The Middle East Channel

Ankara’s bad Syria options

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 ...

Oli Scarff - WPA Pool/Getty Images
Oli Scarff - WPA Pool/Getty Images

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, Turkey adopted 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 groups. 

Turkey partnered 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 civilians.

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 group.

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 successful.

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 Syria. 

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.

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

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