What Conditions Can Make Turkey Back Down on its Positions regarding Syria?

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Reza Solat
Ph.D. in International Relations and Expert on Turkey Issues

Following the failed coup attempt in Turkey and normalization of Turkey’s relations with Russia after a visit to Moscow by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, many experts opined that Turkey would enter a new phase of relations with Syria and its president, Bashar Assad, as a result of which the existing tensions between the two neighboring countries would subside. However, this did not happen and Turkey did not make any change to its strategy with regard to Syria, but on the contrary, caused escalation of tensions by launching Operation Euphrates Shield in northern of the Arab country. This article represents an effort to discuss reasons behind this situation in two parts and aims to shed light on strategies that Ankara pursues in Syria.

Turkey’s foreign policy is a combination of the balance of power and security balance. Therefore, Ankara has to look at the ongoing crisis in Syria from a geopolitical standpoint. In fact, the root cause of this issue should be sought in Turkey’s geopolitical policies. Ankara believes that if Bashar Assad remains in power, the balance among Iraq, Syria, Iran and Russia would make Turkey’s access to the Middle East difficult. Therefore, the main problem in Ankara’s crisis-hit relations with Damascus should be found in geopolitical characteristics of Turkey’s peripheral environment. In fact, according to the viewpoint of Turkish officials, a new environment has come about in the region following the occupation of Iraq in 2003. It is necessary to note that in this new environment, two Arab neighbors of Turkey, that is, Iraq and Syria are situated within spheres of influence of Iran and Russia. This is an unprecedented development in the entire history of rivalries among Iran, Turkey and Russia. In view of this alliance, Iran has turned into an effective regional power in the Mediterranean region. At the same time, however, unlike Russia, Turkey does not see Iran as a serious security threat in the region, but considers it just as a rival state.

Syria, Iraq and Lebanon are three countries to which Turkey attaches extremely high importance. Turkey has been historically in serious rivalry with Iran in this region, though this is only a soft geopolitical rivalry, which has just intensified in recent years. At the same time, the war in Iraq has completed the Middle East puzzle and helped Shia people rise to power in the Arab country. Therefore, both Iran and Russia are now capable of accessing the Mediterranean Sea due to their alliance with the aforesaid three countries. In addition having more than 1,800 kilometers of common borders with these countries, save for Russia, has faced Turkey with a remarkable security riddle. In my opinion, during the crisis that hit relations between Syria and Turkey and also following geopolitical developments and activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) along Turkey’s borders, Ankara reached a point at which it could no more play the role of an impartial arbiter with regard to regional policies. Therefore, although Turkey is trying to follow some sort of unconventional policies in the region and keep its distance with the West, there is no doubt that politicians in Ankara coordinate their foreign policy with Washington. Therefore, it was through Washington’s green light, which they tried to enter into an agreement with Shia Arabs and even in March 2011, Erdogan became the first Sunni leader to pay a visit to the shrine of Imam Ali (PBUH) in the Iraqi city of Najaf. However, when it comes to rivalry between Turkey and Iran in Iraq, Turkey stands no chance for attracting the country’s Shia majority toward itself.

Therefore, if this reality is considered within the new realistic context, it follows that Turkey got close to Iraqi Kurds in order to mount pressure on Syria and meet a maximal degree of its interests, because the northern part of Iraq is an economic zone and a prerogative market for Turkish companies, especially those active in the fields of construction and trade. In doing this, Ankara tried to render Syria’s trump card – that is, the PKK – useless through active presence in north Iraq. However, in practice, strategies formulated by Turkey were hit by new asymmetrical threats such as Daesh and other Kurdish regions in Iraq and Syria apart from the PKK.

Following these geopolitical structural changes in Turkey’s peripheral environment, ethnic and sectarian tendencies have reached their acme around Turkey and in an armed manner as well. The current conditions in Syria allow Turkey to take its security problems beyond borders whenever it wants. In fact, the presence of Bashar Assad in power has provided Turkey with this opportunity. At the present time, Ankara’s priority has changed from ousting Assad to maintaining territorial integrity of Syria and, in fact, preventing establishment of a Kurdish government along Turkey’s borders. Therefore, the current position of Turks is somehow in line with Syria’s position in opposing independence of Kurds while Ankara has also changed its position on the role to be played by Assad in future Syria.

On the other hand, the climax of Syria’s developments for Turkey came about in the town of Manbij. Although all sides who fought against Daesh welcomed liberation of this town, the victory gained by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and their control over the town rang the alarms both for Bashar Assad and the government of Turkey. As a result, it provided grounds for an unwilling coalition between Erdogan and Assad much earlier than it was actually expected.

Before the liberation of Manbij, Syrian Kurds and the country’s government were fighting against a common enemy in the form of Daesh and al-Nusra Front. Therefore, they not only did not fight against one another, but had also formed a tangible and coordinated alliance with each other. However, after remarks by co-chairperson of the executive committee of the Federation of Northern Syria, Hediya Yousef, about the need to connect three Kurdish regions of Jazira, Kobani, and Afrin in northern Syria, the country’s governmental forces made the Kurdish city of Hasakah target of their air raids for the first time.

Therefore, following these conflicts, Turkey reached the conclusion that new conditions have come about in Syria and the central government in Damascus is focusing on threats posed by a new Kurdish structure in the northern part of the country. Therefore, Ankara knows that Bashar Assad is now a serious actor affecting the structure of Turkey’s positions on Syria. As a result, the question that is raised is whether geopolitical interests have led to crisis in Turkey’s relations with Syria, or the crisis is an outcome of interactions among various sects and ethnic groups that exist in the surrounding environment of Turkey. I believe that the new interpretation of geographical conditions in the Middle East has undermined the past policy of reducing problems with neighboring countries to zero and has replaced that policy with a new strategy that seeks to establish and bolster a security belt around Turkey. Therefore, one may say that many policies adopted by Turkey’s government with regard to Syria are attributed to realistic factors, which in fact, reflect changes in structural and strategic environment of Turkey as well, though this would mean that the leaders of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party have had no effect on the formulation of these policies and their structural environment.

Key WordsTurkey, Positions, Syria, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin, Operation Euphrates Shield, Balance of Power, Security Balance, Bashar Assad, Russia, Iraq, Lebanon, Middle East, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Daesh, Manbij, Solat

More By Reza Solat:

*An Analysis of Recent Turkey-Russia Relations with Emphasis on Subjective Factors:

*The Future Outlook for Iran-Turkey Relations:

*A Glance at Future Prospect of Turkey’s Policies in Syria:

*Photo Credit:

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