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The Syrian Civil War has exposed Turkey to the growing threat of Kurdish and Islamist empowerment. Ankara's options are limited by its domestic politics and military means. Turkey's response to the crisis will be critical for pursuing its regional ambitions.
As the crisis in Syria deepens, the rise of radical Islamist groups seriously threatens Turkish security interests. At the outset of the conflict, Ankara opted to try and convince Syrian President Bashar al Assad to undertake reforms to address the demands of his country's protest movement. These efforts were unsuccessful and have since devolved in to Turkey's full-throated support for the overthrow of the Assad government. Ankara's overarching approach to the conflict has been to enact policies designed to ensure the territorial integrity of the Syrian state.
This policy has prompted Turkey to partner with and to strengthen Muslim Brotherhood backed opposition groups fighting against Assad's forces. While the Turkish leadership is likely to share some sympathies for the long repressed group, Ankara's decision to deepen ties was not a result of a sectarian foreign policy. Instead, the move reflected a calculated decision to strengthen relations with what most expected would be the region's most potent political force.
These efforts primarily focused on strengthening the now near defunct Syrian National Council (SNC) and the rebels fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Ankara's efforts, however, were unsuccessful and the two groups' disorganisation eventually led the United States and Qatar to establish the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF). Ankara, which had few options at that point, recognised the new political coalition and sought to use its SNC contacts to gain influence with members in the new group. All of these efforts, however, have been unsuccessful and the Syrian opposition has yet to resolve their internal disputes and organize a shadow government in exile.
Disorganisation and the Rise of Jabhat al Nusra
These efforts, however, have been undercut by the FSA's disorganisation and its inability to control its fighters. The FSA's poor discipline and its questionable military tactics have eroded public support for the group. Jabhat al-Nusra's (JN) military prowess and discipline have allowed the group to gain in popularity. Moreover, the group's decision to pair its military operations with civilian efforts to care for the people affected by the crisis has further ingratiated the fighters with elements of the Syrian population.
While JN makes an effort to disassociate itself with the unpopular Al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI), the organisation comes from the groups of fighters organised by AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. JN is reportedly fighting to establish an Islamic government in Syria, which would then serve as the territorial base to help re-establish a caliphate in the Levant. The group rejects democracy and insists on the installation of Sharia law in the post-Assad Syrian state. As the group gains in prominence, it is reportedly coming at the expense of the FSA. Turkey, therefore, is faced with the prospect of having to contend with an empowered radical group that espouses a political vision in direct opposition to the one proposed by Ankara, while also having to prepare for the likelihood of intra-rebel conflict. In both cases, Turkey's interests are threatened.
Domestic Politics: Turkey's Limited Options in Syria
Turkey has sought to export its version of political Islam to the post-Revolutionary states in the Middle East. While Ankara shuns the notion of a 'Turkish Model', it has embraced the concept of 'Turkish political inspiration'. Ankara is advocating for the countries in transition to adopt a model based upon the tenets of the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) interpretation of political Islam. The model rests on the successful integration of culturally conservative norms with Western democratic institutions. As evidence of this approach, Prime Minister Erdogan encouraged his Egyptian counterparts in September 2011 to adopt a secular constitution that respected minority rights.
The Turkish emphasis on the promotion of Western style democracy is antithetical to Jabhat al Nusra's political goals. Turkey, however, has few policy options to cope with the rising popularity of Islamist groups in Syria. The Turkish electorate roundly rejected Ankara's previous policy of publicly threatening to intervene, which has in turn led the populist Prime Minister to change tactics. Erdogan is particularly sensitive to public opinion as he prepares for the 2014 election in which he wants to run for a strengthened executive presidency. Thus, any further efforts to increase Turkey's role in the conflict risks inciting a serious domestic political backlash from a population wary of the AKP's interventionist policies.
These efforts have moved in parallel to the Syrian crisis and have had a noticeable impact on the Prime Minister's popularity and policies. The Turkish public's rejection of the AKP's handling of the Syrian conflict has forced the Prime Minister to back away from his previous approach, in favour of a policy more heavily tilted towards emphasising the humanitarian costs of the civil-war.
As the influence of groups hostile to Turkish influence gain in prominence, Turkey's options are constrained by a combination of internal politics and limited military means. Therefore, Ankara's only option is to increase its support for its preferred rebel groups. These groups, however, are falling out of favour with the Syrian public and are losing influence to more radical groups that are antithetical to Turkish interests. This has led Ankara to try and outsource the handling of Syria to the international community. Turkey prodded the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to intervene in February 2012, but the Russian and Chinese delegation vetoed the Arab, Turkish, and Western backed plan for a phased political transition. Ankara has since changed tactics and has chosen to address the conflict by lessening its exposure to the threats posed in a chaotic post-Assad contingency.
Ankara's Response: Removing the Kurdish Wedge
While Ankara remains wary of radical Islamists, it is primarily concerned with the empowerment of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria - a decade-old group affiliated with the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK). In a rare point of convergence, Jabhat al Nusra and the FSA have clashed with Kurdish allied militias. Despite the overlap in interests, Turkish policy has worked to prevent intra-rebel clashes. Ankara has instead worked to unify the opposition under the banner of the NCSROF and side-step sectarian issues by prodding the Syrian rebel leadership to adopt a non-sectarian ideology. Ankara fears that the rebels will turn on themselves, which in turn could lead to sectarian clashes and further instability. Despite these efforts, the groups only appear to share an interest in ousting Assad. Therefore, Ankara still remains exposed to the multi-layered threat of sectarian conflict and the prospect of large swathes of Syrian territory being controlled by the PYD.
Ankara fears that the empowerment of Syria's Kurds would allow for the PKK to have increased 'strategic depth', which the group could then use to launch cross-border attacks during the chaotic post-Assad transition in Syria. An uptick in PKK violence would be detrimental to the AKP's political prospects, as well as draw Turkey into a two front asymmetric insurgent conflict. Moreover, the empowerment of the PYD's political arm could also lead to greater demands from its own Kurdish population for greater political autonomy. As of now, the PYD is the most dominant Syrian Kurdish faction. Its main rivals are smaller groups tied to Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). In the wake of the Arab revolts, the Kurdistan Regional Government has emerged as Ankara's closest regional ally. Barzani is an important counterweight to the PKK and a potential partner in Turkey's decades long quest to establish itself as an energy hub. Thus the two sides have an incentive to cooperate and Turkey has a real incentive to try and minimize the PYD's influence in Kurdish controlled territory in Syria.
While not directly related, Ankara has recently reinitiated talks with Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, to try and bring an end to the decades old conflict. If the talks prove to be successful, Ankara would help free itself from its long-standing fears about greater political autonomy for Kurdish groups in the region. Erdogan's decision to engage with the PKK, while welcome and necessary, is fraught with political risk. The Prime Minister is risking alienating the nationalist wing of the AKP, who could switch their allegiances and vote for the more conservative Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in the 2014 elections. This suggests that the populist Erdogan is ready to cast off his previous decision to tack to the nationalist right, in favour of reaching out to the AKP's more liberal political base that had become disillusioned with the Party in recent years. This approach could be both politically and strategically beneficial for Turkey and Erdogan.
If Ankara can better address the demands of its Kurdish minority, it would be better protected from the implications of Kurdish empowerment in Syria. These policies are moving independent of one another, but they are intricately connected. Ankara appears to have been spurred by a combination of changed internal and external political dynamics to tackle its most vexing security threat - Kurdish empowerment and the PKK. This approach has moved in tandem with its effort to strengthen Turkey's preferred actor in the Syrian conflict. This decision, while necessary, is a direct reflection of an internal political calculation, as well as a realisation that Turkey has few levers its can pull to influence outcomes in the Syrian civil war. Ankara has, to some extent, retreated from its original goals in Syria and is now pursuing a policy designed to maximise its interests and lessen its exposure to the threats posed by intra-rebel conflict and the prospect of Kurdish empowerment.
Aaron Stein is an Istanbul based PhD candidate at King's College, London and a researcher specialising in nonproliferation at the Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM). You can follow him on twitter @aaronstein1. He blogs at turkeywonk.wordpress.com.