Since 2008, Turkey has gone from supporting the Bashar al-Asad regime, to encouraging Asad to undertake democratic reforms, to shifting to a policy of regime change (RC)–a full 180-degree turn in less than three years. Given Turkey’s twists and turns, is it possible for Turkey to reverse course again, as Asad consolidates his victories on the ground, and effectively switch sides in the interest of reestablishing its economic links with Syria? This article will analyze each stage of Turkey’s Syria policy from 2008-2013 and provide recommendations for the future.
Since 2011, over 100,000 dead–including more than 10,000 children–and nine million displaced, the Syrian civil war has left the international community paralyzed. It has mutated into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional hegemony. Other regional sponsors of the contending parties include Qatar, Turkey, Russia, and now Hizballah and al-Qa’ida. The United Nations Security Council is tied into knots with Russia and China vying to veto any resolution to intervene in Syria. Since no one has legal authority or the political will to intervene, the Syrian civil war throws into question the future of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. Should R2P now be relegated to history, as a doctrine of the 1990s with no future in this century?
While the mass killings, torture, and rape taking place in Syria appear similar to the crimes that took place in the wake of Bosnia’s divisions of ethnicity and religion in the 1990s, the outflow of millions of refugees makes the situation more reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide, as one has not seen anything of this scale since 1994. This aside, the shadows of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya continue to loom over the Syrian dilemma. On the one hand, members of the international community feel the urge to act, on the other hand, fear of failure leaves them inclined to allow events to resolve themselves without military intervention. Though there are compelling arguments on both sides, the international community remains divided, and events largely depend on what regional powers do.
Turkey is an important regional power in the Syrian civil war, because it provides a safe haven and operational space for the Syrian opposition and has over “600,000 Syrian refugees with more than 400,000 living outside refugee camps.” Since 2008, Turkey has gone from supporting the Bashar al-Asad regime to encouraging Asad to undertake democratic reforms to a policy of regime change. This is an unprecedented 180-degree turn in less than three years. Turkey has managed to back itself into a very difficult position with its influence in the region curtailed to its borders. This article will analyze Turkey’s Syria policy from 2008-2013 at each stage and provide recommendations for the future.
SUPPORT FOR BASHAR AL-ASAD
Turkey has a long history with Syria, dating back to the days of the Ottoman Empire. More recently, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), having given up on aspirations “to join the remnants of Europe’s other empires in the European Union (EU),” has been seeking to expand its influence in the Arab world. One way to do so was to seek rapprochement with the Arab countries in the region. The AKP’s grand strategy has been to engage with the Arab world, after nearly half a century of disengagement, in order to reassert Turkey’s standing as a regional power. Most of the neighboring countries in the region like Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon were former Ottoman provinces and were carved out of the Ottoman Empire by France and Britain in the 1916 Sykes-Picot accord. As a consequence, those countries have not fought and won independence in the same way Turkey has, and they lack Turkey’s experience with democratic governance. Therefore, Turkey has often appeared to be the ideal role model for the Arab world.
Initially, Turkey preferred to be a bystander and did not want to be pulled into the Syrian conflict. It had just started to rebuild ties with Syria and did not want to risk ruining a hard earned relationship. Turkey and Syria were enjoying improved relations on the economic and political front. The two countries lifted visa restrictions and committed to enter into free trade agreements and hold joint cabinet meetings. Moreover, Turkey helped mediate talks between Syria and Israel. Turkey’s philosophy of “zero problems with neighbors” was a key AKP policy as part of its effort to build bridges with the neighbors it had left behind in its embrace of modernity and pursuit of EU membership. Nevertheless, one may well ask to what extent Turkey’s “zero problem” policy has been successful.
Since the AKP came to power in 2002, Turkey boosted trade and significantly improved relations in the region. The AKP’s roots in Islamism led it to align Turkey’s policies more closely with those of its Arab counterparts than its European ones. Turkey supported the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya–in which Islamist forces played conspicuous roles–while defending the Palestinians’ bid for statehood in the United Nations, in the face of much Western opposition. This had Western powers asking if Turkey, a secular Muslim country, was turning to the East. Turkey was enjoying a brief honeymoon as a leading power in the Middle East, establishing political and economic alliances in the region along with playing a key role in mediating relationships between the East and West.
From 2011-2013, however, Turkey managed to isolate itself in all corners of the region, burning bridges with Syria, Egypt, Iraq (with the exception of Kurdistan), and Israel. It has an unsteady relationship with the Gulf States, Russia, and Iran, and almost nonexistent ones with Greece and Armenia. Instead of easing tensions with its neighbors, it has aggravated them and caused uncertainty. It is yet to be seen if this “zero problem” policy will minimize frictions with neighboring countries in the long run or tend to exacerbate them.
