international analysis and commentary

Turkey’s search for friends in an unfriendly neighborhood


For much of its history, modern Turkey followed a non-interventionist and pro-status quo foreign policy. Save for the Cypriot issue, where Ankara intervened in 1974 due to ethnic, political, humanitarian and strategic considerations, the country’s use of military force abroad has been limited to NATO and UN missions, and to combating the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq.

Yet all this was to change with the Syrian Civil War that has been raging since 2011.

At the first signs of trouble across its borders, Ankara moved to utilize its bilateral ties with Damascus to persuade Bashar al-Assad to quell domestic disgruntlement before it was too late. When that failed, Ankara became the staunchest opponent of the Assad regime, for a multitude of reasons ranging from humanitarian concerns to Realpolitik calculus. Turkey’s priority in the civil war switched to hastening the downfall of the Assad regime, and to that end it provided political, material, financial and logistical support to a variety of rebel organizations. Initial calculations in Ankara assumed that the regime would collapse quickly – yet this proved to be wrong. As a result, instead of setting long-term policies for a protracted civil war and its aftermath, Ankara followed a rather irresponsible approach of opening its doors to any rebel organization willing to challenge Assad’s forces. The ‘open door’ policy for rebels would change by 2014 after mounting criticism from the West and increasing spillovers into Turkish territory.

In the meantime, Turkey also hoped that it could convince the international community, or at least its traditional partners in the West, to take action against the Assad regime. Instead, the first ones to take Ankara up on its offer were actors from the region.

The Immediate Neighborhood

Indeed, Ankara was not alone in its wish to hasten the deposition of Assad and his regime. The Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, also had much at stake. For one, the regime in Damascus has been a longtime ally of Iran, the chief rival of Riyadh in regional affairs. Furthermore, the Syrian regime comprises a coalition of Alawites ,a Shiite spin-off group, the country’s non-Muslim minorities and secular Sunnis. Replacing Assad with a Sunni government would not only curb Iran’s influence over Syria, and through it, over Lebanon, but also give Saudi Arabia and others in the Gulf sway over Damascus. As Ankara made similar calculations, an alliance of convenience emerged, despite differences of opinion regarding the Muslim Brotherhood movement and its future in Syria and the Middle East in general. Within the first year of the civil war, reports on how Ankara allowed the use of its border to funnel weapons and funds from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to rebels in Syria had already begun to surface.

In time, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey would deepen their cooperation to move beyond Syria, and focus on curbing Iran’s increasing influence in the wider region. And while Turkey’s warming relations with the “big brother” of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, may be limited to just this temporary alliance of convenience, it appears that relations with Qatar may move in a stronger direction. A sign of this has been the recently ratified agreement between Doha and Ankara for the establishment of Turkey’s first military base abroad, in Qatari territory. Reportedly the two sides are also cooperating, at least diplomatically, on the broader region, including Yemen and Libya.

Traditional Partnerships

For the most part of the civil war, Ankara also tried to convince its traditional partners in the West to take military action against the Assad regime. Still, Washington would not budge, even after the chemical weapons ‘red-line’ of the Obama administration had been crossed in 2013. Instead, Turkish cooperation with Washington has come in the form of providing assistance to rebels operating in the field. Yet even in this limited sense, Ankara and Washington have been divided on whom to support and to what end. While Ankara’s insistence was that any support should target both the Assad regime and ISIS, Washington’s one and only priority had been to find local fighters that would go after the jihadists. Furthermore, whereas Washington has been particularly scrupulous on who to work with, Ankara’s choices have been led by a stronger sense of urgency. As a result, although the effort of both capitals overlapped on some particular groups, their broader projects such as the “train and equip” program designed to deploy several thousand fighters, collapsed. In the meantime, the limited number of factions that the two sides supported came at the crosshairs of other groups operating on the ground, most notably the Nusra Front – thus achieving few practical results.

However, over time the United States has been able to pull Turkey closer to its position regarding ISIS. Following months of negotiations and in the midst of ISIS terror attacks in Eastern Turkey, Ankara agreed to join the US-led anti-ISIS coalition in mid-2015 and allow the use of its airbases for coalition operations, while also increasing its attacks against ISIS, in the form of both airstrikes and artillery shelling. Conversely, Ankara has tried to convince Washington to establish a sort of buffer “ISIS free” zone on Syrian territory, near the Turkish border. While both the United States and Turkey are motivated to rid the area of ISIS, neither side has so far been willing to use their land forces to clear and hold significant swaths of territory. They also continue to disagree upon whom they should work with on the ground.

The Kurdish wildcard and Russian Involvement

The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – the Syrian affiliate of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK),remains the main source of disagreement between Washington and Ankara. The Turkish perspective has always been that any bid for Kurdish independence beyond its borders would exacerbate the domestic dimension of Kurdish nationalism. Though Ankara has overcome its fears to some extent and is among the staunchest supporters of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, it has strongly opposed the rise of the PYD in Syria. Washington, instead, sees the Syrian Kurds as possibly the only viable force on the ground that can push back ISIS. Ankara’s worries have been exacerbated as the PKK and Turkish security forces have once again, since July 2015,descended into a cycle of violence after several years of relative calm during peace negotiations.

Furthermore, although Ankara has been able to limit Washington’s dealings with the PYD with some success, Russian involvement in Syria and Iraq have stymied Ankara’s calculations. In fact, Moscow’s scattershot intervention in the region has been seen as detrimental to Turkey’s position, strengthening the Assad regime’s bid for survival, offering the PYD military and diplomatic assistance, limiting NATO’s freedom of mobility. It has thus rekindled the traditional rivalry between Turkey and Russia, which has now reached a new historical high since the end of the Cold War.

Changing Priorities

Through all these developments, Turkey’s priorities have changed considerably. By the end of 2011, when Ankara decided to change its stance against Assad, geopolitical ambition was high in Ankara; now, the government of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu simultaneously faces a jihadist terror organization – ISIS –in a bid for quasi-statehood next door, and a PKK-affiliated Kurdish political party consolidating its position in Syria thanks to the cooperation with both the United States and Russia. Meanwhile, two of Turkey’s historical rivals, Russia and Iran, are both strengthening their influence in Syria, Iraq and the wider region. All the while, the Assad regime remains firmly in place and has a better chance of surviving the civil war.

All of this has compelled Ankara to turn again to the NATO alliance for support, and pay more attention to the goals of its Western partners. For the time being, Ankara’s main priorities vis-à-vis the Syrian-Iraqi calamity have switched from offensive/revisionist goals to defensive ones. Ankara wants to curb Russia’s rising influence in the region and stop Moscow’s military provocations – an interest it shares with NATO. It wants to clear its borders from ISIS’ presence (though is struggling to find an alternative to the PYD to do so). While removing Assad is still a must for Ankara, an equally important goal is to retain apolitical role in Syria’s future – which means moving closer to the current US position.

In short, Turkish leaders have come to realize that their country is deeply entangled in the Syrian-Iraqi crisis but does not have the ability to independently pursue its objectives. While there may be some in Ankara who are interested in grasping opportunities to follow more reckless policies, this, on the contrary, is a time for more prudent diplomatic steps and serious but modest security measures.