Ankara’s New Reality in the Middle East

In February 2013, Shashank Joshi and I wrote an article for the RUSI Journal about Turkey’s troubles in Syria. At the time, we wrote:

Syria’s two-year descent into civil war, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is facing one of the most significant external threats to the country since the end of the Cold War. Ankara has largely struggled to deal with the crisis: it has succeeded neither in preventing it from spilling over into Turkey, nor in persuading its NATO allies to recalibrate their divergent threat perceptions and intervene to topple the Assad regime … While the AKP has come to symbolise Turkey’s diplomatic return to the Middle East, that policy in fact had antecedents in earlier efforts to co-opt and engage the leaderships in Damascus and Tehran. Those efforts were motivated by Turkey’s desire to isolate further the PKK, which had suffered considerably during a harsh crackdown in the 1990s. In the twelve years since Ocalan’s capture, and particularly after the ascendance of the politically and religiously conservative AKP in Ankara, the cross-border movement of goods, capital and people has rocketed. Aggregate bilateral trade between Turkey and Syria increased from $773 million in 2002 to $2.5 billion in 2010, with a free- trade agreement (also incorporating Jordan and Lebanon) signed in 2011. Even joint military exercises between Turkey and Syria were held in 2009. However, as the Syrian uprising began in early 2011, Turkish policy began to come under strain. Several months into the crisis, Turkey continued to hope that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad would weather the storm, and even reportedly urged him to undertake ‘cosmetic reforms such as organising sham elections’. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had hoped that he could leverage his close relationship with Assad to persuade the latter to effect managed, top-down and at least pseudo-democratic reform. Gradually, however, as the conflict escalated, Turkey grew increasingly disillusioned by Syrian recalcitrance and concerned by its consequences for Turkey. These can be grouped into three categories: Kurdish empowerment, refugee flows and regional instability.

In the year since the article was published, Ankara’s position in the Middle East has been further adversely affected by the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Saudi push-back against Qatar for supporting the MB, and the rise of Jihadist groups in Syria. Moreover, the threats that Ankara now faces have grown more complex and more difficult to defeat. Ankara now faces a range of asymmetric threats that have the luxury of operating in loosely governed spaces inside Syria. All of the threats share something in common – they operate from “islands of territory” within Iraq and Syria. Thus, Turkey, which up until 2013 was heralding the democratic collapse of the  “Camp David” and “Sykes-Picot” order, is now faced with a reality of non-state actors operating from within established borders of very weak states.

The PYD and Foreign Fighters 

According to the latest ICG Report, the Flight of Icarus? The PYD’s Precarious Rise in Syria,

When the uprising erupted in 2011, Turkey tried to prevent – and when that failed, to contain – any PKK advance in Syria that could reach its border. It relied on a special relationship with Erbil to rein in the PYD’s political rise and military success, treating the pro-Barzani KNC as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian Kurds and refusing to deal bilaterally with the PYD. At the same time, Ankara turned a blind eye to the Islamist fighters crossing from Turkey into Syria, viewing them – in addition to helping bring down the Assad regime – as potential counter- weights to the PYD. The strategy backfired; the PYD not only gained territory, but also bolstered its appeal among Kurds as their only protector from jihadis. In September 2013, a Turkish official acknowledged: “We made the PYD stronger by trying to undermine it.”

The PYD now govern three islands of territory Afrin, Kobane and al-Jazeera. The empowerment of the PYD was one of the main reasons for the government’s renewed efforts to solve Turkey’s “Kurdish question” in 2013. The government has also worked to isolate the PYD, through increased cooperation with the Barzanis in Iraqi Kurdistan. This approach is multifaceted and includes: economic investment in southeast Turkey, the political co-option of the Barzanis, and the empowerment of the Barzani message as an alternative to the pan-Kurdish narrative offered by Abduallah Ocalan.

Thus, from the outset of the Syrian conflict, Ankara had an incentive to aid in the downfall of Bashar al Assad. His rapid overthrow would, in theory, have allowed for the maintenance of a strong central Syrian government that could be counted upon to ensure that state retained the capability to maintain security within its border. Ankara, therefore, did not “turn a blind eye” to the transit of foreign fighters through Turkish territory, but rather facilitated the transfer of fighters and weapons to hasten his downfall. It was a policy, not an act of poor bureaucratic oversight. This policy grew more haphazard after the aforementioned empowerment of the PYD and the growing realization that Assad had more staying power than originally thought (Indeed Ankara, like others, though he would fall in six months.)

Following the collapse of the Arab League monitoring mission and in the absence of any meaningful international solution, Qatar and Turkey broke ranks and decided to manage the conflict by themselves. Armed rebel groups operating in the rural areas around Idlib and Aleppo were actively supported by both Qatar and Turkey, who viewed the establishment of a rebel foothold in the north of the country as a necessary step to help hasten the downfall of Assad.

The two countries increasingly joined forces to facilitate the movement of money, weaponry and personnel across the Turkey-Syria border, Qatari money in the form of undisclosed cash payments funnelled through Lebanese and Turkish middle men and made its way to Syrian commanders in the border towns to then distribute to chosen groupings inside Syria.

