The Middle East Channel

Turks grapple with Syria

After a chemical attack killed hundreds of Syrian civilians — up to around 1,400 people in estimates from the United States — in the suburbs of Damascus on August 21, the U.S. Congress is now debating whether to authorize military action. Yet, as President Barack Obama sought to rally a coalition of states to support ...


After a chemical attack killed hundreds of Syrian civilians — up to around 1,400 people in estimates from the United States — in the suburbs of Damascus on August 21, the U.S. Congress is now debating whether to authorize military action. Yet, as President Barack Obama sought to rally a coalition of states to support a military operation, trusted allies like Britain and Germany announced that they would not participate in strikes. In tandem, the Arab League, whose support for the use of force in Libya was critical for securing further legitimacy, failed to vote to explicitly support U.S.-led military action.

Despite the reluctance from European and Arab states, the Turkish government has loudly proclaimed its support for military action. Turkish opposition parties, however, oppose the strike and argue that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s support is just the latest blunder in the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) handling of the Syrian civil war. The opposition has consistently criticized the government’s Syria policy and for exposing Turkey to blowback from the conflict. 

Since severing ties with the Syrian regime in 2011, the AKP has continuously emphasized the need for the Syrian regime to step down in favor of a transitional government tasked with placing the country on a course toward democracy. At the outset of the conflict, Ankara had argued against external intervention, and had supported a Syrian-based solution. The Turkish government subsequently worked to maximize its influence amongst the Syrian opposition and supported the empowerment of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet, as the conflict escalated, Ankara changed its tune. It has signaled on numerous occasions that it would support an external military intervention, so long as it was sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council or framed under the controversial international legal precedent of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Now, Erdogan argues that the military operation should resemble the 78-day NATO-led bombing of Kosovo and should aim to force the regime out, rather than an operation similar in scope to the four day bombing of Iraq in 1998.

Despite Erdogan’s steadfast support for the proposed strike, Turkish public opinion has never been in favor of an intervention. In fact, after forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet in June 2012, a stray artillery shell killed five Turkish citizens in the border town of Akcakale in October 2012, and two car bombs killed 52 people in Reyhanli — a border town that hosts a number of Syrian rebel fighters — public opinion polls suggest that the Turkish voters are favoring a more isolationist policy.

The public’s anti-Syria sentiment has since grown, as skirmishes continue to injure Turkish civilians on the border and Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) — a group linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — continues to consolidate its hold over key territories on the Turkish border. In turn, the PYD’s recent steps toward autonomy and then the AKP’s decision to engage with Saleh Muslim — the leader of the PYD — have led to criticism that Erdogan is "soft on terror."

The AKP’s difficulties in Syria have since become a referendum on the ruling party’s controversial "Strategic Depth/Zero Problems" foreign policy. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has repeatedly criticized Erdogan saying that "the AKP’s ‘zero problems’ policy has rapidly turned into ‘zero working relations’ with any state from the Middle East to the Caucasus." 

However, from the outset of the Syrian crisis, the CHP has stumbled badly. The party opted to send two delegations to visit Assad to express to the Syrian dictator "the Turkish people’s refusal to interfere in Syrian affairs, and its commitment to good neighborly relations." Erdogan has seized on these political blunders and has since repeatedly called Kilicdaroglu a supporter of international terrorism and even suggested that the CHP may have been complicit in the Reyhanli bombings.

Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have shrugged off this criticism and argue that Turkey is pursuing a value-based foreign policy. Thus, while Turkey may face some backlash for its strong support of the rebels in the short term, Ankara’s decision, as Davutoglu claims, "to unconditionally support the demands of the Arab people wherever they are, and whatever the content of their demands are," will benefit Turkish soft-power in the long term.

The Kemalist CHP, the far right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) have all rejected this explanation. The parties hold the AKP responsible for the spillover of violence into Turkey and, rather unfairly, point out that the AKP’s Syria policy has failed to end the conflict. All have also criticized the Erdogan government for allowing foreign fighters to transit through Turkish territory, for facilitating arms transfers to the rebels, and for enacting policies that have made Turkey part of a regional proxy-war.

The MHP argues that the Turkish government’s primary responsibility should be to protect its own citizens and territory, and that military action in Syria necessitates approval by the United Nations. In addition, the party has spoken forcefully against the AKP’s tentative outreach to Muslim saying that it is an embarrassment for the Turkish state that a figure representing the PKK would come to Turkey under these circumstances.

The Kurdish dominated BDP similarly does not support any sort of Turkish military involvement in Syria. Yet, unlike the MHP, it has welcomed the AKP’s soft embrace of Muslim. Nevertheless, they differ in their long-term assessment about the necessity of maintaining a strong central Syrian state. Thus, while all three parties are unified in their anti-interventionist stance, they have quite different positions about the best way for Turkey to maneuver its way out of its current position.

While the disagreements are fierce, there are narrow areas of convergence. The AKP, the CHP, and the MHP, for example, all believe that post-Assad Syria should have a strong centralized government and retain its territorial integrity. In a rare moment of agreement with Erdogan, MHP leader Devlet Bahceli said in late August that "Syria’s unity and harmony should not be conceded on."  

This approach, however, has run afoul of the position of the BDP. The BDP has indicated that it supports the PYD’s steps to increase its autonomy. The BDP, therefore, rejected Davutoglu’s warning in July 2012 that any PYD-led effort for greater autonomy would be considered a threat to Turkish security. Turkey has since tempered its rhetoric, after meeting with Muslim on multiple occasions, and receiving some assurances that the PYD would only establish autonomy if it reached a consensus with the Syrian opposition.

Thus, as of now, the BDP has an incentive to support the AKP’s tentative outreach to Muslim. However, that support is tenuous and tied to Turkey’s current peace talks with the PKK. The AKP and the PKK began a peace process early this year and, in March, agreed to a ceasefire and tentative roadmap for peace. The process has since stalled and, in an ominous sign for the future Cemil Bayik, the current military leader of the PKK, warned that the process is heading toward collapse.

The internal debates in Turkey over Syria largely reflect the long-standing ideological schism in Turkish society. In broad terms, the CHP and MHP have rejected Erdogan’s embrace of Syrian Islamists and have promoted the Ataturk favored "peace at home, peace abroad" approach to the conflict. The AKP has chastised the CHP for embracing authoritarianism and for failing to move beyond its Kemalist-tinged perspectives on international diplomacy. Erdogan maintains that Turkey should play a far more active role in the region and argues that "a country that ignores massacres happening right by its side and does not act in response to the suffering of innocent people cannot have great ideals or goals." The BDP remains largely interested in advancing Kurdish autonomy, while the ultra nationalist MHP loudly campaigns against such a course of action.

The debate has failed to reach any level of consensus, which thereby allows the AKP to continue to largely implement policies unimpeded. Moreover, as of now, none of the rival parties have put forward a viable alternative strategy. Instead, each focuses on simply opposing whatever it is that the AKP proposes. Turkish voters, therefore, are left to choose between two extremes, rather than a middle road. In other words, it is business as usual in politically polarized Turkey.

Aaron Stein is a research associate at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and a doctoral candidate at King’s College London. He blogs at Turkey Wonk. Follow him on Twitter: @aaronstein1. Esin Efe is a Middle East analyst currently based in Ankara, Turkey. She has a Master’s Degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @esinefe_.

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