Turkey is in trouble. Absent direct American intervention in Syria – which was never going to take place – Ankara’s hopes for dealing with spill over in violence from the conflict next door is near hopeless. Moreover, Turkey’s preferred policies to protect itself from the violence are detrimental to Syria’s long-term stability. Nevertheless, absent any other policy options, Turkey has opted to elevate its short-term interests over its long terms policy goals. However, in doing so, Ankara is actually implementing policies that contradict and detract from one another.
Yet, as a result of decisions made 2 years ago – which were based on an unrealistic assessment of Turkish capabilities and a poor reading of the United States’ willingness to use military force to topple Bashar al Assad – Ankara can’t simply hit “reset” and pull-back from its involvement in the crisis. Turkey, I’m afraid, will be dealing with the fall-out from the Syrian crisis for the foreseeable future.
Ankara – like most other countries – believed that Assad would fall relatively quickly. After Turkey severed contact with the regime, it began to put policies in place based on this assumption. However, in a distinct difference from other countries, the AKP sought to politicize its role in the conflict. Prime Minister Erdogan, therefore, sought to portray the overthrow of Assad within the “New Turkey and Arab Spring” narrative that was popular in Turkey at the time. In doing so, Erdogan hoped to portray himself as the leader of the “new Middle East,” which, in Turkey, was used as a political tool to rally support for the ruling party.
The AKP sought to frame the events in the Middle East as an extension of its “pursuit of democracy” back home. Thus, the Arab Spring became a symbol for the AKP led “democratization of Turkey” and a stand-in for political progress made during the AKP’s rule. In turn, this fed the narrative that Turkey – after years of marginalization – was reassuming its regional leadership role. This image was particularly popular amongst the voting populace and fit with the recent AKP led focus on the country’s Ottoman history. Ottomania, therefore, became a symbol of Turkey’s glorious past. Ankara’s popularity was a reaffirmation that the “good old days” of Turkey ruling the region had returned. And Syria – like Egypt and Tunisia before it – would simply cement the AKP’s legacy as the party that returned Turkey to its rightful regional place.
However, as the conflict began to drag on, the image that the AKP had sought to portray began to backfire. Thus, while the AKP had sought to transform its recent popularity into a symbol of Turkish power, which would then be used while campaigning, its failures to alter the course of the conflict began to be seen as Turkish impotence. In turn, this reignited the calls within the country to retreat from its more ambitious foreign policy to the Kemalist favored non-interventionist “peace at home, peace abroad” foreign policy. Thus, for the AKP, an event that was originally intended to be a political spring board, turned out to be an unpopular albatross that dragged down the party’s foreign policy poll numbers.
Over time, however, the AKP was soon faced with a serious security crisis that far outweighed the damage the handling of the conflict had on foreign policy poll numbers. The most critical threat to Turkey’s security came after Assad pulled his forces away from the border. This allowed the PYD – a sister party to the PKK – to assume control over the Kurdish majority areas on the border. Turkey had successfully coerced Hafez al Assad to withdraw his support for the PKK in 1998. In doing so, the Turkish Armed Forces were then able to deprive the PKK of having “strategic depth.” In turn, the military could then concentrate on fighting the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan, rather than waging a two-front asymmetric war with an adversary that the TSK has proven incapable of defeating.
As a result, Ankara had an incredible incentive to arm the rebels. And here is where Turkey made its most critical mistake. Rather than simply funnel arms to rebel groups, it opened its borders to foreign fighters. In doing so, Turkey allowed for streams of foreign fighters to enter Syria through Turkey. This influx of foreign fighters had a detrimental effect on the cohesiveness of an already hopelessly fractured opposition and thereby began to detract from Turkey’s primary goals in Syria.
Turkey has always maintained that Syria should retain its territorial integrity after Assad is toppled. Ankara dedicated significant resources and political capital to organizing the SNC, which Turkey hoped would be able to quickly assume power once Assad was gone, and begin to administer the state. In turn, once allowed to take power, the SNC would then be able marginalize the radical groups via its political legitimacy. The “good guys” would then turn their guns on the “bad guys” and the non-radical Syrian population would rise up and kick-out all of the foreigners. Thus, the key for Turkey was to hasten the downfall of the regime, rather than worry about who was doing the fighting.
