Turkey’s approach to the crisis in Syria is rooted in its previous “pre-Syrian revolt” foreign policy ambitions in the Middle East. Turkey’s overarching goal is to engage in a multi-directional proactive foreign policy, in order to deepen relations with leaders in its near periphery. Ankara, therefore, sought to leverage its Muslim identity and its geographical location to advance its relationship with all of the region’s leadership. Hence, why Ankara in its pre-Syria foreign policy heyday, emphasized the non-sectarian nature of its foreign policy. (And by the way, I don’t think Turkey follows a sectarian foreign policy).
Ankara, however, abandoned a lot of these principles after its early efforts to convince Bashar al-Assad to make cosmetic democratic reforms failed. While Ankara continues to advocate for a non-sectarian approach in Syria, it nevertheless favors the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, its closest ally in the conflict is Qatar, which also backs the MB opposition groups. Turkey, therefore, made a choice early on in the conflict to support the group that it thought had the best chance of securing power in the post-Assad environment. Ankara, therefore, does not appear to have been pursuing a sectarian policy at the outset, but has since stumbled into supporting the largely Sunni rebels against an Allawite regime.
Turkey, therefore, has gained the reputation of an “Ikhwan supporting Sunni sectarian state intent on intervening in the politics of the region.” Whether this is true or not, really does not matter at this current juncture. AKP officials would take offense at everything that I have written and argue that “the government had no choice” in Syria. I disagree. While Turkey really did have no choice when it came to the issue of Syrian refugees, it did have a choice about the level of support it would offer to Syrian rebel groups. As the conflict began to ramp up, Ankara did decide to support and arm specific rebel groups. The decision was based on Turkey’s perceived long-term interests.
From the outset of the conflict, Turkey’s Syria policy rested on three pillars: 1) The quick overthrow of Assad, 2) Organizing the MB dominated opposition in Istanbul, 3) The maintenance of Syrian institutions in a post-Assad contingency (Ankara said no to de-Baathifcation). Ankara reasoned that after Assad was toppled, the Turkish backed and organized opposition would swoop into Damascus and assume control over the intact bureaucracy. Thus, the state would still be able to deliver services, which would ensure the maintenance of Syrian territorial integrity. This, in turn, would prevent the empowerment of the Kurdish groups living in Syria. This scenario would, in theory, decrease the likelihood of Iraq style sectarian conflict, as well as prevent the empowerment of the PKK backed PYD.
The broad overarching themes of Turkey’s Syria policy do fit within the AKP’s previous foreign policy narrative, even though Ankara has broken with decades of precedent and interfered in another state’s internal matters. This approach, however, was an unforced intelligence driven choice. Turkey did have other foreign policy options; however, those options fall way beyond the scope of Ahmet Davutoglu’s new “Humanitarian Foreign Policy” and the AKP’s assertion that Ankara is “standing on the right side of history.” Hence, the reason why Turkey, since it became clear that Assad will hold on to power in the medium-term, has been advocating for multi-lateral intervention. Toppling Assad is a foreign policy goal based on the criteria I listed above. Again, this is not reflective of a regime that “had no choice”, but is instead more in line with the actions of a state trying to influence events from abroad so as to maximize its future interests. The West’s refusal to intervene, therefore, undermines Turkey’s long term interests in the region. Hence, it is not too difficult to figure out why Ankara is so frustrated with the West for its hands-off approach to the conflict.
This dynamic, therefore, sets the stage for the formulation of Turkish policy in the post-Assad contingency. I think it is fair to say that most analysts think that the post-Assad scenario is likely to be a bloody fight between militias for power. If this scenario plays out, Turkey is likely going to tell anyone who will listen “we told you so.” However, more importantly, Turkey is likely going to continue to back its preferred groups, which will further erode Turkey’s non-sectarian image and limit Turkey’s dealings in the Gulf. For example, it is likely that Gulf (minus Qatar), will support different factions, which could lead to further mistrust.
Moreover, the counter factual analysis in Turkey, which is likely going to focus on the failure of the West to intervene, will likely lead to the conclusion that if the international community had listened to Ankara, things would have been better in Syria. (This same dynamic happened in Iraq post-2003 invasion) This narrative will, in turn, feed the nationalist “Turks have no friend but Turks” rhetoric that has become a common part of the current Syria discourse today. Thus, the possibility for further friction in the Turkish – U.S./West relationship is a distinct possibility.
This evolving dynamic stems from two choices made: 1) Ankara’s decision to support rebel groups, 2) The West/United States’ decision not to intervene. The differences, thus far, are based on the leadership in each country’s differing interests. Thus far, the West has decided that it is in their national interest to stay away from directly intervening in the Syrian conflict. Turkey, on the other hand, has decided that it had to intervene to secure its national interests.
Thus, Turkey did have a choice in how it handled Syria. It simply chose to intervene, in order to pursue its interests. We will see if Turkey’s approach pays off.
Stay tuned . . .