▲Trilateral Summit of Russia, Turkey and Iran in Sochi, November 2017 [Presidency of Turkey]
ANALYSIS / Albert Vidal and Alba Redondo [Spanish version]
Turkey's response to the Syrian Civil War (SCW) has gone through several phases, instructed by changing circumstances, both domestic and foreign. From supporting Sunni rebels with questionable organizational affiliations, to being a target of the Islamic State (IS), to surviving a coup attempt in 2016, a constant theme underpinning Turkish foreign policy decisions has been the Kurdish question. Despite an initially aggressive anti-Assad stance at the onset of the Syrian war, the success and growing strength of the Kurdish opposition as a result of their role in the anti-IS coalition has significantly reordered Turkish foreign policy priorities.
Relations between Turkey and Syria have been riven with difficulties over the past century. The Euphrates River, which originates in Turkey, has been one of the main causes of confrontation, with the construction of dams by Turkey limiting water flow to Syria, causing losses in agriculture and negatively impacting the Syrian economy. This issue is not confined to the past, as the ongoing GAP project (Project of the Southeast of Anatolia) threatens to further compromise water supplies to both Iraq and Syria through the construction of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric dams.
Besides resource issues, the previous support of Hafez al-Assad to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the 1980s and '90s severely strained relations between the two countries, with conflict narrowly avoided with the signing of the Adana Protocol in 1998. Another source of conflict between the two countries relates to territorial claims made by both nations over the disputed Hatay province; still claimed by Syria, but administered by Turkey, which incorporated it into its territory in 1939.
Notwithstanding the above-mentioned issues between the nations - to name but a few - Syria and Turkey enjoyed a good relationship in the decade prior to the Arab Spring. The response to the Syrian regime's reaction to the uprisings by the international community has been mixed, and Turkey was no less unsure about how to position itself; eventually opting to support the opposition. As a result, Turkey offered protection on its territories to the rebels, as well as opening its borders to Syrian refugees This decision signaled the initial stage of decline in relations between the two countries, and the situation significantly worsened after the downing of a Turkish jet on 22 June 2012 by Syrian forces. Border clashes ensued, but without direct intervention of the Turkish Armed Forces.
From a foreign policy perspective, there were two primary reasons for the reversal of Turkey's non-intervention policy. The first was an increasing string of attacks by the Islamic State (IS) in the summer of 2015 in Suruç, the Central Station in Ankara, and the Atatürk Airport in Istanbul. The second, and arguably more important one, was Turkish fears of the creation of a Kurdish proto-state in neighboring Syria and Iraq. This led to the initiation of Operation Shield of the Euphrates (also known as the Jarablus Offensive), considered one of the first instances of direct military intervention by Turkey in Syria since the SCW began, with the aim of securing an area in the North of Syria free of control of IS and the Party of the Democratic Union (PYD) factions. The Jarablus Offensive was supported by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations (nations' right to self-defense), as well as a number United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions (Nos. 1373, 2170, 2178) corresponding to the global responsibility of countries to fight terrorism. Despite being a success in meeting its objectives, the Jarablus Offensive ended prematurely in March 2017 , without Turkey ruling out the possibility of similar future interventions.
Domestically, military intervention and a more assertive stance by Erdogan was aimed at garnering public support from both Turkish nationalist parties − notably, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Great Unity Party (BBP) − as well as the general public for proposed constitutional changes that would lend Erdogan greater executive powers as president. Along those lines, a distraction campaign abroad was more than welcome, given the internal unrest following the coup attempt in July 2016.
Despite Turkey's growing assertiveness in neighboring Syria, Turkish military intervention does not necessarily signal strength. On the contrary, Erdogan's effective invasion of northern Syria occurred only after a number of events transpired in neighboring Syria and Iraq that threatened to undermine Turkish objectives both at home and abroad. Thus, the United States' limited intervention, and the failure of rebel forces to successfully uproot the Assad regime, meant the perpetuation of the terrorist threat but, more importantly, the continued strengthening of the Kurdish factions that have, throughout, constituted one of the most effective fighting force against IS. In effect, the success of the Kurds in the anti-IS coalition had gained it global recognition akin to that earned by most nation states; recognition that came with funding and the provision of arms. An armed Kurdish constituency, increasingly gaining legitimacy for its anti-IS efforts, is arguably the primary reason for both Turkish military intervention today, but also, a seemingly shifting stance vis-à-vis the question of Assad's position in the aftermath of the SCW.
