TURKEY’S GROWING QUAGMIRE IN SYRIA

March 3, 2016

The horrific Syrian civil war that has been raging for almost five years has become a sort of Hobbesian war of all against all. Given its geographical proximity, the Syrian conflict has inevitably drawn in neighboring Turkey from the beginning. However, until recently astute Turkish diplomacy had managed to avoid total immersion in this hell to its south. Unfortunately, given the existential dynamics of the conflict, much greater Turkish involvement may soon become inevitable with potentially dire consequences for Turkey. A military bus bombing that killed 28 and wounded more than 60 in Ankara on February 17, 2016 illustrates this. It followed earlier deadly bombings in Istanbul on January 12, 2016 that left 13 dead, Ankara on October 10, 2015 that killed at least 97, and Suruc on July 20, 2015 that saw 30 deaths. All these lethal attacks were blowback from the violence radiating from Syria. 

The Syrian civil war presents two overarching, inter-related dimensions for Turkey: the international/regional one and the Turkish one. In regards to the first or international/regional dimension, the Sunni-Shia conflict explains most (but not all) of the reasons for who is fighting against whom in Syria. Thus, the beleaguered Shia offshoot Alawite-led Assad Syrian regime receives support from Shia Iran and Lebanon’s Shia Hezbollah, while the opposition is largely composed of foreign Sunni jihadists of many different stripes, ISIS being the most notorious. The vast Sunni majority of Syrians also largely oppose the Assad regime, as do such Sunni-majority states as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, among others. In addition the largely Sunni Kurds living in Syria are also opposed to the Assad regime—although these Kurds claim to be following a third path in the struggle that sometimes makes them look as if they were supporting Assad—since the opposition has never fully accepted them as a separate entity that would possess guaranteed constitutional rights in a post-Assad Syria. 

Russian and U.S. involvement, of course, constitute an international dimension to the struggle largely not explained by the Sunni-Shia split. The United States has long been opposed to the Assad regime, which it saw as a supporter of destabilizing international terrorism against not only American interests, but those of its allies Israel and Turkey, among others. Russia, whose sudden large intervention on the side of the Assad regime at the end of September 2015 has turned the tide of battle for now at least, supports Damascus as its longtime ally in the Middle East, an ally that now also can be used against the growing jihadist threat that might escalate in Russia itself a la Chechnya. 

The second or Turkish dimension to Turkey’s growing quagmire in Syria involves many more related specifics: 1.) Russia’s threat to exact revenge for Turkey shooting down a Russian fighter plane on November 24, 2015; 2.) the much larger danger from the international geostrategic point of view that this plane incident might lead to a Russian confrontation with the United States and NATO, given Turkey’s NATO membership; 3.) the Syrian Kurdish (PYD/YPG/YPJ) establishing of an expanding pro-PKK state (Rojava) on Turkey’s southern border; 4.) U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds because they strongly and effectively have been opposing ISIS as Kobane demonstrated; and 5.) more than 2.5  million Syrian refugees spilling into Turkey and the destabilizing problems they are creating not only for Turkey, but the EU, among others. 

As a result, Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s much touted policies of zero problems with neighbors and strategic depth have instead metastasized into ones of huge problems with neighbors and strategic quagmire. The U.S. invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 is one major background reason for this dilemma. Without the late dictator’s strong hand, Iraq has been shattered into its sectarian and ethnic parts and has come to exist only in the minds of the United States. The resulting instability has led to countless problems for Turkey such as opportunity spaces for the rise of both the KRG in Iraq as a semi-independent Kurdish state and ISIS as a self-proclaimed caliphate and de facto state. More recently the Syrian civil war that has shattered that state as a single entity has also helped give rise to ISIS as well as the institutionalization of Rojava (Western or Syrian Kurdistan) as a second de facto autonomous Kurdish state and in this second case one closely linked to the PKK.

