Turkey’s Syria Problem

By Christopher Phillips, October 3, 2012

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Bashar Hafez al-Assad

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Bashar Hafez al-Assad

Christopher Phillips explains why Turkey’s recent regional resurgence in the Middle East is at risk of drowning in the Syrian quagmire. The crisis threatens Turkey’s regional ambitions and could also cause instability at home.

The Arab spring should have been good for Turkey. Over the past decade, Ankara has built stronger commercial, political and cultural ties with the Arab world than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman empire. Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is widely popular on Arab streets. Indeed, in the wake of regime change in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, many spoke of emulating the ‘Turkish model’ pioneered by Erdoğan’s moderately Islamist AKP party.

However, as spring has turned to autumn, whatever hopes Ankara may have had that like-minded democratic Islamist governments would emerge peacefully across the Arab world have slowly been dashed. Right on Turkey’s doorstep, the ongoing conflict in Syria shows no signs of ending soon. Yet the shape and scope of the conflict is not entirely incidental, and Turkey’s own missteps and miscalculations have played a major role in creating the quagmire that it has found itself being sucked into. As things  stand, the Syria crisis not only threatens Turkey’s new-found regional influence and popularity but could also cause major problems at home.

Where previous Turkish governments had shunned the Arab world, AKP foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s mantra of ‘zero problems with neighbours’ saw Ankara engage with the Middle East at the same time as it maintained close ties with the west. Syria – with its 911km border being Turkey’s longest – became the cornerstone for this engagement.  After settling their historical differences over water, territory and Syria’s past support for Kurdish rebels, bilateral relations saw a dramatic improvement: Turkish exports to Syria quadrupled between 2006 and 2010, visa requirements were dropped and joint cabinet meetings were held. Erdoğan even holidayed with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Moreover, by opening up Syria, Turkey opened up the Arab world. Syria provided a trade route to Arab states further south and, whether through dubbing soap operas or sharing an anti-Israeli platform, helped to improve Turkey’s image on the Arab street.

Thus when the Syrian uprising broke out in March 2011, Erdoğan did not call on Assad to step down, as he had of President Mubarak in Egypt, but instead urged reform. Turkish foreign ministry officials claim that they even drafted a speech for Assad to deliver that outlined democratic reform. As Assad was deploying lethal force against then-peaceful protestors,  Davutoğlu made several trips to Damascus to urge change, all the while insisting to Turkey’s western allies that his government could be persuasive. He was wrong. By August 2011, Turkey had realised that for all their closeness they had no real leverage and Erdoğan joined the growing calls for Assad to resign.

Ties rapidly deteriorated. Turkey hosted the political Syrian opposition, the largely ineffectual Syrian National Council (SNC), introduced economic sanctions and, when the opposition eventually took up arms, provided sanctuary for the armed opposition, the Free Syria Army (FSA). Tensions along the now-closed border escalated, with Syria even shooting down a Turkish jet in June, killing two. The possibility of NATO military strikes being launched from within Turkey in order to create rebel safe havens within Syria has been repeatedly mooted, though not approved. Erdoğan’s holidays with Assad are now a distant memory.

Why did Turkey turn so suddenly on Syria? Publically, officials make the moral case: they could not stand by while Assad butchered his own people. Perhaps – but Erdoğan’s slowness to condemn similar actions by Gaddafi in 2011 or by Iran in 2009 suggests a willingness to deploy realpolitik when necessary. Ankara’s actions are instead based on an array of internal, regional and global calculations. Contrary to some suggestions, Turkey is not simply following US directions to use the Syria crisis to push Assad’s key ally, Iran, out of the region. Erdoğan has his own agenda, which happens to overlap in places with US interests. Primarily, Turkey fears a protracted civil war and the collapse of Syria’s territorial integrity, aware that it could embolden Kurdish separatists, provide a safe haven for Islamist terrorists and lure in regional competitors.

Regionally, there is a desire to be on the right side in the Arab spring. Turkey, which had made no previous attempt to promote Arab democracy within its ‘zero problems’ strategy, was thrown by the events of 2011. After slow reactions to developments in both Libya and Syria, Ankara has sought to retain its high standing on the Arab street by replacing ‘zero problems’ with what Davutoğlu calls a ‘values-based’ foreign policy, backing democratic forces. Related to this is a further aim: to retain influence over Syria and the wider region after the Assad regime falls. By backing the Syrian opposition – promoting its allies the Muslim Brotherhood within the SNC and providing bases and support to the FSA – Turkey hopes to win favour with whoever succeeds Assad. This process can also work to contain the influence of other regional powers – not just of Iran, but also of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have boosted their own influence by sending arms and money to the FSA and particularly to the growing Salafist Islamist contingent within those forces. Turkey’s recent decision to cooperate with the Gulf states on the FSA – reportedly establishing a secret shared command centre in Adana in southern Turkey to coordinate rebel attacks – appears partly designed to contain the influence of others and control which groups get arms.

Yet Erdoğan – who, though elected, effectively controls all foreign policy, aided by Davutoğlu – has made several missteps and miscalculations. Firstly, Assad’s regime is stronger than he thought. On breaking with Syria in August 2011, Ankara assumed that Assad, like the regimes of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, would soon collapse under popular pressure.  However, despite a year and a half of demonstrations, sanctions and armed resistance, the core of the regime remains intact. Although many individual soldiers have switched sides, no whole units have defected, as happened in Libya, leaving Assad with a monopoly on heavy weaponry and air power. Although few expect him to survive indefinitely, dislodging him may require  the kind of very long, destabilising civil war that Turkey has sought to avoid.

