The Middle East Channel

Turkey waits for Washington

As Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits Washington this week, he will prod the White House to increase its support for the Syrian opposition and will likely encourage President Barack Obama to consider enforcing a no-fly zone. The powerful prime minister has been a forceful advocate for multi-lateral intervention in Syria, arguing that the ...


As Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits Washington this week, he will prod the White House to increase its support for the Syrian opposition and will likely encourage President Barack Obama to consider enforcing a no-fly zone. The powerful prime minister has been a forceful advocate for multi-lateral intervention in Syria, arguing that the international community has a collective responsibility to help oust President Bashar al-Assad and bring the conflict to an end. 

Erdogan’s request will almost certainly take on a more urgent tone after tragic bombings in Reyhanli — a refugee filled town on the Syrian border — killed nearly 50 people. Despite Erdogan’s close relationship with Obama, Turkey’s requests are not likely to gain much traction with the White House. And, in fact, the meeting is likely to focus more on U.S. requests of Turkey, rather than the other way around. 

As a U.S. ally, Washington will expect Ankara to support its recent push to hold transition talks with members of Assad’s government and the Syrian opposition in Geneva. The United States is intent on reaching a political solution to the crisis and thereby avoiding arming the rebels or using military force. Faced with few other options, Ankara is likely to quietly acquiesce to the request and tepidly support the most recent push to find a diplomatic solution to end the two-year old conflict. However, Turkey is unlikely to cease agitating for international intervention.

At the outset of the revolt in Syria in 2011, Ankara had been intent on carving out a leadership role with the Syrian opposition, but a series of setbacks has soured Turkish public opinion, and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) now finds itself on the defensive. Erdogan’s tough talk appeared to have been an ill-conceived gamble based on the idea that Assad would fall shortly after Turkey imposed sanctions on Syria in November 2011. However, as the conflict raged on, Erdogan quickly personalized the conflict and made a number of bellicose statements that he thought would appease large swathes of the Turkish electorate after the Syrian downing of a Turkish military jet and the accidental killing of five Turkish citizens by an errant artillery shell in 2012. 

While the Turkish government was rightfully angered by both acts, public discontent about Erdogan’s bellicose rhetoric, as well as increasing wariness about Turkey’s growing involvement in the conflict, led to a decrease in public support. Only 28 percent of the population now supports the AKP’s Syria policy and 51 percent want Turkey to be impartial or uninvolved with the formation of a post-Assad government. Ankara is now left with few policy options and is almost completely dependent on the West to implement its preferred policies in Syria.

Nevertheless, Ankara is likely to continue to aggressively lobby for a military solution to the conflict, pointing to chemical weapons allegations as the casus belli for airstrikes. Turkey’s policy reflects a genuine belief that the international community should intervene to stop the conflict; however, the lack of Western action is also a useful political tool to deflect blame from the AKP’s Syria policy. As long as the international community stays on the sidelines, the government has tried to deflect criticism by claiming that it has been abandoned by it allies. This narrative subtly implies that Turkey is the only state that has risen above its national security interests and is thereby the only country acting altruistically in its handling of the crisis. Despite its efforts, this framing of the issue has failed to sway the electorate and involvement in Syria remains unpopular.

Erdogan, even before the bombings, had turned his attention toward emphasizing the need for the international community — by which he meant the United States –to respond forcefully to the allegations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime. Erdogan told U.S. media outlet NBC News on May 9 that "it is clear the regime has used chemical weapons and missiles" and that Turkey would support the imposition of a U.S. led no-fly zone. However, Erdogan, in a further clarification after the release of the interview transcript, made clear that he did not support the deployment of U.S. ground troops.

In parallel, Turkey has launched its own investigation to determine whether Syrians currently being treated in Turkish hospitals were exposed to chemical weapons. Ankara has indicated that preliminary tests show that 10 Syrians tested positive for Sarin gas, but will send the samples abroad for further analysis before making any definitive claims. The combination of the tests and Erdogan’s statements are part of a larger policy of trying to establish a chain of custody for the rebels’ chemical weapons claims, and thereby force Obama to enforce his red line.

In tandem, Ankara will look to Paris and London to amend the European Union’s arms embargo on Syria. Ankara’s Esenboga airport is already a major hub for weapons transfers from the Gulf and Turkey would like to see the Western countries provide more heavy weapons to the opposition. However, allegations that Turkey has failed to distinguish between moderate and radical opposition groups when facilitating Qatari financed arms transfers could hinder its future role with European actors.

These efforts will have to move in parallel with its expected role in the upcoming Geneva conference. Ankara has never ruled out diplomacy to end the crisis but, in stark contrast to the Russian and Iranian positions, has maintained that Assad cannot be part of a future Syrian government. Just hours before the Reyhanli bombing, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey "supports dialogue aimed at a political transition in line with the legitimate demands of the Syrian opposition." The announcement came just days after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Turkey, purportedly with the aim of discussing events in Syria.

While Turkey certainly has a role to play in Syria, its policy options are almost completely dependent on outside actors. Ankara will not militarily intervene in Syria, thus its only real options lie with the United States. As for arming the rebels, Turkey’s role will, once again, be dictated by deliberations in Paris, London, and Washington. While Ankara will certainly be kept in the loop, Turkey will not be the decision-maker.

Turkey’s political quandary underscores just how out-of-step Ankara has been with its Western allies since the start of the Syrian
conflict. It also reflects Turkish political overreach and its lack of long-term policy planning. From the outset of the crisis, Ankara, partly due to mixed signals from the United States, has failed to understand Washington’s Syria policy. This has led Ankara to position itself far out in front of its Western allies in its handling of the crisis in Syria. Turkey will now have to recalibrate its policies to reflect its reliance on the West. Moving forward, this will manifest itself in the continued push to prove chemical weapons claims, as well as calls for multilateral intervention. However, given the political realities, Ankara will have to balance this with its efforts to help implement the U.S. push for a peace conference in Geneva.

Turkey’s future Syria policy therefore reflects a rather uncomfortable reality for the decision makers in Ankara — namely that it will now have to look to Moscow, Washington, Paris, and London.

Aaron Stein is 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.

Aaron Stein is a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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