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The Foreign Policy Essay: Turkey—How to Manage the Endless Syrian War

Henri Barkey
Sunday, June 15, 2014, 10:00 AM
Editor’s Note: The carnage in Syria is a nightmare for the country’s neighbors, saddling them with huge numbers of refugees, riling up public opinion, and creating a risk of terrorism. Turkey, one of America’s most important allies, is at the center of this storm, and the Erdoğan government—buffeted by crises and scandals at home—is feeling the pressure.

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Editor’s Note: The carnage in Syria is a nightmare for the country’s neighbors, saddling them with huge numbers of refugees, riling up public opinion, and creating a risk of terrorism. Turkey, one of America’s most important allies, is at the center of this storm, and the Erdoğan government—buffeted by crises and scandals at home—is feeling the pressure. Henri Barkey, a professor at Lehigh University, assesses the Syrian crisis from Ankara’s perspective and contends that Turkey’s ability to weather the spillover from the Syria conflict is not likely to last.


From whichever angle one looks, the Syrian crisis is a nightmare come true for Turkey. By quickly deciding to side with the rebels and insisting on Asad’s overthrow, Ankara transformed itself into an unwavering belligerent in this conflict. As negative as the consequences of the stalemate have been so far, they could have been a great deal worse. Paradoxically, the Turkish government that has had unending troubles at home with its varied opposition has managed the negative fallout from Syria rather well. The question is how long can it continue to do so? Three years into the civil war, there is no end in sight. The Turkish government’s predicament is acute. The Syrian conflict has upended many of Turkey’s relationships with allies and with regional countries. Syria had been the most emblematic success story of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s new “zero problems with the neighbors” foreign policy. Erdoğan and Syrian president Bashar al-Asad wanted to demonstrate that they could overcome past differences that had pitted the two countries against each other over issues of support for terrorism and use of common water resources. Not only did the two leaders succeed in getting close to each other, the two governments even began to hold regular joint cabinet meetings. For Erdoğan, this also represented the first concrete step in his foray into the Middle East not just as a neighbor but also as a player. Barkey photo with borderNow, however, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are completely invested in Bashar al-Asad’s downfall. At the start of the conflict, Erdoğan presumed that by putting his weight behind the rebels he would be speeding up regime change in Damascus; in fact, he and many others were confident that change would occur within six months. Obviously, they were wrong. The costs to Turkey range from the ever-increasing numbers of refugees severely taxing the social fabric in certain locations—not to mention the financial burden—to the loss of face for Erdoğan at home and in the region to fragmenting relations with regional powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. According to a recent Brookings report, there are a million Syrian refugees, most of whom have blended into Turkey and do not reside in camps. The cost to the Turkish treasury has already exceeded $2.5 billion. Furthermore, the Syrian crisis touches all the hot buttons of Turkish politics: the sectarian differences between the majority Sunni population and the Shi’a offshoot Alevis and the ethnic divisions along Turkish-Kurdish lines. Turkish Alevis have been particularly unhappy with Erdoğan’s identification with the Sunni rebellion in Syria; while there are doctrinal and practical differences between the Alevis in Turkey and the Syrian Alawites, there are familial ties that bind many Turkish Alevis to their Syrian Alawite brethren. The Turkish government has done very little at home to address some of the elementary demands of the minority Alevis, who comprise some 12-15 percent of the population (the remaining 85 percent are Sunni). Alevis feel the Turkish state has never accepted them as co-citizens with the Sunnis. For example, Alevis, who do not pray in mosques and observe different rituals, have wanted their places of worship (called cemevi) to be recognized by the state, which uses taxpayer money to support mosques; so far, the Turkish government has refused. The Syrian conflict has exacerbated these internal divisions and highlighted the Alevis’ lack of trust in Erdoğan, pushing many Alevis to support Asad. In Syria’s Kurdish regions—to the surprise of many, including Ankara and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq—the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has succeeded in imposing its