Turkey has been a forceful advocate for regime change in Syria, arguing that the international community has a responsibility to protect the Syrian people affected by the brutal civil war. Ankara has, at times, criticized its Western Allies for its lack of attention to the conflict. Turkey’s Syria policy, while driven to some extent by humanitarian considerations, is primarily aimed at maintaining Syrian territorial integrity and preventing the outbreak of sectarian clashes. To help minimize these risks, Ankara has opted to strongly support the Syrian resistance (Some have argued that this approach has further factionalized and fragmented the Syrian opposition).
While Turkey maintains that it is not arming the Free Syrian Army (FSA), it is widely believed that Qatar – Turkey’s primary ally of convenience in the Syria conflict – uses Turkish territory to transfer weapons to the rebels. Turkey is suspected of “looking the other way” as the weapons make their way from Turkish ports to the Syrian border. In tandem, Turkey has sought to further its relationship with the main Syrian opposition groups tied to the Muslim Brotherhood – the group Ankara has deemed the most likely to emerge as the dominant political force in the post-Assad Syria.
Turkey, however, has a serious radical rebel problem. As the conflict has dragged on, the disorganized FSA is losing influence to more radical groups proclaiming to be fighting a Jihad. Jabhat al Nusra (JN) – a group with ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq – has emerged as one of the most powerful rebel groups in Syria. According to a report by Noman Benotman and Roisin Blake for the Quilliam Foundation:
The conflict in Syria represented an opportunity to establish a religiously-justified system of government, as the group [JN – author added] believes that every regime which does not enforce sharia as law is illegitimate . . . JN’s ideology does not allow cooperation with pro-democracy players [FSA and their foreign backers – author added] in the conflict, and yet while their interests converge it would be counter-productive to fragment the opposition.
Benotman and Blake also report that:
The Arab Spring has affected the strategy of JN, as they do not see a real change in the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Yemen. They are particularly disappointed that Libyan jihadists have been thwarted in their attempts to establish an Islamist state in the country, and consider the interference of the West responsible for this. JN considers the only path to victory to be a military defeat of the regime, followed by the introduction of an Islamist government and their interpretation of sharia as law. They will not negotiate with other players as this would be tantamount to relinquishing control.
Moreover, Benotman and Blake report that:
Many pro-democracy rebels are in favour of asking the international community for help to create a democratic state in Syria. However, the lack of international intervention has left many of the country’s citizens feeling that the rest of the world has abandoned them, or that the coalition plan is not producing the correct results. This is leading to an increase in public support for jihadist groups, such as JN, as they are seen as an effective force.
As JN’s influence rises, Turkish interests are put at risk. Ankara views the conflict through the prism of the Arab Spring, which according to President Abdullah Gul is a demand for a “dignified, democratic life.” Turkey believes that it has an obligation to stand with those seeking a more democratic life and seeks to export a version of democracy compatible with cultural conservatism. This approach is at odds with the demands of JN, which, according to the Quilliam Report, is hostile to many of the AKP’s key political themes like “more democracy” and “more justice”.
Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood backed rebels, when viewed through the prism of the other alternatives, undermines the claims that the AKP is pursuing a sectarian based foreign policy. For now, the AKP is following a rational foreign policy, dictated by advancing its own national interest. That strategy has focused on aligning with groups tied to the Brotherhood, which, for the most part, have advocated for democracy. However, that policy is failing. To be fair, Turkey was given an impossible task and it is unlikely that any country could have done much better. But nevertheless, the specific faultiness have become clear amongst the Syrian rebels and Bashar Assad appears to have the capability to stay in power for the next year. Thus, raising the possibility that the disorganized FSA will continue to lose influence to the more organized JN. While it is unlikely that the Syrian people will accept a society governed in the way promoted by JN, the fight for political control will likely be fierce and bloody.
While Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has turned his attention away from Syria (a very unpopular topic here in Turkey) to the negotiations with the Kurds, these issues have yet to be dealt with. Ankara has not yet announced a comprehensive strategy to deal with the growing power of groups like JN, and is instead maintaining its R2P led approach to the conflict. Thus, I am assuming that Turkey still hopes that an intervention could prevent groups like JN from deepening its influence, which would therefore augment the political viability of the U.S. backed and created Syrian National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. However, Ankara has not announced what it plans to do if these efforts fail. With the United States consumed by domestic issues and other NATO allies like France engaged in Mali, this option seems to be extremely remote. Turkey, therefore, needs to start working on a plan-B.
I am assuming that Ankara has realized this already, and is already actively seeking out ways to protect itself from the possibility of further chaos in Syria. Thus, the current talks with the PKK – while necessary and welcome – could be part of a broader Turkish effort to limit its exposure to a possible sectarian war in Syria. Specifically, if Ankara can solve the Kurdish issue – or as others call it “the Turkish problem” – then it could undercut its exposure to fall out stemming from the federalization of Syria.
Turkey, however, would still have to contend with the JN problem. To date, this approach has centered on strengthening the main Syrian opposition groups. These efforts, however, don’t appear to have been successful. As of now, the only Turkish group that appears to have good relation with all sides is the charity Insan Yardim Vakfi (IHH). However, Turkey finds itself in a very difficult position, any move to deepen its involvement in the conflict is sure to invite public backlash. Turkey, therefore, is likely to continue it current policy, even though its appears that its efforts to strengthen its preferred groups are being undercut by their disorganization and inability to match the organizational prowess of JN.