Why Does Turkey Want Regime Change in Syria?

Why Does Turkey Want Regime Change in Syria?

Ankara's domestic troubles and sectarian tensions are being played out abroad.

The downing of a Turkish RF-4E reconnaissance aircraft in late June brought Turkey and Syria to the brink of war. Following the statement of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the rules of engagement of the Turkish military have been changed and expanded, Turkey has deployed two armored brigades and positioned antiaircraft batteries along its Syrian border. Turkish F-16 fighters scrambled to chase away Syrian assault helicopters, which were within four miles of the Turkish-Syrian border on several occasions during the first week of July.

Observing that a "new Middle East is about to be born," Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently stated before the Turkish parliament that "we will be the owner, pioneer and the servant of this new Middle East." The Turkish government must act in a way that matches such rhetoric, but that in turn risks inviting a dangerous escalation of the Syrian conflict.

Turkey has committed itself, in concert with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, among others, to bring about regime change in Damascus. It has allowed the Syrian opposition to set up headquarters in Istanbul, and it is arming and training the Sunni rebels. Turkey's main weapon in its escalating confrontation with Syria consists of giving more support to the rebels, something that foreign minister Davutoglu hinted at when he assured that "we are determined to continue to support the Syrian people."

In fact, Turkey has embraced an exclusively Sunni cause in Syria. Sectarian considerations have acquired an importance in Turkish foreign policy as never before. Ankara is not only embroiled in a confrontation with the Alawite Syrian regime but is also in conflict with the Shiite regime in Iraq. In addition, the historic, geopolitical rivalry between Turkey and Iran, the champion of Syria, has resumed after a brief interlude during which Turkey appeared to be "drifting eastward," siding for a while with Iran and against its Western partners over the Iranian nuclear issue. This rivalry now is being played out in Syria and Iraq.

By now, Turkey has abandoned its ambition to have "zero problems" with its neighbors. The partnership with Syria was the showcase of Turkey's opening to the Middle East; trade with Syria expanded significantly, while the political cooperation between the two neighbors was institutionalized. Erdogan and his spouse even vacationed together with Assad and his first lady. Instead of nurturing close ties with all of the countries of the Middle East, regardless of their sectarian identity (except for Israel), Turkey has assumed the role of a leading Sunni power.

That shift means that Turkey has ceased challenging the United States over the Iranian issue. And although Washington is pleased that Ankara has joined the alliance against Tehran, there is nonetheless reason for the White House to be apprehensive regarding policies that exacerbate sectarian tensions, and there certainly is need to scrutinize Turkish motives for calling for regime change in Syria.

Some Western policy makers and commentators assume Turkey is a model for budding Muslim democracies. But to what extent does Turkey stand to play such a constructive role in Syria? To help manage what threatens to be a chaotic post-Assad nation, Turkey would need to demonstrate willingness and an ability to transcend ethnic and sectarian divides. Neither Turkey's Syrian policy nor the internal policies of its ruling party are reassuring on this account.

Ankara has neglected to address a key reality: the uprising against the Assad regime is a civil war. But the Turkish government has not made any attempt to give the impression that it embraces the cause of the Alawites, Christians and Kurds in equal measure. That negligence is not a coincidence; indeed, any Turkish attempt to appear to be doing so would have lacked credibility. Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) refuses to accommodate the aspirations of the country's own, largest religious minority, the Alevis, and is suppressing the Kurdish movement—eight thousand Kurdish politicians and activists have been imprisoned during the last three years—which demands equality just as the Kurds in Syria do. The Syrian policy of Turkey's ruling Sunni conservatives mirrors a sectarian tilt that has become more pronounced internally as well.

Holding on to an Alawite regime that deploys indiscriminate violence against its Sunni population obviously could not have been an option for Turkey's ruling Sunni conservative party. Yet the Turkish government got carried away by its own sectarian reflexes when it hurriedly called for Assad's ouster and adopted the cause of the Sunni rebels.

Turkey may have been prompted to make a quick break with its erstwhile partner, wrongly anticipating the precipitous collapse of the Syrian regime. Ankara may have wanted to avoid losing initiative to other powers, as was the case in Libya, where it took some time before the Turks joined the alliance against Qaddafi. But there can be no doubt that ideological and sectarian considerations weighed heavily as well. What beckons enticingly for Turkey is the rise of a pro-Turkish "Sunni crescent" stretching from Gaza over Syria to northern Iraq. The AKP's relation with Hamas, the rulers of Gaza, is longstanding, while the self-governing Kurds in northern Iraq form a Sunni alliance with Turkey against Iran and its proxy in Baghdad. The prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood, an ideological kin to the AKP, ascending to power in Syria must excite the ruling Sunni conservatives in Ankara.

Domestic Instability Intrudes

Yet shouldering the cause of the Sunnis and playing the Sunni card to project power is a double-edged sword. Damascus is suspected of having resumed its support to the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey in retaliation. But Turkey not only is vulnerable on its Kurdish flank; the country also is fractured by a sectarian fault line, and there is a very real risk of a Syrian contamination on already uneasy Sunni-Alevi relations in Turkey. The Turkish sponsorship of the Sunni rebellion has not gone down well with the Alevi community. The leader of the main opposition party, the social democratic Republican People's Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who is an Alevi and a Kurd, used the downing of the Turkish aircraft to criticize the AKP’s Syrian regime-change policy; this in turn has drawn the ire of Erdogan, who accused the opposition leader of being a Baathist.

The heterodox Alevis are estimated to make up around 15 percent of the population in Turkey. Their deviations from Muslim orthodoxy have earned them the lasting enmity of the Sunnis, they have been victims of persecution for hundreds of years and they still endure discrimination. Their demands to be recognized officially as a religious community remain unheeded by the AKP government. The recent request by an Alevi member of parliament that a prayer room be provided for its Alevi members was turned down by the speaker of parliament. The deputy prime minister Bekir Bozdag commented that Muslims pray in mosques—which Alevis don’t, providing yet another example of the persistent refusal to recognize that Alevis constitute a separate creed from Sunni Muslims.

When Erdogan recently expressed allegiance to "one nation, one flag, one religion," the representatives of the Alevis were incensed by the implicit reference to Sunni Islam as the sole basis of the nation. The Turkish constitution in fact already enshrines the primacy of Sunni Islam, mandating compulsory education in its tenets and assigning the state directorate of religious affairs the duty of tending solely to the needs of the Sunnis. There are no indications that the ruling AKP is about to bring about any changes to this order. On the contrary, the Sunni religious component in the school curriculum was accentuated in a recent overhaul of the education system, confirming that Erdogan's statement last year that "we are going to raise pious generations" was seriously intended.

It is difficult to imagine Ankara being able to further reconciliation among the communities in Syria after having exacerbated sectarian divisions there. Turkey also provides a very poor example of societal reconciliation, as the country's ethnic and sectarian communities—Turks, Kurds, Sunnis and Alevis—are not recognized as equals. Turkey's own constitutional regime would first have to change if the country is to offer any useful guidance for others in a region that is increasingly torn apart by sectarian divisions.

Halil Karaveli is senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

Image: Freedom House