Yet, this is where Turkey’s short and long term interests converge and where the policy began to contradict itself. Ankara’s strategy rests on the original assumption that Assad would be toppled quickly. Thus, when it made its initial decision to arm radical groups – most notably Ahrar al Sham (but not Al Qaeda explicitly, as far as I can tell) – and to allow Khaleeji financiers to set up shop on the border, the assumption was always that the conflict would end in relatively short order. This assumption was always predicated on the idea that – at some point – the West would intervene.
Ankara, therefore, was hoping that the US would eventually come and “finish the job” and use the capabilities that only the US military possesses to topple Assad. In this regard, Ankara seriously mis-read Washington. While it is likely that the Obama Administration sent Turkey mixed signals, it is also just as likely that Ankara had tunnel vision and was simply “hearing what it wanted to hear” when US policymakers privately assured them that “all options were on the table.” Erdogan, for example, went as far to tell Turkish voters repeatedly that Obama would intervene after the November 2012 election. Yet, at the time, it was painfully obvious that Washington was not going to take military action in Syria.
Meanwhile, Turkey continued to facilitate arms transfers. The logic remained the same. Oust Assad and then everything will be fine once the SNC starts to administrate. However, as a result of its decision to maintain an open border, Turkey began to face a serious threat from groups like Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). However, for Turkey, the threat still paled in comparison to the pressing issue of denying a Kurdish PYD administered statelet on its border. Moreover, Turkish policy makers were faced with a serious conundrum: if Ankara were to seriously crack down on these groups, they would have then detracted from their long term goals, which was to topple Assad, maintain Syrian territorial integrity, and empower the SNC as fast as possible once Assad was gone. Thus, for Ankara, they still had an incentive to allow fighters and arms to transit their territory and worry about the jihadists later.
This has recently changed. After ISIS took control of the Azaz border gate, Turkey began to take some steps to counter the group’s influence in Syria. This included the freezing of Al Qaeda bank accounts and the shelling of ISIS strongholds along the border. In tandem, the media – relying on government sources – began to talk about the arrests of foreign fighters.
Moving forward, however, Ankara is still faced with an extremely difficult decision. On the one hand, Turkey’s long term goal of maintaining Syrian territorial integrity remains in place. Yet, in order to achieve that goal, Turkey has to resort to short term tactics – arming rebel factions, which, in turn, further fractures the opposition – that detract from this goal. As of now, Turkey opted to pursue the latter over the former because Ankara still maintains that once Assad is gone, everything will be better. However, as a result of these policies, Turkey continues to pursue policies that, in fact, are contradiction to one another. Ankara has yet to reconcile these goals. Moreover, even if Turkey were to try, it is unlikely that it could put the “foreign fighter genie back in the bottle.”
While it is always easy to “monday morning quarterback,” one has to question the logic of allowing foreign fighters to transit your border with impunity. Moreover, if the goal was to preserve Syrian territorial integrity, one must again ask why Ankara would pursue short term policies that detract from this policy. However, Ankara does have a narrow range of policy options that it could pursue to help try and undo the damage its previous policies helped create:
1) Support Geneva II. I know the idea of Assad staying in power is unpalatable for Turkey -and for most of us- but Ankara needs to get on board with the concept of a political solution to the crisis. Turkey’s current policies are at cross purposes with and continue to detract from its long term policy goals. The only way to resolve this is at the negotiating table. And the negotiating table could actually help keep Syria territorially intact.
2) Get comfortable with the idea of a Kurdish statelet administered by the PYD. Its happening. Ankara cant stop it, so Turkey should seek to co-opt the leadership. This requires resolving the Kurdish question back home and will necessitate that Erdogan takes bold steps to address Abdullah Ocalan’s demands. As of now, Erdogan has taken very tentative steps that – like Turkey’s overall Syria policy – are actually working at cross-pursposes to Turkey’s long term policy goals.
3) Do something about foreign fighters coming across the border. Anyone who has travelled in Turkey recently has seen these fighters transiting Ataturk airport. Turkey can control its border. That control starts at the airport.
4) Damage control. Ankara needs to get more media savvy. While Turkey may employ lobbyists in DC, it needs to come to grips with its image in the West and take some serious steps to rehabilitate its image abroad. Ahmet Davutoglu does Turkey no favors when he seriously hints that global conspiracy theories are responsible for all that ills Turkey.