SCF Series- Syria Civil War
Since the beginning of the ongoing crisis in Syria, the position taken by the Turkish government on the situation in its southern neighbor has been quite different from the relations that Ankara maintained with Damascus during the 10 years before the beginning of that crisis. As a result, Turkish foreign policy in Syria underwent a U-turn though it was doomed to failure from the very beginning. The new foreign policy approach taken by Turkey stood in stark contrast with the original policy of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s government for “reducing tensions with neighbors to zero.” As a result, not only Turkey’s relations with Syria became tense, but Ankara’s relations with other regional capitals, including Tehran and Moscow started to deteriorate.
Under the existing circumstances, there are a number of reasons which seem to be providing the main drive behind Turkey’s decision to change its previous position on Syria. The first reason is the failure of Turkey’s policies in Syria. The main outcome of Turkey’s foreign policy approach to the ongoing developments in Syria has been nothing but complete failure. The officials in Ankara, who believed that their country would find a powerful foothold in the Arab country through rapid triumph of the Syrian opposition, have realized that they have been treading a totally wrong path. Turkey has not only failed to achieve its original goals, but is currently dealing with different challenges which have come about as a result of the heavy defeat that Ankara’s foreign policy has suffered in the region.
The second factor which has prompted Turkey to change its standing on Syria is the issue of the Syrian Kurds. Talks about granting possible autonomy to Syrian Kurds has greatly concerned the Turkish leaders in Ankara. [Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has been sensitive about the issue of Syrian Kurds since the beginning of the crisis in Syria and had even talked about the establishment of a buffer zone along its southern border with the Arab country. However, it is quite evident now that even this policy has hit a dead end. A possible declaration of autonomy by Syrian Kurds, in view of profound ties that exist between them and the Turkish Kurds, especially Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK], can face Ankara with grave difficulties for solving problems with its own Kurds, on the one hand, while increasing the political activities of Turkey’s opposition Kurds in various cities of Syria, on the other hand. Holding joint camps by the PKK and Syrian Kurds in northern parts of Syria as a result of the erroneous policies adopted by Erdogan’s government toward Syria, can pose a great challenge to the political future of the Turkish prime minister. By supporting the Syrian opposition, Erdogan has practically provided the opposition Kurdish parties with very good conditions in both countries. This situation will certainly prompt opposition parties to increase their activities against the government of Erdogan. For this reason, Erdogan has been forced to change his past stances on Syria in order to be able to control Kurds in his own country.
The third reason behind the latest change of position by Erdogan, in particular, and the Turkish government, in general, is related to domestic protests inside Turkey. The violent protests, which started at Taksim Square in the coastal city of Istanbul and continued for a variety of reasons, will look more important when one considers them in parallel to other developments in the region. The military coup d’état in Egypt [which led to the overthrow of the government of Mohamed Morsi] took place according to a model which had been previously used with success by the Turkish army to topple the government of the country’s Islamist politician, Necmettin Erbakan. This issue stirred a lot of fear among the Turkish leaders as Erdogan was concerned that the continuation of protests in the country may prompt the Turkish army to follow suit with its Egyptian counterpart.
The fourth reason that has prompted Erdogan to think twice about his position on Syria is the differences that have emerged between Turkey and Saudi Arabia with regard to regional developments, especially the developments in Turkey. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party took the lead in supporting political currents which were affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood across the region after political developments that were later came to be known as the Arab Spring got under way. At present, Erdogan has lost the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, which is considered the most powerful faction of the Muslim Brotherhood in the entire region. On the opposite, Saudi Arabia, which is quite satisfied with the result of the military coup d’état in Egypt, is supporting the Egyptian military’s measure to overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood. These differences in approaches have created deep rifts in the Western – Arab – Turkish front which had taken shape against the resistance axis, especially Syria, in the region.
The fifth reason behind the change in Turkey’s position on Syria is the change in the United States policy toward the Arab country and Washington’s reluctance about launching a military strike against Damascus. Turkey had already indicated its indignation at the United States lenient treatment of Syria developments. It seems that the last hopes of Erdogan’s government for a military intervention by the United States in Syria have been dashed and Ankara is currently seeing itself lonelier than any time before in the anti-Syria front.
Last but not least, the sixth major reason prompting Turkey to change position on Syria is related to challenges and perils that have been posed to Erdogan’s government by extremist militants. In fact, the ultimatum given to Recep Tayyip Erdogan by terrorist militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on October 1, has apparently convinced the Turkish government to put an end to its all-out support for the opponents of [the incumbent Syrian President Bashar] Assad. Therefore, the Turkish officials, who had been already accused of being supporters of Al-Qaeda, have now fallen victim to terrorism and extremism. This is why the notion is growing strong in Turkey that non-selective support for all the militant groups in Syria has been a tactical mistake on the part of Ankara.
As a consequence, Ankara took a step on October 10 to close the bank accounts of more than 400 legal and real entities believed to be affiliated to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Also, on October 15, the Turkish army, for the first time throughout the Syria crisis, dealt severe blows to extremist elements that are positioned inside Syria. Before that, Turkish military only opened fire on the positions of the Syrian government forces.
On the whole, the above facts clearly prove that the government of Turkey is facing various realities and has many reasons to change the position it had already taken with regard to Syria. Now, one must wait and see for how long Erdogan and his Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoglu will be able to go on with their obstinacy and wrong ambitions.