August 22, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Turkey and the Regional Implications of Syria

As of late August 2012, developments in the Arab world — and particularly in Syria — have exposed the limits of Turkey's pro-European Union Justice and Development Party's (AKP) assertive approach to foreign policy, especially towards issues in the neighboring region. Having previously enjoyed constructive relations with Syria, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has repeatedly called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to leave power. Furthermore,  it has forged close ties with the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) and the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), both of which have had bases in southern Turkey since last year. (Note: Turkey continues to reject the accusation that it has facilitated the supply of weapons to the rebels.)


The Evolution of Turkey's Regional Relationships

Relations with Syria reached a new low in late June, when Syrian air defenses shot down a Turkish military jet in the eastern Mediterranean. The Turkish government, in a somewhat vague statement, warned that the attack would not go unpunished. The two countries have nonetheless sought to avoid military confrontation. Besides the risk of an escalation in arms, Turkey faces the very real prospect of a major humanitarian crisis arising from the influx of tens of thousands of refugees from Syria. The Turkish government is currently providing shelter and protection for some 55,000 Syrians, and with nearly 3,000 more crossing the border into Turkey every day, this number — and its associated challenges — will rapidly increase.

Tensions with Syria have also complicated the Erdogan government's efforts to maintain positive ties with Syria's close allies, Iran and Russia, which are two of Turkey's main energy suppliers. Iran has repeatedly accused Turkey, in collaboration with the United States, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, of fueling the civil war in Syria. On August 7th, Iran's chief of the general staff, Major-General Hassan Firouzabadi, issued a veiled warning that Turkey "would be next."  The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded firmly to General Firouzabadi's comments, condemning what it called "threatening remarks." On August 8th, Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, paid a visit to Ankara to try to quell the diplomatic crisis. He told his Turkish counterparts that they should only listen to "official Iranian government sources," suggesting that Iran's military is more hawkish towards Turkey's support of the Syrian opposition than other elements of Iran's government. Although it is not pleased with Turkey's stance on Syria, Tehran is keen to maintain cordial relations with Turkey, just as Turkey hopes to avoid confrontation with Iran.

Iran remains under international pressure to put an end to its nuclear program, which the U.S.-led Western alliance believes is intended to build nuclear weapons. Until recently, Turkey sought to mediate between the two sides in an effort to broker a solution to the crisis. Because of the two countries' differing positions regarding Syria, Iran may no longer perceive Turkey as an honest broker. At the same time, however, it will not want to risk complete isolation.


The Expanding Influence of the Syrian on Turkish Policies

The Turkish government has been working on several fronts to facilitate a speedy end to the Assad government. Besides its support for the SNC and the FSA, Ankara has also sought to pressure Western governments to take more decisive action to end the conflict. As the situation in Syria has become more unstable, Turkey has become increasingly concerned that the eventual collapse of the Assad regime will lead to the break-up of Syria. There are already signs that a Kurdish entity controlled by groups with close ties to the militant Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) may be emerging in northern Syria. The PKK has waged a decades-long terror campaign for secession from the Turkish state.

As in the case of Iran, Turkish-Iraqi relations are increasingly being shaped by developments in Syria. Turkey is worried that PKK incursions into Turkey will also come from Syria after Syrian Kurds recently took control of several towns close to the Turkish-Syrian border. In response to these developments, Turkey's minister of foreign affairs, Ahmet Davutoglu, paid a visit to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) president, Masoud Barzani, in the Iraqi Kurdish capital, Irbil, on August 2nd to impress upon the KRG Ankara's concerns about the fallout from the growing instability in Syria. Turkey needs the KRG's help in containing the PKK and preventing the group from establishing a foothold in northern Syria. It is clear from the amicable discussions between Mr. Barzani and Mr. Davutoglu that Turkey is keen to protect its relationship with the KRG, even at the expense of relations with the Iraqi central government.

The increased instability on its southeastern border has served to reinforce Turkey's traditionally Western orientation, which some critics have accused the AKP of neglecting as the government has sought to maintain a degree of independence from Western positions and establish Turkey as the dominant power in the eastern Mediterranean. Maintaining positive relations with the EU and the U.S. has proved challenging at times owing to Turkey's stalled EU membership negotiations; its tense relations with Israel; a lack of progress in the latest UN-backed efforts to end the division of Cyprus; and Turkey's refusal to recognize the Republic of Cyprus, a member of the EU since 2004.


Turkish-American Relations in a New Era

Following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, Turkey and the U.S. have nonetheless worked closely to formulate a foreign policy of mutual interest for the surrounding region, particularly as it relates to Iraq, where both the U.S. and Turkey strongly favor the continuity of Iraq's territorial integrity.

On August 11th, Mr. Davutoglu (the aforementioned Turkish minister of foreign affairs) and the U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, agreed to increase cooperation between the two countries regarding Syria. In a statement to the press following her meeting with Mr. Davutoglu in Istanbul, Secretary Clinton highlighted the three main objectives of this closer collaboration between the U.S. and Turkey:

• Provide support for the Syrian groups opposing President Bashar al-Assad; • Respond to the humanitarian crisis caused by the conflict; and • Prepare for a post-Assad era, including taking steps to maintain the integrity of the state's institutions and ensuring that Syria's chemical weapons do not fall into the wrong hands.

To achieve these goals, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Davutoglu agreed to establish a joint working group to coordinate planning for all contingencies, including the possibility that Mr. Assad might employ chemical weapons. In addition, Mrs. Clinton pledged that the U.S. would contribute an additional US $5 million to the UN High Commission for Refugees and US $500,000 to the International Organization for Migration to help Turkey deal with the influx of refugees fleeing the fighting in Syria.

Mrs. Clinton's visit to Turkey highlights how important Turkey is as an ally to the U.S. in the region. In addition, Turkey's commitment to cooperate more closely with the U.S. supports the view that Turkey will avoid at all costs taking unilateral military action against Syria.

The escalating violence in Syria has tested the true extent of Turkey's policy of "zero problems" with its neighbors as well as its regional standing. It has so far avoided any unilateral action that might trigger military confrontation with Mr. Assad's forces in Syria, including the frequently mooted creation of a buffer zone inside Syria. Ankara insists a UN mandate would be required before such a option might be pursued. However, that currently seems unlikely to materialize, given that Russia and China, both of which are permanent members of the UN Security Council, are long-standing allies of President Assad.

Eventually, though, if the slaughter persists (and refugees continue to pour over the border), Turkey may become increasingly tempted, with NATO support, to carve out a safe haven in the north of Syria — a move that would not only have a humanitarian motive, but would also bring some of the major Kurdish population centers in northern Syria under its control.

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