Turkey's Unending Syria Problem
By Morton Abramowitz
Once the centerpiece of Turkey’s Mideast diplomacy, Syria now has turned into Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s biggest and worsening headache, a test of his leadership that can affect his ambition to lead Turkey from a new, more powerful presidency. Worse, it is not clear how and when the Syrian civil war will end, and even if it ends with Assad’s departure, the uncertain and likely unstable new Syrian state could affect Turkey’s own stability and draw it into unwelcome involvement.
The Syrian civil war has made Turkey a unique frontline state: a fierce critic of the Assad government, an impressive haven for refugees, a mobilizer of opposition to Assad, a conduit for arms to insurgents and a major voice in the coalition arrayed against Assad. Syria’s downing of a Turkish aircraft has raised not only the decibel level but also the possibility of direct Turkish military involvement. That remains unlikely—most of Turkey is against it, as is its cautious military—but the law of unintended consequences could kick in. The tipping point could be a vast outflow of Syrians to Turkey, adding to the thirty-three thousand already there and possibly leading to the creation of a protected area within Syria. In any event, the war will continue to affect Turkey’s domestic situation and its relations with the West, Russia and its neighbors, particularly Iran and Iraq. Further, it complicates Erdogan’s ability to concentrate and deal effectively with Turkey’s most pressing problem—its own Kurds.
During Erdogan’s decade in power, Turkey has been in the fast lane in domestic affairs as well as in foreign policy. His relentless activism, dynamism, economic success and departures in foreign policy made Turks proud and brought Erdogan international acclaim.
A number of episodes particularly stand out in the progression of Erdogan’s foreign policy and Turkey’s changing role in the world:
● He distanced Turkey from the United States at the beginning of the second Iraq war. This was in part ideological, in part because the Cold War was over. Turkey’s independent stand was popular at home; indeed, the Iraq war caused the Turkish people to turn against the United States, a sentiment that has declined only modestly. Though Erdogan was careful not to endanger the NATO tie, his initial efforts created a sense among U.S. conservatives that Turkey had lost its Western moorings and was descending into an Islamic state. Relations with the United States did not improve much until 2007, when Washington promised actionable intelligence help in Turkey’s battle against PKK insurgents in northern Iraq and gave support to Sunni elements in Iraq.
● Most attention grabbing was Turkey’s advance into the Middle East, which was perceived as further detaching Turkey from the West. It was predicated on a search for new markets, but it had a religious and ideological tone—that Turkey wanted to reform the Muslim Middle East and reduce Western domination of the area. Turkey expanded relations with Syria, Iran and Iraq. It sought to reduce strains with Iran by taking a very assertive role in the nuclear negotiations. In Iraq, it particularly improved relations with the Kurdish Regional Government in the North. It did not, however, distinguish between the democratic and autocratic. The policy was hailed by Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu as “zero problems with neighbors.” Only Israel was ultimately left out. Erdogan and his foreign minister have a deep animus against Israel because of its policies toward the Palestinians and its initially close relationship with the Turkish military. Israel’s strategic mistake in handling the flotilla incident after the killing of nine Turks put the tattered bilateral relationship in the deep freeze. Erdogan’s anti-Israel posture enhanced his popularity throughout the region. Washington did not like it but wisely stood aloof while muttering words of reconciliation.
● The Arab Spring caught both the West and Turkey by surprise. Turkey quickly did some fancy footwork. Erdogan asserted his prodemocracy sentiments and attacked Assad after trying personally to get him to change his ways. But his focus on democracy did not extend to Sudan or Iran. Few noticed, and regional attention turned to the “Turkish model” in an area that badly needed political change. With his incessant travel and appealing rhetoric, Erdogan practically became a rock star in the area. “Zero problems” quietly declined as a statement of policy. Hypocrisy is not limited to the West.
● The continuing Syrian debacle has shaken Turkey but has also emphasized Turkey’s role in the area. Little can be done to deal with Syria without Turkish approval. But despite its dominant power in the area, Turkey has refused to assume more militant leadership on the crisis. Turkey wished to see a more aggressive American role. Both countries seem to agree on weak diplomacy and the likelihood that Assad will eventually go, perhaps sooner than later.
● Syria’s impact on Turkey is pervasive and will continue for a long time. The violence has deepened sectarian animosities in the area. Whatever the effort to play down differences, Turkey competes with Iran in both Syria and Iraq over the fates of Shia and Sunnis in both countries. Turkey houses many Syrian opposition leaders and by all reports has tried hard to protect the Sunni Islamic elements. Both Turkey and Iran have sought to preserve a decent relationship, and Turkey remains dedicated to a peaceful outcome of nuclear negotiations. But there is no love between the two countries. Also at issue is the fate of Syria’s Kurds, a large, disadvantaged minority in Assad’s Syria. Ankara would not like to see Syria’s disintegration produce another autonomous Kurdish area, fearing its impact on Turkey’s own unsettled Kurds. More immediately, Turkey closely follows the activities of PKK elements in Syria. Should they engage in operations in Turkey, Turkish incursions into Syria are quite possible. Most important for Turkey is the maintenance of a unified central Syrian state. Nobody today has any certainty what kind of Syria will emerge from war, but neighboring countries such as Iran as well as Turkey will carry on their rivalry in postconflict Syria. Many fear Syria could become another Lebanon. We are in very uncertain territory.
● The Syrian predicament has led to some evolution of Turkish foreign policy, but it is hard to be categorical at this time. Turkey detests Russia’s role in Syria, and relations have cooled slightly. But Russia remains Turkey’s major oil supplier and has become even more important given the impact of sanctions on Iran’s oil exports. Turkey’s star in the Middle East still shines as an aid giver, investor and supporter of democracy. But it does not appear to have much direct influence in most Arab countries, though it certainly works at it. Most significant, perhaps, have been improved relations with the West and continued interest in and involvement with NATO, including participation in the politically difficult antimissile radar project and at least trying to move ahead with stalled EU negotiations. There also is a recognition that the Arab world is very fluid, that the results of its revolutions are unpredictable and that for a long time to come, effective power will reside outside the Middle East. This does not mean that Erdogan will ease up on Turkey’s economic expansion or drop his goal of revolutionizing the Muslim Middle East under Turkish tutelage. But it will be a lot more difficult and take longer than he may have once expected. Meanwhile, Turkey needs good, powerful allies. Much of its arms come from the West. Erdogan’s relations with Obama have remained very close.
● Lastly, there is the continuing domestic impact—and it is not good. Syria is a major political issue, and there is much political grousing about Erdogan’s handling of the war. Turkey does not want to go to war. But Erdogan simply cannot appear weak. He continues to rant about critics of his Syrian policy, often calling the media traitors if they question his efforts. Syria also takes energy, time and resources away from critical domestic problems, notably the Kurdish issue, on which Erdogan, despite some serious effort, has been unable to find a way forward. PKK violence has significantly increased, complicating his attempts to navigate toward a settlement. There is one unusual development: after ten years of relentless attack and the arrests of many active and retired senior officers, the military has become much more important to Erdogan because of Syria and the PKK. The system clearly has been weakened, and Erdogan does not want more hassles with his military. He has eased off on the legal campaign against past military activities, which has raised hackles with a strong supporter—the Gulen movement. Whether this has lasting domestic political impact is hard to say. The military is certainly not going away anytime soon.
Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, was American ambassador to Turkey 1989–91.