A Possible Change in Turkey's Syria Policies?

by | Jul 12, 2013


Although the main spot in the world news is still occupied by Egypt, which has come to the brink of civil war, the tensions in Turkey are constantly making themselves felt. While Egypt, according to the popular blog Haberturk, is already “going the way of Libya,” the civil disturbances in Turkey are clearly of a protracted nature. In the last several days the activity on the streets of Istanbul and other Turkish cities has died down somewhat, but has not faded away entirely. The police is still using tear gas and water cannon. Last weekend another wave of demonstrations rolled over Istanbul, demanding the resignation of Recep Erdoğan’s government. The demonstrators attempted to penetrate the territory of Gezi Park, which was cordoned off by the police, but they were dispersed, and the police stated that it intends to continue suppressing attempts to conduct unsanctioned demonstrations.

The reasons for the protests in Turkey are complex, and vary from region to region; this compels the authorities not to act by force alone. For example, in Istanbul the reconstruction of Gezi Park and the adjacent Taksim Square was halted by a local court decision. However, while in the country’s largest city the formal reason for the demonstrations was an attempt to destroy one of the few “green zones” in the city, in Hatay or Gaziantep, for example, the public displeasure (which appeared, by the way, much earlier) had completely different causes which were directly linked to the policy of the Turkish authorities on the “Syrian issue”. 

In spite of the rosy reports published in the British publication The Economist (1), the unrest in the Turkish cities and villages close to the Syrian border, which are inhabited mostly by members of a sub-ethnic religious minority, the Alawites, is growing. The “warm welcome” extended by the Turkish authorities to the “refugees” from Syria is exhausting the patience of local residents, who justly see the new arrivals as intruders on their normal life. Besides an increase in the crime rate and the growth of ethnic and religious tensions and terrorism, a mess has begun in property rental, and the local Turkish population is losing income.

Practically from the very beginning of the disturbances in Syria, Ankara has unconditionally taken the side of Bashar al-Asad’s opponents. By doing so, the Turkish authorities have opened the way for the destabilization of Turkey itself. The majority of the Turkish population does not support Erdoğan’s policy on Syria. The upcoming 2014 local elections could end in defeat for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and then these elections will most likely become a prologue to the defeat of the AKP in the next parliamentary election, especially if the opposition Republican People’s Party is able to form a broad coalition. 

By supporting the radical adherents of the orthodox version of Sunni Islam, the Turkish authorities have contributed to the alienation of significant groups of their own population, including the secularly-oriented part of the urban middle class, Alawites (who make up between 10 and 20 percent of the country’s population), Kurds and others. The Turkish prime minister’s demonstrative anti-Israeli rhetoric has been accompanied by his actual rapprochement with Israel. However, it is naive to think that the leaders of the Jewish state will allow Erdoğan to pursue a course toward restoring the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire. Israel is simply using the ambitions of Turkish politicians in its own interests. There are hypotheses, for example, that during the most recent disturbances in Turkey, the Israelis got involved in the events in order to demonstrate to Erdoğan their ability to influence the situation in his country.

Today Turkish experts acknowledge that Ankara expected a repetition of the Libyan scenario in Syria, but as Bashar al-Asad’s government demonstrated the solidity of its positions and its broad public support, these calculations began to threaten Turkey with internal political upheaval. It is entirely possible that pressure from the opposition Republican People’s Party and other groups, as well as divisions between Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, could gradually lead to Ankara developing a more balanced position on Syria. Such a position cannot but provide for agreements with Iran and Russia. In particular, the recent consultations between the Turkish prime minister and Russia speak in favor of this, as well as some steps taken by the Turkish authorities in areas bordering on Syria. For example, the border control regime has been strengthened, which limits the possibility of terrorists freely crossing the border in both directions. The camps of so-called Syrian “refugees” have been moved deeper into the territory of Turkey. Last week the Turkish police searched the Antakya offices of two humanitarian aid missions operating in Syria, after which four Europeans who were working there were deported. In accordance with a circular from the Turkish Ministry of Internal Affairs, unregistered humanitarian aid missions must immediately cease operations in the country (2). It seems that the Turkish authorities have become seriously concerned about the probable “contribution” of European humanitarian missions in organizing disturbances on Turkish territory. 

There have been indirect confirmations that the Turkish arms supply corridor to Syria has been partially closed. But only partially, as signs of Turkish presence in Aleppo, where the Syrian army is conducting trench warfare with well-equipped terrorists, remain. Human Rights Watch reported that Turkey, along with Iraq and Jordan, had closed some Syrian border crossings, but this report was immediately denied by the Turkish authorities, who asserted that Ankara still maintains an “open door” policy with regard to Syria (3). 

