The Syrian irony for Turkey

Before the uprising, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu tried to turn Damascus and Aleppo into safe market havens. Perhaps Turkey still expects eventually to have the lion's share in a future reconstructed Syria, but the ruling AKP party may pay a high price for its regional policies.

Foti Benlisoy Annalena di Giovanni
27 March 2013

A few months ago, in January 2013, an accident in a steel factory of Gaziantep, a bordering town in southwest Turkey, claimed the lives of seven workers. Under normal circumstances such news would have passed unobserved and eventually forgotten; Turkey is after all a country in which workplace accidents in factories are a daily, albeit silent, occurrence. But this time two among the seven workers were Syrians. And like most Syrians, they were unregistered, insecure, and deprived of any protective measures while on duty.

Syrian refugees, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, are the new source of manpower in southern factories. Employed outside any state regulation, they are desperate enough to accept work for any pay and condition. In a word, they are cheaper than local labour and Kurdish seasonal workers. Another very telling episode is that of a factory in Adıyaman where employees on strike are voicing concerns that they face the sack and replacement by cheaper and more submissive Syrian refugees. In a war of poor against poorer, local workers already uneasy with aid and facilities provided by the government to the refugee camps are now afraid to lose their jobs, while traders and merchants lament their plummeting revenues from exports and tourism in Syria. For the population of southern Turkey, the struggle against Bashar Al-Assad is simply a catastrophe. And for this catastrophe they are blaming the Erdoğan government, and his support to the Syrian opposition. 

But while Erdoğan's on-going endorsement of the Syrian opposition is more than obvious, it is also clear that toppling the status quo was not previously a pressing necessity for the Turkish leadership. Since the opening of trade with Syria in the early 2000s, exports towards Syria tripled in the space of 7 years to more than two billion USD and - right before the uprising started - they were forecast to double again by the end of 2015. Now exports in Syria dropped by 66.5% in 2012, with peaks of 100% losses in cities like Hatay and Gaziantep. If trade was skyrocketing, direct investment was just about to start, as well as ties between the business elites supporting both governments. Although the liberalizing reforms of Bashar had so far attracted a mere figure of 18 private firms opening their business in Syria - mainly in pastry manufacture, cement production, and hospitality – by 2011 the stakes had been raised. 

One example was the massive Taj Halab project, a giant mall of a 150,000 square meters area directly outside Aleppo. This would have been a 180 million USD joint venture between the Syrian Sham Holding, and the Turkish Rönesans İnşaat - a construction company active in countries like Ukraine, Turkmenistan, Libya and Russia. Major contracts for the water system too had just been awarded to Turkish companies. Needless to say, all plans and construction have stopped. The issue now is how to salvage the business interests they represent.

When discussing a Turkish role in post-conflict Syria, it is important to keep in mind that it is not a ‘neo-Ottoman’ ideology or ‘imperial’ nostalgia guiding Turkey's foreign policy; nor will mere Islamist solidarity be driving what we can expect to be Turkey’s consistent role in war-battered areas.

Simplified media narratives tend to borrow the argument that the AKP’s Islamist roots inevitably sustain a dream to revive the Ottoman Empire and, eventually, support its Arab Sunni brothers. But behind Davutoglu's assertive regional strategy, there is a wealth of Turkish capitalists who are increasingly investing abroad and looking for new opportunities to expand Turkish capital. This is because of the very nature of the AKP, a party that emerged as a winner in the late nineties after a decade of short-term governments and political instability. It was the AKP that solved the crisis of power for a new capitalist class without political representation by securing new investors who needed new policies suitable to their business interests. And one has to look at these years of economic integration and the promotion of a Turkish cultural image to consolidate a material base abroad as measures on behalf of the business class. 

Turkish soap operas, Fetullah Gülen's schools teaching African or Central Asian kids Turkish language and culture, even the Turkish Language Olympics; the rising profile of Turkey simply means that Turkish investments abroad can eventually entrust their expansion on a receptive, Turkish-educated local business class. However, it was the issue of marketing a cultural image in conjunction with the needs of the Turkish political class that was missing. This changed with Erdoğan. It is with very pragmatic eyes that we must evaluate his role as the rising Turkish star among the Arab masses buying into the aesthetics and values he promotes.

From the 1990s it seems that Turkey decided that with respect to the Balkans, the Caucasus region, and its Arab neighbours, it was going to engage in a policy of investment to enable Turkey to leverage its crucial geostrategic location at the crossroads of the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. Turkey also has pursued a very aggressive set of policies of investment in both Africa and Central Asia. So, reengagement with Syria and the Arab world was one piece of a much larger project, one which should not be mistaken for any kind of reinvention of the Ottoman Empire. Rather it allows Turkish government to expand on what it had already been doing domestically: a neoliberal economic strategy of investment as a basis for growth, the development of constituencies, and foreign relations.

Whatever Erdoğan and Davutoğlu had in mind when they started pushing Assad for reforms, they would not have expected this to take so long - and at such costs. This is the irony of Turkey: they were trying to transform Syria into a safe market haven, but it is now just a lost market. Of course, Turkish capital will recover, and that business class so at ease with AKP policies will benefit from whatever will come out of the current crisis. But while they are right in expecting that they will eventually have the lion's share in the upcoming Syrian reconstruction, the AKP might in fact find itself paying a high price for its regional policies. Because beyond bigger business interests, there are the smaller entrepreneurs who have lost trade, there are the seasonal labourers and the factory workers who have lost work. They are the larger electoral basin of Southern Turkey. And they will hardly forget the catastrophe that hit them, the day Erdoğan decided to take sides on the Syrian issue. And they might remember it when it is time to vote.

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