international analysis and commentary

The Syrian war and Turkey: the risk of geopolitical contagion


With the landslide victory in the November 1 parliamentary elections, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has consolidated his political power as the head of the Turkish State. Prof. Ahmet Davutoğlu, the architect of Turkey’s most debated Strategic Depth and Zero Problems with Neighbors foreign policy concepts, will keep his position as Prime Minister with an increased level of influence.

Despite the media hype (both Turkish and international) on the domestic implications of the vote, the Syrian civil war is out there, and will continue to hold an important place in Turkey’s national security agenda.  The war will pose a major threat of contagious effects and spillover into Turkey, more so than in the recent past. We see potential strategic effects of this contagion in four categories: challenges to the Turkish airspace, spillover of the “hybrid warfare” concepts (now widespread in the Middle East) into Turkey, WMD risks that (with particular reference to ISIS) pursue, and major geopolitical shifts in Syria itself.

A “Balticization” of the Turkish airspace?
Since September 30, the Air Force of the Russian Federation has been conducting strikes over the Syrian skies. A careful assessment of the target set suggests that the campaign is mainly planned to target rebel-held pockets that threaten lines of communication in the regime’s geopolitical core, and to pave the ground for a decisive regime offensive. Thus, one cannot label the ongoing Russian efforts as “anti-ISIS” operations.

At the very outset of the Russian air-ground operations, Turkey has suffered airspace violations and harassment to the Turkish Air Force’s combat air patrols. We have seen these violations in different forms. Firstly, Russian fighter jets, particularly Su-30s, were identified and openly violated the Turkish airspace. Secondly, we have seen “unidentified nationality” violations by Mig-29s which are operated both the Russian Air Force and the Syrian Arab Air Force. Such an ambiguity forced Turkey not to directly confront the manned aircrafts conducting the flights, and triggered a “NATO airspace and southern flank crisis” in the words of Turkish officials. Thirdly and finally, we have seen a growing number of radar lock-on situations by Syrian air defenses located within Syrian territory.

The Russian operations have been enjoying much higher sortie rates and strikes when compared to the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. Thus, we might see more violations in the future that could potentially pose a “Balticization” threat for the Turkish, and thereby NATO, airspaces.  One of the major problems remains the ambiguity that stems from the overlapping inventories of the Syrian Arab Air Force and the Russian Air Force, especially as regards Su-24, Mig-29, and recently delivered Mig-31 aircrafts. Therefore, Turkey’s rules of engagement might be tested several times in the future. Such a trend would be dangerous, especially keeping in mind that although the Turkish Armed Forces enjoy good air defense capabilities at low and, to some extent, medium altitudes, its main defensive counter-air capacity relies on the Turkish Air Force’s air-to-air combat capabilities.

Terrorism spillover: new tactics and lessons learned from the Syrian civil war
The ongoing conflicts in the Middle East are mainly identity-driven, and regional ethno-sectarian tensions have been adversely affecting Turkey for a long time, especially surfacing in the Kurdish issue with the aspiration to redraw borders. In fact, the identity-driven character of the conflict is one of the main reasons for the current troublesome refugee crisis.

Yet, there is also a tactical trend on the battleground that may presage a violent spillover. Improvised explosive devices (IED) and suicide bombings have become the new reality of Turkey’s security environment and threat landscape. In this respect, both the separatist terrorism threat by the PKK, and the Salafist Jihadist terrorism threat by the Islamic State (ISIS) reflect their own lessons learned from the Syrian civil war (and before that, the Iraqi war) when targeting Turkish security forces and civilians. It should be underlined that the majority of Turkey’s casualties inflicted by terrorist strikes in the past months resulted from IED attacks.

Even more menacingly, while these terrorist organizations are fighting Turkey, they are also fighting each other using the Turkish soil as a new battleground. Under these circumstances, the Turkish security forces have to confront IED and suicide bomber threats, while the Turkish policy-makers have to manage a highly volatile balance of power in the region. 

The alarming WMD potential of terrorist groups
Recently, we have also observed signs of the Islamic State’s interest in weapons of mass destruction. Although it is not a “popular” issue in Turkey yet, WMDs in the hands of irregulars is one of the most dangerous contagious effects of the Syrian civil war that Ankara might have to face in the coming years.

In early 2015, US CENTCOM announced the death of Abu Malik, one of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons experts, due to a coalition airstrike targeting the Islamic State. This was tangible evidence of the ongoing cooperation between former Iraqi Baathist circles and ISIS. Furthermore, in 2014, a laptop captured from an Islamic State affiliate from Tunisia revealed the terrorist organization’s plans of producing biological weapons, particularly by weaponizing the bubonic plague. Last but not least, some intelligence agencies also publicly voiced their concerns about IS’s interest in radiological material and suspected attempts to obtain “dirty bombs”.

Given the current technological and life sciences trends, ISIS could potentially become a major chemical and biological weapons threat at Turkey’s doorstep in the next decade. CBWs benefit from dual-use technologies which are mostly commercially available. Furthermore, operational and technical know-how of the remnants of the Iraqi Baathist WMD program can support ISIS in building its Armageddon arsenal. It has also been reported that the CIA is not wholly persuaded that the Assad regime acted transparently in the chemical disarmament deal. These concerns could well include the deadly VX agent, which would be tantamount to a tactical nuclear weapon in terms of destructive effects.

Geopolitical spillover: Can Syria remain Syrian anymore?
Regardless of the trajectory and possible outcome of the Syrian civil war, it may be the case that Syria will never truly belong to the Syrians again. At present, the Lebanese Hezbollah controls key lines of communications along the Lebanon-Syria border, if such a border exists in reality. Moreover, Iranian Revolutionary Guard elements are reported to be positioned from Deraa in the south to Nubl and Al-Zahraa in the North, controlling strategically important places such as the Aleppo Airport, Mazzeh airbase, and Safirah defense factories. Last but not least, the Russian forces are holding the strategic gateway to the Mediterranean along the Latakia-Tartous axis, and the Damascus International Airport, as well as operating their forward operating air base near Latakia.

In the context of Syria’s prolonged and bloody civil war, direct Iranian and Russian influence in the country have become a bitter reality for Turkey. This will probably shape Turkish foreign and national security policy in the next decade.

In conclusion, there is a tragic irony in Turkey’s stance vis-à-vis the war in its Southern neighbor: Syria is the country where great expectations converged for the assertion of Ankara’s regional leadership; now it is bringing about the most significant threats to Turkey’s national security. Without a doubt, domestic political stability is key to fostering Turkey’s national capacity to confront these threats. At the same time, the country cannot afford internal political power struggles and further polarization, as the regional threat landscape has been seriously worsening and shows no sign of becoming more benign.