What “open door” means in this case can be judged from the following fact. Recently in Cyprus over 500 instances of the reregistration of small trucks have been recorded; these trucks are being purchased by Arabs living in Cyprus in order to re-equip the vehicles for use in sabotage operations and subsequent use in Syria. The vehicles are driven into the northern part of the island, which has been occupied by the Turks since 1974, through the border crossing in the UN buffer zone; then they are shipped from the ports of Kyrenia and Famagusta in Northern Cyprus either directly to Syria or to Turkey, and then across the border to the rebels (4). The New York Times revealed the fact of arms shipments to the Syrian rebels from Libya, including via Turkey (5). The Turkish routes also help in the delivery of French weapons purchased by the Saudis to the rebels (6). The coordination center in the province of Adana, several dozen kilometers from the Syrian border and neighboring the American Incirlik Air Base, has not gone anywhere, either.

It is impossible not to notice the common factors between the protest movements in Turkey and Egypt: attempts to return to “pure Islam” in Muslim countries which have received an inoculation of westernization unavoidably bring with them internal political disturbances (7). The removal from power of the Egyptian president Mursi could not have been good news for Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan. On the “Syrian issue” both the former Egyptian leader and the current Turkish leader were guided by similar principles, placing their bets on a union with the West and support from the international terrorist rabble (8). A week before the decisive events in Egypt, Mohammed Mursi tried to direct civic activism toward religious war, announcing a break in diplomatic relations with Damascus and support of plans to establish a no-fly zone over Syria. Everyone knows how that ended. Ankara must take this experience into account… 

At the same time, in evaluating the possibility of a change in Turkey’s policy on Syria, we cannot rule out a sudden regressive movement and a shift on the part of the Turkish authorities toward even more decisive support of the terrorists. For example, in the opinion of the Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Armenian Academy of Sciences, Ruben Safrastyan, by the beginning or spring of next year, Erdoğan could take an abrupt step in this direction, even to the point of decisively cooperating with the Syrian rebels and opening the border. Erdoğan could even start a “small war” on the territory of Syria in an attempt to unite the people of Turkey around him before the local elections in spring 2014, believes Safrastyan. That is, one should not rule out the deeper involvement of Turkey in Syria with the aim of implementing “neo-Ottoman” programs with regard to the neighboring country (9). The likelihood of such a turn of events is linked with the unceasing pressure from American “hawks”, who are not changing their course for the breakdown of Syria and the destabilization of Iran. “Hawks” compared to whom even Brzezinski looks like a cautious “dove”.

In the opinion of Tony Badran, a Research Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, the antigovernment protests are not likely to harm the Turkish effort in Syria, which is primarily aimed at providing logistics and intelligence information to the rebels. (10).

Thus, we should not indulge in excessive hope for a possible change in Turkey’s position on Syria. It seems, however, that candid dialog between Ankara on the one hand and Moscow and Tehran on the other could still protect the region from large-scale military conflict, the consequences of which would undoubtedly damage Turkey as well. Placing further stakes on destroying the neighboring country will not bring Turkish politicians success. If you live in a glass house and throw stones at your neighbor, you shouldn’t count on your own house remaining intact.

(1) Will they ever go home? // http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21579522-refugees-are-building-life-fighting-never-far-away-will-they

(2) Turkey police crack down on Syria aid workers after unrest // http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/2/8/75753/World/Region/Turkey-police-crack-down-on-Syria-aid-workers-afte.aspx

(3) Turkey’s Syria Refugee Crisis // http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/07/syrian-refugees-crisis-in-turkey.html

(4) Сирийские боевики закупают автомашины на Кипре для операций против правительственных войск // http://www.itar-tass.com/c303/798320.html

(5) In Turnabout, Syria Rebels Get Libyan Weapons // http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/22/world/africa/in-a-turnabout-syria-rebels-get-libyan-weapons.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

(6) Could Protests in Turkey Hurt U.S. Effort to Arm Syrian Rebels? // http://www.nationaljournal.com/nationalsecurity/could-protests-in-turkey-hurt-u-s-effort-to-arm-syrian-rebels-20130614

(7) Тарасов А. Антиисламистская Контрреволюция: Тахрир может передать новую эстафету Таксиму // http://www.iarex.ru/articles/38412.html

(8) Such support is not limited to the Middle Eastern region. Grand Mufti of Syria Badreddin Hassoun notes that “a very large group of fighters from China are now receiving military training in Turkey, where they arrived as students.” See: Нельзя допустить, чтобы Запад руками боевиков “взорвал” Россию // http://www.interfax-religion.ru/?act=interview&div=377

(9) See, for example: Эрдоган может развязать небольшую войну с Сирией в преддверии выборов // http://armtoday.info/default.asp?Lang=_Ru&NewsID=91977

(10) Could Protests in Turkey Hurt U.S. Effort to Arm Syrian Rebels? // http://www.nationaljournal.com/nationalsecurity/could-protests-in-turkey-hurt-u-s-effort-to-arm-syrian-rebels-20130614

Reprinted with permission from the Strategyc Culture Foundation.