BACKGROUND: With the downing of an unarmed Turkish RF-4E reconnaissance aircraft which had flown into Syrian airspace on Friday, June 21 by Syria, the year-long confrontation between Turkey and Syria has escalated. There are several questions regarding the circumstances around the downing of the aircraft that remain to be determined: What was the exact mission of the plane, was its violation of Syrian airspace really a mistake, as Turkey claims, or was it intentional? Was the aircraft shot down while in Syrian airspace or as it was flying out, as Turkey claims? The exact circumstances will in all probability remain disputed by the two sides. However, it can be assumed that the Syrian regime’s intention was to retaliate against Turkey – which is militarily, logistically and politically supporting the uprising in the country – while simultaneously sending a message to the rebels.
Presumably, Syria’s Baath regime wanted to demonstrate that the country upon which the rebels rely is not invulnerable; indeed, Syria is suspected of having renewed its support to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish guerilla group that has fought Turkey since 1984, and which Syria had sheltered until the end of the 1990s; last week the Kurdish rebels attacked an army outpost in southeastern Turkey, an attack which left eight soldiers dead, in yet another reminder of Turkey’s vulnerability.
The crucial question that begs for an answer after the downing over the eastern Mediterranean that has brought the two countries to the brink, if not of open war, to a more dangerous level of confrontation, is not so much why Syria shot down the Turkish aircraft as why the two countries have become embroiled in a confrontation in the first place. Why has Turkey’s AKP government, which had nurtured a close relation with the regime of Bashar al-Assad for almost a decade, decided to commit itself – in concert with Saudi Arabia and Qatar – to bring about regime change in Syria, by which it assumed significant risks?
When Turkey took the lead in the endeavor to bring about regime change in Damascus, it also invited the kind of acts of retaliation like the downing of the RF-4E jet. The incident has in turn raised the stakes further, leaving Turkey with no other option but to respond in a way that demonstrates that the country is not a paper tiger. Turkey’s response must necessarily be in line with its pretentions and rhetoric. Recently, observing that a “new Middle East is about to be born”, Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu stated before the Turkish parliament that “We will be the owner, pioneer and the servant of this new Middle East”. The Turkish government can ill afford not to act in a way that matches such rhetoric.
The partnership with Syria was the show-case of Turkey’s new opening to the Middle East, its southern hinterland, or its “strategic depth”, in the words of foreign minister Davutoğlu, the author of Turkey’s once much vaunted “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy doctrine; that doctrine is by now defunct, with Turkey instead counting zero friends among its neighbors, save for the Kurdistan regional government of Massoud Barzani in northern Iraq. Turkey is not only embroiled in a confrontation with Syria, but is also in conflict with the Shiite regime in Iraq, while the historic, geopolitical rivalry between Turkey and Iran has resumed – being played out notably in Syria and Iraq – after a brief interlude during which the AKP-ruled Turkey had appeared to be “drifting eastward”, siding as it did with Iran against its Western partners over the Iranian nuclear issue.
Before the “zero problems with neighbors” doctrine was abandoned, Turkey had successfully courted Syria, significantly expanding its trade with the country that also served as a gateway for Turkey to other parts of the Middle East; meanwhile the political cooperation between the two neighbors was institutionalized, with a framework for regular meetings of cabinet ministers having been established. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his spouse even vacationed together with the Syrian president Bashar Assad and his first lady.
IMPLICATIONS: What precipitated the Turkish break with its erstwhile friend was the outbreak of the “Arab Spring”; when the wave of revolt reached Syria in March 2011, Turkey called on the Syrian regime to reform and search for a democratic solution. When the Baath regime chose not to heed Ankara’s advice, the Turkish government angrily responded by calling for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkey had also been quick to invite Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to step down, while it took Turkey much longer to find its bearings in Libya, where it only belatedly joined the coalition that had assembled to oust Colonel Qaddafi; as it were, Turkey had been reluctant to jeopardize its significant economic interests in Qaddafi’s Libya. In Syria, by contrast, Turkey did not hesitate to abandon a partner in which it had invested heavily. That was basically because ideological considerations carried the day, superseding short term economic interests. However, Turkey had not so much suddenly embraced any democratic idealism, as it had seized an opportunity to promote a sectarian cause.