▲Erdogan visits the command center for Operation Olive Branch, January 2018 [Presidency of Turkey]
Shifting Sand: Turkey's Changing Stance vis-à-vis Assad
While Turkey aggressively supported the removal of Assad at the outset of the SCW, this idea has increasingly come to take a back seat to more important foreign policy issues regarding Turkey and its neighboring states, Syria and Iraq. In fact, recent statements by Turkish officials openly acknowledge the longevity and resilience of the government of Assad, a move that strategically leaves the door open to future reconciliation between the two parties, and reinforces a by now widely supported view that Assad is likely to be part and parcel of any future Syria deal. Thus, on 20th January 2017, Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, Mehmet Şimşek said: "We cannot keep saying that Assad should leave. A deal without Assad is not realistic."
This relaxation of rhetoric towards Assad coincides with a Turkish pivot towards Assad's allies in the conflict (Iran and Russia) in its attempts to achieve a resolution of the conflict, yet the official Turkish position regarding Assad lacks consistency, and appears to be more dependent on prevailing circumstances. Recently, a war of words initiated by Erdogan with the Syrian president played out in the media, in which the former accused Assad of being a terrorist. Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem, for his part, responded by accusing Erdogan of being responsible for the bloodshed of the Syrian people.
On January 2, 2018, Syrian shells were fired into Turkish territory by forces loyal to Assad. The launch provoked an immediate response from Turkey. On January 18, Mevlüt Çavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, announced that his country intends to carry out an air intervention in the Syrian regions of Afrin and Manbij. A few days later, Operation Olive Branch was launched under the pretext of creating a "security zone" in Afrin (in Syria’s Aleppo province) yet has been almost entirely focused on uprooting what Erdogan claims are Kurdish "terrorists", may of which belong to US-backed Kurdish factions that have played a crucial role in the anti-IS coalition. The operation was allegedly initiated in response to US plans of creating a 30.000 Syrian Kurds border force. As Erdogan commented in a recent speech: "A country we call an ally is insisting on forming a terror army on our borders. What can that terror army target but Turkey? Our mission is to strangle it before it's even born." This has significantly strained relations between the two countries, and triggered an official response from NATO in an attempt to avoid full frontal confrontation between the NATO allies in Manbij.
The US is seeking a balance between the Kurds and Turkey in the region, but it has maintained its formal support for the SDF. Nevertheless, according to analyst Nicholas Heras, the US will not help the Kurds in Afrin due to the fact that its intervention is only active in counter-IS mission areas; geographically starting from Manbij (thus Afrin not falling under US military protection).
The Impact of the Syrian Conflict on Turkey's International Relations
The Syrian conflict has strongly impacted on Turkish relations with a host of international actors, of which the most central to both Turkey and the conflict are Russia, the US, the European Union and Iran.
The demolition of a Russian SU-24 aircraft in 2015 caused a deterioration of relations between Russia and Turkey. However, thanks to the Turkish president’s apologies to Putin in June 2016, relations were normalized and a new era of cooperation between both countries has seemingly begun. This cooperation reached a high point in September of the same year when Turkey bought an S-400 defense missile system from Russia, despite warnings from its NATO allies. Further, the Russian company ROSATOM has planned the construction of a nuclear plant in Turkey worth $20 million. Thus, it can be said that cooperation between the two nations has been strengthened in the military and economic spheres.
Despite an improvement in relations however, there remain to be significant differences between both countries, particularly regarding foreign policy perspectives. On the one hand, Russia sees the Kurds as important allies in the fight against IS; consequently perceiving them to be essential to participants in post-conflict resolution (PCR) meetings. On the other, Turkey's priority is the removal of Assad and the prevention of Kurdish federalism, which translates into its rejection of including the Kurds in PCR talks. Notwithstanding, relations appear to be quite strong at the moment, and this may be due to the fact that the hostility (in the case of Turkey, growing) of both countries towards their Western counterparts trumps their disagreements regarding the Syrian conflict.
