Turkey is a significant regional player whose posturing cannot be overlooked in the context of the Syrian civil war. Turkey and Syria both share a border, having had a rocky relationship over the past two decades. In 1998, Turkey deployed its military along the border with Syria, signaling invasion plans unless Damascus withdrew its support for Kurdish separatists. After Syria conceded to Turkey’s demands, a period of rapprochement endured until the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Bilateral ties were extremely deteriorated after Syria rejected Turkey’s appeal for democratization, because of which Ankara started backing political and armed opposition groups seeking to topple Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and developed an alliance with western countries.
Since the summer of 2012 both sides have exchanged fire, which – at times – have led to inadvertent war-like situations. However, this eventually devolved into a direct military intervention by Turkey in 2016. While Turkey argues that its involvement is justified aimed at protecting its national and security interests, Syria condemns it as an illegal intervention and threat to regional security.
- Turkey is a key foreign player in the Syrian civil war, offering active support to Syrian opposition groups.
- Initial priority was to overthrow the Assad regime, however, after the rise of Kurdish rebel groups in 2015 the objective turned to defeating those groups.
- Since 2016, Turkey has maintained a military presence along Syrian border towns with widespread allegations of human rights violations and war crimes.
- Turkey’s relations with Russia are not so cordial, a proxy war may arise in the future.
- Growing costs of military operations and increasing negative public perception toward Syrian refugees are the major challenges for Turkey in the future.
Evolution of Turkey’s Contemporary Policy towards Syria
Before the Arab Spring protests in 2011, Turkey and Syria shared cordial relations. Under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey’s relationship with Syria improved greatly post-2000. However now Turkey occupies a significant territory of Syria, mainly in its southern border region. This swift change in Turkish interests reveals a discrete revolution in its foreign policy towards Syria. But it also has presented significant challenges that in due course may impact Turkey’s tight grip over the region and its future objectives in Syria.
Turkey severed its diplomatic relations with Syria in September 2011, citing the intensifying military campaign by Assad’s regime against the Syrian opposition. This was the turning point in the Turkish foreign policy towards Syria, making Ankara determined to overthrow Assad’s regime by any means. In the same month, the main Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC) headquartered in Istanbul, established its armed forces known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and started receiving military training, logistics support, and arms supplies from Turkey. Turkish assistance to the Syrian opposition factions also included the Islamic State (IS), which contributed heavily to its rise in the region. Turkey has been no champion of human rights, making it especially peculiar for Erdogan voicing concerns about human rights violations in Syria.
In 2012, president Erdogan notably stated, “Inshallah, we will go to Damascus soon to hug our brothers. That day is close. Inshallah, we will read el-Fatiha at the tomb of Salahuddin and pray at the Emevi mosque there.”
Furthermore, Turkey enacted a chain of sanctions against Assad’s regime, including blocking the financial transactions between the central banks of Ankara and Damascus, freezing assets of Syrian officials in Turkey, and terminating the comprehensive bilateral strategic cooperation. Turkey supported regime change in Syria because Assad had neglected Turkish calls for democratic reforms and Ankara perceived that Damascus was oppressing the Sunni population. This is the time when Erdogan was paving the way to crown himself as the strongest ruler of the Sunni Muslim world, so this opportunity was a deal-breaker for him.
After two years of continuous opposition protests against the Syrian regime, the crisis gradually turned into extreme violence. In the winter of 2013, the US and UK blocked their military aid to the Syrian opposition because of the increased involvement of radical Islamist groups. Turkey, despite being a part of the western alliance, continued to provide assistance to the Islamic extremist forces to achieve regime change in Syria, which at the time was the primary strategic objective of its involvement in the war-torn country.
Turn in Turkish Foreign Policy Towards Syria
The major turn in Turkish foreign policy came in 2015 after the rise of People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian-Kurdish secular militia group assisted by US airpower that quickly captured a major northern Syrian border town of Tel Abyad from the Islamic State. Since Turkey has a huge Kurdish minority, it viewed this development as a threat to national security and territorial security, running the risk of increased calls for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey. This prompted Ankara to shift its goal from regime change in Syria to thwarting the advent of a self-governing Kurdish region in Syria. Renowned Turkish media outlet Sabah, regarded as Erdogan’s mouthpiece stated on the front page that the Syrian Kurdish forces were a greater threat than ISIS for Turkish interests in the region.
By the end of 2015, in the garb of military exercise and training, Turkey moved into the Iraqi territory without receiving authorization from the Iraqi government. Turkey positioned its troops in northern Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region to combat the armed forces of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) through airstrikes and other military means. The Syrian foreign ministry strongly condemned Turkish conduct which was in contradiction with the UN charter, urging Ankara to respect the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of Iraq, and giving an ultimatum to withdraw its troops completely. Turkey paid no heed to the protests of Syria and propelled two major military operations from 2016 onwards against the Syrian Kurdish groups – ‘Operation Olive Branch’ and ‘Operation Shield of the Euphrates River’, both regarded as the beginning of Turkish invasion of Syria.
Starting in mid-2016, Turkey gradually shifted its ‘Neo-Ottoman Adventurism’ foreign policy tactics towards Syria. Since on-the-ground dynamics in Syria were completely in favor of Assad, it turned out to be a difficult task for Turkey to overthrow his regime. The Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, started driving back the Turkish-sponsored opposition groups from their strongholds, also recapturing Aleppo. Nevertheless, Turkey’s other strategic goals like overpowering Kurdish groups in Syria became increasingly important, as US-backed YPG gained significant momentum and the Islamic State had launched several suicide bombings and rocket attacks near its borders.
