- By Gonul Tol
On September 5, 2012, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that the United States "lacked initiative" in dealing with the crisis in Syria. "There are certain things being expected from the United States. Obama has not yet catered to those expectations," he said. A year later Erdogan finds himself at sharper odds with the U.S. administration, whose decision to head off planned strikes on Syria has left him in a lonely spot both at home and in the region.
To Erdogan, a strong advocate of regime change, anything short of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster carries the risk of further weakening his hand domestically and regionally. Only a few years ago Turkey was praised as a non-sectarian actor mediating regional conflicts through its access to various actors from Iran to Israel, Hamas to Fatah. The Syrian conflict, however, has dealt a blow to its image as a regional superpower pursuing non-sectarian foreign policy. Turkey’s active support for the Sunni-majority Syrian opposition in what has become a largely sectarian civil war has projected Turkey as a Sunni power with a sectarian regional agenda, thus making it appear less impartial and leading to a slide in its regional influence. With the Saudis taking over the Syria portfolio from Turkey and Qatar and the establishment of the recent Russian-U.S. deal, Turkey has been marginalized in regional and international efforts to tackle the Syrian crisis.
Adding to that marginalization is Turkey’s stance vis-à-vis the Egyptian coup. Turkey has become one of the fiercest critics of the Egyptian army’s removal of the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. Turkey’s regional and international attempts to delegitimize the army-backed interim government will make it significantly more difficult for Turkey to cooperate with the new Egyptian government on regional matters. Saudi Arabia’s and Qatar’s support for the interim government will only deepen Turkey’s regional isolation.
The Syrian civil war has also posed domestic challenges for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. Turkey hosts more than 400,000 Syrian refugees, which incurs not only financial costs but also presents political dilemmas for the Turkish government in addressing the ethnic and sectarian balance within its own society. Hatay, Turkey’s southernmost province with a sizable Arabic-speaking population of which many are members of Assad’s Alawite sect, hosts Syrian refugee camps and has been the scene of sectarian tensions. Many of Hatay’s Alawites rally behind Assad while Sunni villages and mainly Sunni refugees often support the predominantly Sunni opposition. Tensions reported between the Sunnis and Alawites in Hatay have been a stark reminder that Turkey is not immune to the raging sectarian violence next door.
The ongoing fighting in Syria has also posed security challenges for Turkey. Assad’s forces downed a Turkish jet in June 2012, prompting Turkey to request NATO protection. Most recently, Turkish warplanes shot down a Syrian helicopter after it crossed into Turkish airspace. Since 2011, 74 people in Turkey have been killed by stray bullets and shells, and dozens have been wounded in Syria-related border violence.
Yet, for Turkey the most dangerous fallout of the Syrian civil war has been the resurgence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In retaliation for Turkey’s support for the Syrian opposition, Assad gave a free hand to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian offshoot of the PKK based in northern Syria, by allowing it to operate unencumbered, recruit new fighters for its campaign against Turkey, and undertake a pseudo-governmental role in Kurdish regions of Syria. Turkey’s subsequent concern over the advance of the PYD on Turkey’s southern border was one of the major factors that triggered its so-called "Imrali Process," in which it held peace talks with the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan. The talks attempted to convince the PKK to lay down arms and withdraw from Turkish soil. However, the PKK recently suspended the pullout of its fighters from Turkey, blaming the government for failing to take steps agreed upon in negotiations.
In another attempt to address the challenges posed by the Syrian conflict that complicate Turkey’s position at the border, Turkey sought to use its leverage over President of Kurdistan Regional Government Masoud Barzani and the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) to marginalize the PYD within the Syrian opposition and among Syrian Kurds. As part of that strategy, Turkey promoted the Kurdish National Council (KNC), the Syrian opposition group sponsored by Barzani, by encouraging it to join the Syrian opposition. Turkey has also turned a blind eye to weapons transfers from its territory to al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, hoping to boost the Syrian opposition and keep the PYD in check.
The Syrian civil war, however, has proven that Barzani has little influence over Syrian Kurds; the PYD is too strong to be marginalized, and the prospect of a peaceful resolution to Turkey’s Kurdish issue is slim without directly addressing the PYD. So, Turkey shifted course. It now seems to have adopted a policy of engagement with the PYD, continued empowerment of the KNC, and marginalization of al-Nusra. After turning down PYD appeals for dialogue in 2012, Turkey reached out to the head of the party, Saleh Muslim, and invited him to Turkey to communicate its concerns about the chaos in northern Syria and to encourage the PYD to join the Syrian opposition. Turkey also played an important role in what may prove a significant breakthrough for the rebels. The KNC has recently joined the Syrian National Coalition (an alliance that grew out of the Syrian National Council) after more than a year of fraught negotiations. In a departure from its warm treatment of al-Nusra, during its meeting with Muslim, Turkey took an openly critical stance against the Islamist group.
The constant shifts and fine-tuning in Turkey’s Syria policy reflect Turkey’s struggle to deal with the threats of a refugee crisis and a resurgence in Kurdish militant activity sparked by a situation over which Turkey has little control. Border clashes, security threats, the prospect of an autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Syria, increasing societal tensions in towns close to the Syrian border due to refugee flows, and the financial toll of those refugees have all increased domestic pressure on the AKP’s Syria policy. Once considered the regional superpower mediating conflicts, building bridges between the West and the Middle East, Turkey has now found itself marginalized in regional affairs. Turkey’s disappointment with its Western allies for not taking forceful action in Syria has only added to its frustration.
Faced with the multiple domestic and regional headaches that the Syrian conflict poses, Turkey has been seeking a swift regime change in Syria to end its troubles. But therein lies Turkey’s dilemma. The sectarian nature of the conflict and the fighting among different segments of the opposition point to the inconvenient truth: Assad’s departure will not end the bloodshed, and it will take years before there is a stable, peaceful Syria. Judging from Turkey’s record, it might not be far-fetched to expect another shift in Turkey’s Syria policy — one that would join U.S. President Barack Obama in promoting a controlled transition rather than a full-fledged regime change.
Gonul Tol @gonultol is the founding director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute.