Turkey’s Evolving Syria Policy: The Decision to Black List Nusra

The following includes sections taken from a RUSI piece I wrote in September 2013.

At the outset of violence in Syria, Turkey’s initial instinct was to negotiate with Bashar al-Assad, in order to convince the Syrian dictator to make cosmetic democratic reforms designed to appease his citizenry. Yet, after these efforts failed, and the conflict began to morph into a civil war, Turkey turned away from “soft-power,” in favor of “hard power.”

Nevertheless, Ankara continued to shun external intervention. Turkey therefore sought to organise a cohesive opposition, which would quickly assume power once Assad was toppled. Turkish officials reasoned that an organized opposition could overthrow Assad in relatively short order, without any large-scale military assistance from the West. Thus, in parallel to their political efforts, Turkish policy makers began to take an active role in the arming of the Syrian rebels. Policymakers believed that once Assad was toppled via Turkish allied proxies, the political opposition could swiftly move into Damascus, and begin to administer vital state services without much delay. Turkey was eager for a quick transition, so as to ensure the maintenance of a strong centralized Syrian state.

The policy was intended to prevent Syria’s Kurds from carving out an autonomous statelet on Turkey’s longest land border and to avoid the sectarian violence that engulfed Iraq after the United States opted to pursue its de-Baathifcation policy. These efforts have failed. And, as a result, Ankara has become increasingly desperate to expedite the downfall of the Syrian dictator.

In many ways, Ankara’s initial approach mirrored the policy it adopted after the first Gulf War. Despite concerns about Kurdish independence, Turkey, right after the Gulf War, eventually acquiesced to the creation of a “safe-haven” on the Kurdish side of the border. Yet in supporting this policy, the Turkish state had come to believe that Saddam Hussein’s days were numbered – i.e., there was a sense that the US would eventually exert enough military pressure to force the Iraqi dictator from power. In turn, Ankara reasoned that the need for the safe have would soon dissipate, as a strong leader replaced Hussein after his imminent fall from power. In short, Turkey did believe in the necessity of creating “safe zones” on the Iraqi side of the border, but did eventually have to accept tens of thousands on refugees on the Turkish side of the border. In Syria, Ankara’s initial embrace of the aforementioned political solution, eventually gave way to the embrace of the military option. Yet, in a political throwback, Ankara also advocated for the establishment of safe zones on the Syrian side of the border to protect refugees.

Turkey’s approach to the Syrian conflict is a reflection of its own security interests, rather than a belief in the efficacy of preventive military action to implement democracy in third countries. In fact, Turkey’s “Zero Problems” foreign policy has never embraced democracy promotion, but has rather been focused on using Turkish diplomacy to create a “Basin of Peace,” i.e., the lessening of ethnic, sectarian, and religious conflicts in the region.

In Syria, Turkey’s embrace of military action began shortly after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ceded control of strategic border areas to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – a Kurdish group with links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Despite fears that the PKK had gained strategic depth – and thereby opened up a second front apart from Iraqi Kurdistan – Ankara continued to insist that external intervention be sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) or framed under the still controversial legal framework of Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

Ankara’s embrace of R2P is not all that surprising, considering Turkey’s participation in the NATO operations in the Balkans. In fact, Davutoglu, in his book Strategic Depth, lamented the fact that Turkey played such a limited role in the air campaign over Bosnia and argued that in future situations, Ankara should, in conjunction with an international coalition, play a larger military role in protecting civilians.

Beginning in May 2013, Turkey’s Syria policy shifted again. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, before a meeting with President Obama in Washington, announced that Syria had used chemical weapons and therefore had crossed President Barack Obama’s “red line.” In turn, Erdogan prodded the United States to take a far greater military role in the conflict and announced his country’s support for an American led no fly zone.

Erdogan’s stark assertion lacked Turkey’s usual caveats about the need for UN authorization. Turkey, however, failed to convince the US to take action and instead had to alter its policy to support the American and Russian efforts to convince the opposition and the Syrian regime to attend a peace conference in Geneva. At the time, Ankara was skeptical of any solution to the Syrian crisis that envisioned a role for Ba’ath party elites in a post-Assad government. Nevertheless, at the United States’ behest, Turkish officials lobbied members of the Syrian opposition to support the peace process.

However, as these efforts stalled, Ankara once again called on the US to intervene. This effort took on a new urgency after the 21 August Sarin attack that the United States claimed some 1400 Syrian civilians. Turkey is one of the few countries that have overtly stated its support for American military action. And, in sharp departure from the fundamental underpinnings of Turkey’s ‘Strategic Depth/Zero Problems’ foreign policy, Ankara has overtly embraced US led regime change, as it preferred policy to resolve the Syrian crisis.

Turkey was dismayed after the US opted not to launch strikes. Prime Minister Erdogan had enthusiastically support the idea of US military action. Prime Minister Erdogan, for example, called for an operation similar in scope to the seventy-eight day bombing of Kosovo in 1999. Moreover, unlike the US, Turkish officials argued that the current Syrian opposition can be counted on to assume state responsibilities once Assad is forced from power. In turn, once allowed to administrate, the moderate opposition would bolster its legitimacy and therefore marginalize groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Turkey acknowledges that security may continue to be an issue once Assad is removed; however, officials believe that an international ‘stabilization force’ could be deployed inside Syria to help provide security.

