Syria is in dire straits, the international community
remains fractured, and the "friends of Syria" -- which have lately been acting
more like "frenemies" -- have elevated their own national interests over the
needs of the Syrian people. Turkey is no exception.
At the outset of the crisis, Ankara prioritized diplomacy
over military action. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu sought to
convince Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to make top down cosmetic democratic
reforms to appease the growing anti-government protest movement. Yet, after
repeated trips to Damascus, Turkey gave up on Assad in August 2011. In turn,
a three-pronged policy of conventional deterrence, border defense, and, by
August 2011, outright
regime change brought about by external intervention via support for proxy
with Qatar -- and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia -- to arm the Syrian rebels.
The formula was simple. The two would work together to organize the Syrian
opposition, while also cooperating closely on the transfer of arms to proxies. Qatar
provided the networks and funding. And, Turkey facilitated the transfer of
weapons via Ankara Esenboga airport.
In tandem, Turkish policymakers turned a blind eye to the
rapid influx of foreign fighters transiting the country. Yet, in doing so,
Ankara has contributed to the radicalization of the conflict, worked at cross
purposes with its ultimate political ambitions, and has deprived itself of the
"strategic depth" it achieved after Hafez al- Assad expelled Kurdistan Workers'
Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1998.
Moreover, as the United States and Russia push forward with
their plans to host a peace summit in Geneva in November, Ankara now finds
itself faced with a slew of disadvantageous policy options that have largely
come about because of Turkey and its allies' inability to come up with a
coherent Syria strategy.
Turkey, after it broke with the regime in August 2011, has
been waiting for a U.S. military intervention, either under the guise of
Responsibility to Protect (R2P) or, after the August 21 chemical weapons attacks,
to reinforce the norm against the use of weapons of mass destruction. Yet, from
the outset of Turkey's pro-regime change policy, Ankara has advocated policies
that are not in alignment with the preferred position of the United States.
Ankara's embrace of R2P is not all that surprising,
considering Turkey's participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (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
Ankara continues to be uncomfortable with its relative lack
of military capability and has therefore sought to bolster its capabilities to
operate independently of both the United States and NATO. Yet, while it may be
tempting to think of this as a strategic shift in Turkey's outlook, these
efforts are, in fact, ultimately aimed at increasing Ankara's power at
international organizations like the United Nations Security Council and NATO.
Turkey's pursuits, therefore, are multifaceted and are
wrapped up in Ankara's larger efforts to increase its role at these
international institutions. This ambitious policy has yet to come to fruition.
Ankara, therefore, still finds itself reliant on the United States to implement
its Syria policy. And, it is in this regard, that Ankara made a strategic
error. Turkey, perhaps due to mixed signals sent from Washington, always
maintained that eventually the United States would resort to military force.
Given the sustained disinterest of the United States in the
military option, it was unwise for Turkey to build a policy based upon a belief
that the U.S. military would eventually topple Assad. Nevertheless, despite the
prevailing anti-intervention mood in Washington, Ankara continued to focus on
short-term policy solutions that were designed to be bolstered by a future
military strike. Thus, Turkey was far more interested in putting pressure on Assad
via the arming of proxies, rather than a committed long-term goal of planning
to "win the peace" once the fighting stopped. While Turkey did work to organize
the opposition, it did so while allowing foreign fighters to transit its
territory unimpeded. These two policies are in contradiction and work at cross-purposes.
On the one hand, Ankara dedicated significant time and
political capital to organizing a representative and cohesive opposition. Yet,
on the other, it played a direct role in facilitating arms transfers to groups
operating outside of the Syrian National Council's (SNC) armed wing, the Syrian
Military Command (SMC). Ankara's efforts, therefore, contributed to the
undermining of Salim Idriss -- the military leader who the West, Turkey, and some
Gulf states had sought to funnel weapons to vetted Syrian opposition groups.
While the West did Idriss absolutely no favors -- and, like Ankara, actually
undermined him -- they were not alone in doing so, and Turkey shares some of
the blame for the current state of affairs.
Yet, where Ankara differed from the West -- and other
neighboring states like Jordan -- was its intense support for the arming of all
of the groups working to topple Assad, as well as its open border policy. And,
as part of this strategy, Ankara resisted the initial U.S. efforts to sideline the
Islamist rebel faction Jabhat al-Nusra. While Turkey certainly does not support
extremist ideology, Ankara was willing to look past Nusra's ideology because
the group has become one of the most effective anti-Assad militias.
Thus, even after the U.S. State Department designated Jabhat
al-Nusra as a terrorist group, Ankara continued to quietly maintain that
isolating the group would detract from the ultimate goal of toppling Assad. In
addition, Ankara did not take any serious steps to stop the flow of fighters
transiting through Turkey to Syria or crack down on the Gulf financiers that
are alleged to be working on the border with the tacit permission of Turkey's
central government. Ankara did so because the group was essential to its
short-term strategy: namely putting pressure on Assad and checking the
empowerment of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), a sister party to the PKK,
in addition to the successful rebel-led toppling of the regime.
