Is Turkey Getting Dragged Into War With Syria?

By April 18, 2012

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 170

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Since the first wave of uprisings in Syria, Turkey has gradually hardened its stance toward the Baathist dictatorship. However, as Assad continues to weather the rebellion while strengthening ties with the PKK terrorist group and with a nuclearizing Iran, Ankara fears a reemergence of the threatening strategic landscape of the 1990s. As the turmoil in Syria continues and the security environment of Turkey worsens, two factors might lead to unilateral Turkish military intervention in Syria: a refugee crisis that forces Ankara to establish a buffer zone within Syrian territory, and/or defensive military measures needed to stop PKK terrorism.

Since the first wave of uprisings in Syria, and with the increasingly violent crackdown strategy of President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey has significantly shifted its position toward the Baathist regime.

Until recently, it was Ankara’s belief that Assad could be charmed by soft power and economic opportunities, and possibly, by giving Syria an opportunity to get closer to the West, via Turkey, particularly when Turkey was distancing itself from Israel. Thus, in 2009, Ankara strived to forge a strategic partnership with Damascus, at which time Turkish–Syrian rapprochement culminated in joint military exercises and cabinet meetings.

This foreign policy approach had been designed by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, former chief advisor to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Davutoğlu is known as an idealist academic who refrains from adopting power politics in a tough environment. He has advocated the reduction of tensions with Turkey’s neighbors (“zero problems”) in order to enhance Ankara’s influence in the historical Ottoman territory.

With the spread of the “Arab Spring” to Syria, Davutoğlu tried to convince Assad to adopt democratic reforms – but the regime continued with its violent crackdown. Eventually, Ankara expected the Assad regime to fall. It has gradually hardened its rhetoric against the dictatorship, becoming a harsh critic of Assad. Moreover, Turkey is now the main backer of the Syrian opposition, as it hosts the political center of the Syrian National Council and the headquarters of the Free Syrian Army.

The Syrian crisis has challenged the well-intentioned but unrealistic Turkish foreign policy of recent years, forcing Turkey to confront the true nature of the contemporary Middle East. Nowadays, Turkish decision makers seek to create a new Syrian ally by supporting the rise of the Sunni opposition in place of the current Alawite regime. A Sunni regime in Damascus would help counterbalance Iran’s Shiite expansionism in the region.

Yet, Iranian-backed Assad continues to survive and gain time to maneuver. As well, Assad has increased his support for the PKK terrorist group. The organization’s Syrian Kurdish elements, which have always had close ties with the Syrian security services, became even more active in recent months. Sources in the Turkish press claim that members of the Syrian intelligence have started operating among the PKK terrorists. In parallel, the PKK seeks to turn the “Arab Spring” into a “Kurdish Spring” by mobilizing violent mobs in Turkey’s streets. As well, the terrorist group recently escalated its subversive activities against Ankara despite the government’s negotiation efforts for a peaceful solution to Turkey’s Kurdish problem.

Furthermore, Iran’s Shiite expansionism in the region, along with its competing interests in Syria and its nuclear program, makes it an important rival for Turkey. Iran’s influence is also felt in Iraq, which is basically controlled by pro-Tehran elements. The strengthening of the Shiite bloc is evident in Iraq’s recent hosting of the Arab League Summit – the first time a Shiite-led state has held the meeting.

Thus, Ankara is now facing the pro-Iran Shiite crescent of Tehran, Baghdad, and Damascus, complemented by a rise in PKK terrorism. Such a security environment is reminiscent of the threatening strategic landscape of the 1990s. This time, however, Turkey’s decision makers are not able to use the leverage of a strategic partnership with Israel as they did then. While Saudi Arabia and Qatar can lend some support by sponsoring the Free Syrian Army, they can hardly counterbalance the Iranian-led alliance.

Considering the veto power of Moscow and Beijing in the UN Security Council, the determined support of Tehran, and the unwillingness of the West to exercise a military option against Syria, Assad might be able to withstand international pressure even in the midst of a civil war. Such a war might turn into a regional confrontation between the Shiite and Sunni blocs, and Turkey might be dragged into it. Indeed, Turkish President Abdullah Gul on April 5th stated before the Turkish War Colleges that the dangerous escalations in Syria, Iraq, and Iran might turn into an armed conflict and stressed that diplomatic activism and military preparation is a must for Turkey.

A civil war in Syria carries two potential threats for Ankara. First, Turkey might find itself alone against a Tehran-led alliance. Second, the violence in Syria could have a similar result to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq – that is, the establishment of Kurdish autonomy in the north under PKK dominion. Northern Syria might become a safe haven for terrorists and/or a link to the separatist Kurdish entity in Iraq.

As the turmoil in Syria continues and the security environment of Turkey worsens, two factors might lead to unilateral Turkish military intervention in Syria.

The clashes in Syria might cause a major refugee crisis which would force Ankara to establish a buffer zone within Syrian territory. Although the probable justification for intervention would be preventing a humanitarian crisis, securing a buffer zone in Syrian territory is in essence a military operation. If Damascus responds with force, Erdoğan’s government will probably order the Turkish Armed Forces to fight the Syrian army. However, this course of action may lack public support in Turkey.

Another military option would be defensive action to stop PKK terrorism, aided by Damascus, from mounting. Unlike the first option, confronting terrorism and preserving national unity would garner the support of the majority of Turks. Of course, Iran’s possible response to any Turkish intervention in Syria is an important constraint on Ankara’s freedom of action.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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Dr. Can Kasapoğlu

Dr. Can Kasapoğlu, who holds a Ph.D. from the Strategic Research Institute at the Turkish War College, was a visiting post-doctoral researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in 2011-2012.