Why is the 1998 Adana pact between Turkey and Syria back in the news?
The Adana agreement, signed by Turkey and Syria on Oct. 20, 1998, was the most critical issue on the agenda during the meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Jan. 23.
Both leaders mentioned the deal during their joint press conference. Putin highlighted the fact that the 20-year-old agreement between Ankara and Damascus is still binding, while Erdogan stressed its importance and said that Turkey would be keeping it on its agenda. This was the first meeting of the two leaders since the announcement of the decision by the US to withdraw its troops from Syria. Therefore, their talks were already important — and raising the issue of the Adana agreement made them even more so.
What is this 1998 agreement and why is it back on the agenda after seven years of conflict in Syria? The Adana agreement was signed at a time when relations between Turkey and Syria were strained and the neighbors were on the brink of war. Damascus had been allowing Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — who is now serving a life sentence on the Turkish island of Imrali — to take shelter and direct the activities of the terrorist organization from within its borders for several years. When Turkey threatened military action, Damascus deported Ocalan and closed the PKK camps in the country.
The Adana agreement was designed to help restore bilateral relations. It was eventually concluded after Iranian Foreign Minister Kemal Harrazi and Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa intervened on behalf of their presidents. Some described the deal as a Turkish-Syrian version of the Camp David agreement signed by Egypt and Israel.
The provisions of the agreement clear a legal path for Turkey to take action in Syria, with the full approval of Russia.
Syria’s decision to expel Ocalan and negotiate with Turkey was linked to its concern about the strength of the Turkish military in the face of its own weakness. A few years later, however, Syrian President Bashar Assad said during an interview that “the deportation of Ocalan was not out of fear but because we preferred you. We could either be friends with the Turkish people or prefer the Kurds and lose you. Because our preference was with you, we sent Ocalan out.”
With the signing of the agreement, Syria recognized the PKK as a terrorist organization and pledged not to provide it with any kind of support — financial, logistic or military. Until 2011, Turkey greatly benefited from the agreement in its fight against the PKK. However, when the civil war erupted in Syria, Assad was inclined to play the PKK card against Turkey once again, because his neighbor to the north had taken a stern attitude and criticized him.
Article 1 of the Adana agreement states: “Syria, on the basis of the principle of reciprocity, will not permit any activity that emanates from its territory aimed at jeopardizing the security and stability of Turkey.” However, several reports during the war suggested that Syria had given the PKK free rein on its soil, and even that the Syrian security services had assassinated moderate Kurdish politicians to clear the way for the PKK to reassert itself in Kurdish regions.
Turkey now faces a serious threat emanating from Syria due to the activities of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian offshoot of the PKK. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said: “We think he (Putin) referred to this protocol, implying that Turkey can intervene in (Syria). And this is positive for us.”
Under the 1998 agreement, Damascus agreed that it would not allow the PKK to operate on its soil. Now, however, the YPG has claims for an autonomous administration in northern Syria based on the political ideals promoted by Ocalan.
The renewed focus on the Adana agreement brings to mind some critical points. Firstly, it means that Syria should be obliged either to extradite terrorists to Turkey, in this case members of the YPG or the Democratic Union Party (PYD), or remove them from the country. But to expect this from Damascus, Turkey will need to engage in official communication with the Syrian regime. According to several analysts, the return of the Adana agreement to the agenda serves to pave the way for formal contact between Ankara and Damascus and a new beginning for bilateral relations.
However, with Turkey concerned about the possible power vacuum that will be created after the US withdrawal, significant contact between Turkey and Syria remains unlikely for now. In addition, what action Turkey might take against Kurdish terrorists in Syria depends on what sort of approach Damascus adopts toward the Kurds.
Ankara has been able to raise its security concerns through the ongoing Astana process, which also includes Russia and Iran, and does not need any other platform to discuss its concerns. Turkey wants its borders to be free from the threat posed by terrorist elements in Syria, and Russia seems to understand these concerns. Putin and Erdogan’s positive remarks regarding the importance of the Adana agreement should be read in the context of the issue of a safe zone, regarding which Moscow and Ankara are on the same page.
It is important for states to remember their history as they shape their policies for the future. Time will tell the full reasons why the Adana agreement has been raised again. However, it seems safe to presume that the provisions it contains clear a legal path for Turkey to take action in Syria, with the full approval of Russia.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.