The Position of Turkey in the Syrian War

With the raging war in Syria, the stability of the Middle East was shaken. Since the regional as well as global powers took advantage in Syrian crisis to promote their interests, the civil war has turned into far more complex issue than what it was in the beginning. It has become a security threat and opportunity for establishing hegemony in the region by directly, but also indirectly participating states and non-state actors. Turkey as a leading military power in the Middle East has a potential to vitally influence the outcome of the Syrian conflict. This article aims to analyse Turkey’s security concerns stemming from Syrian war, its reaction to them and its position in the conflict.

Author: Bc. Soňa Rusnáková, student of European Studies and International Relations at Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences, Comenius University Bratislava.

After the outbreak of Syrian Revolution in 2011, Turkey’s foreign policy towards neighbouring Syria has significantly shifted. Although the relations between the countries were historically far from cordial, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq bridged the gap between two historic rivals for almost a decade. Facing the same security threat of the establishment of Kurdistan, Syria and Turkey engaged themselves in intensified political, security and economic cooperation. However, this cooperative phase of Turkish-Syrian relations has not survived the wave of Arab Spring that proliferated to Syria and posed a challenge to Assad’s regime. Turkey’s President several times attempted to persuade Syrian leader to introduce democratic reforms, but unsuccessfully. Unable to persuade Assad to democratize his rule, Erdoğan cut the ties with the Syrian leader. Erdoğan justified this shift by claiming that „…when a people is persecuted, especially a people that are our relatives, our brothers, and with whom we share a 910 km border, we absolutely cannot pretend nothing is happening and turn our backs“ (Burch 2011). Turkey plays important role in the Middle East as a model for democracy in the Arab world and the image of the cou ntry is crucial for continuing integration with the West. Black (2011) argues that Erdoğan pledged „…to promote ‚justice, the rule of law … freedom and democracy‘, distancing himself from the traditional stabile friendships with Arab dictators.“  This attitude is also supported by Ulgen who states that „…Ankara now wants to be on the right side of history and is ready to stand up for issues like human rights even where it imperils ties with incumbent leaders“ (n.d. as cited in Cameron-Moore 2011). Moreover, increasing number of military clashes along the border such as shooting down of Turkish reconnaissance jet by Syrian defence forces in 2012, firing of artillery shells by the Syrian army killing Turkish citizens at the border in 2012, shooting down of Syrian helicopter by Turkish jet in 2013 and of Syrian MiG-23 in 2014 contributed to current state of mutual hostility between both countries. In spite of growing seriousness of incidents, military intervention of Turkey in Syria has remained questionable and rather hesitant.

Security Threats from Syria

There are several reasons for which Turkey perceives the evolvement of situation in Syria sensibly and which have potential in the end to draw Turkey to engage in the crisis.

First and foremost, the foundation of Kurdistan presents the worst case scenario and severe security threat for Turkey confirmed by Erdoğan’s (2015) statement that „We will never allow the establishment of a [Kurdish] state in Syria’s north and our south. We will continue our fight in this regard no matter what it costs“ (Today’s Zaman 2015). The Kurdish concentrated predominantly in south-eastern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq and western Iran claim historic rights in the mentioned regions for formation of independent state. Separatist PKK (Kurdistan Workers‘ Party) is responsible for carrying out terrorist attacks in Turkey and its closest affiliate is Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) in Syria with its military wing YPG (People’s Protection Units). Both of them joined their forces to fight ISIS alongside the Free Syrian Army and the Iraqi Kurds. Turkey’s security concerns over the Kurds reached their peak security concerns over the Kurds escalated in July 2015 when the Kurds expanded and secured their military control of the north of Syria, pushing ISIS back from Tel Abyad, a district in northern Syria which is also a strategically important border checkpoint between Turkey and Syria. With the expansion of Kurdish success in the battleground and maintenance of their control of northern Syria and Iraq, the unification of Kurdish minorities in the historical region of the so-called Kurdistan could become reality. Such scenario is unimaginable for Turkey since she itself is inhabited by approximately 14 mil. Kurdish population attempting to usurp south-eastern part of country. The growing military success of the Kurds could have potential to ignite the action of separatist elements within the country. Therefore the suspicion of Turkish government is on alert claiming that the Kurds „…want to complete the operation to change the demographic structure of the region“ (Erdoğan in Reuters 2015). The concerns of Turkey related to Kurdistan were also amplified by the increasing sympathy of the West towards the Kurds: „…to take the PKK off of the terrorist list in Europe has gained a lot of support since the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)“ (Özyurt, 2014). Furthermore, in case that the Kurds expand also to the north-west, they would find themselves in close proximity to strategically important Ceyhan district, through which oil pipelines from Baku and Kirkuk pass. Moreover, it is also violent attacks that cause tensions between Turkey and the Kurds, as was the case of killing of eight Turkish soldiers in Siirt on August 19 and another five Turkish police officers in Mardin on October 1.

