BACKGROUND: Despite its numerous costs, the Syrian Civil War has been a boon to U.S.-Turkish relations. Before the crisis started in March 2010, the two countries were struggling to manage their differences over Iran, Israel, and other issues. Since then, Turkey and the United States have been coordinating their policies toward Syria throughout the crisis there. They first sought to induce Bashar al-Assad, whom Washington was trying to wean away from Iran, to introduce reforms demanded by the moderate protesters. But after Assad only made fig-leaf reforms designed to divide the opposition and reduce foreign opposition, Washington and Ankara demanded a change of regime in Damascus. They have since imposed various sanctions on the Syrian government, but these measures have been challenged by China, Iran, and Russia.
Neither Turkey nor the United States wants to start a war with Syria. Ankara has declined to exploit several opportunities that would have served as pretexts, including cross-border shootings and shelling against refugees fleeing into Turkey. The best casus belli would have been the June 2012 downing of a Turkish reconnaissance plane, possibly by Syrian anti-aircraft fire. But the Turkish government decided to invoke Article 4 in the North Atlantic Treaty, which provides for urgent consultations if a member considers its security interests threatened. Turkey notably did not invoke Article 5, which calls for collective defensive actions to counter threats, because there is not a consensus yet within the alliance to use force against Syria.
Furthermore, Turkey would be averse to employing force unilaterally in Syria without some authoritative regional organization backing it. The Arab League might eventually produce a suitable legitimizing document, since Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and other front-line states are eager to end the violence as well as the regime, but some of its members such as Algeria still oppose using military force against Syria. Despite some European worries about giving Ankara a blank check to escalate its confrontation with Syria, Turkey secured a very favorable NATO statement at a June 26 North Atlantic Council meeting. It condemned Syria’s action, expressed strong support for Turkey, and said NATO would closely monitor the situation on its eastern frontier.
The Turkish government also reinforced its border and authorized more flexible rules of engagement for the Turkish armed forces to respond to potential threats from Syrian forces approaching the Turkish border. On paper, the Turkish armed forces should be able to defeat the divided and weakened Syrian military, but Turkish forces have only fought irregular PKK guerrillas for the past few decades and lack experience in invading and occupying a foreign country. An invading Turkish military might be welcome as liberators by Syrian Sunnis, but the country’s Kurds and Alawites could respond with an anti-occupation insurgency such as those that bedeviled the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Obama administration is in no rush to become involved in another Middle East War before the November elections.
If Turkey does intervene militarily, the Obama administration would likely again follow its “lead from behind” strategy and, as in Libya, provide primarily low-profile intelligence and logistics support for the Turkish military. Despite the protestations of NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen that the alliance would avoid having any military role in Syria, NATO might provide some discreet support while hanging back to avoid giving the appearance that it was reprising its Libya role and had become the West’s preferred tool for collective military intervention against Muslim regimes they oppose.
IMPLICATIONS: Given the reluctance to employ direct military force against Syria, the Turkish and U.S. governments are considering other less costly options that nonetheless go beyond the current sanctions. They have started holding formal “operational planning” meetings to coordinate concrete efforts. The focus has been on organizing a Syrian government in exile and strengthening the anti-Assad insurgency through financial, military, and other assistance. The United States and several European governments have been providing communications equipment, training, and other forms of non-lethal assistance. Some Gulf countries are reportedly supplying weapons as well as recruits and trainers.
The Turkish authorities have allowed members of the opposition Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army to organize on Turkish territory, but the disunity of the Syrian opposition factions remains a problem. Even many Syrians are reluctant to embrace these opposition bodies for fear that they will become dominated by Sunni extremists. Although Turkish and U.S. officials have sought to purge al-Qaeda operatives from their ranks, the Turkish authorities have proven less sensitive to the concerns of Syria’s non-Sunni ethnic and sectarian groups.
Turkish and U.S. officials have long been considering the option of establishing a border buffer zone or safe areas deeper inside Syrian territory, where refugees could find safe shelter without entering Turkish territory. But the lesson of the 1990s is that, unless backed by air strikes and robust ground forces, the adversary will not respect these safe havens.