When the uprising against the Asad family’s 43 years of rule broke out in 2011, Turkey urged Asad to find a way to stop the unrest and engage with the opposition. However, Asad’s refusal to listen to Turkey and allow it to mediate a dialogue exposed the limits of Turkish power in the region. In retaliation, Turkey reversed course and provided an organizing base for the Syrian opposition, including the Syrian National Council as well as leaders from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in exile. Turkey’s efforts to get Asad to implement democratic reforms and meet the opposition in negotiations proved to be futile and brief. Tensions between the two countries increased in June 2012, when Syria shot down a Turkish army jet in the Mediterranean. This was followed by car bombings in the summer of 2013 in the province of Reyhanli–which is home to a large Kurdish population–that killed over 53 people in one instance. Then, in September 2013, Turkey downed a Syrian helicopter after violation of its airspace.
Fearing that the sectarian conflict might spill over to its borders, Turkey wasted no time in calling for a no-fly zone in Syria and ultimately regime change. This call was hasty and premature, since Turkey lacks the capacity to intervene militarily without great power support. NATO refused Turkey’s request for support on this front and nothing came of the threat.
While initially Turkey did not have a sectarian agenda in Syria, as it supported Asad’s Alawi regime, it gradually came to support the Sunni-led political opposition in the country. This in turn has deepened tensions with Turkey’s own Alevi population, a Shi’i religious minority. If the fragile sectarian balance of power is tipped in Syria, this will have serious ramifications in the region, especially in Lebanon, where a there is likely to be a resurgence of sectarian violence.
Turkey threatened to impose a no-fly zone and border buffer zones, but without any support from the West or NATO, it was exposed as an empty threat. Turkey does not have the military capacity or political will to act on its own. Instead, it began to aid the rebels in Syria to topple Asad. This has proven to be ineffective and dangerous, as aid has reached the hands of extremist and secessionist fighters in Syria. Moreover, Turkey previously allowed jihadists to cross freely into Syria from its territory.
Asad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people in 2012 outraged the international community with U.S. President Barack Obama drawing red lines and declaring if these were crossed the United States was prepared to intervene. This was the first real threat that came from Obama to support Turkey’s call for military intervention. The threat that these chemical weapons could get into the hands of non-state actors coupled with the moral argument against chemical weapons was enough to anger the international community and compel an increase in its involvement. To that end, Turkey’s geographical position makes it especially vulnerable to security threats from Syria. A failed Syria in the Mediterranean, on Turkey’s borders, is not in anyone’s interest, especially Turkey’s. It already takes on the burden of over 600,000 refugees, and frequent border violations.
From the inception of the Syrian crisis, Turkey encouraged a diplomatic solution to bring chemical weapons under international control and was pleased with the outcome of the U.S.-Russia-brokered chemical deal. However, for Turkey, the debate around the chemical weapons, while serious, is secondary to ending the growing humanitarian catastrophe. Although Turkey is not without its own human rights violations, it sees any solution short of regime change as unacceptable in the Syrian case. Turkey’s commitment to human rights abroad–to the prohibition of crimes of war, genocide, and ethnic cleansing–means it is prepared to apply something of a double standard in holding Asad responsible for crimes against humanity. Furthermore, Turkey does not believe any diplomatic solution will be successful in the long run, as Asad knows in the absence of international intervention he can remain in his stronghold.
Prospects of an Iraq-style autonomous Kurdish province in Syria have Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan worried and threatening to intervene militarily. Since 2004, Turkey has witnessed Erdogan’s AKP government bringing in bold reforms, like allowing Kurdish television stations to broadcast and allowing schools to offer elective courses in Kurdish. Nonetheless, these reforms have fallen short in addressing the principal grievances, such as greater autonomy, political representation, full language rights, and–perhaps most controversially–an ethnically neutral constitution with the current reference to Turkishness as the identity of the country removed. Having said that, these recent reforms, however minor they may seem, are huge for the Turkish government. Turkey has become so accustomed to denying the existence of Kurds within its borders that granting them basic rights was unheard of just a few years ago.
The crisis with Syria is seen as a serious threat and disruption of Erdogan’s peace process with the Kurds. Turkey has worked hard to establish a working relationship with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq and to make modest advances with the Kurds in Turkey. Having waged a ferocious war against its own separatist Kurds since the mid-1980s, Turkey is particularly concerned with the developments in Syria’s Kurdish region. A Kurdistan in Turkey’s western flank coupled with the existing one in its southern flank would entice Turkey’s own Kurds to pursue their dream of autonomy, so the argument goes.
History provides Turkey with good reason to fear that Syria will arm the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)–an organization that is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union–and allow it to launch attacks against Turkey. Two groups represent Syrian Kurds: the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is closely connected to the PKK in Turkey, and the newly created Kurdish National Council (KNC), which is linked to Iraq’s KRG. Both groups in Syria have cross-listed followers in Turkey and Iraq, with the latter representing 15 Syrian Kurdish parties. It remains uncertain which group in Syria will dominant in the long term, but it is certainly in the PKK’s interest to continue its close relationship with the PYD in Syria.
