March 18, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Turkey and Syria: A Troubled History

• Turkey will play a significant role in Syria’s future, more so than any other neighbor, though the history between the two nations has been a troubled one

• Although Turkey’s President Erdogan was at first keen to have good relations with Syria’s President Assad, and succeeded in doing so, since 2011, they have gone sour

• Turkey is determined to influence the outcome of Syria’s civil war, even if it finds no support from its allies

• The reappointment of Hakan Fidan to head the Turkish Intelligence Service may usher in a more active phase of Turkish involvement in the conflict.


There can be little doubt that Turkey will play an important if not decisive role in determining developments in Syria over the next few years. Not only is it the most economically successful of Syria’s neighbors and the most powerful military force in the region, it is also the only neighbor that both seeks to influence events there and has the capacity to do so.

It is rare that neighboring countries have an untroubled relationship. There have been many periods of tension between Turkey and Syria, especially since the Ba’athist coup of 1963 ushered in the rule of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, who took complete control of the country in 1970. First there were the resentments that Syrians harbored as a result of their long history under Ottoman rule; then in the 1980s and 1990s Syria’s support for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was regarded in Ankara as something close to an act of war; there was also the long-standing territorial dispute over Hatay, a part of Turkey that pushes down towards Lebanon along the Mediterranean coast that Damascus claimed as part of Syria—and still does, though no longer with any seriousness; there was also Turkey’s potential control of the flow of water down the Euphrates River, an issue that caused friction from time to time, for example during Turkey’s construction of the huge Ataturk Dam in the 1980s.

When Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, relations between the two countries began to improve, both politically and economically, and by the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, it appeared that the personal relationship between Erdogan and Bashar al-Assad had become particularly close. Not close enough, however, to prevent it from falling into steep decline when it became apparent that Assad was not prepared to take advice from Erdogan about stepping down. Turkey is now Assad’s most implacable foe.

The question for Turkey, however, is what can it do without greater regional or international support. Turkey is not likely to concede the initiative to Saudi Arabia, nor to any other regional power. But it continues to find U.S. and other coalition partners opposed to its insistence that the removal of Assad precede or at least keep pace with the removal of extremists. It has not identified any alternative policy for Syria that its allies might be prepared to support.

This may tempt Turkey into providing greater help to opposition groups, including extremists. But precedent suggests that this might have consequences for Turkey’s own internal security, whether or not these groups are successful. U.S. discussions with Turkey about creating an effective armed force that could train in Turkey and operate in Syria—although such an effort would have little chance of making any significant difference to the outcome of the fight—have unpleasant echoes of similar initiatives in the past that have given rise to unexpected and unpleasant results. There are too many examples in history of nations supporting clandestine opposition activity elsewhere and then abandoning their proxies and their allies when the immediate objective was achieved, the chances of success receded, or other issues became more important.

Turkey cannot walk away from Syria, and it is a stronger country by far in terms of national cohesion than, for example, Pakistan was at the start of the ‘jihad’ against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; but the parallels are nonetheless scary. The region is turbulent and Erdogan is impatient, and this is a bad mix for so long as policy objectives among the various members of the international coalition against the Islamic State diverge as much as they do. Earlier this month, Erdogan canceled the plan for his head of intelligence, Hakan Fidan, to leave his job and stand for Parliament in the upcoming elections, and demanded his reinstatement. The move was not without political damage to Turkey’s prime minister, who has nominal control over such appointments, and suggests that Erdogan sees a particular need for a practiced hand at the helm of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization at this time. Perhaps it is because he wants Fidan to conclude peace negotiations with the PKK, which have encountered obstacles in recent weeks; but Fidan is not just known for his work on the Kurdish issue. He has shown himself to operate at the very heart of Erdogan’s foreign policy, and does so discreetly and with a certain ruthless unconventionality. If Turkey is planning to up its engagement with the more effective opposition groups in Syria, Fidan’s reinstatement makes even more sense, but much will depend on his ability to keep control of events beyond the immediate outcome in Syria.


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