Trapped in an international civil war: Turkey and the Syrian crisis

By Laura Rufalco, Trainee, GREMMO.

The Syrian crisis has undergone different phases since March 2011: it began as the Bachar al-Assad regime crushed down demonstrators, in what at the time was considered as a part of a movement widely known as Arab Spring. The same year, a military intervention lead by Western countries and NATO allowed rebel movements to overthrown Kaddafi in Libya. One year later, in 2012, the public opinion dealing with the Syrian conflict strongly believed that it was only a matter of time until Assad followed the same path as Kaddafi – but he didn’t. Thanks to Iranian and Russian support, Bachar al-Assad was able to win back great parts of Syrian territory, as well as to regain strength. The rebels groups supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the United States were not able to construct themselves as a unified opposition, and internal war among them helped the other side to become stronger. However the state of the fragmented opposition was, by 2013 both France and the USA considered attacking strategic points of the regime in order to overthrown Assad, since his regime was accused of a chemical attack towards its own population. For Turkey great distress, since the country was counting on western support to be able to directly intervene in Syria, the attack never took place. A new report accuses Turkey and opposition groups– and not Bachar al-Assad, of being behind the chemical attack of 2013, as a way of pressuring the USA to attack Syria. Different analyses were made to counter-attack this doubtful theory, and even if today we don’t know for sure what was the role of Turkey – and how far would the country go to overthrown Assad, we do know that the war in Syria is considered a top priority for Erdogan and the AKP, since it has deeply impacted Turkish domestic, regional and international politics.

Recently, an illegal recording of a reunion between Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Hakan Fidan, chef of the MIT, among other Turkish dignitaries, testify of the will of Turkey to directly intervene in the conflict, by creating a fake attack that would become a pretext for a Turkish intervention. The fact that the record was made public was a great blow to the Turkish government. A direct attack never happened, but most probably Turkey was supporting the rebels groups that attacked the Armenian city of Kasab, a support highly criticized by the Armenian Diaspora.   Unable to operate a direct attack Syria, especially now that the USA is showing reticence in participating in any sort of attack as well as in supporting rebel groups, Turkey finds itself in a quite isolated environment in the Middle East, surrounded by Syria, Russia and Iran. The relations with regional powers such as Israel are no longer friendly, and the Saudi support to the overthrown of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt created a distance in the relation between Saudi Arabia and Turkey[1]. As the AKP insist on the necessity of overthrowing Assad – lately Foreign Minister Davutoglu affirmed that the country would not recognize the legitimacy of the Syrian presidential election, Turkey continue to faces the reality of its owns limitations and the necessity of international support in the quest of a final outcome for the war.

Furthermore, Turkey faces insecurity caused by the permeability of its border with Syria, and the presence of extremists groups linked to al-Qaida in Syria and Iraq represents a permanent risk to Turkey. If the conflict lingers, which probably will happen, Turkey will continue to face a humanitarian crisis caused by the immense numbers of refugees crossing the border. It is now clear that, even if the country is the first destination in accommodating Syrian refugees, Turkey cannot handle the question of the refugees without international help. While refugees are facing distress in Turkey, without proper accommodation, and while the Turkish public opinion is contrary to the AKP positioning towards the Syrian war, Erdogan seems to be blocked in the idea of overthrowing Assad, even if it compromises Turkish domestic police. Indeed, an important file deeply impacted by the crisis is the Kurdish question. Turkey was able to create strong links with the Iraqi KRG and its president, Massoud Barzani, especially because of their economic ties created by the oil trade; Turkey and Barzani are, however, extremely hostile to the possibility of an autonomous Kurdish zone in Syria controlled by the PYD – affiliated to the Turkish PKK. Recently, the overrun of Mosul by the al-Qaeda affiliated ISIL further complicated the Turkish positioning towards the Syrian conflict: the AKP government is an ally of the Iraq Kurds and is supporting them against the ISIL militants. The presence of al-Qaeda/ ISIL in the region is contrary to Turkish interests, but so is the maintenance of Assad’s regime.

At the beginning of the conflict, Turkey appeared as an ally to the opposition of a dictatorial regime crushing its own population, and AKP was seen as the protector of the Syrian refugees. Now, however, the situation has been completely reversed: Turkey is failing to cope with the humanitarian crisis created by the refugees and its won population is against the role of the country in feeding the Syrian crisis. AKP has been several times criticized, internationally and domestically, by its support to extremists groups, and the attack on Kasab was a painful reminder of an open wound of Turkey: the Armenian Genocide. Was Assad to lose the war, an unlikely outcome by now, Syria would face further domestic chaos and the rise of jihadist groups not necessarily friendly towards the AKP – the takeover of Mosul by ISIS is significant of the chaos Turkey will have to face if these groups take power. Moreover, this could lead to a continue flow of refugees to Turkey and the rise of an autonomous Kurdish zone in the north of Syria, linked to the PKK – a scenario not quite cheerful for the AKP. If Assad continues to be the head of the Syrian state, which would mean an open defeat and humiliation for Erdogan, the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey will continue to increase. Adding to this equation, a great number of jihadists would cross the border to the Turkish side, as a regime completely hostile to the AKP would continue to lead the country. Apparently, whatever the outcome of this war is, the result can be quite harmful for AKP and Turkey, a country trapped in a long-lasting conflict that they did not create, but helped to intensify.


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[1] Interview with Jean Marcou, April 2014.

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