And it is here where Turkey’s policy has shifted once again. Charles Lister recently wrote:

the Islamic Front, and particularly Ahrar al-Sham, had recently been forced into a corner by its backer/s — “publicly distance yourself from Al-Qaeda (Jabhat al-Nusra) or lose your plentiful support.” If true, this would go some way toward strengthening the suggestion that inter-Gulf relations, at least regarding Syria policy, were re-aligning closer towards the earlier mentioned dual-track objective of simultaneously bolstering moderate forces and isolating extremists. As such, we may well be entering a pivotal few months in which the place of Jabhat al-Nusra within the wider insurgency may be challenged.

Turkey and Qatar are known to be Ahrar’s most important backer. And it is also known that Ahrar’s leadership has ties to Nusra. Turkey had originally resisted the calls to black list Nusra and argued that the US/Western decision to do so only increased the appeal of the group. Moreover, Ankara also prioritized the overthrow of Assad over all else. From the Turkish perspective, Assad was the root cause of extremism in Syria. Thus, if he were removed, the appeal of the extremists would instantly diminish, and thereby erode their support within the country. In turn, the moderate factions would then be able to force them from Syrian territory. To bring this about, Ankara actively facilitated the arming of the opposition, whilst also resisting efforts to black list Nusra.

The rise of ISIS, however, appears to have changed the equation. Turkey now faces an extremely precarious situation on its southern border. 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. The PYD, for example, now govern three islands of territory Afrin, Kobane and al-Jazeera. And ISIS, has carved out territory from al-Raqqah in Syria to Fallujah in Iraq.

To combat the ISIS threat, Ankara appears to have succumb to the US position on the conflict and decided to list Nusra as a terrorist organization. The move appears to be in line with an overarching effort to empower the “moderates” – and as it specifically applies to Turkey, Nusra, and Ahrar, the drafting of the latest covenant – to put pressure on ISIS and the regime. To this end, Turkey is reported to play a role in a US led program to train vetted rebels in Qatar. The decision, therefore, should not simply be seen as Turkey finally “getting with the program.” Instead, the move constitutes a serious recalibration in Ankara’s approach to the conflict. (To be clear, Turks still think that if the US had intervened early on in the conflict, then the Jihadi/Kurdish threats would be minor blips on the radar screen. And this recalibration has been going on for months now.)

In listing Nusra as a terror group, Ankara has publicly accepted the need to combat the regime and extremists at the same time. However, as Lister notes:

Jabhat al-Nusra commanders have invested heavily in establishing healthy relationships with moderate insurgent leaders, which has meant the group has engendered little opposition on the ground. Within the currently prevailing dynamics, in which moderate insurgent forces remain comparatively weak man-for-man, it could be argued that it is too soon for Friends of Syria states to encourage moderates to actively oppose Jabhat al-Nusra on the ground. In the immediate term, doing so would also pose a significant risk to the prospects of ongoing battles with the government. Like it or not, FSA-branded groups are coordinating dozens of ongoing operations with Jabhat al-Nusra across the country. The unrivalled ability of Jabhat al-Nusra suicide operatives to break through established military defenses makes it a force that the insurgency as a whole would struggle to live without, for now.

Thus, while the Turkish decision may help it in the PR department, it is unlikely to dramatically alter the facts of the ground. Thus, Ankara is certain to continue to press for increased US support for the opposition. And in the long run, Turkey is certain to try and absorb the lessons learned from dealing with this conflict. Moreover, as in other crises in the past, one lesson learned is sure to be that Ankara remains too heavily dependent on the US for security needs. And this over reliance on the United States is likely to reinforce the theoretical underpinning of the “zero problems/strategic depth” foreign policy. Ahmet Davutoglu and other members of the AKP elite have long lamented Turkey’s reliance on the Western powers and have argued that Turkey should be more independent.

Thus, while Turkey’s foreign policy has come under increasing strain as a result of recent events in the Middle East, the idea that Turkey should work to become even more independent is likely to continue to resonate with policy makers in Ankara. With Prime Minister Erdogan poised for more political successes in the future – and Ahmet Davutoglu’s rumored candidacy for the Prime Ministership – it is clear that Turkey will continue to pursue elements of its AKP era foreign policy in places like Syria and beyond.

If you are interested, I have also included other pieces I have written about Turkey’s Syria policy below:

Aaron Stein and Michael Stephens, “Where Did it All Go Wrong? The Qatar-Turkey Power House Comes Up Short,” RUSI Analysis, Royal United Services Institute, 14 January 2014.

Aaron Stein, “Ankara’s bad Syria options,” Middle East Channel, Foreign Policy, 30 October 2013.

Sinan Ulgen and Aaron Stein, “Not the Real Deal: Ankara’s Take on the Syria Agreement,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 26 September 2013.

Aaron Stein and Esin Efe, “Turks Grapple with Syria,” Middle East Channel, Foreign Policy, 5 September 2013.

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About aaronstein1

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