international analysis and commentary

Turkey on Syria: change of stance but no change of heart

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ISIS’s offensive in Kobane, along the Syrian border, has presented the Turkish leadership with a major dilemma, namely whether ISIS or Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD) – an ideological affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terror organization that has plagued Turkey for over three decades – was the lesser evil. The blowback to this indecisiveness was violent protests throughout Turkey at the beginning of October, which heightened fears of a PKK resurgence, exposed the fault lines of the country’s social fabric and the fragility of the ongoing Kurdish peace process. Two factors further complicated policy choices: the US’s disregard for Turkey’s reservations about a direct role in fighting ISIS and directly aiding the PYD, and Washington’s decision to offer military and other forms of assistance to the PYD. This combination eventually forced Ankara to revise its position, and allow the transit of Free Syrian Army and Kurdish Peshmarga forces through its borders into Kobane. Still, there are no signs that Ankara has changed its fundamental preferences and goals with regard to the outcome of the Syrian civil war: create a centralized state (without PYD-ruled autonomous areas) – preferably run by a mild brand of political Sunnism and get rid of the Assad government and ISIS.

Ankara has been at odds with its neighbors and Western partners throughout the Syrian civil war, lately especially over its policy towards ISIS. In the past few months, the Turkish leadership has been lambasted for its reckless open door policy to anti-Assad rebels, doing little to stop the transit of Western jihadists through its borders, and not joining the US-led coalition effort against ISIS. More recently, it was criticized for not doing enough to aid the Syrian Kurds against ISIS’s incursion.

The increasing visibility of the ISIS threat since March, as well as Western pressure, compelled Ankara to take some action. Over the past few months, Turkey has taken important steps to address the laxity of its border control measures and policy, and to increase its cooperation with its Western partners in mapping potential extremists. Yet the task continues to be arduous, both due to the challenging nature of counter-terrorist activities and the sheer length of the border with Syria. Furthermore the rush of refugees to Turkish borders en masse, at times in the tens of thousands a day, directly and severely challenges the country’s security and health screening capabilities – which provides an opportunity that jihadists may exploit.

Locked in the glass museum at night
Although the country has changed its initial stance (at least verbally) since the release of Turkish hostages in September, it is still very vulnerable to the ISIS threat across the border, more so than any other member of the transatlantic community. Looking at the domestic picture, Turkish religious extremist organizations are showing signs of revival in light of the successes of jihadi organizations beyond the border, as ISIS, Al-Nusra and others continue to operate networks in Turkey and attract many Turkish fighters to their ranks. The “return of the foreign fighters” issue is very problematic for Turkey, as both Turkish and Western nationals may, rather than going through strict airport and border security measures in their home country, prefer to use the debilitated Turkish borders – and potentially conduct high-profile attacks in Turkey, including on Western embassies and consulates.

As things stand now, one could argue that Assad has successfully crippled moderate elements of the Syrian opposition, and is now outsourcing the fight against jihadist organizations to the West. Ankara has conflicting goals: it desperately wants to avoid a scenario in which Assad retains his position after the war ends, but it also does not want to be the one to bear the costs of a sustained land campaign in Syria – which is quite possibly the only way to virtually eradicate the Islamist extremist threat, especially in light of the recent defeat of the moderate militants by Al-Nusra in Idlib.

With regard to the more immediate issue of Kobane, Ankara does not want to see an affiliate of one of the primary threats to its national security become its neighbor. Moreover, the decision to aid the PYD would be politically and militarily costly – perhaps akin to the UK hypothetically aiding IRA affiliates in 1990s. Ankara fears that direct assistance would both strengthen the PYD’s bid for autonomy and that the transferred arms may end up being used by the PKK against Turkey.

Hedging on Turkey’s geostrategic value
The combination of these factors, coupled with the pretty poor record of Turkish foreign policy regarding Syria, has initially led Ankara to limit its policy on Kobane to humanitarian aid. Knowing that its logistical aid, such as the opening of the Incirlik Air Base and the use of its territory, and potentially a direct military engagement on the ground, would be vital in the fight against ISIS, Ankara has tried to bargain with the US before committing to the coalition effort.

Meanwhile the PYD has been successful in riding the wave of Western sympathy towards the Kurds, both as victims and as resistance fighters, after ISIS’s brutal persecution of Yazidis and Christians in Iraq. Instead of PYD empowerment, Ankara would prefer to rely on the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Peshmerga for the reasons listed above. The US airdrops to YPG forces have been viewed with major concern by Ankara. Yet, amid internal and external pressures, the Turkish leadership had to revise its humanitarian aid-only approach to Kobane. The FSA and Peshmerga forces that transited through Turkey (although the PYD objected to FSA forces, Turkey set their transit as a precondition to allowing the Peshmerga transit), are fewer in number than Ankara originally wished and are unlikely to challenge the PYD’s political and military upper hand in the area, especially after the US opened direct channels of communication with the organization.

For the Turkish government, an ideal response would have been one that repels ISIS near the border areas to establish “safe zones” and no fly zones inside Syrian territory, which would be used to host refugees, train militias and as staging areas for further incursions against ISIS and/or the Assad regime. It would also entail training, empowering and ultimately relying on the FSA or other moderate elements which fight both against Assad and ISIS. Ankara has been trying to garner support for these ideas for the last two years – to no avail. Seeing that most NATO members are reluctant to directly participate in the US-led coalition effort, Ankara’s chances appear dim.

Given the highly uncertain outcome of current US operations, and Turkey’s geostrategic and military value, Ankara may choose to continue biding its time and trying to draw the US closer to its position before committing fully to the coalition effort against jihadists in Syria.

In sum, what we have seen so far is not a major shift in Turkish policy towards Syria, but rather perfunctory measures in response to internal and external pressures, aimed at saving face and retaining the ability to have a say in the coalition response down the road. In the meantime, the winner on the ground continues to be (in addition to the jihadist organizations) Tehran, which has strengthened its position once again by training an increasing the amount of Shiite militias against the ISIS threat, improving its relations with the US, retaining its influence over Iraqi politics and keeping Assad in his seat – all of which present challenges for Turkey in the long run.