The situation regarding Turkish relations with the US is more ambiguous. By virtue of belonging to NATO, both countries share important working ties. However, even a cursory glance at recent developments suggests that these relations have been deteriorating, despite the NATO connection. The main problem between Washington and Ankara has been the Kurdish question, since the US supports the Popular Protection Units (YPG) militias in the SCW, yet the YPG are considered a designated terrorist outfit in Turkey. How the relationship will evolve is yet to be seen, and essentially revolves around both parties reaching an agreement regarding the Kurdish question. Currently, the near showdown in northern Syria is proving to be a stalemate, with Turkey clearly signaling its unwillingness to back down on the Kurdish issue, and the US risking serious face loss should it succumb to Turkey's demands. Support to the Kurds has typically been predicated on their role in the anti-IS campaign yet, with the campaign dying down, the US finds itself in a bind as it attempts to justify its continued presence in Syria. This presence is crucial to maintaining a footprint in the region and, more importantly, preventing the complete political domination of the political scene by Russia and Iran.
Beyond the Middle East scene, the US’s refusal to extradite Fetullah Gülen, a staunch enemy that, according to Ankara, was one of the instigators of the failed coup of 2016, has further strained relations. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, only 10% of Turks trust President Donald Trump. In turn, Turkey recently stated that its agreements with the US are losing their validity. Erdogan has stressed that the dissolution of ties between both countries will seriously affect the legal and economic sphere. Furthermore, the Turk Zarrab has been found guilty in a New York trial for helping Iran evade sanctions through enabling a money-laundering scheme that filtered through US banks. This has been a big issue for Turkey, because one of the accused had ties with Erdogan's AKP party. However, Erdogan has cast the trial as a continuation of the coup attempt, and has organized a media campaign to spread the idea that Zarrab was one of the authors of the conspiracy against Turkey.
With regards the EU, relations have also soured, despite Turkey and the EU enjoying strong economic ties. As a result of Erdogan's "purge", the rapidly deteriorating situation of freedoms in Turkey have strained relations with Europe. In November 2016, the European Parliament voted to suspend EU accession negotiations with Turkey, due to human rights issues and the state of the rule of law in Turkey. By increasingly adopting the practices of an autocratic regime, Turkey's access to the EU will be essentially impossible. In a recent encounter between the Turkish and French presidents, French president Emmanuel Macron emphasized continuing EU-Turkey ties, yet suggested that there was no realistic chance of Turkey joining the EU in the near future.
Since 2017, following Erdogan’s victory in the constitutional referendum in favor of changing over from a parliamentary to a presidential system, access negotiations to the EU have effectively ceased. In addition, various European organs that deal with human rights issues have placed Turkey on "black" lists, based on their assessment that the state of democracy in Turkey is in serious jeopardy thanks to the AKP.
Another issue in relation to the Syrian conflict between the EU and Turkey relates to the refugee issue. In 2016, the EU and Turkey agreed to transfer 6 billion euros to support the Turkish reception of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Although this seemed like the beginning of fruitful cooperation, tensions have continued to increase due to Turkey's limited capacity to host refugees. The humanitarian crisis in Syria is unsustainable: more than 5 million refugees have left the country and only a small segment has been granted sufficient resources to restart their lives. This problem continues to grow day by day, and more than 6 million Syrians have been displaced within its borders. Turkey welcomes more than 3 million Syrian refugees and consequently, it influences on Ankara, whose policies and position have been determined to a large extent by this crisis. On January 23, President Erdogan claimed that Turkey’s military operations in Syria will end when all the Syrian refugees in Turkey can return safely to their country. Humanitarian aid work has been underway for civilians in Afrin, where the offensive against Kurdish YPG militia fighters has been launched.
