Turkey and Syria Conflict

An analytical insight into Ankara’s ambitious and increasingly aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East.

Turkey’s Foreign Policy in the Middle East & North Africa

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Narration: The foreign policy of the Turkish ruling party of Justice and Development (also known as the AKP) has placed Ankara in a very critical position due to multiple and evolving threats to the country’s borders. Insisting on his ambitious and increasingly aggressive foreign policy, particularly in the MENA region, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is still reluctant to admit to past miscalculations in the party’s foreign policy that accounts for sever political fallout in Turkey and instability and insecurity in the region.

Ankara’s policy of “Zero Problems with Neighbors” has in recent years turned combative and ideological. In Syria unrest, in particular, is addressed as a regional issue that has direct impact on Turkey’s domestic predicaments and its diminishing influence in the region. This is particularly due to the fact that terrorist groups like ISIL or the al-Nusra Front are now on Turkey's doorstep.

The suicide attack on July 20 in the town of Suruc, near the Syria-Turkey border, that killed 32 and bore the hallmark of ISIL, has effectively put what Semih Idiz, a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse marks as, “The last nail into the coffin of Erdogan and Davutoglu’s already failed plans for carving out a leadership role for Turkey in the Middle East”. At the same time, the Iran-Turkey gas exports pipeline, was ruptured by an explosion leading to a three day pause till it was repaired and the Iranian gas exports to Turkey restarted. These events were followed by a terrorist attack on the Ankara-Tehran train in Turkey's Bingol province on Thursday, July 30.

Thus, the Turkish government has faced criticism at home and abroad for not doing enough against ISIL, despite being part of so called International Coalition Fighting. The first round of anti-ISIL air strikes on July 24 marked the first time Turkey confirmed air raids against targets in Syria since ISIL had begun its advance through Iraq and Syria in 2013.

It announced simultaneously an air strike on PKK militants in northern Iraq, whose Syrian wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) is a key US ally against ISIL.

Reuters reports: “The decision to strike against the PKK was made with the aim of advancing Turkey’s governing AK Party’s political position ahead of early parliamentary elections,” it adds: “But it will be a pyrrhic victory: Syria’s problems will continue to spill over Turkey’s borders, making a solution to the conflict ever more elusive”.

Ankara is also exploring every avenue for a Free Zone on the border with Syria and has allowed the US to use Incirlik, a key airbase to attack ISIL targets. The “Free Zone” in northwest Syria would stretch over 100 km west of the Euphrates River and into Aleppo province. The agreement let the US use the Incirlik airbase could allow the US to step up air strikes against ISIL. From Ankara’s point of view, however, enforcing a no-fly zone would ground Assad's air force and could establish a Turkish military presence and rid northern Syria of Kurdish militants linked to the PKK.

Ankara’s policy towards the Middle East has been received with distrust at home and abroad and has entangled AKP with various domestic and international dilemmas such as: derailing the peace process with Turkish Kurd opposition group; hosting 1.6 million Syrian refugees who not only incur financial costs, but also present political and social predicaments for Ankara in addressing the country’s ethnic and sectarian balance; the collapse of its Middle East policy, including having serious disagreements with the US and Europe over the rise of ISIL in the region and with Russia and Iran over the fate of President Assad in Syria.

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Narration: Since the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, the ruling Justice and Development Party has started to deviate from its pragmatic and mercantilist policy in the Middle East. Turkey has also abandoned its role as mediator in regional conflicts and stands on the sidelines.

Turkey has offered a place of refuge to Syrian dissidents and has trained the Free Syrian Army under the supervision of Turkish military intelligence. There are also some firm speculations that Ankara has supported, financed and armed the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda and ISIL.

Last September, in an interview with The Telegraph, Francis Ricciardone, said that, “Turkey allowed its borders to be used as a conduit for aid, weapons and volunteers heading for the Syrian extremist groups from the start of the conflict, and there have long been accusations that it did not do enough to distinguish between “Moderate Groups” and “Extremists”.

According to former US ambassador to Turkey, the country “has directly supported al-Qaeda's wing in Syria”; a matter that has “led them to work with the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's branch, as well as extremist groups like Ahrar al-Sham.”

However, as Turkish analyst, Ilter Turan, states “The Turkish government failed to judge that the support, both national and international, for the Assad government was much higher than the Turkish government had ever anticipated”.

Frustrated by the US failure to heed its advice on Syria and Iraq, Turkey along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar has also provided the extremist groups with money, intelligence sharing and border security as well as arms and other military equipment.

Currently, Turkey deals with many domestic issues:

  • -Hosting 1.6mn Syrian refugees who will not be returning to their country anytime soon.
  • -According to Kalemli-Ozcan, an International Monetary Fund (IMF) expert, “In concrete numbers, the Turkish government has spent 4.5 billion dollars in direct aid to shelter refugees. Besides major economic impacts, new Syrian residents are also permanently changing the demographics of Southern Turkey, leading to increased sectarian tensions”.
  • -Turkey is now also home to well-established Salafi networks that make the country vulnerable to attacks within its own territory. These groups are causing internal security concern in the public discourse.
  • -Promoting a new form of extremism in the region which has already plagued Turkey, and provoking various protests by unions, civil society, organizations, and political parties in different cities of the country to denounce the support provided to terrorists by Erdogan and his party.

Turkish scholars and political oppositions like Mustafa Demir, also analyze the AKP foreign policy as a dangerous turn with dreadful consequences, particularly sectarianism as the driving force in Ankara’s new foreign policy design.

The main opposition party, that is the Republican People's Party, likewise, condemns the ruling AKP’s ‘adventurist policies’ in the Middle East and states that the party is turning Turkey into an “Incompetent and Unreliable” country in the region.

In sum, all these burdens come at a time when Turkey’s foreign policy is impotent in the face of all domestic and regional predicaments. This is especially true as at home, the AKP lost its single-party majority in the June election, and in the MENA region, a Muslim Brotherhood-type government, which Ankara thought to be close to its understandings was not formed in Syria.

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