Turkey also overestimated the unity and power of the Syrian opposition in exile that it backed. Rather than being seen as a government-in-waiting as was hoped, Syrian demonstrators saw them instead as being out of touch. Indeed, by promoting their allies, the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey helped to dissuade several key groups from backing the SNC, including Syria’s Kurds, Christians and secular Sunnis.

Within Turkey, critics complain that Erdoğan’s arrogance led to these mistakes. He believed that he and his advisors ‘understood’ Syria and its population, despite the Turkish foreign ministry boasting surprisingly few Arabic speakers or experts on Syria. The main opposition party, the CHP, argues firstly that Erdoğan was wrong to be so close to Assad before 2011 but then that he went too far the other way by cutting all ties so abruptly in August and demanding regime change, thereby removing any remaining leverage. Several columnists complain that, for the first time since the creation of the republic in 1923, the Turkish government is openly calling for regime change in a neighbouring state. Moreover, Turkey is hosting, funding and – allegedly – arming an opposition group, a practice it has long abhorred, such as when neighbours supported militant Kurdish separatists, such as the PKK.

Whether it was unavoidable or partly Erdoğan’s fault, Syria’s descent into civil war now not only threatens Turkey’s regional ambitions but could also cause instability at home. Well over 50,000 Syrian refugees have crossed into Turkey to flee the violence. Although this situation is containable for now, history provides countless examples of waves of refugees – whether Palestinian, Afghani or Congolese – sparking major strife in their new host countries. Ethnic tensions have already been awoken. Turkey’s 500,000 Alawis – of the same sect as Bashar al-Assad – fear that the influx of (mostly Sunni) Syrian refugees, many of whom blame Syria’s Alawis as a whole for Assad’s butchery, could turn Turkish Sunnis against them. Turkey’s Alevis, a larger group of 15–20 million people who share their origins with the Alawis, have expressed similar concerns. Turkey’s strong nationalist identity has traditionally spared it sectarian tension, yet some fear the AKP’s Syria policy could lead down that route.

Even among Turkey’s Sunni majority, the AKP is facing popular opposition to its increased involvement in Syria. While most Turks oppose Assad, a poll in the Zaman newspaper in July 2012 found that only 28 per cent supported Turkish military action against him, and barely 33 per cent agreed with Erdoğan’s current policy. This opposition is not just from secularists, who fear an Islamist government next door if Assad falls, but exists among many of the 50 per cent who voted for AKP in 2011. Despite holding a commanding political position, Erdoğan must be wary of letting the Syrian crisis erode his base, especially given his ambitions to become president in 2014.

In two important respects, fallout from Syria could prove particularly damaging to Erdoğan and his government. Economically, much of the AKP’s popularity rests on the boom they oversaw since 2002. Significant new AKP support comes from the manufacturing cities of central Turkey – the so-called ‘Anatolian tigers’ – that rely on Middle Eastern markets. Although Syrian trade was relatively modest and only a few regions, notably Hatay, have been damaged by the border closure, there are fears the conflict may destabilise its neighbours – notably the vital market of northern Iraq – and so hit Turkey’s economy in the AKP heartland.

The second major fallout is the implications for Turkey’s Kurdish problem.  The Syria crisis has exacerbated the decades-long armed struggle between the government and the PKK. The Syrian regime has largely withdrawn from its own Kurdish territories, allowing the PKK’s Syrian arm, the PYD, to fill the vacuum and provide their Turkish comrades with additional support. Moreover, the Syrian regime itself is accused of reviving its direct ties  to the PKK from the 1990s as a means to punish Turkey for backing the FSA, encouraging domestic terror attacks such as a bomb in Gaziantep in August that killed eight. Finally, with north-eastern Syria now effectively an autonomous Kurdish enclave, rather like northern Iraq before it, the pressure on Turkey to permit something similar in its own eastern Kurdish  territory will only grow.

Turkey’s Syria problem shows no sign of going away. Even if the regime is eventually toppled, the opposition has not shown the unity needed to hold the country together, and so it is feared that a civil war may erupt in post-Assad Syria regardless. Turkey faces a dilemma. The longer the conflict rages, the more likely it is that the instability it dreads will follow. Erdoğan seems reluctant to directly intervene, however, knowing it may make matters worse, creating a power vacuum that is likely to be filled by Turkey’s enemies. Having invested a lot of regional and domestic capital in toppling Assad, however, he can’t really step back from his current policy of backing the armed rebels in the hope they’ll make the breakthrough alone. Nevertheless, his does seem to be a strategy based on hope more than anything else. Through a combination of poor judgment and bad luck, Erdoğan now finds himself heavily invested in Syria’s future but with little control over how things are developing. While he and his AKP party may yet emerge in the elevated regional position they sought as the Arab spring broke out, the Syrian quagmire could still undermine and submerge much that they have built in the last decade.
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Christopher Phillips is lecturer in the international relations of the Middle East at Queen Mary, University of London.

“This article was first published in issue 19(4) of Juncture, IPPR’s journal of politics and ideas. The original is available for download from the Wiley online library.”

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