An Evolving Challenge: Deconstructing Turkey’s Syria Policy

“This article was originally published in RUSI Newsbrief (Vol. 34, No. 6, November 2014), https://www.rusi.org/publications/newsbrief.”It appears here with the gracious permission of the editors (who are awesome) at RUSI Newsbrief. 

An Evolving Challenge: Deconstructing Turkey’s Syria Policy

As the civil war in Syria drags on and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to unleash violence across the Middle East, Turkey finds itself in a difficult position. The foreign policy of the ruling Justice and Development and Party (AKP) towards its southern neighbour has shifted markedly over the past decade. It has moved from treating Syria as an ally that opened the doors to the oil-rich Gulf to trying to salvage President Bashar Al-Assad’s government upon the outbreak of protests in 2011, to eventually severing ties altogether. Most recently, Ankara has sought to avoid a resurgence of violence by Kurdish minorities within its own borders by agreeing to provide indirect assistance to the Syrian Kurdish groups battling ISIS only a few miles over the Turkish-Syrian border. It has also attempted to use the siege of Kobane to pressure the Kurds to join forces with its favoured Syrian opposition groups.

Given the fundamental nature of these shifts in Turkey’s approach to its southern neighbour over the past decade, in combination the country’s changing domestic imperatives, what is the likely future trajectory of Turkey’s foreign policy with regard to Syria?

For much of Turkey’s recent history prior to 2002, the Turkish–Syrian relationship has been marred by suspicion and distrust, owing to Syria’s pro-Soviet orientation during the Cold War and its support during the 1980s and 1990s for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a Kurdish insurgent group that has been engaged in armed conflict with the Turkish state since 1984. The relationship began to change for the better in 1998, after Ankara threatened to use military force against the PKK in Syria, forcing former Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad to end his country’s support for PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

After its election in 2002, the AKP prioritised the Turkish–Syrian relationship, under the guidance of one particular adviser, now-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Acutely aware of Turkey’s limited ability to significantly alter the region’s political status quo, Ankara initially focused on tightening ties with President Bashar Al-Assad, despite the AKP’s rejection of the regime’s Ba’athist ideology. The AKP described this approach as being akin to the West German policy of ostpolitik during the Cold War, in reference to the latter’s decision to normalise relations with its communist neighbour, the German Democratic Republic. The geopolitically minded AKP argued that closer relations with Damascus would advance Turkish economic interests in the oil-rich Gulf, whilst also providing Ankara with a key ally on the border with the energy-rich Mediterranean.

By 2011, the AKP had successfully cultivated closer ties with Assad – a situation that led to Ankara’s initial support for the regime after protests first broke out in Syria. In response to the unrest, then-Foreign Minister Davutoglu travelled to Syria on numerous occasions, even floating a plan whereby Assad would relinquish the presidency and instead assume the office of prime minister (whilst still retaining control of the armed forces and intelligence services).

However, when Assad rejected this proposal, in August 2011, Turkey upended its longstanding policy of support, severing ties with the regime and calling on Assad to step down. Perhaps surprisingly, given the AKP’s previous aversion to sanctions as a foreign-policy instrument, Ankara also imposed financial sanctions on its neighbour, based upon the reasoning that the combination of international pressure and a growing domestic insurgency would force Assad from power within six months. It thus moved to create a government in exile, operating from Istanbul; central to this government would be its preferred political proxy, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood – a group with extensive links to the AKP’s political predecessor, the Refah Party.

To hasten regime change, Turkey also opened its southern border to foreign fighters, in the belief that the flow into Syria of these fighters, along with weapons and funding for certain rebel groups, would hasten Assad’s downfall. Once he was removed from power, it argued, the government in exile could quickly move into Damascus and use a still relatively intact bureaucracy to govern the country. Once order was restored, it was assumed, support among the Syrian population for those foreign fighters that had crossed the border to join radical groups in the fight against Assad would evaporate.

This policy, and particularly the desire for a strong central state following Assad’s downfall, was closely linked to Turkey’s ‘Kurdish problem’ and the acute fear that the decentralisation of the Syrian state could lead to the empowerment of Syria’s own Kurdish minority. Damascus had proven itself a strong anti-Kurdish ally since 1998, when it withdrew its support for the PKK and, in preventing the PKK from taking refuge in a neighbouring state, it provided Ankara with much-needed protection along the Turkish-Syrian border in its ongoing battle with the PKK. The potential decentralisation of the post-Assad Syrian state thus threatened to undo these hard-earned political and military gains.

