Turkey’s Challenges in the Syrian Crisis

By: Pinar Tank, PRIO.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdoğan was on his first visit as Prime Minister to China on April 9th when Syrian soldiers upped the ante by firing shots at refugees crossing the border between Turkey and Syria. Erdoğan’s immediate response, uncharacteristically if wisely, cautious, was that Turkey would “evaluate this violation and take the necessary steps.” It is not the first time since the crises erupted in March 2011 that Turkey has drawn a red line in the sand. This time may be different; Syria’s breach of Turkish sovereignty demands action beyond rhetorical posturing. What are the options now for Turkey? And what are the constraints?

In many ways, Turkey has been trapped in a web of its own making. The ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party’s foreign policy of ‘zero problems with neighbors’ the brain child of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, made rapprochement with Syria the jewel in the crown of Turkish mediation. Turkey acted as an intermediary between Syria and Israel over the question of the Golan Heights in 2008, holding four rounds of talks between the two adversaries. The effort floundered after the Gaza War of 2008-09 when relations between Turkey and Israel turned sour with Erdoğan referring to Israel’s conduct in the war as a “crime against humanity”. A year later, the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010 put an end to Turkish mediation.

In the case of Syria, Turkey’s interests in improving relations then, as now, were centred on the issue of the Kurdish PKK rebels. Rapprochement with Syria would serve to prevent Syrian support for the PKK’s campaign in Turkey. In fact, Turkey had already in 1998 sent a clear message to Syria regarding the seriousness with which it regarded the PKK threat when it lined Turkish tanks up on the Syrian border and pressurised Syria to extradite PKK leader Öcalan. The al-Assad regime was swiftly convinced and Öcalan is now interred in a Turkish prison on the island of Imrali. The Adana Protocol, a framework security cooperation arrangement signed directly after the incident, notes in Article 1 that Syria will not allow any activity on its territory that risks the “security and stability of Turkey”, potentially opening up for Turkish cross-border incursions in self-defense. This and subsequent agreements in the field of security cooperation, the latest signed in December 2010, are among the tools that Turkey has at its disposition should a worst case scenario necessitate a case for intervention.

As the Turkish-Syrian rapprochement deepened both politically and not least economically, there was the hope in the US that this would weaken Syria’s ties to Iran. Syria, for its part, saw Turkish friendship as a way out of its isolation and a bridge to Europe. However, all efforts dissipated with the coming of the Arab Spring to Syria. The AKP, and Erdoğan in particular, was personally affronted by Bashar al-Assad’s uncompromising stance. Erdoğan pointed out that for Turkey Syria was a ‘domestic issue’ given the 800 km long porous border with intermarriages on both sides. The geography and history of Turkish-Syrian relations, coupled with Turkey’s growing regional status, have raised expectations that the country would take a lead in resolving the conflict.

This was a tall order from the outset as Turkey’s ‘soft power’ came face to face with tough regional realities. Having little faith in the Syrian regime’s willingness to comply with the Annan plan, the AKP have intensified their diplomatic lobbying. On a trip to China to cement greater economic ties, (including a Chinese bid to construct a nuclear power plant in Turkey), Erdoğan reportedly reminded the Chinese that their position in the Security Council would be untenable if the Annan plan fails. Combining economic interests and foreign policy is a language the AKP masters and the Chinese understand. There are plans for a visit to Saudi Arabia and increased lobbying towards Russia. Meanwhile, Kofi Annan travelled from Turkey to Iran securing Iranian assurances of support for his plan.

Should diplomacy fail, and further transgressions on Turkish sovereignty occur, Turkey can invoke Article 5 of the NATO treaty to secure the alliance’s assistance in protecting its borders. This option has already been aired by Erdoğan, much to the discomfort of NATO. There has also been discussion of establishing safe havens on the Syrian side of the border. Again, the problem would be one of border control. Turkey has clearly stated that it would require an international force to secure these areas. To do so alone would be both costly and draw Turkey into the war alone. With a military heavily demoralised under the AKP, there is not much enthusiasm for supporting such a venture.

The decisive factor might be the flow of refugees to Turkey, now numbering 24 000, and a significant concern for internal stability. Refugee warriors who came across the border during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) and the first Gulf War (1990-91) intensified the fighting between the Turkish state and the Kurdish PKK in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Already, the situation in Syria has reignited the smouldering Kurdish conflict in Turkey. Furthermore, on the political front, the AKP has promised a lot and delivered little since 2004, so opening the doors for more radical actors. Given the present regional context, the AKP is not likely to have the political space for new dialogue processes in the near future. An increase in PKK violence in Turkey with roots in Syria might force Turkey into unilateral action involving limited incursions into Syria. Such ‘hot pursuit’ actions have been used in Iraq repeatedly and even along the Syrian border this past fall.

Internal politics complicate Turkey’s position. Going it alone in defense of Turkish citizens is one matter, doing so to protect oppositional Syrians, is quite another. The AKP needs multilateral backing for its position and, most pertinently, regional support. The domestic discourse on the Arab Spring, particularly after the intervention in Libya, has been framed around a Great-Power game of control in the Middle East. This has been capitalised on by the Turkish secular opposition who, in a twist of irony, are eager to portray the AKP as a lackey of the West. As analysts in Ankara wryly comment, Turkey’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy has metamorphosed into ‘zero neighbours without problems’.