Within the Syrian civil war raging just below Turkey’s southern borders, ISIS and Rojava, two dynamic non-state actors, have created a dilemma of new realities that cannot be ignored or imagined away despite or given the renewal of Turkish-PKK fighting within Turkey. Moreover, on all of these new problems, including its early call for the demise of Bashir al-Assad’s Syrian regime, Turkey has arguably come down on what seems the wrong or at least losing side. 

Although the risk is perhaps exaggerated, if Turkey continues to consider getting involved more in Syria to counter both Rojava’s expansion  and Russia’s support for Assad, all three of whom Turkey sees as the main enemy, things could quickly escalate into a greater confrontation which nobody in their correct mind would want. This could even include a clash with the United States who supports the Syrian Kurds as the most viable boots on the ground against ISIS whom the United States views as the main peril. Turkey should remember how the United States had refused to support it regarding Cyprus in 1964 if the then-Soviet Union had threatened intervention. Similarly, NATO is not guaranteed to support Turkey in a Syrian incursion that ends up clashing with Russia or even the United States. If a Turkish invasion of Syria goes badly, Turkey might even end up losing Hatay, the province Ataturk’s patient and astute diplomacy eventually added to the country in 1939, but which Syria has never recognized.

Recently significant Russian air and ground support for the Assad regime in Syria has enabled Assad to turn the tables on the Syrian opposition and make important gains just as Assad looked like he was nearing defeat. The Russian advance has broken long-running opposition sieges of the Shia towns of Nubl and Zahraa north of Aleppo, while placing Aleppo long held by the opposition under siege itself. These actions have made Turkish support for the opposition in this area very difficult when just a few months ago it seemed that the opposition was ready to consolidate the area and begin the final drive on Damascus. 

Despite these recent important gains, however, Assad is not close to defeating the Turkish- and Saudi-backed rebels. Rather the Russian support has simply enabled Assad to save himself at least temporarily and regain some important areas north of Aleppo which have long been under opposition siege. 

The peace talks in Geneva that were supposed to begin at the end of January 2016 never got off the ground in the first place because of preliminary arguments over who would even participate. The Russian/Assad advance in the north has clearly put them in a much stronger position concerning who would be invited to any future peace talks and under what conditions. Turkey should work closer with its U.S. and NATO allies instead of just pretending to while supporting jihadist oppositionists in Syria.

Turkey should also get over its unreasonable fear of the Syrian Kurds and instead seek to embrace them similarly to how Turkey reversed its opposition to the KRG in 2007. Once the Syrian civil war ends, Turkey will remain as the most powerful country in the region as well as the 16th largest economy in the world. Like the Iraqi Kurds, the Syrian Kurds will have no other alternative than to embrace Turkey to the mutual benefit of both. However, it is clear that Russia is willing to do whatever is necessary to keep Assad in power for the time being at least, so Turkey must accommodate itself to this reality and not foolishly fall into the trap of entering the slaughter to the south. 

Moreover, this is surely not the end of the Syrian civil war. Rather it is simply the latest development as the tides of war continue to swing back and forth. The Russian/Assad gains are a win for them and a setback for Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but the struggle will continue for the foreseeable future. Turkey would make a grave strategic error by invading Syria because it would simply mire itself in this mindless Hobbesian war of all against all. In addition, Turkey should remember that the Russians hold the threat of air strikes against those who support the opposition. Surely the United States and its NATO allies do not want a NATO ally like Turkey to join the fray because this would run the risk of NATO itself confronting Russia in a senseless war that has no winner and has already bogged Russia down even if Putin does not yet realize it.

Michael M. Gunter is a professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University in the United States and a member of the Turkish Heritage Board. His most recently published books are The Kurds: A Modern History, 2016; and Out of Nowhere: The Kurds of Syria in Peace and War, 2014. In addition he has published articles about these events in the past year in the Middle East Journal and Middle East Policy, among others.

Michael M. Gunter