On the Kurdish side, Ankara has actively sought to prevent
the carving out of an independent PYD-administered Kurdish statelet in Syria.
Ankara initially sought to coerce Saleh Muslim -- the PYD's leader -- with
threats, but has since backed away from the coercive approach, in favor of political
co-option. Turkey has indicated that it would like for the PYD to join the SNC
and has held multiple negotiations with Muslim in Turkey. Domestically, Turkey
re-launched the then dormant Kurdish peace process, but the ruling Justice and
Development Party (AKP) has failed to put forward a package that appeases the
PKK's leadership. As part of this strategy, Ankara has cautioned the PYD
against undermining Syrian unity and declaring independence.
Despite these efforts at political co-option, Ankara
continues to quietly work to put pressure on the PYD. Ankara is alleged to
clandestinely support the extremist groups that are currently battling against
the PYD's armed military wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG). These
extremist groups include Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as the more radical Islamic
State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The Kurds
maintain that Turkey provides both with material support, while also
treating fighters wounded in battle at hospitals on the border and in Urfa.
Turkey's quiet acquiescence to extremist groups operating on
the border changed in September, after ISIS took control of the Azaz border
gate from the Free Syrian Army (FSA)-allied Northern Storm Brigade. The
ascendance of ISIS has compelled Turkey to take some steps to counter the
Ankara has shelled ISIS positions and, in a move Ankara
insists is not Syria related, has frozen
accounts of people and organizations linked to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In
addition, Turkey has worked with Saudi Arabia to incorporate
Jaysh al-Islam into the SNC, in order to create a more formidable fighting
force to check ISIS's rising power. However, the proposed arrangement has not
yet been finalized, so it is still unclear whether or not these efforts will be
Ankara now finds itself in a vexing situation. On the one
hand, the empowerment of radical groups on the border has become so substantial
that Ankara now faces the real possibility of losing its hard earned strategic
depth. The threat, however, comes not from the PYD, but from extremist groups
that Ankara played a part in empowering via its open border policy.
Yet, those same groups continue to battle with the PYD, which,
despite Ankara's efforts, continues with its efforts to prepare the Kurdish
controlled areas for greater autonomy. And, in addition, the extremist groups
have also solidified themselves as powerful anti-Assad militias. Moreover, the
undercutting of the extremist groups would also empower the PYD via the
elimination of the current security check on their power. And, lastly, Ankara
remains intent on putting pressure on Assad, in order to help implement its long-term
Syria policy. Ankara has therefore opted to incorporate the groups that it is
comfortable with inside the SNC, in order to counter ISIS, while also ensuring
that its continued arming of its preferred factions does not run too far afoul
of the United States.
These options, however, still lack a cohesive post-Assad
strategy to "win the peace." Ankara now maintains that once Assad is toppled,
the SNC will be able to quickly take power. And, once empowered, Turkey argues
that the SNC will gain legitimacy and thereby detract from the radicals'
growing appeal. In turn, the Syrian populace, working in coordination with the
SNC and FSA, would then turn on the foreign extremists and kick them out of
While Turkey has conceded that the international community
may have to deploy a small peace keeping force to help stabilize the country,
it has not indicated whether or not it would contribute troops to such an
operation. Moreover, Ankara is of the opinion that the deployment need not be
open ended, but only be kept in place until elections are held.
This strategy, therefore, still rests on the notion that
once Assad is toppled, everything will work itself out. Thus, even if there are
negotiations with Assad for a phased transition, Turkey believes that the
regime must be compelled to make concessions. In turn, this creates an
incentive to continue to arm the rebels. Yet, this strategy is also
self-defeating; arming of groups outside of the SMC contributes to the
undermining of the SNC's leadership -- the very group Turkey is counting on to
quickly assume power once Assad is overthrown.
While Turkey certainly does not bear all of the
responsibility for the current state of affairs, the leadership erred when it
opted to open its borders and to support fighters outside of the SNC. Yet,
Turkey does have a chance to correct its current policy. As a first step,
Ankara needs to close its borders to foreign fighters. The continued influx of
foreign fighters only serves to undermine Ankara's long-term policy of maintaining
Syrian territorial integrity. In addition, Turkey should seek to play a more
active role in the Geneva II process.
While Turkey and its allies may undertake efforts to change
the dynamics on the ground, it is unlikely that they will be successful in
turning the tide against Assad. Negotiations remain the only viable way to end
the Syrian conflict. And Turkey has an incentive to play a large role in the
deal-making process and should not scorn the process, due to its reservations
about the make-up of Syria's post-Assad leadership. Ankara should be more
flexible in who it would accept as a transitional figure and take steps to aid
in the political dialogue. Otherwise, Ankara may fail in achieving any of its
goals in Syria.
Aaron Stein is an Associate Fellow at the
Royal United Services Institute, a doctoral candidate at King's College, London
and a researcher specializing in proliferation in the Middle East at the
Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. He blogs at Turkey Wonk. Follow him on twitter @aaronstein1.
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