Entangled in Syria

The Turkish government faces tough choices in how to engage in a conflict it wants no part of.

Syrian refugees at Islahiye camp in Gazintep, Turkey 370 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Osman Orsal)
Syrian refugees at Islahiye camp in Gazintep, Turkey 370 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Osman Orsal)
The end game of Syria’s brutal civil war, now 19 months old, is not yet in sight. But the recent escalation of tension along the Syrian-Turkish border – including the killing of five Turkish civilians by shelling from Syria, retaliatory Turkish artillery and mortar strikes, the beefing up of Turkish ground and air force units along the common border and a Turkish parliamentary resolution authorizing the government to take military action to protect the country’s borders – has increased the prospect of Turkish military intervention in support of the anti-regime forces in Syria, notwithstanding the Turkish authorities’ desire to avoid it, and the Turkish public’s opposition as well.
The spillover of the conflict into the Kurdish regions of Turkey and Syria has already complicated matters, and will pose further challenges to the Turkish authorities if they do become further entangled in Syria. Relations with Iran, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, are already frayed and likely to worsen further. And relations with Russia have also become tense, following Turkey’s interception of a Damascus-bound Russian civilian airplane, which Turkey said was improperly carrying military equipment to Syria.
All of this is a far cry from Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s strategic foreign policy vision of having “zero problems with the neighbors,” one in which Turkey would benevolently project power throughout its former Ottoman Empire, and help fashion a new Middle East regional order.
Syria had been an important part of the Davutoğlu equation.
Syrian-Turkish relations were historically fraught with tension for the most part, punctuated by Turkey’s annexation of the ethnically mixed Hatay (Alexandretta) district in 1939, a near invasion by Turkish forces in 1957, and again in 1998, as Turkey forced Syria to cease its support for the Turkish Kurdish PKK insurgency.
For a time, the ruling Islamist AKP government, which came to power in 2003, was successful in hitting the reset button with the Assad regime. Borders were opened, economic ties deepened, military contacts made; Ankara gave succor to the Damascus-based Hamas, and the decade-long Turkish-Israeli strategic alliance crumbled.
But as the Syrian uprising gathered steam and moved into the realm of violent confrontation over the course of 2011, Turkey reset its course again. It gave shelter to ever-growing numbers of Syrian refugees (now numbering over 100,000 in Turkey alone), political space for Syrian opposition groups to organize, and steadily ramped up its criticism of the Assad regime. Having embraced the democracy narrative of the Arab Spring, Turkey framed the struggle in Syria as one between the democratic aspirations of the Syrian public and an oppressive, authoritarian regime, this in line with Erdoğan’s successful civilianization of Turkish political life.
The democracy narrative, though, was only a part of the story, and far less salient in fact than sectarian and geopolitical factors. A s it evolved, the conflict in Syria became increasingly sectarian in nature, with the Sunni majority seeking to restore its preeminence and remove the longtime domination of Assad’s minority Alawite sect.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia, already the leaders of the Sunni Arab camp against the Iran-Syria-Hizballah axis, viewed the Syrian struggle as a golden opportunity to cut down Shiite Iran’s regional influence.
Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, fell into line, calling for Assad’s removal. And the US, Turkey’s NATO ally, viewed both Arab and Turkish support for the Syrian opposition as crucial to ousting Assad and stabilizing the region.
However, neither Turkey nor the US want to employ their forces to topple Assad, and the Arab states are incapable of doing so. Moreover, there is no clear military and political strategy that could achieve the Assad regime’s removal while maintaining Syria’s stability and unity, and thus prevent it from becoming a magnet for regional conflicts.
Nonetheless, the possibilities of more sustained Turkish action in the adjacent border regions and even the de facto breakup of the Syrian state are now more within the realm of the possible than ever before.
The author is the Marcia Israel Principal Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University.