Five years of Turkish involvement in the Syrian war has left the country frustrated, with none of its original goals anywhere near realization. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains in power in Damascus. A recent reshuffle in the Turkish foreign ministry and the consolidation of Kurdish-ruled territory on Turkey’s southern border have made many policy analysts, and even some within Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s own party, think that a change may be underway. This could have a major impact on the future trajectory of the conflict—which is why we have asked four Turkish experts to explain how they see the future of their country's Syria policy.
We looked at Turkey’s attempt to recalibrate its foreign policy and the recent rumors about a limited rapprochement with Assad over the Kurdish issue in a June 20 post. While Turkey provides aggressive logistical and economic support to Sunni rebels in northern Syria, its army has so far stayed on the sidelines. Public opinion is split and does not favor direct intervention. But the Turkish public, like the Erdogan government, is more strongly focused on the threat they perceive from Syrian Kurdish militias friendly to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK—a leftist and Kurdish-nationalist group that has been fighting the Turkish Army since the 1980s. While there have been ceasefires and negotiations in the past, Turkey- PKK relations are currently mired in deadly conflict. The Syrian Kurdish factions operate under different names—including the Democratic Unity Party, PYD, the People’s Protection Units, YPG, and the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF—but their links to the PKK are undeniable. In Turkish eyes, this translates into the rise of a hostile force all along its southern border.
Below, four eminent Turkish experts from journalism, academia, and the think tank world give their views on whether a change in Turkey’s Syria policy is likely and what it might look like.
The Calculus in Ankara has Shifted
by Sinan Ülgen
Turkey’s policy in Syria is changing. The removal of former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who is widely seen as the main architect of Ankara’s ill-considered and overly ambitious Syria policy, facilitates this transition. But the real drivers triggering this change are different.
Turkey wants to adjust to the realities on the ground, where despite consistent efforts to oust him, Assad remains firmly in power. The emergence of the Islamic State has also shifted the focus of Turkey’s Western allies away from the regime change agenda in Syria. So Turkey has found itself increasingly isolated in pursuing this objective which ultimately has proven to be futile against the backdrop of unwavering support to the Syrian regime by Tehran and Moscow.
The second reason is that over time, the management of the Kurdish issue within Syria has become a more critical issue for the Turkish government. The Syrian Kurds and their representative the PYD have gained international recognition and support with their military struggle against the Islamic State. The PYD leveraged this by expanding its territorial coverage in Northern Syria. But for the Turkish government the PYD is an organic offshoot of the PKK which is in the midst of a violent terrorist campaign against the government. As a result, the calculus in Ankara has shifted and the priority has moved away from regime change in Damascus and toward the containment of the PYD, an issue where Ankara and Damascus are on the same wavelength.
Strong Incentives for Turkey to Stop Opposing Assad
by Verda Özer
Turkey has come to a strategic juncture which forces Ankara to make a strategic maneuver with regard to its policy vis-à-vis Syria. There are three aspects of such a strategic re balancing.
The first is structural. It looks like there will be not only a change in Turkey’s Syria policy, but actually a change of Turkey’s foreign policy. In other words, the shift signals a comprehensive and structural change of the foreign policy, which also includes Syria.
The establishment of a new government in Ankara has served as a basis for such a transformation and has come to symbolize the revision of foreign policy. Prime Minister Bi nali Yildirim gave the first clue in this first group meeting, saying “we will increase the number of our friends ; we will decrease the number of our enemies.” President Erdogan also indicated such a comprehensive shift on June 18th during an iftar dinner he hosted for foreign ambassadors, saying that he does not view foreign policy as a zero-sum game and that on the contrary, a win-win balance could be secured on the basis of shared interests. The first projection of such a shift was Erdogan’s letter to Putin, on the very same day, to congratulate the Russian president on Russia’s National Day, expressing hope that bilateral relations would soon return “the level they deserve.”
The letter indicates the second aspect of a new Syria policy. Normalization with Russia would create a strong incentive for Ankara to give up its overt opposition to Bashar al-Assad, who has been strongly backed by the Kremlin.
The third aspect is actually the strongest incentive for Ankara for such a shift: the Kurdish PYD’s bid to found a federation in northern Syria has become much more concrete and realistic, which creates a natural security concern for Ankara. The group is mainly backed by the United States and many European countries, increasing its international legitimacy. The uncontrollable rise of PYD/YPG is equally threatening for Assad. This mutual “existential” threat is likely to force Ankara to indirectly coordinate with and engage in dialogue with Damascus, that is, the Assad regime.
Turkey Is Hedging Its Bets
by Amberin Zaman
Since the early 1980’s when the PKK bloodily burst onto the scene, Turkish foreign policy has been narrowly focused on suppressing Kurdish rights . Erdogan’s newly minted partnership with the army, which was the driving force behind this policy, means that strategic thinking on Syria will be devised to curtail Kurdish gains there. Recent back channel overtures to the regime suggest that Turkey is growing increasingly desperate in the face of the U.S. alliance with the YPG.
But it is premature to assume that Turkey is ready to swallow its pride and shake hands with Assad. Rather, it is hedging its bets. The Syrian conflict could drag on for years and absent game changing intervention by either Russia or the United States, Turkey is likely to continue back its rebel proxies against the YPG and the regime alike.
Retreating from Syria Would Not Be Enough
by Bayram Balci
Turkey has become completely isolated not only in its Middle Eastern environment but in fact in the international sphere, as is underlined every day by the Turkish opposition and admitted, or at least recognized, by Erdogan and his team. Except Azerbaijan, Turkey now lacks reliable friends or allies in the region. Erdogan’s treat ment during Muhammad Ali’s funeral was very indicative of Turkey’s international image.
As Davutoglu was the architect of Turkish foreign policy since 2009—or even before that when he was advisor for then p rime minister Erdogan— his ousting will probably be the moment that Ankara recalibrates its stalemated foreign policy. A rapprochement with Israel and perhaps Russia would be indispensable to break or at least reduce Turkish isolation, specifically in the Syrian crisis.
However, it will not be easy to make peace with Russia as long as Turkish foreign policy is still completely controlled by the presidency, rather than by the foreign ministry. In addition, normalizing relations would certainly improve business, but Russia’s involvement in the Syrian crisis will continue to have negative consequences for Turkey.
As for a possible new policy in Syria, there are no indications of this happening. If Ankara were at some point to change its Syria policy and stop assisting Syrian groups, the Kurdish issue would be the primary motivation. But I am not sure that it will suffice. Turkish-Syrian relations were problematic until 1998, essentially because of the Kurdish issue. Then bilateral relations improved thanks to a mutual agreement between Ankara and Damascus against Kurdish irredentism.
Since then, the Syrian war has reinforced this irredentism in both Syria and Turkey. More importantly, it has created sympathy for the Kurds in the international sphere. Therefore, it is unclear whether a Turkish retreat from the Syrian quagmire—or even a renewed friendship with Bashar al-Assad, which is impossible—would be enough to curb Kurdish irredentism in Turkey. Instead, this irredentism is likely to become increasingly separatist, because of Turkey’s response to the PKK urban guerrilla conflict in Cizre, Sur, Nusaybin, and other places.
— Bayram Balci is a researcher at the Centre de recherches internationales at Sciences Po in Paris.