Secondly, apart from the Kurds, ISIS is another source of insecurity for Turkey. Not only ISIS produced the current situation from which mostly the Kurds politically profit since turmoil within Syria increases their chances for state-building in the future but even incorporated Turkey in the drawing of vision of future caliphate, therefore making clear intention to impose ISIS rule over the country. The first serious clashes between Turkey’s government and ISIS occurred in October 2014 over the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the founder of the Ottoman Empire, situated in the northern province of Aleppo in Syria that houses his relics. Turkish government was concerned with the protection of its cultural heritage – „That is our territory under the guarantee of international agreements. Any attack on this territory means an attack on Turkey“ warned Erdoğan (Today’s Zaman 2014) after ISIS required withdrawal of Turkish troops from the site. The further antagonism against ISIS was fuelled by the threat of terrorist attacks conducted by ISIS in Istanbul and Ankara that emerged after media released in February 2015 that around 3000 radical intelligence cells infiltrated into country (The Jerusalem Post 2015). In July 20 the terrorist bombing in Suruç took place, killing 33 civilians and leaving approximately 104 injured. Moreover, after Turkey agreed in August 2015 to play a more active role against ISIS alongside the US „The Islamic State group has threatened Turkey and called for the overthrow of the Turkish president…“ (Rûdaw 2015).

Thirdly, the potential restoration of Assad’s regime further increases security concerns of Turkey as Erdoğan proclaimed: „We will (also) continue to prioritise our aim to remove the Syrian regime, to help protect the territorial integrity of Syria and to encourage a constitutional, parliamentary government system which embraces all (of its) citizens“ (Coskun 2014). Although Turkey was suspected of providing help to ISIS in countering Assad, in October 2014 the Parliament in Ankara approved Government motion of intervention in Syria, which İsmet Yılmaz, the Minister of Defense interpreted as fighting both ISIS and Assad’s regime (Scott 2014). However, taking down Assad remains the most important objective of Turkey in Syria: „Turkey insists on making the removal of the Assad regime in Syria a priority, saying the regime is first and foremost responsible for creating an atmosphere that is fertile for radical groups such as ISIL to emerge“ (Arslan 2014).

Fourthly, the massive inflow of refugees to Turkey represents potential threat for country’s security. The country shelters approximately 2 million refugees from Syria what makes Turkey the country that accepts the highest rate of refugees not only on regional, but also on global level. First of all, these incomers with high probability involve infiltrated radicals: „…both government officials and community members express fear that the outflow of so many refugees from Syria was making Turkey vulnerable to ISIS infiltration“ (Kirişci 2015). Next, refugees have become a heavy burden for Turkish economy. Turkey’s policy towards refugees is welcoming, applying open-door policy – the country constructed camps on its territory, provides security, recreational and educational services for them so the refugees are living in a „relative comfort“ (İçduygu 2015, p. 8). However „While Turkey’s response has already been extremely generous, its capacity to receive and support further refugee flows is not unlimited“ (p. 8). The government spent around $7.5 billion from its $225 billion budget for 2015 (Anadolu Agency 2014). Cetingulec (2015) argues that „With the Turkish economy already in trouble, it can hardly endure an additional $500 million per month, or $6 billion per year, for refugees. And the situation is likely to get worse.“

