Turkey's Syria Calculus Must Change Again

September 23, 2013 Topic: Security Region: SyriaTurkey

Turkey's Syria Calculus Must Change Again

With Western intervention on hold, it's time for yet another reversal.

The Russian-U.S. agreement that saw Syria’s hurried accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention left Turkey’s Syria calculus in considerable disarray. In a span of less than a few weeks, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his minister of foreign affairs, Ahmet Davutoğlu, witnessed the prospects of their aspiration to see the end of the Assad regime rise and then simply disappear, at least for the foreseeable future.

The events of August 21 in the outskirts of Damascus which, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment, caused the death of more than 1,400 people, including young children, sparked the prospects of a military intervention by the United States. Erdoğan was quick in expressing his support for such an eventuality without clarifying the form of Turkey’s involvement. In an effort to galvanize support, he loudly accused the international community and particularly the West of being insensitive to the sufferings of civilians. He fired accusations at the U.S. and the West, ranging from alleging an absence of basic ethics to accusing them of outright Islamophobia for failing to respond to the sufferings of the Muslims in Syria. He called for nothing less than an intervention “like [the 1999 NATO intervention] in Kosovo” to bring an end to Assad’s regime and hence to the suffering of the Syrian people. His and his foreign minister’s calls fell on deaf ears, leaving Turkey out of step with the rest of international community—with the exception of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. How did Turkey become so isolated, and where does this leave Turkey’s Syria calculus?

Turkey’s calculus has passed through a number of distinct stages. When peaceful protests first broke out in March 2011, Syrian-Turkish relations were still at their best. In fact, relations began warming after the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in November 2002. Soon after the elections, Turkey became a major trading and diplomatic partner of Syria’s, accompanied by the development of a close relationship between Erdoğan and Bashar al-Assad. This closeness led Erdoğan to press Assad for reforms on a number of occasions—with considerable goodwill.

As the situation deteriorated, especially during Ramadan in the summer of 2011, he dispatched Davutoğlu to Damascus. The mission to persuade Assad to halt repression failed, however, and Turkey took a complete U-turn in its policy towards Syria. In September 2011, Erdoğan unequivocally called for Assad to recognize the Syrian National Council as the official representative of the Syrian opposition. Not only did both countries withdraw their diplomatic representatives, but the free-trade agreement between the two sides was also put on hold. The Turkish government, like much of the rest of the international community, predicted the downfall of the Assad regime within a few months, if not weeks—explaining Davutoğlu’s objection to any form of military intervention, at the time, except for the one sanctioned by the UN.

The regime’s brutality towards its own people, Assad’s resilience, the constant flow of refugees into Turkey, and the downing of a Turkish fighter plane in June 2012 contributed to producing yet another revision of Turkey’s Syria calculus. The Turkish government began to raise the need for a military intervention in the international community to ensure the protection of civilians and also bring about regime change. Erdoğan’s perspective was straightforward and pretty much black and white. The deeds of the Syrian regime were clearly those of a brutal and vicious oppressor who was in violation of all international norms. Hence, Ankara argued, it was the international community’s duty to stand by the victims and intervene on their behalf. By August 2012, Davutoğlu raised the idea of an internationally imposed safe zone at the UN Security Council. However, he was met with silence and even some disapproval. Turkey’s failure to mobilize the United States and the international community in support of such an intervention coincided with the determined and effective involvement of Iran and Russia in Syria in support of the regime.

This situation was further aggravated by the increasing appearance of al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria with their own radical agendas. This brought the Turkish objective of achieving a transition to a more democratic order with the regular Syrian opposition into question. Such an image led continuing criticisms of the government’s Syria policy at home and the public’s reluctance to see Turkey involved in Syria. A poll conducted by Kadir Has University in Istanbul between December 2012 and January 2013 found out that only 33 percent of those polled supported the government’s policy. In addition, 46 percent of the population found Turkey’s Syria policy generally unsuccessful and, in a separate question, 43.5 percent stated that Turkey should stay neutral in the Syrian civil war. It is against such a background that in May 2013 Erdoğan travelled to Washington, D.C. to seek support directly from Obama for a no-fly zone as the flows of refugees once more began to rise. UNHCR issued a prediction that the numbers of refugees in Turkey was likely to increase from just under half a million to one million by the end of the year. He failed to persuade Obama, who instead counseled the Turkish prime minister to support a negotiated departure of Assad through Geneva II.

Consequently, Erdoğan’s new adjustment to his Syria calculus faded away during the course of this past summer. When Obama defined the brutal use of chemical weapons in Damascus as the unacceptable crossing of his infamous “red line,” Erdoğan’s and Davutoglu’s hopes that a military intervention might take place were revived. However, these hopes were dashed rather quickly. Instead, Turkish foreign policy now faces the prospect of Assad remaining in power. Yet the absence of a military intervention seems in line with Turkish public opinion. Many protests have occurred in Turkey against military intervention, and a Transatlantic Trends survey found that 72 percent of Turks polled were against such interventions—10 points higher than the average level of support amongst Americans. Therefore, the notion of a military intervention against Syria to overthrow Assad, at least for the time being, is not an option. Additionally, Obama seems to have readjusted his earlier position away from an unequivocal commitment to regime change in Syria.

Instead, Turkey’s Syria calculus ought to become more realistic and focus on addressing the ever-growing refugee and humanitarian crisis while ensuring that radical Islamists groups and Assad’s infamous Mukhabarat do not threaten Turkey’s security and do not aggravate the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Extending quality protection of and humanitarian assistance for Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons appears to be much more within Turkey’s reach than ensuring the downfall of Assad’s regime. Given the current circumstances, attending to the needs of Syrian refugees and Turkey’s security interests is far more practical and realistic, as well as a wiser and a worthier cause to pursue.

Kemal Kirişci is the TÜSİAD Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.