international analysis and commentary

Deterrence and diplomacy: Turkey and the Syrian crisis


After the exchange of artillery fire along the Turkish-Syrian border, the Turkish government is weighing the possibility to keep carrying on with indirect retaliatory attacks, and to send its troops into Syria, should their presence along the Turkish-Syrian border fail in serving as a sufficient deterrent. Turkey’s main interest is to stay away from a full-fledged confrontation with the Syrian military, as the risks of such conflict have the potential to affect the credibility of both Turkey’s government and military establishments. This holds true especially as, after the attack that killed five people in the border town of Akcakale in early October, a new deliberate aggression against Turkish civilians could lead to a Turkish cross-border operation. The government has so far implemented a wide range of measures in order to mitigate the risk of Syrian government forces staging further attacks, from the relocation of two mechanized brigades along the Syrian border, to a widely publicized inspection of the troops’ readiness carried out by the Chief of General Staff and the Land Forces Commander. The Turkish parliament’s recent vote that authorized the government to launch cross-border military operations against Syria must also be seen as part of the wider attempt to deter Syria, rather than as a decision related to Turkey’s actual will to intervene militarily.

While deterrence is clearly a strategic priority, on the other hand it must be stressed that Turkey is already involved in a proxy war against the Assad regime, in the form of different means of support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an armed group mainly composed of Syrian military defectors and civilian volunteers. Whether Turkey (along with Qatar and Saudi Arabia) currently is, or has been, providing FSA fighters with weapons and training is still a moot point, but it is hard to believe the FSA relies exclusively on weapons seized from pro-Assad forces, and even assuming Turkey is not providing any equipment, the FSA always counted on Turkey as a safe haven. Turkey’s stance towards the FSA, and the decision, back in August 2011, to host and support Syria’s main coalition of opposition groups, the so-called Syrian National Council (SNC), leave little room for doubts as to whether Turkey has quietly entered into its own “proxy war light” against Syria. Assad’s response consisted in entrusting the security of parts of northeastern Syria to members of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish political party that is considered an offshoot of the separatist terrorist group Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has targeted Turkish military forces and civilians since the 1980s. The PKK, whose members are mainly based on the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq, seems to have seized the opportunity and used the freedom of movement northern Syria had to offer to regroup and reorganize itself before launching a number of attacks against Turkish troops over the last year.

The PKK’s presence and involvement in the conflict is also a reason for Turkey’s reluctance to launch a main operation against Syrian forces. In an unusually ambitious and risky move, last summer the terrorist group tried to seize control of the Turkish district of Semdinli, located in the Hakkari province, along the border with Iran. The battle that ensued lasted about two weeks, after which the Turkish military eventually managed to regain control of the district. The battle for Semdinli, however, represented an important warning for the Turkish government, as it showed once more how the PKK has the ability to change its strategy according to the political situation of the moment, and how a strong military presence in the region is still required. At present, mobilized troops can roughly be divided between those deployed along the Syrian border, and those employed against the PKK in the rest of southeastern Turkey. The concentration of forces along the Syrian border required by a land forces-centered cross-border operation would work against short-term priorities, as it could tap military resources currently employed against the PKK, giving it the opportunity to stage other large-scale attacks in the rest of the Southeast.

Domestic considerations also play a role in limiting Turkey’s options in dealing with Syria, although it must be noted that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) can count on a solid parliamentary majority, good party cohesion, and widespread popular support. The main element to take into account is the legacy of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s foreign policy. After being appointed in 2009, Davutoglu launched the widely publicized approach of “zero problems with neighbors”. It was one of the conceptual pillars of a broader strategy, which was supposed to break away from Turkey’s traditional approach to foreign policy, which too often translated into an overly disengaged and supposedly neutral diplomatic stance toward the non-Western world. The concept of “zero problems with neighbors” attempted a more dynamic and proactive diplomatic engagement with Turkey’s “tough neighborhood”. The daring nature of Davutoglu’s strategy became apparent from the early stages of its implementation, when it became clear that the concept of maintaining good relations with other regional actors was implicitly taken as a means, rather than being considered the end to achieve. Syria became the Turkish foreign policy’s benchmark in showing this misconception – and then the biggest blow to the credibility of Davutoglu’s approach.

The Foreign Minister is now facing strong criticism from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s main opposition party, which accused him of following a reckless foreign policy, and of being responsible for having brought Turkey to the brink of war. CHP’s criticism seems directed at the fact that when the first signs of unrest appeared in Syria, Turkey was working on tightening its relations with Assad. In fact, only a few weeks before Syria experienced the first clashes in early 2011, Turkey’s deputy Chief of Staff was discussing military cooperation directly with Bashar al Assad, while in April 2011 the Turkish Foreign Ministry went as far as stigmatizing Syrian resistance to Assad’s alleged reformist thrust. While the process was apparently part of Davutoglu’s diplomatic grand strategy, the reality check eventually hit Turkey’s leadership in the spring of 2011, after the attacks against Syrian civilians intensified and the first groups of refugees started crossing the border. By that point, Turkey opted for a rather swift turnabout, and began supporting the creation and the development of the FSA and the SNC.

Since then, events have been pushing Ankara away from a purely diplomatic engagement and toward a dangerous military confrontation: as of now, deterrence remains the preferred path, albeit a narrow one.