Moreover, historically, Syria offered a safe haven for Abdullah Ocalan, founder and leader of the PKK. While Syria evicted him in 1998, after extensive pressure, leading to his arrest the following year in Kenya, Turkey has not forgotten the 14 years Ocalan used Syria as a base to organize the PKK.
Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria benefited for decades from the lack of unity among Kurds across the four regions. In their struggle for a homeland, Kurds have had to go up against four aggressively nationalist states. The absence of political unification in a coherent nation-state made them vulnerable, and the largest stateless people in the world. As such, a close relationship between the PKK and the Syrian Kurds is indeed a threat to Turkey. The Kurds in Turkey have long been regarded as a threat to Turkish unity. Will Syrian Kurds finally bring the Kurds together? It is too early to judge, but the mere question makes Turkey very uncomfortable. Since Turkey was founded in 1923, Kurds were denied basic rights such as speaking their own language, having Kurdish names, or even calling themselves Kurds. They were regarded as backward, and until two decades ago, officials in Turkey described them as “mountain Turks.” While it is still too early to see if Kurds in Turkey and Iran will join Syrian Kurds in their struggle for a homeland, it remains a real challenge. Turkey’s top priorities must be minimizing the spillover effects from the Syrian conflict and pursuing peaceful relations with its Kurdish population, so that if the Syrian Kurds establish an autonomous region (something Turkey cannot prevent), its own Kurds do not rebel in an attempt to follow suit.
The greatest challenge to Turkey’s national interest is the threat from Syria’s Kurds, who have taken control of territory in northern Syria and established an alignment with the PKK in Turkey. This suggests that the PKK will exploit this relationship and might use northern Syria as a base to launch attacks into Turkey in the future. Worse yet, Syrian Kurds might carve out an autonomous Kurdish zone similar to that of their Iraqi counterparts. The Kurdish struggle for a homeland would be one step closer, but Turkey would be waking up to a total nightmare.
Oral Calislar, a columnist for the Turkish newspaper Radikal, argues that Ankara’s handling of Iraqi Kurdish autonomy–something that was unimaginable for Turkey just a few years ago–suggests that if the Syrian Kurds carve out their own autonomous zone in Syria, Turkey will learn to live with that too. The underlying problem is that Turkey has not dealt with its own Kurdish problem in its entirety. There is currently a ceasefire with the PKK and efforts for dialogue, something that would have been unimaginable several years ago, but it is uncertain how that will play out.
Turkey’s change of course from supporting the Asad regime to calling for a regime change was a pragmatic one. Turkey was right, at least from a humanitarian point of view, to open its doors to fleeing Syrians through an open door policy, including the insurgents, and to call Asad to step down. Turkey’s biggest mistake, however, was to underestimate the regime’s staying power, the international community’s reluctance to become embroiled in Syria, and the extent to which radicals–including al–Qa’ida–could seize control of the insurgency. Turkey overestimated its leverage over Asad and assumed his fall was imminent.
The lessons from Syria are that Turkey needs a stronger military, to step up its border security, and it needs a sustainable plan for the refugees. Of the 600,000 refugees in Turkey, over 400,000 live outside the refugee camps. They need to be integrated into Turkish civil society, as the civil war in Syria does not appear to be ending soon. The children of refugees need to have access to education and they should be taught Turkish so that their education is useful in the future.
Most importantly, Turkey needs to establish closer ties with America, because without a great power ally, Turkey’s potential in the region is curbed to its border. While it is conceivable for Turkey to reverse course again, as Asad consolidates his victories on the ground, and effectively switch sides in the interest of reestablishing its economic links with Syria, this is unlikely to happen in the near future. The Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan faces bigger problems at home, with anti-corruption investigations against his ministers and with elections forthcoming in 2015. For the first time since Erdogan’s election in 2002, he has come head to head with Fethullah Gulen, an influential Turkish Muslim cleric who lives in exile in the United States. Much of Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted AKP electoral success is credited to Gulen’s Hizmet movement, and it is difficult to imagine the AKP being reelected without its continued support. If the corruption investigations and Gulen’s defection–coupled with the anti-government protests that took place in the summer of 2013–cause the AKP to lose the next election, the opposition, Republic People’s Party (CHP), will form the next government. CHP is a secular, pro-European party. It is disinclined to continue the AKP’s efforts to reach rapprochement with Turkey’s neighbors at the cost of weakened ties to the West. If, however, the AKP is reelected, it still will not reverse its policy toward Syria with the conflict in stalemate and the outcome uncertain. Turkey is likely to be preoccupied with domestic concerns in the near future and needs to seek reconciliation with its Kurds in the long run. The Kurdish problem will not go away on its own, and it remains the main determinant of Turkish policy toward Syria.
*Semra Sevi is a Masters student in Political Science at the University of Toronto. Semra holds an Honours B.A. in Political Science and History from the University of Toronto.
*The author wishes to thank mentor Michael Ignatieff for supervising this paper.
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