Turkey’s Hesitancy                                          

From the very beginning of the conflict, Turkey’s direct military involvement was questionable. The country was careful in providing any official statements of commitment to military support or joining coalitions and its position on involvement in the conflict was shifting based on changing circumstances. After the crisis erupted in 2011, Turkey’s government backed the main opposition force to Assad’s regime, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and was even accused by the Kurds and the opposition in parliament of assisting ISIS. Only in October 2014 Turkey’s parliament approved a measure of possible military intervention against ISIS in Syria and Iraq on a vote of 298 to 98, which could have been interpreted as the first step towards more intense engagement in anti-ISIS coalition. However, the reluctance of Turkey to help YPG countering ISIS in Kobanê in October 2014 indicated that although proclaiming to take part in anti-ISIS coalition, Turkey stays rather a self-interested solitary player, since it did not support coalition militarily against ISIS for it fears that weakening ISIS would consequently mean profit for the Kurds. Additionally, leaders of main opposition parties in Turkey doubted the real intentions behind the authorized motion on intervention, claiming that instead of countering ISIS, it is aimed on tackling Assad and PKK (Ozdemir 2015). In May 2015, Turkey and the USA agreed to cooperate on training of Syrian opposition against ISIS; however, the USA and western countries have been long time pushing for more intense military involvement from Turkey’s side. After the accumulating number of media speculations in July 2015, Prime Minister Davutoğlu definitely refuted the claims of direct military intervention in Syria and potential joined military intervention with Saudi Arabia: „We will never allow ourselves to be led down that road“ (NDTV 2015). At that stage the Turkish involvement in Syria could have been described as the „policy of wait and see“. However, on 29 July 2015, following the Suruç incident and increasing international pressure, Turkish government officially agreed that the US could use the previously restricted İncirlik airbase for its combat flights against ISIS. This was interpreted as great step towards Turkey’s more active engagement in Syrian conflict, although even partly since the spokesman for the ministry highlighted that „The agreement covers only the fight against the Islamic State and does not include air support for allied Kurdish fighters in northern Syria…“ (Stratfor 2015). Turkey made clear that it aims to preserve its own way of dealing with the Syrian crisis when „Turkish warplanes bombed ISIS positions in Syria for the first time late last month, but the airstrikes were then part of a unilateral effort and not as part of the U.S.-led coalition“ (Bilginsoy and Tuysuz 2015). Despite Turkey made moves towards more active participation in the conflict, the country still is not fully and officially engaged in the war and it maintains defensive rather than offensive. There are several reasons why Turkey remains hesitant:

Firstly, there is a divergence of interests within the US-led coalition and Turkey. The military intervention of Turkey would mean to fight in accordance with the coalition against ISIS radicals what is partly against Turkey’s interests in the region because defeating ISIS is beneficial for the Kurds who are Turkey’s top security threat. It would also make situation more favourable for the restoration of Assad’s regime. Turkey is highly dissatisfied with the cooperation of the US and Syrian Kurds‘ military. Moreover, the USA is apparently starting to take more moderate approach towards Assad, whose overthrow is no longer perceived as prerequisite for peace by the US since it supports Syria peace talks hosted by Russia that insists on backing Assad’s regime: According to Tisdall (2015) this can be interpreted as „… the Obama administration has quietly dropped its longstanding demand that President Bashar al-Assad step down as part of any settlement.“  Turkey, on the other side, perceives takeover of Assad’s regime as necessity. Stemming from US hesitance towards Assad, the collaboration of Saudi Arabia and Turkey in aiding and arming jihadist groups such as Ahrar Al-Sham or Jund al-Aqsa shows intention of these regional powers to take control over the situation by themselves – a direction that the US is not comfortable with. Moreover, Turkey and the US cannot agree on strategy in Syria. Apart from getting rid of Assad, Turkey bids for buffer zone on the border with Syria which is supposed to ease security concerns for Turkey, limit the inflow of refugees to country and provide safe area for establishing government of Syrian rebels. Creation of such a zone would mean security threat for Assad and therefore possible involvement of Iran (and before it eventually entered also Russia) – a scenario that US would not welcome. After Russia entered the conflict in September 2015 at the request of Assad, limiting its support only with air strikes, the divergence of interests within the parties involved has deepened and the conflict has become even more complex. The joint talks with Russia, US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in October 2015 in Vienna on common fate of Assad showed that countries were unable to come to compromise: „Saudi, the US and Turkey see Assad as an obstacle for peace…That crucial  difference of opinion seems to be unresolved“ (Al Jazeera 2015). However recently „…the US continues to hope Assad will be removed, but is no longer publicly insisting on it as a precondition for a peace deal“ (Tisdall 2015).