Turkey became an advocate of regime change in Syria when the outbreak of the Sunni revolt against the Alawite regime introduced sectarian considerations into its geopolitical equation; what had not mattered until then between the two business partners – the Sunni-Alawite divide – acquired preeminence with the revolt. To hold on to an Alawite regime that deployed indiscriminate violence against the Sunni population could obviously not be an option for Turkey’s ruling Sunni party. Yet, arguably, the Turkish government got carried away by its own sectarian reflexes when it committed itself to regime change in Syria by adopting the cause of the Sunni rebels without any reservation. By doing that, Turkey neglected, or rather chose not to take into consideration, that the uprising against the regime is also a civil war; Ankara has never attempted to give the impression that it in equal measure embraces the cause of the Alawites, Christians and Kurds. In fact, the Syrian policy of the AKP government mirrors its internal policies; the party has done little to accommodate the aspirations of Turkey’s Alevi minority, and is suppressing the Kurdish movement that demands the same things that the Kurds in Syria do.
What beckons enticingly for Turkey’s ruling Sunni conservatives is a pro-Turkish “Sunni crescent”, stretching from Gaza over Syria to northern Iraq: The AKP’s relation with Hamas, the rulers of Gaza, is longstanding, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria is expected to be indebted to Turkey if and when it settles into power, while the Kurds in northern Iraq form a Sunni alliance with Turkey against the Shiite power of Tehran and its proxy in Baghdad. However, Turkey courts danger by assuming the role as a leading Sunni power in the sectarian confrontation in the Middle East.
Indeed, Ankara is apprehensive about getting embroiled alone in Syria as a Sunni power, which is why it wants any intervention to be taken together with its Western allies, precisely in order to avoid the sectarian dimension of its Syrian entanglement becoming too pronounced. Shouldering the cause of the Sunnis and playing the Sunni card to project power is a double-edged sword. There is a very real risk of a Syrian contamination on already uneasy Sunni-Alevi relations in Turkey; and by arming and supporting the Sunnis against them, Turkey has earned the lasting hostility of the Alawites, which will not only restrict Turkey’s capacity to help manage what threatens to be a chaotic post-Assad Syria, but which could also have dangerous cross-border consequences.
CONCLUSIONS: By committing itself to regime change in Syria, Turkey has assumed significant risks. When Syria retaliates, as it did when it shot down the Turkish aircraft, Turkey cannot fail to respond; otherwise Turkey and Prime Minister Erdoğan would appear unacceptably weak. However, safeguarding Turkey’s and its rulers’ prestige and living up to the pretention of being the “the owner and pioneer” of the new Middle East risks inviting a dangerous escalation of the Syrian conflict. Turkey’s main weapon consists of giving more support to the armed opposition in Syria, something which foreign minister Davutoğlu hinted at when he assured that the “we are determined to continue to support the Syrian people”, which means giving more arms to the Sunni rebels, and which can only further exacerbate sectarian tensions.
Even though Syria has demonstrated that it has the ability to inflict damage on its principal adversary in the undeclared war, the prospects for the Syrian regime doo not look bright. But neither do the prospects for stability and freedom in a post-Assad Syria, as sectarian divisions have been mobilized and exacerbated.
Concurrently, Turkey’s attempt to bring about regime change in Syria invites other powers to exploit its own internal divisions and vulnerabilities; Turkey is vulnerable not only on its Kurdish flank, but also on account of its dependency on Russia and Iran – Syria’s champions – for its energy supplies.
Ultimately, Turkey’s ability to play a constructive role in the Syrian crisis, and to project power, depends on having its own house in order. The narrative of Turkey as a “model” for budding, Muslim democracies in the Middle East serves to underpin Turkish soft power in the region, and the AKP embodies the victory of a popular majority over military tutelage. But the critical question is to what extent the Turkey of AKP also represents a model of societal reconciliation. Without a new, democratic constitution that makes room for the aspirations of all of the country’s communities – seculars, conservatives, Kurds and Alevis – Turkey will not only remain vulnerable but also unable to provide any useful guidance for others in a region torn apart by sectarian divisions.
Halil M. Karaveli is Senior Fellow and the Managing Editor of theTurkey Analyst at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012. 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".