Erdoğan’s Syria Problem


PDF downlaodBülent Aras*
POMEAS OP-ED, 22 April 2014

In his victory speech following the March 30th municipal elections, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan mentioned a de facto war with Syria. This speech was after an intense political struggle by unusual means, including corruption allegations, leaked voice recordings, court files and remarkable media campaigns.

In this fully-fledged political war, Erdoğan's Syria policy was a major focus for his opponents, who accused him of, for instance, providing weapons to radical elements, and even planning a war against Syria to garner votes at home.

Not much later, Seymour Hersh wrote a highly imaginative but factually weak piece on the use of chemical weapons in Syria last year in Ghouta. He alleged that Turkey staged chemical attack to provoke the U.S. to launch a military strike in Syria. The Syrian issue promises to be a tough policy area for Erdoğan, both domestically and internationally. The starting point of the discussion should be to ask what lies behind this controversy around Turkey's Syria policy. Having established that, one may begin to analyse Turkey's options and prospects in regard to its Syria policy.

We can identify three phases in Turkey's Syria policy: engagement, isolation and intervention. Earlier policies of engaging with Assad regime and subsequently of isolating it proved unsuccessful in putting an end to regime's criminal acts in Syria. Then, of course, Turkey took the critical decision to side with the opposition. Turkey's engagement with the opposition has evolved within mainstream line of international community toward Syrian regime.

Against this background, Turkey's Syria policy is pursued at four different levels. The first of these is through Turkey's attempts to mobilize regional and international support for the Syrian opposition and to raise awareness on the human disaster in this country. Turkey is an active member of the Friends of Syria group. Ankara backed both Geneva I and II in the attempt to reach a diplomatic solution. The second level is Turkey's tense bilateral relationship with Syria after Syria downed a Turkish plane; Turkey has changed the rules of engagement for border violations and recently shot down a Syrian fighter jet for violating its airspace. The presence of ISIS and Qaide next to Turkish borders further aggravates the already tense relations. Despite they mainly operate along the Syrian-Iraqi border, there are continuous allegations against Turkey for supporting them. The ISIS threat to attack the tombs of Suleyman Shah, located in Aleppo, in Syria, have raised the possibility of a Turkish intervention to defend the tomb and the soldiers stationed there to protect it.

The third level is Turkey's support for the Syrian opposition in collaboration with a number of regional countries. This support has international backing, including from the US. Russia and Iran oppose this coalition. Within this group, there are also differences in terms of choosing sides and determining the structure of the opposition in Syria. This is a murky area of operations that are run mainly by intelligence agencies. It is no surprise that the heads of intelligence organizations have been in the news in relation to Syria. Speculation on the nature of the activities, configuration of assistance, supply of military equipment, alleged undercover operations and so on are all in the headlines. The secret nature of the activities has attracted a great deal of public interest.

The fourth level is Turkey's humanitarian policy, handling the flow of Syrian refugees into Turkey. Turkey provides camps for Syrians fleeing from the Assad regime as "guests." Turkey has been generous since the influx of Syrians began, and now hosts approximately 210 000 Syrians at state designed camps. The total number of Syrians in Turkey is close to a million. Although the Syria issue has become a source of domestic contention, Turkey's support for the "Syrian guests" has societal support and there is no widespread questioning on this level. This is despite the fact that the financing of the camps and aid provision is handled mainly by state sources and humanitarian NGOs. Turkey's open door policy has probably saved thousands of lives facing indiscriminate attacks of Assad regime.

Much of the controversy regarding Turkey's Syria policy has emerged around the activities at the third level. It is easy to speculate about activities in this grey area, and such speculation – however damaging – tends to be hard to disprove. Such allegations are part of propaganda wars for persuading public opinion about the roles of different actors with different engagements in Syria. In this sense, Turkey's major achievement is in dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis. Although one would expect more mention of this policy, the speculations on intelligence activities continue to dominate the discussions on Syria policy.

Based on a future-oriented perspective, there are three options for Turkey's Syria policy. First there is unilateral action, which is already an emerging feature of Turkish policy in relation to the lack of international attention to the Syria conflict. The second is to pursue coordinated action with regional and international actors and organizations. The third is disengagement.

Erdoğan's strong leadership on Syria will not disappear any time soon. The dilemma he faces is the lack of international interest and the deadlock at the UN Security Council due to the veto power of Russia and China. However, the limits of unilateral action are obvious. Turkey can certainly make the Syria border safer, but it will not attempt military action against the country. In the case of Suleyman Shah tomb, after the ISIS threat, Turkey made a strong statement and since then not a single bullet has been shot in or around the tomb. This is a clear evidence of the intention to pursue a policy with patience, determination and efficiency.

In the Turkish side, we may expect greater focus on humanitarian issues and a cautious policy towards other Syrian internal issues facing such allegations. This issue will remain as a major challenge of Erdoğan in the coming period. There will be more appreciation and support for Turkey's assistance to Syrian refugees. Next to this appreciation, the allegations of Turkey's support to radical elements in Syria seems to continue with a variety of speculations, as seen in Hersh case, forcing the limits of imaginative thinking. It is certain that Turkish foreign policy makers will expend a great deal of energy in order to prevent the situation from escalating into a fully-fledged political propaganda war against Turkey.

The article was published at New Europe Online. The link is available at:

* Coordinator of POMEAS