The Syrian regime is not without means to retaliate for whatever measures Turkey and the United States adopt in support of Assad’s opponents. In partnership with Iran, the Syrian government could resume its pre-1998 providing extensive support for the PKK, Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Already there are suspicions that the recent upsurge in PKK attacks against Turkish targets is a Syrian-Iranian warning to moderate Ankara’s pressure on Assad. Even excluding the PKK factor a Turkish decision to take up arms on behalf of Assad’s opponents risks labeling Turkey as a regional champion of Sunni Arabs.
Several developments could disrupt this leisurely timetable. Most visibly, the refugee crisis is pressing Turkey to act quickly. The number of Syrians taking refuge in Turkey is now approaching 100,000, the threshold established by the Turkish government for Turkey’s absorption capacity. Since both countries share a 500-mile border, the flow of Syrian refugees into Turkey will continue commensurate with the scale of the violence in northern Syria. Turkish authorities could deny entry to new Syrian refugees, but they will more likely raise the barrier, and call for more international assistance. They could also feel compelled to pursue new options.
Another reason why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warmed when in Istanbul earlier this month that, “The transition process in Syria needs to be completed as soon as possible” so that “there should be no room for ä power vacuum” was because Turkish and U.S. policy makers now clearly need to consider how to manage two powerful non-state actors who are exploiting the civil strife in Syria as well as in Iraq to advance their distinct agendas. Sunni militants in Syria are the most effective as well as dogmatic opposition fighters, with al-Qaeda elements dominant in both categories. Iraq’s own Sunni militants are obtaining weapons and combat training that will likely later use against the Baghdad government. Their hope is that if Assad falls and a Sunni-led regime takes charge in Damascus, then the Iraqi Sunnis will receive even more assistance since they could benefit from the direct support of the new Syrian government as well as the assistance of many returning Syrian veterans and renewed enthusiasm for Sunni-based insurgencies. The narrative propounded by some of the Gulf monarchies—that what is occurring in Syria is an oppressed Sunni population finally overthrowing an oppressive Iranian-back regime—resonates well among the Sunnis of Syria, Iraq, and even many Turks.
Meanwhile, Syria’s Kurds are gaining the kind of autonomy enjoyed until now only by the Kurds of northern Iraq. In order to concentrate Syrian forces elsewhere, the regime has withdrawn its troops from Kurdish-dominated towns in northern Syria and allowed a major Syrian Kurdish movement, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), to take charge of municipal administration to prevent the Syrian Free Army from seizing the region. Turkish officials suspect the PYD of having links with the PKK. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that, "We will not allow the terrorist organization to pose a threat to Turkey in Syria; it is impossible for us to tolerate the PKK's cooperation with the PYD.”
U.S. officials are also worried about the adverse regional repercussions for Kurdish autonomy in Syria. For now, the Turkish and U.S. governments have created an “intelligence shield” to prevent Kurdish and al-Qaeda fighters from infiltrating Turkish territory.
One hopes that Ankara and Washington are developing plans for what might happen should Assad resign or the regime collapse. Turkish and U.S. officials seem to recognize that al-Assad’s demise is less likely to result in a gentle transition to a liberal democracy than intensified fighting among the elements of the winning coalition over their division of the spoils, with other countries, such as Iran and Israel, having a strong incentive to intervene on behalf of local proxies. The regime’s repressive policies have succeeded in polarizing the situation and confronting outsiders with a choice between accepting a continuation of the current regime and backing opposition forces that are becoming increasingly hard-line and violent in their own right.
CONCLUSIONS: Thus far, the international coalition against al-Assad has established an effective division of labor. The United States and other Western governments are providing communications, expert advice, and other non-lethal assistance to the rebels. The Turkish authorities have allowed the opposition Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army to organize on Turkish territory. And the Gulf monarchies are giving money and weapons to the rebel troops. CIA teams are reportedly in Turkey trying to vet the opposition groups to decide which should receive arms. But Turkish authorities need to promote better integration among the insurgents as well as mechanisms to exclude Islamist extremists and embrace non-Sunni Syrians who have a legitimate role to play in post-Assad Syria.
Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute.
© 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".