revenge. Although Alawites would not longer hold their dominant position, they would be replaced by existing Turkish institutions, which Syrians could join, instead of by revanchist Sunni Muslim groups, Islamist or not.
  • Integrating the remaining Syrian Army with the Turkish Army would provide an appropriate outlet for military skills and would prevent them from seeking mercenary employment elsewhere or joining insurgent groups.

And here's what Turkey could gain from Syria's adhesion.

  • Turkey would gain more coastline (to Tartus), access to a long stretch of the Euphrates, and to Syria's oil and natural gas deposits.
  • Turkey would gain 22 million new citizens. Prime Minister Erdogan has made comments about the need for Turkey to have a young and dynamic population to sustain economic growth and development.
  • Turkey could expand its historical tourism business to include sites in Syria, continue various Syrian cultural festivals, and expand its status as a cultural capital, using Syrian artists and writers to appeal to its Arab neighbors.
  • The added Syrian population and land area would enhance Turkey's strategic importance, especially as a bridge to the Arab/Muslim world.

Then, what are the drawbacks to Syria?
  • Clearly, Syria would be giving up sovereignty.
  • Local elites and civil service employees would lose their status once absorbed into Turkey.
  • Closer adhesion with Turkey would destabilize Syrian ties with erstwhile allies like Russia and Iran.

And what about drawbacks for Turkey?
  • In the short term, all the new citizens would be a drain on Turkish resources.
  • The presence of Syria's Kurds could exacerbate Turkey's issues with its own Kurds and with the PKK.
  • Adding Syria's territory and its border with Israel could heighten Turkish tensions with Israel.
  • Syria's population currently also includes a significant proportion of Iraqi refugees, who would then become Turkey's problem
  • There is the risk of Syria's sectarian tensions spilling over into Turkey.
  • Turkey would have to deal with issues like whether Syria had a nuclear program (the nuclear facility that Israel took out in the early 2000s).
These are probably not the only drawbacks. However, other scenarios have greater, more serious drawbacks.

It might seem strange to float the idea of merging Syria and Turkey. What about Syria's pride and national identity? What about the obvious difference like language? Those obstacles exist, but if the same lines of thinking only lead to disintegration and chaos, what's the harm in considering an idea out of left field?

Addendum: Later in June, Syria shot down a Turkish plane. While this doesn't kill the arguments presented here, one does have to wonder what the Turkish plane was doing in Syrian airspace.

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