These concerns were premature, however, with Turkey’s plans for Syria suffering a setback in mid-July 2012. In addition to rebel infighting that prevented the formation of a cohesive anti-Assad force, the Syrian regime’s decision to withdraw its troops from Kurdish-majority areas enabled the PKK’s sister group in the country, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), to take control of the three Kurdish cantons of Afrin, Kobane and Jazira – known collectively as Rojava – on the border with Turkey. This not only threatened to reverse the security gains that Turkey had made since the capture of Ocalan in 1999; but also, much more significantly, the PYD has gained de facto autonomy within Syria.

In an effort to limit the PYD’s progress in this regard, Turkey has pushed the group to co-operate more closely with the Syrian opposition, ostensibly as a member of the Kurdish National Council (KNC) – an umbrella organisation uniting different Kurdish groups under Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq. However, despite both the PYD and KNC signing the ‘Erbil Agreement’ of June 2012, which established the Supreme Kurdish Committee (a political structure that brought together the two Kurdish organisations with the aim of co-ordinating political control over the three cantons), talks broke down over disagreements about power-sharing and security in Rojava – thus putting an end to Ankara’s attempts to tie the PYD to a longstanding ally, under the leadership of Barzani.

However, Turkey has found other ways to coerce the PYD into acquiescing to its demands, aimed at maintaining a strong Syrian state post-Assad. For example, although it opened the rest of its southern border it has continued to keep the Rojava stretch closed. Furthermore, in early October, Salih Muslim, a high-ranking PYD official, visited Ankara for a meeting with Hakan Fidan, the director of Turkey’s intelligence organisation, to discuss co-operation in countering ISIS’s assault on the Syrian border town of Kobane. In exchange for Turkish support, Fidan is reported to have reiterated the demands first made of Muslim as long ago as 2013: the PYD must renounce its ties with the Assad regime, end Rojava’s bid for autonomy, distance itself from the PKK and integrate its forces into those of the opposition Free Syrian Army.

This stance – and the trajectory of decision-making which led to it – is revealing. First, Ankara continues to argue that the defeat of ISIS requires regime change in Syria. Second, Turkey has tied this policy to its approach to the Kurdish issue. Third, the country has consistently sought to use the dynamics of the conflict in Syria to force the PYD to make concessions. This has resulted in a relatively hands-off approach to the violence unfolding just metres over the Syrian border. Ankara has agreed to offer humanitarian assistance to refugees from Kobane, and to allow some 150 Iraqi Peshmerga fighters to travel across its territory from Iraqi Kurdistan in order to defend the Syrian border town – following the United States’ declaration of support for the PYD; however, it is not supportive of more robust intervention, unless that campaign is tied to the broader goal of toppling Assad.

This approach is risky – not least because it threatens to derail revitalised peace talks with the PKK’s Ocalan, which were initiated in March 2013 in response to the PYD’s establishment of Rojava. Indeed, the PKK, and Turkey’s Kurds more generally, are already deeply suspicious of Ankara, and believe that it is supporting ISIS in its clashes with the PYD. Against this backdrop, Ocalan and current PKK leader Cemil Bayik have threatened to return to arms (and when this happened following the previous breakdown in negotiations 2011, the result the death of some 960 Kurds and Turks).

Ankara has since sought to find a middle ground. Prime Minister Davutoglu recently met with the leader of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas, in October, to ease tensions after the party indirectly accused the government of supporting ISIS. These efforts eventually proved successful, with the PKK, the pro-Kurdish HDP, which shares a similar political base to that of the PKK, and the AKP expressing commitment to continuing with the fragile peace talks.

Yet, on the whole, the situation remains uncertain for the AKP. The PYD has continued to pursue its ultimate goal of creating an autonomous Kurdish entity in Syria, despite Turkey’s efforts to prevent it from doing so. In Kobane, the clashes with ISIS continue and although the coalition of Kurdish forces on the ground, with support from US and regional air forces, has presented ISIS from taking over the city, this has led to political stalemate. Indeed, Turkey is unlikely to achieve its end goals while the PYD continues to govern in Rojava. Moreover, the ongoing clashes in Kobane have already undermined the AKP’s talks with Abdullah Ocalan, and could thus risk returning Turkey to a state of low-level civil conflict similar to that witnessed between 2011 and 2013.

These factors underscore just how difficult the Syria situation is for Turkey. After the start of the Arab upheavals, and the outbreak of protests in Syrian in 2011, the government has largely kept a lid on Kurdish violence within its borders through its engagement in the peace process with the PKK. However, that process is now extremely fragile; and Turkey faces immense challenges in pursuing its policy of supporting regime change in Syria while containing the persistent threats along its volatile border. This situation is unlikely to ease any time soon. And with few signs of a resolution to the current crisis across the border in Syria, Ankara will have to contend with shockwaves across the region and at home for years to come.

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About aaronstein1

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