With regards the relationship between Iraq and Turkey, in November 2016, when Iraqi forces entered Mosul against the IS, Ankara announced that it would send the army to the Iraqi border, in order to prepare for important developments in the region. Turkey's defense minister added that he would not hesitate to act if Turkey's red line was crossed. He received a response from Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi, who warned Turkey not to invade Iraq. Despite this, in April 2017, Erdogan suggested that in future stages, Operation Euphrates Shield would extend to Iraqi territory stating, "a future operation will not only have a Syrian dimension, but also an Iraqi dimension. Al Afar, Mosul and Sinjar are in Iraq."
Finally, Russia, Turkey and Iran have been cooperating in the framework of the Astana negotiations for peace in Syria, despite having somewhat divergent interests. In a recent call between Iranian President Rouhani and Erdogan, the Turkish president expressed his hope that the protests in Iran, which occurred at the end of 2017, would end. The relations between the two countries are strange: in the SCW, Iran supports the Syrian government (Shia), whereas Turkey supports the Syrian (Sunni) opposition. A similar thing occurred in the 2015 Yemen intervention, where Turkey and Iran supported opposing factions. This has led to disputes between the leaders of both countries, yet such tensions have been eased since Erdogan paid a visit to Iran to improve their relationship. The Qatar diplomatic crisis has similarly contributed to this dynamic, since it placed Iran and Turkey against Saudi Arabia and in favor of Qatar. Although there is an enduring element of instability in relations between both countries, their relationship has been improving in recent months, since Ankara, Moscow and Tehran have managed to cooperate in an attempt to overcome their differences for finding a solution to the Syrian conflict.
What next for Turkey in Syria?
Thanks to the Astana negotiations, a future pact for peace in the region seems possible. The de-escalation zones are a necessary first step to preserve some areas of the region from the violence of war, as the Turkish strategic plan has indicated from the beginning. This being said, the outcome is complicated by a number of factors, of which the continuing strength of Kurdish factions remains a significant bone of contention, and source of conflict, for power brokers managing post-conflict transition.
There are two primary factors that have clearly impacted Turkey's foreign policy decisions vis-à-vis the Syrian conflict. The first relates to the long and complex history of Turkey with its Kurdish minorities, and its fixation on preventing the Kurds from achieving a degree of territorial autonomy that would embolden Turkish Kurds and threaten Turkey's territorial integrity. Turkey has unilaterally attacked positions of the Kurdish opposition, including those supported by a NATO ally (the US), effectively demonstrating the lengths to which it is planning to go to ensure that the Kurds are not part of a post-civil war equation. All this fuels uncertainty and increases chances of further conflict erupting in Syria, and elsewhere.
The second relates to the changing nature of governance in Turkey, with a clear shift away from the Western, democratic model to a more authoritarian, quasi-theocratic one; looking more to Russia and Iran as political allies. In its pivot to the East, Turkey plays a careful balancing game, taking into consideration the conflicting goals that both itself and its new friends, Russia and Iran, hold regarding the political outcome in Syria. What current events indicate, however, is that Turkey seems to be moving more towards a compromise over the Assad issue, in return for flexibility in dealing with the Kurdish element of the anti-IS coalition that it deems a threat to its national security.
At the time of writing, Turkey and the US appear to be at a stalemate regarding particularly the US-backed SDF. Erdogan has stated that its operation in Afrin will be followed by a move toward Manbij, and, as such, an agreement to clearly delineating zones where both countries are militarily active is being negotiated under NATO auspices. How long such a partitioning under the pretext of an anti-IS coalition can last before further conflict erupts is uncertain. What seems to be likely however is that one of two possible scenarios must transpire to avoid the potential breakout of war in the Middle East among the major powers.
Either an agreement is reached regarding the future role of the SDF and other Kurdish factions, on which the Turks can agree. Or else the US strategically withdraws its support to the Kurds, based on the mandate that the alliance was limited to the two parties' joint efforts in the anti-IS coalition. In the latter case, the US risks losing its political and military leverage via the Kurds in the region, as well as losing face with their Kurdish allies; a move that could have serious strategic repercussions for US involvement in the region.