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Incek Debates discussed ‘Turkey’s Syria policy’

21. Yüzyıl Türkiye Enstitüsü tarafından yazıldı.

INSIGHT, Incek Debates           

‘How to revise Syria policy?’

The Incek Debates, on 31 March 2016, discussed the question of ‘How Turkey can possibly contribute more positively to a solution of crisis in Syria’ with participation, as speakers, by the former Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, MP (Istanbul) Prof. Dr. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, Prof. Dr. Hasan Ünal of Atılım University and Dr. Ali Bilgin Varlık of the 21st Century Turkey Institute. At the beginning of the debate, Ms. Kholoud Mansour (Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University, Sweden) via Skype, shared her views on the subject from a Syrian perspective. The debate was chaired by Dr. Haldun Solmaztürk, Director of 21st Century Turkey Institute, and participated by a select group of experts as well as an international representation from the diplomatic corps resident in Ankara. Below is a Rapporteur’s Summary of the outcome of the debate, not necessarily reflecting particular viewpoints expressed by any one of the debaters, nor those of any one or all of the participants in consensus. The debate was held under the Chatham House Rule.


Executive Summary

The civil war which started between the government forces and the Syrian ‘opposition’, while gradually acquiring a sectarian dimension, eventually turned into an international conflict and has had a profound effect on Turkey and Turkey’s foreign and security policies. The Turkish government, abandoning Turkey’s age-old foreign policy principle of non-intervention, became a party to this war. At the same time as Turkey went into a protracted and bloody conflict with PKK in SE Turkey, about 3 million Syrian citizens became refugees in Turkey and the Turkish government almost completely lost its ability to have a leverage in this crisis. Under the current circumstances, a review of Syria policy by the Turkish government, within the framework of a reformulated comprehensive regional policy, is probably overdue.

Turkish government expected Assad government’s downfall soon, but failed to notice certain facts: Assad had a strong power base, Russia was prepared to do whatever it would take to help Assad’s survival, the US and the West in general were reluctant to intervene directly, the reality on the ground changed drastically over time as the ‘Kurdish card’ gained a military as well as political quality, Cihadist infrastructure in Turkey was facilitated by Turkish policies, and a credible alternative to Assad was yet to be agreed upon.

Maintaining the territorial integrity of Syria—and Iraq—should have been the primary aim for Turkey. Turkish policy should have been based on ‘rationality’ and Turkish ‘national interests’. A policy of intervention proved counterproductive and contributed to de facto division of both Iraq and Syria. Turkish foreign policy suffers from a ‘leadership’ problem.

Turkey is now surrounded with ‘antagonists’ and confronted with grave challenges; it has to revise its Syria policy in the light of recent developments. The relations and cooperation first with Iran and then with Russia should be improved. Turkey should become a reliable and predictable partner for its allies and friends. The challenges posed by ‘Kurdish’ secessionist aspirations and the radical religious infrastructure of ISIL can only be dealt with through a national mobilisation based on a national consensus. To this end, Turkey, that is the Turkish government, needs to adopt a new sort of political thinking and a new approach to the wider crisis. Before and above all, Turkey needs to decide how its ‘national’ interests can best be served and what role it eventually wants to play in the region.


Why Turkey should revise its Syria policy

Since the first pro-democracy protests which erupted in March 2011, the Syrian civil war claimed over 250.000 lives and caused 11 million Syrians to flee their homes. The war between the government forces and the so-called ‘opposition’ was soon joined by cihadists from all over the world, and then, by many other states either directly or indirectly. It gradually acquired a sectarian dimension, causing almost all regional powers lining up along a sectarian fault-line, i.e. pitching Moslem brotherhoodists against Shia/Alawite front. With the rapid rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and the effective intervention of global powers—fortunately, at least nominally, on the same side—it virtually turned into an international conflict. The refugee crisis of an unprecedented nature and scope, just added a new and worrying dimension to the already too complicated conflict, bringing in the European Union states in a state of panic and desperation. And finally, one hundred years after Sykes-Picot, as the regional borders are now de facto being redrawn, the ‘Kurdish’ card has been forcefully reintroduced into regional and global geopolitical calculations and it has been internationalized. All these developments have had a profound effect on Turkey and Turkey’s foreign and security policies.

The Turkish government of Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power since 2002, abandoning Turkey’s age-old foreign policy principle of non-intervention, joined the ‘Sunni’ camp unequivocally. This was illustrated as early as 2011, by Prime Minister Erdogan’s remarks: “We do not consider the subject of Syria as a foreign affair, an external problem. Syrian problem is an internal affair of ours”.[1] This policy choice positioned the Turkish government not only against Bashar al-Assad government in Damascus but also against its supporters—Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah, i.e. Shia/Alawite front. However, Turkish government’s mysterious support to Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of northern Iraq notwithstanding, ‘Kurdish’ card and particularly Western support (notably that of the United States) to Democratic Union Party (PYD) of northern Syria, also antagonized the Turkish government. Meanwhile Turkish military presence in Northern Iraq also attracted the open ire of the Arab world and gave Arabs the impetus to unite, first time since 1973, (this time against Turkey) to protect the Arab sovereignty.[2] Finally Russia was added to the list of unfriendly (if not hostile) countries when a Russian SU-24 was shot down by Turkish F-16s during a brief air-space violation of 17 seconds, plunging bilateral relations to all time low since 1946.

As Syria as a whole has been totally devastated with huge humanitarian and material costs, about 3 million (of the total of 11 million refugees and internally displaced) Syrian citizens have become refugees in Turkey. While Turkey has gone into a protracted and bloody conflict with PKK in almost all major cities and towns in Southeastern Turkey—which can only be described as Military Operations in Built-up Areas (MOBA)—and improvised explosive devices (IED) are going off or suicide bombers are blowing up themselves in other cities to include Ankara and Istanbul, Turkish government has almost completely lost its ability to have a say in regional politics and a leverage in the crisis in Syria. …

Full report is available to 21st Century Turkey Institute members.


[2] Arab League demanded Turkish troops withdraw from Iraq: “We stand as Arab countries along with Iraq and we call on Turkey to immediately withdraw its military forces from Iraq and respect the international border between the two countries”. Euronews, 24 December 2015. http://www.euronews.com/2015/12/24/arab-league-demands-turkey-withdraw-troops-from-iraq/

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