The Turkish government has gotten more and more deeply involved in Syria since the uprising began in 2011. But Turkey now finds its original aim, namely the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, unattainable, creating tensions with the Syrian armed opposition, its primary lever inside Syria, and there are considerable problems stabilizing the zone of Syria that came under Turkish occupation after Ankara’s direct intervention in 2016. The defeat of Turkey’s primary objective has been accompanied by the rise of further problems, notably the exacerbation of its longest-standing internal security threat, that posed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan – PKK), and the generation of new internal threats, from the Islamic State (IS) and potentially from al-Qaeda-linked groups. The options for solving these problems are constrained and unpalatable.
Before the Syrian uprising began in 2011, Turkey had a posture of “zero problems with neighbors.” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP) built on the improved relations that Turkey had fostered with Syria since the 1998 Adana Agreement. That accord had formally ended Damascus’ support for the PKK, which began a bloody insurgency against Turkey in 1984 after constructing an army in Syrian-held areas of Lebanon with the assistance of the Syrian state and the Soviet Union. Erdoğan forged a close personal relationship with Syria’s ruler, Bashar al-Assad, despite the Syrian government’s outlaw status due to its unrelenting support of international terrorism, saliently underwriting IS’s predecessor in Iraq, and murdering Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.
Turkey emerged on the pro-revolutionary side of the “Arab Spring,” supporting elements of the Islamist opposition in many of the affected states, and Erdoğan’s regional tour in September 2011 saw him greeted warmly in the three states—Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya—where despotic governments had then-recently fallen. The same month, Erdoğan decisively broke with Assad.
Erdoğan had tried to have Assad desist from repression and to reach a compact with the demonstrators. Assad had assured Erdoğan’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, this was the course he would take, but then continued to massacre protesters. After Assad had lied to Davutoğlu’s face, there was no way back. As Assad’s crackdown widened, and Iran and its tributaries moved into Syria to aid in suppression, it forced an existential decision on the opposition, of militarization or defeat, and the Syrian population fought back—with Turkish assistance. When the Free Syrian Army (FSA) announced itself, it was from Turkish territory, and the FSA brand was later adopted by most of the mainstream rebel factions. Turkey took a lead in providing support as a full-scale insurrection shook the Assad regime in the summer of 2012. Turkey’s rhetorical posture was aggressively anti-Assad, including calling for the imposition of “safe zones,” with or without a no-fly zone, to protect civilians and allow the rebels to create an alternative government.
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