international analysis and commentary

Turkish views on the Syrian civil war


Among the countries that bare the spillovers of the Syrian war, Turkey is one of the most heavily affected. Yet the public and the government have different takes on the issue. While Ankara is one of the biggest opponents of Assad, the majority of the public is against the government’s involvement in Syria and has trouble accommodating the scores of refugees that have poured into Turkey.

Expectations vs. reality: Ankara’s frustration

Before the Arab uprisings reached Turkey’s doorstep, Ankara and Damascus enjoyed the warmest relations in their history. They held joint cabinet meetings, lifted visa restrictions, came close to establishing a free trade zone along with Jordan and Lebanon. In addition, the families of Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had close personal ties, occasionally spending vacations together – all of this only a decade after Turkey threatened to go to war with Syria due to the latter’s extensive support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terror organization.

Ankara was caught off guard when the uprisings started in Syria in early 2011. For several months, Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu tried to convince Assad to carry out democratic reforms and cease responding to peaceful protestors with force. But these efforts proved to be of no avail. Ankara’s inability to utilize its close bilateral ties with Damascus, which it previously boasted as a success story of its “zero problems with neighbors” policy, exposed how the government’s trust in its perceived influence was unfounded.

Over the course of a few months, the Turkish leadership became one of the most vocal opponents of the Assad regime and began to host rebel political and military organizations on its territory. Among the reasons that influenced this drastic change in policy was humanitarian concern, which Ankara appears to be quite sincere about – in one strong statement, Davutoğlu likened Syrians seeking refuge, to a woman running away from rape. Turkey continues to accept refugees even though their number has exceeded every threshold that the government voiced previously – according to official statements, this number is now well above 600.000.

Commentators in the Turkish media also point to Erdoğan’s previously close ties to the Assad family and the feeling of betrayal that came with Assad’s dismissal of Erdoğan’s urges for calm and reform. Furthermore from a domestic standpoint, policymakers in the AKP government, which try to brand the party as virtuous and especially sensitive to moral issues, might have calculated that supporting Assad’s oppressive measures could have hurt their public image.

But there are also realpolitik aspects of the issue. The AKP government has been keen on establishing close diplomatic and economic ties abroad as a means of increasing Turkey’s soft power, exports and investment. Erdoğan and other government officials are frequently accompanied by numerous business people during diplomatic visits and sign copious economic deals in the process. For this strategy to succeed, Ankara needs stable and sustainable investment environments. So when a major trading partner falls into disarray, Ankara’s foremost desire would be the speedy restoration of a stable investment environment. Thus, when Assad appeared to be beyond redemption from Ankara’s standpoint, aiding the rebel groups (which Ankara hoped would depose the Assad government in a matter of months) was a means to both accelerate the process and secure future investments once a new leadership would be established.

In order to hasten Assad’s deposition, Turkey imposed economic sanctions against the regime, provided logistical support to rebel groups and tried to convince the international community on numerous occasions to intervene militarily against Assad. There is reason to suspect that Ankara has also provided material support to rebel groups, or at least lit a “yellow light” for groups that transferred arms through the country. While officials have denied providing arms to the rebels, the UN and Turkish Statistical Institute numbers show that Turkey exported 29 tons of arms and munitions to Syria in September 2013 alone (the Minister of National Defense argued that these were all for hunting purposes). The allegations have not waned, and have been the subject of parliamentary debate following Turkish media reports in January.

Yet Ankara’s hopes and efforts have been fruitless so far: Assad still remains in his seat, the Free Syrian Army is significantly weakened while the strength and effectiveness of jihadist groups is worrisome, the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey is close to the entire population of Montenegro, the Kurdish North is on its way to autonomy –  a major source of worry for the Turkish leadership due to its issues with Kurdish nationalism at home – and a military intervention by the international community is as unlikely as ever. Moreover Turkey has faced the spillovers and blowback from the Syrian conflict in numerous ways: attacks on border crossings, the shelling of Turkish soil, tensions with refugees, the downing of a Turkish jet, and potentially the Reyhanlı terror attack in May 2013 which claimed more lives than any other single terror attack in Turkish history.