As well meaning as it might have been, the Turkey-Qatari axis was fraught with problems: corrupt middlemen, rapidly shifting alliance structures inside Syria, and shoddy data gathering ensured that weapons and money often ended up in the wrong hands. For all its coordination with Western powers and Arab Sunni states, the project to supply rebel groups descended into a chaotic farce, with quantifiable procedures quickly collapsing and ‘moderate‘ groups missing out on funds and weapons, while more hardline Islamist groups benefited at their expense.

Turkey and Qatar intended their arming of the opposition to act in concert with their political efforts to organise the Syrian opposition. The original policy was for the rebels to quickly oust Assad and for the Qatari and Turkish backed Syrian National Council (SNC) to quickly fill the post-Assad leadership vacuum. Both felt it best to leave the bulk of Syria’s state institutions in place, so as to prevent a repeat of the de-Baathification policy in post-war Iraq in the early 2000s. The two sides would then leverage their ties with the Syrian opposition to retain influence in the post-Assad Syrian state. The drift of both nations toward the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood operating under the banner of the Syrian National Council was merely a reflection of both wanting to action a fast transition to a post-Assad era. Both the nations viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as a trustworthy political group that could be counted on to administer the state once Assad was ousted from power.

Turkey and Qatar’s capability to significantly change the course of events on the ground, however, has always been limited. With robust American intervention absent, the two sides were left to continue to work through their proxies. And it is here where Ankara went to Washington – just after the chemical weapons attack – and made its case for intervention. Erdogan was rebuffed.

The Rise of ISIS and its Separation from Al Qaeda

During this time, the rebel groups operating on the Turkish border have lost ground to the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). According to Douglas A. Ollivant and Brian Fishman:

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is no longer a state in name only. It is a physical, if extra-legal, reality on the ground. Unacknowledged by the world community, ISIS has carved a de facto state in the borderlands of Syria and Iraq. Stretching in a long ellipse roughly from al-Raqqah in Syria to Fallujah in Iraq (with many other non-contiguous “islands” of control in both Iraq and Syria), this former Al Qaeda affiliate holds territory, provides limited services, dispenses a form of justice (loosely defined), most definitely has an army, and flies its own flag.

They then add:

ISIS no longer exists in small cells that can be neutralized by missiles or small groups of commandos. It is now a real, if nascent and unrecognized, state actor—more akin in organization and power to the Taliban of the late 1990s than Al Qaeda. Unless ISIS collapses on itself, which is a long tradition in jihadi circles but looks increasingly unlikely, neutralization of the group will require significant ground combat by someone, with the support of airpower.

And finally, in this fascinating video cast, Will McCants (30:00 minute mark) raises the possibility of ISIS launching “spectacular attacks to increase their bonafides vis-a-vis AQ central.” While McCants raises the possibility of an attack on Saudi Arabia, I could not help but think that Turkey could also fit into the category of potential targets.

These challenges are, in almost all respects, new for Turkey. ISIS is much different than the PKK. And more broadly, Turkey no longer has the luxury of coercing its neighbors to crack down on terror. This is not Hafez Assad’s Abdullah Ocalan harboring Syria anymore. In fact, one can now argue that one of Turkey’s actual neighbors in Syria is the very group that it is now seeking to marginalize.

The Future: Weak States and No Leverage

Gregrory Gause wrote for the Monkey Cage today (21 May 2014) about the future of the region and the frequent claims about the collapse of the Sykes-Picot order:

The states themselves might fragment internally. De facto governing authorities might emerge. But the international borders themselves do not look like they are going to change. All the action in the Middle East is bottom-up, as various domestic and regional groups fight for control of these states and regional powers aid their allies in these fights. But these fights look to remain, at least formally and in terms of international law, within the borders that the French and the British drew nearly a hundred years ago. “Sykes-Picot” lives, as fragile as governance within those borders is.

I find the last sentence to be the most important one for Turkey. Ankara only embraced the export of democracy as a pillar of its foreign policy after the Egyptian uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. Before that, Turkey was happy to cozy up to the region’s dictators, so long as they opened their markets to Turkish goods, whilst also cracking down on the PKK/PYD. And even after the AKP embraced both “democracy promotion” and what I have deemed as “the concept of Turkish exceptionalism,” it was still keen on facilitating the emergence of quasi-democratic states that retained strong central governments.

Absent strong states, Turkey lacks the necessary tools to combat the threats that it now faces. Ankara will therefore remain beholden to US policy vis-a-vis an intervention in Syria, whilst also continuing to provide aid to the rebels. The AKP, therefore, finds itself in a tremendously difficult situation that is unlike anything Turkey has had to deal with before. The most obvious course of action is to conclude a peace agreement with the PKK. However, if that happens, Turkey will still be faced with the “ISIS has a lot of territory and is serious about establishing an Islamic state” problem. To solve this problem, Ankara is sure to still believe that that best course of action is to force the removal of Bashar al Assad. But then what? Turkey has never had a great answer to this question.

For now, Ankara has settled on a four- track policy of conventional deterrence, border defense, outright regime change, and the arming of rebel groups. Yet, in order to further insulate itself, it must also work to repair its relationship with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iraq’s Nuri al Maliki. Despite their differences about the Brotherhood (and in the case of Maliki, differences about almost everything), all now share an interest in countering ISIS. To do this, Turkey has already abandoned the “democracy promotion” foreign policy it had previously adopted, in favor of Realpolitik. This return to some of the core tenets to the “strategic depth” foreign policy is a welcome change. However, Ankara faces numerous hurdles, as it continues to come up with policy solutions to the Syrian crisis.





About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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