Secondly, Turkey’s intervention could harm economic relations with its key trade partners – Russia, Iran, Iraq and China. All of the mentioned maintain its influence in region through Assad. For Turkey, Russia is the second biggest trading partner after EU mainly in gas and oil imports and countries have lately enhanced their economic cooperation. Russia is followed by Iran in providing the largest amount of oil and gas resources for Turkey and with freshly-new achieved US-Iran nuclear deal that promises to lift sanctions imposed on Iran, Turkey can in future profit even more from maintaining trade relations. Also the economic ties with Iraq are not insignificant – Turkey is for Iraq the most vital import partner. As far as relations with China are involved, China is one of the most substantial partners for Turkey with regards to foreign capital inflow.

Thirdly, the involvement of various actors in the crisis with different interests and expectations raises question about future arrangement of Syrian government. After the experience of US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq which left the countries even more divided and in deeper trouble than before, Turkey is afraid to be dragged to similar disaster, which would be, first of all a heavy financial burden for already regressing economy.

Fourthly, one also needs to take into consideration Turkey’s domestic situation in order to understand its hesitancy. Above all, the public opinion opposes the intervention in Syria. The polls in June-July 2013 showed that 72% of population of Turkey preferred the country to stay away from the conflict (Transatlantic Trends 2013). Moreover, it is not only public support that the government lacks. Having overthrown the government several times in the history, relations between Turkey’s government and military are complicated. They diverge also on matter of intervention, towards which is army reluctant: „Turkey’s government wants more active military action to support the Free Syrian Army (FSA) against the regime, Kurdish and jihadist forces in Syrian territory, but the military is reluctant to do so…“  (Yetkin 2015). Former Chief of the General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel justified this position by referring to „…international law and politics and the uncertainty of reactions from the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, as well as from its supporters Russia and Iran, together with the United States“ (Yetkin 2015).  Furthermore, with the previous loss of Erdoğan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) parliamentary majority and his inability to form the government the president lost credibility in the eyes of Turkish Armed Forces: „The military does not want to get into a major military action on the directives of the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government which lost its parliamentary majority in the June 7 elections… and if a new government is formed in weeks’ time, the directive which might lead to a war could be obsolete“ (Yetkin 2015). Even after AKP managed to secure the majority in November’s election 2015, it is expected that the new Chief of the General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar will follow the strategy of his predecessor: „Gen. Hulusi Akar, [at that time] the current commander of land forces, prefer prudent, cautious approaches that rule out military adventures in Iraq and Syria…“ (Gurcan 2015).


With the conflict gaining on complexity, Turkey manages to obstruct its full involvement in Syria. Although inclining rather to US-led coalition, Turkey remains hesitant in its contribution to the war alongside with the coalition. On the opposite, it carries out airstrikes unilaterally against ISIS and the Kurds, acting rather independently and mostly limiting its involvement only to counter attacks coming from Kurdish and ISIS camps. Turkey in general applies the strategy of „wait and see“. This approach is currently rational for Turkey – the costs of military intervention would be higher than the benefits. However, one cannot doubt that Turkey as the greatest military power in the region has a potential to significantly influence the outcome of Syrian conflict. Despite this fact, the country prefers only limited assistance to its coalition partners and stays as neutral as possible. The importance of the involved actors for Turkey, their inability to decide on common strategy on ending Syrian conflict, the high complexity of the situation, the unpredictable outcome of the war and no prospect of close future solution to the conflict makes Turkey unwilling to enter the war officially or to actively side with one of the camps. It is principally the defeat of Assad along with the prevention of Kurdistan that is priority for Turkish security policy, with the latter being more probable trigger that could lead Turkey into warfare in Syria. Turkey does not consider ISIS to be as serious threat as the Kurds but limiting its participation in war to anti-ISIS coalition where the interest of the most powerful belligerents intersect enables Turkey to stand somewhere in the middle.


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