Hence a diplomatic solution in which Assad stays in power would be the exact opposite of what Ankara has been striving for. The “inconvenience” of sharing its border with its enemy aside, Ankara would lose all hope for a rapprochement with Syria in the near future. It is true that, seeing that its pro-interventionist stance found little support both outside and within, Ankara has had to adopt a calmer stance; yet despite the attractiveness of a diplomatic solution, the option of keeping Assad in power would be hard to chew for Ankara. In a speech in Tokyo on January 2014, Prime Minister Erdoğan remarked “…we should make sure in Geneva 2 that an era without Bashar al-Assad begins… 130.000 people have died. The man who has caused this cannot stay in charge of the country. This would be unacceptable.”

Public opinion on the edge

Somewhat unexpectedly, the spillovers of the Syrian conflict have not given rise to more revanchist sentiments among the Turkish public. A Centre for Economics and Foreign Studies’ (EDAM) public opinion survey conducted in June 2012 showed that 57% of the participants favored non-intervention (41%) or diplomatic initiatives while roughly 35% supported various military measures. A panel consisting of 200 experts also favored neutral or dovish policies (88.5% in total) in the same survey.

These results were echoed by others. The German Marshall Fund’s 2012 Transatlantic Survey found that 57% of Turks were against intervening in Syria, and most of them opposed Turkey’s intervention even if it was sanctioned by the UN. The 2013 survey showed that even more people, 72%, believed that Turkey should stay out of the conflict.

The AKP’s Syria policy has become one of the most unpopular in the government’s decade-long experience – even among core AKP voters themselves.. A study by Metropoll Strategical and Social Research showed that 56% of the participants did not believe that the government handled the crisis well, while only 28.1% supported the government. Numerous other polls, some of which were conducted by pro-government centers, reached similar conclusions.

Threats to security are among the reasons why the public does not want to meddle with Syria. A direct intervention could cause the country to suffer many more instances such as the downing of the Turkish jet and the Reyhanlı terror attack. Moreover the memory of foreign regional actors aiding terrorism in Turkey is still fresh in the public’s mind – a poll by Konsensus Research Consultancy conducted in September 2012 shows that participants ranked the Syrian civil war as the main reason for increasing terrorist activity in Turkey.

Another risk that is widely perceived by the Turkish public is associated with Kurdish nationalism beyond its borders and its prospective effects to the PKK at home. An EDAM survey conducted in October 2013 showed that the biggest threat that the participants felt to national security was the foundation of an independent Kurdish state in the south.

The growing number of refugees is another source of worry for Turkish citizens. Less than a third of the refugees live in camps, while the rest are scattered throughout the country. There have been instances in which tensions have arisen between the local population and refugees, most notably in the southernmost province of Hatay. According to a recent poll conducted by EDAM in which the participants were surveyed about how the government should formulate its policy towards Syrian refugees, only 11% of the participants supported the open door policy towards refugees (this rate was 20% percent among AKP voters), while 86.2% chose either setting a threshold for refugees, stopping taking them in or sending them back immediately.

Even though the AKP has favored a very active foreign policy, the country has a pro-status quo tradition (echoing its motto “peace at home, peace in the world”). Attacks on Turkey during the Syrian civil war have been widely perceived as plots to trigger Turkish intervention and draw it into a “swamp”, i.e. put the country in a situation similar to that of the US during the Vietnam War. In sum, the majority of the public continues to oppose the government’s Syrian policy, and would much prefer the immediate cessation of the war in Syria through diplomatic means.

Although the effects of the Syrian civil war continue to be strongly felt by the Turkish people, one should also note that the agenda of the country changes quite swiftly – and 2013 was a busy year for Turkey. Currently most of the media and public attention is focused on domestic issues, particularly the ongoing corruption and judiciary scandal, and therefore issues such as the Geneva 2 negotiations do not appear to be the public’s and the government’s highest priority. While this does not mean that either side is disinterested in what is going on in the neighbor to the South, one should expect the country’s attention to be fixed on matters at home in the near term.