After Turkey downed a Russian military jet in November 2015, a full-scale diplomatic crisis broke out between Russia and Turkey. Ankara quickly developed intentions to stabilize ties with Moscow, and by the end of June 2016 released an official statement expressing regret over the shooting down of Russian jet. With Turkey’s reconciliation with Russia, it paved a new way for Ankara’s policy options in Syria, mainly on the diplomatic level. Turkey sponsored the idea of ‘Astana Peace Talks’, whose first meeting was held in December 2016 between Russia, Iran, and Turkey, who then signed a ceasefire agreement that laid the foundation and framework for future dialogue between the numerous stakeholders.
In March 2018, soon after the Turkish invasion of Afrin, a report was published by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which extensively documented the human rights violations in the city that included ransacking, blackmailing, and kidnapping. The report stated that “civilians now living in areas under the control of Turkish forces and affiliated armed groups continue to face hardships, which in some instances may amount to violations of international humanitarian law and violations or abuses of international human rights law.” Several reputed organizations like the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, and Amnesty International have also reported on intimidating the locals, mass extrusion, and other violations in the city.
In October 2019, the US administration had officially announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeastern Syria, where the US was a key supporter of Kurdish rebels. Turkey saw this is as an opportunity for a fresh invasion and conducted airstrikes on the border towns of northeast Syria.  The skirmish led to the mass displacement of over 300,000 people and more than 70 civilian deaths in Syria. Amnesty International reported that it had gathered substantial evidence on war crimes and other human rights violations by Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian groups in the recent conflict, and stated that they “have displayed a shameful disregard for civilian life, carrying out serious violations and war crimes, including summary killings and unlawful attacks that have killed and injured civilians.
Since the beginning of 2020, Turkey has shifted its emphasis on the western side of the Euphrates, particularly Idlib. The city is the only remaining stronghold of rebel groups in Syria and serves as a significant bulwark between the Turkish and Syrian governments. It was reported that until March 2020, Turkey had stationed around 20,000 military personnel in the area, which is highly debated as the Turkish government sources differ. Idlib holds huge geostrategic significance for Turkey as Ankara considers its military deployment in the region as a major necessity to control other occupied territories in Syria. Top Turkish officials also have concerns that Assad’s recaptures of Idlib will eventually thrust aside Turkish involvement in Afrin and other minor strongholds.
Turkey has a decent track record in hosting Syrian refugees and has received accolades from the United Nations and the European Union. However, in recent years, there has been a rise in negative public perception towards Syrian refugees. Several Turkish public polls have highlighted a major decline in public support for accommodating the Syrian refugees. Turkish citizens have also expressed that the prospects of Syrian refugees getting acquainted with Turkish society. Turkish President Erdogan is also losing public support particularly after the ruling party AKP was defeated in the 2019 Istanbul municipal election. Hence, it will be a challenge for the Turkish administration to control public opinion and perception towards the Syrian refugees, or else its repercussions could be witnessed in the national elections also.
Secondly, although Turkey and Russia are involved in joint military patrols since the beginning of 2020, their positions still differ towards supporting Syrian opposition. While Ankara vigorously supports Syrian opposition factions – including secular and Islamist groups – to take key positions in the country’s future, for Moscow the political future of Syria rests only upon the Assad regime. Turkey has justified its support for the radical Islamist groups stating that they are not as dangerous as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, but Russia has highlighted since the beginning that it does not draw distinctions between Islamist groups and regards them as major obstacles to its foreign policy in Syria. There is no doubt that a conflict may arise in the future between Turkey and Russia, albeit proxy in nature.
Third, there is a major domestic concern regarding the rising costs of Turkish military operations in Syria. In recent years, Turkey has increased its funding for the defense budget, while lowering the funding to other sectors. Economic experts argue about Turkey’s cost-benefit calculations of military operations in Syria, as until now it seems Turkey has gained less than spent. In 2018, Turkey faced one of the worst financial and economic crises in its history, which can be reignited if the Turkish administration does not reassess its lavish expenditure on military operations and funding for Syrian opposition groups.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Turkey has emerged as a key player in the crisis, with the initial objective to overthrow the Assad regime. Ankara viewed the latter as an autocratic administration trampling upon the rights of Syrian citizens. However, after offering support to radical Islamist groups engulfed in the crisis, other objectives of Turkey began to arise. After the rise of Kurdish rebel groups, Ankara revised its policy in Syria and directed much of its focus towards defeating the YPG and reducing the influence of PKK. That eventually switched to direct military intervention in 2016, and since then Turkey has maintained an unlawful presence in Syria, smeared with the accusations of gross human rights violations and war crimes.
Nine years have passed since the beginning of Syrian civil war. Despite the international retaliation from the US and its allies, the Assad regime has maintained its legitimacy in Syria and now is more stable than ever, baffling policymakers in Turkey as well. No matter what narratives Turkey feeds to its public, a global narrative has already been set exhibiting the latter’s failures over the successes. The only legitimate foreign player in Syria is Russia, as they have intervened upon the request of the Assad regime. Therefore, Turkey cannot ignore Russian interests in Syria, and in the future, it will be difficult to sustain if a conflict arises between Ankara and Moscow. Moreover, the increasing costs of its military operations in Syria and the growing negative perception of the Turkish public towards Syrian refugees can also impact AKP’s power in Turkey. Based on these considerations, Turkey should seriously reconsider its involvement in Syria.
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This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).