dominance over the Kurdish populations in northern Syria. The problem for Turkey and the KRG is that the PYD is a close affiliate, if not a wholly owned subsidiary, of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been engaged in a fight with the Turkish government since 1984. The PYD’s efforts at carving out its own autonomous region threatens both Turkey, by providing Turkish Kurds with yet another example of autonomy, and KRG president Masoud Barzani, who, having forged a close alliance with Ankara, wants to be the most important voice in regional Kurdish issues. The PYD’s ascent in Syria gives Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, another bargaining chip in his negotiations with the Turkish government and also raises his profile at the expense of Barzani. Perhaps the most perplexing impact of the conflict has been on Turkey’s relations with the Iranians, Russians, Americans, and Saudis. It is safe to say that without Iran and Russia, Asad’s regime in Syria would have already collapsed by now. For Russia and Iran, the survival of the Syrian regime is of utmost national importance and, in the case of Iran, may even be considered an existential issue. These two countries also happen to be two of Turkey’s most important regional partners: together they account for most of Turkey’s natural gas imports. Russia and especially Iran, in turn, need access to Turkey’s markets to sell their gas. Thus, despite being on the opposite side of the Syrian conflict from Iran and Russia, Ankara’s relationship with both Moscow and Tehran has remained quite cordial. In fact, Turkey has helped the Iranians stay afloat as the United States has tried to increase pressure on the Islamic regime over its nuclear program. In 2010, just when the United Nations Security Council was about to impose a new round of sanctions on Iran, Turkey together with Brazil surprised everyone by coming up with a nuclear deal that would have scuttled the UN sanctions process. More recently, Turkey has started paying for its gas imports from Iran with gold exports, further relieving some of the pressure on Tehran. This past week, Iranian President Rouhani paid a visit to Turkey; the Iranians may want to discuss with Turkey alternative scenarios now that Asad has “won” the presidential elections. In many ways, this represents the greatest success of Turkish policy when it comes to Syria. Managing cordial relations with countries with which Ankara is in indirect confrontation—essentially by agreeing to disagree over Syria—is a real feat and an example of the Erdoğan government’s pragmatism. Of course, as the proverbial saying goes, it takes two to tango, and this pragmatic approach would not have been successful had it not been for the fact that both Iran and Russia have elected to live with the difference in policy. Paradoxically, Turkey’s Syria policy has caused friction with the United States and Saudi Arabia, though they are all ostensibly supporting the same side in the Syrian conflict. Turkey’s willingness to cooperate with Al Qaeda-linked groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra has upset its two traditional allies. The Saudis also have their differences with Turkey over Egypt: Ankara is seen as being solidly behind the Muslim Brotherhood, while Riyadh has bankrolled its overthrow. In Syria, Turkey grew increasingly frustrated with the moderate Syrian opposition’s inability to dislodge Asad. The opposition that Turkey had initially helped build up proved to be ineffective, and in searching for more potent fighting elements, Turkey began to allow the transfer of jihadists and al-Nusra sympathizers into Syria. This was in part a desperate attempt to shorten the civil war, but it has provoked a slew of disagreements with Washington, which has formally designated al-Nusra as a terrorist organization. Under pressure from the Washington that had been critical of Ankara’s support for the jihadists, Ankara too has now designated al-Nusra as a terrorist organization. Perhaps more importantly, with as many as 5,000 Westerners, most of whom traveled through Turkey, now fighting on the rebel side in Syria, Europe and America have recently shifted their attention to the security issues they may face when these fighters come home. In a significant change in policy direction, the Turks have now formally agreed to cooperate with the United States and European Union to track and apprehend some of these foreign jihadists. With the exception of one bombing incident in the border town of Reyhanli that caused 52 deaths and occasional tensions between refugee populations and locals, Turkey so far has not suffered from the spillover effects of the conflict. The odds that it can sustain such a record are small, and neither Asad nor the opposition seem as if they are about to give up.


Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

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