BACKGROUND: In 1998, Turkey and Syria came dangerously close to the brink of war when Ankara threatened Syria with severe consequences if the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Abdullah Öcalan was not expelled from his safe haven in the country. The Turkish invasion threat achieved its aim, as Syria quickly complied with the demand of its neighbor. Today, the two neighbors, who share a nine hundred kilometer border, are once again locked in confrontation that could end with war.
On November 17, the exiled leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition group in Syria, Mohammad Riad Shakfa, invited Turkey to intervene militarily in Syria. Speaking in Istanbul, where the opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad has been organizing its headquarters in exile, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood said “We may ask more from Turkey as a neighbor”, going on to assure that “The Syrian people would accept a Turkish intervention, rather than from the West, if its goal is to protect the people.” Indeed, Turkey has come to play a key role in the concerted international attempt to bring down the Baath regime in Damascus.
The evolution of the Turkish-Syrian relations has been nothing but spectacular since the end of the 1990’s. The once antagonistic relation of the 1990’s was followed by a decade of friendship and partnership, with ever deepening economic and political ties. It was only a few years ago that Turkey assumed a role as protector of the Syrian regime on the international stage, shielding the country against the United States. In 2005, President Ahmet Necdet Sezer made a high profile visit to Damascus, over the objections of Washington which at the time was working to isolate the last remaining Baath regime in the Middle East. The close personal relationship that developed between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad further helped to bring the former foes closer as friends.
Regular meetings between Turkish and Syrian cabinet members, with joint government sessions, were set to become a permanent feature of the Turkish-Syrian partnership. Indeed, Syria became the cornerstone of Turkey’s strategy of reaching out to the Arab Middle East; Syria was valued as a gateway – in economic and diplomatic terms - to the rest of the region. Today, Turkey, the former partner, has become Syria’s principal foe; and that dramatic change has taken place within a very short period of time. As late as in May 2011, Ankara still stood firmly behind Damascus, with foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu assuring that Turkey had no intention whatsoever to “impose anything on any country.” Last week, Prime Minister Erdogan warned his former friend President Bashar al-Assad that the he runs the risk of meeting the same fate as other deposed Middle Eastern leaders.
The Turkish policy toward Syria had in fact already begun to change at the end of May, as the Syrian opposition groups were allowed to gather in Turkey for the first time, meeting in the southern Turkish city of Antalya. A second meeting was subsequently held in Istanbul in August, when the Syrian National Council (SNC) was formally established. As Turkey has been according political and diplomatic assistance to the opponents of the al-Assad regime, it has also been lending crucial logistical support to the armed resistance; military personnel that have deserted from the Syrian army have been allowed to organize in refugee camps on Turkish territory.
Turkey is now without equivocation seeking to bring about a regime change in Damascus. Ankara is relying not least on “public diplomacy” to precipitate the downfall of the Baath regime; the strong Turkish statements against al-Assad have in fact been instrumental in forcing the hands of the Arab countries. Turkey has played a crucial role in encouraging these to take a more active stance against Damascus. The recent decision of the Arab Union to suspend Syria’s membership showed that the Turkish attempts to assure that the Arab states are fully on board in the attempts to dislodge al-Assad are being successful. Likewise, the recent meeting of the Turkish-Arab forum in Rabat, Morocco, on November 16, confirmed that there is a unity of purpose between Turkey and the Arab countries concerning the future of Syria. Turkey and the Arab countries are now in effect implementing a joint plan to unseat Bashar al-Assad.
IMPLICATIONS: The dramatic change of Turkey’s policy toward Syria is, however, not in any way motivated by humanitarian considerations. In fact, Turkey would not have moved to bring about regime change in Damascus if the Baath regime had succeeded in bringing the situation in the country under control. Indeed, that was clearly what Ankara was hoping would happen until May, as it kept urging Damascus to implement reforms that could stabilize the country. It was only when these hopes were frustrated that Turkey reversed policy and assumed the role as the central player in the nascent international coalition against Syria. Another decisive factor has been Turkey’s wariness with the influence that Iran has continued to exert over Syria. It is of paramount importance for Turkey to circumscribe Iranian influence in the region, locked as it is in geopolitical rivalry with Teheran since time immemorial, but Ankara has been forced to realize that its efforts to nudge Damascus away from its Iranian patrons have not paid off.
Neither can Turkey afford that Syria implodes in a civil war; indeed, that is what Ankara dreads more than anything else. Such a scenario would not only involve a refugee crisis, similar to the one that ensued in 1991, after the first Iraq war, when tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds fled to Turkey, but there would potentially be serious repercussions for Turkey’s own internal stability as well. It was no coincidence that Prime Minister Erdoğan at an early stage made clear that Syria is an “internal matter” for Turkey.
A full-blown civil war in Syria, which would pit the ruling Alawi minority against the Sunni majority, is a nightmare scenario for Ankara. In such a case, there is concern that simmering sectarian tensions in Turkey, between Sunnis and Alevis, would be exacerbated.
However, the government of Turkey is nonetheless assuming that the Baath regime will be replaced with a regime that is ideologically close to itself; the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition group, is inclined to see the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey as a model. And, the declaration of the exiled leader of the Muslim Brotherhood that a Turkish military intervention would be welcomed confirms that Turkey has good reason to expect that it will enjoy a pre-eminent role in a post-Assad Syria.
That in turn, is an influence that Turkey can be expected to wield with an eye in particular to its own, Kurdish problem. Kurds account for at least fifteen percent of the Syrian population; ensuring that the anticipated emancipation from Baathist repression does not midwife a constitutional arrangement for the Kurds that sets too high a standard for Turkey’s own Kurdish population will be crucially important for Ankara. There is indeed concern among the Kurds in Syria that Turkey will use its influence over the opposition to the Baath regime so as to deprive the Kurds of the constitutional recognition that they hope to achieve after the fall of Bashar al-Assad.
Turkish Headline: "Will there be war?"
CONCLUSIONS: The inability of the Baath regime in Damascus to get the situation in the country under control has compelled Turkey to move against its erstwhile partner. As Turkey openly seeks to bring about regime change in Syria, it relies on diplomatic, political and economic instruments. Ankara has given shelter to the Syrian opposition, and allows the armed resistance to organize on its territory. It has also declared that it will impose sanctions on Syria, possibly cutting the supplies of electricity and water to its southern neighbor.
In the coming weeks, Turkey can be expected to ask the member countries of the UN Security Council to impose further sanctions against Syria. In the event that such sanctions fail to bring about the fall of Bashar al-Assad, and if a full-blown civil war erupts, Turkey may – as a last resort – seek, conjointly with the Arab countries a United Nations resolution allowing the use of force.
Dr. Veysel Ayhan is associate professor of international relations at the Abant Izzet Baysal University, Turkey. He is also Middle East Advisor of the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) and co-editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Analysis.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".