As the dust slowly settles following the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey, which killed around 300 people and left more than 2,000 wounded, it is clear that Turkish politics will remain in flux for some time to come. July 15 may come to be seen as a defining moment in Turkey’s contemporary history—but could it also be so for Syria?
At first glance, there does not seem to be an immediate connection between the two issues. But the effects of the failed coup could play out in many different and contradictory ways for Syria, where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has long been one of the most hawkish supporters of an Islamist-led Sunni insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian government. Even a slight shift in Ankara’s Syria policy could have significant consequences for the war—and if Erdogan had been toppled, it could easily have been a game-changing moment in the conflict. When news of the coup first broke, celebratory gunfire erupted in Damascus and several other cities, though that turned out to be a waste of both cheers and bullets.
As it happens, Syria has been on the mind of policymakers in Ankara for some time. Turkey’s Syria policy is widely felt to have reached a dead end, with the failure of the insurgency to coalesce into a credible alternative to Assad. The Syrian army’s recent victories around Aleppo and Damascus have also weakened and demoralized the rebels. In addition, the steady rise of Syrian Kurdish groups aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has become a major concern for Turkish officials, and some have argued that this will prompt a recalibration of Erdogan’s Syria policy.
As of yet, however, there is no visible change and whether the attempted coup will accelerate or impede such a process is impossible to say. Since Erdogan remains in power—perhaps now with even less internal opposition—there is no reason why he should not simply continue to pursue a Syria policy of his own choice, whatever it might turn out to be. But the effects of the coup on Turkey’s foreign alignments and internal politics may still influence the way Ankara approaches its Syrian dilemma.
A Stronger Erdogan, but a Weaker Turkey?
The Turkish president seems to have come out of the crisis stronger than before and is now leading a large-scale purge of the armed forces and the civil service. Having declared a three-month state of emergency, the government has arrested or fired many thousands of suspected opponents, including military officers and other security personnel. Journalists are also being targeted and earlier this week 16 television channels, 23 radio stations, 45 newspapers, and 29 publishing houses were shut down by government decree. Many of Erdogan’s critics fear that the president has effectively embarked on a counter-coup of his own, attempting to crush all meaningful resistance to his rule under the cover of a legitimate purge of military conspirators.
Tellingly, Erdogan is already using the coup to further his overriding political goal, namely to change the constitution and centralize power in the hands of the presidency. His repeated previous attempts to rewrite the constitution were met with strong resistance from the opposition, which accused Erdogan of seeking to transform Turkey into a dictatorship. But Prime Minister Binali Yildirim now claims that, after the coup, most of Turkey’s political parties are willing to join a constitutional redrafting process.
However, a stronger Erdogan does not necessarily mean a stronger Turkey. The tense political situation and the sheer scale of the purge may weaken the government and make it less able to efficiently promote its interests in Syria. If so, Ankara could be forced to scale-down its involvement to more manageable levels or hand over influence to allies who do not fully share its goals. Then again, having a more unstable military and policymaking apparatus, and less oversight from a much-too-busy central government, could also translate into more reckless policies in Syria. With reports of Sunni-Alevi sectarian clashes in Turkey and unrest in several areas, as well as Syria-based jihadi extremists striking at Turkish targets, there is also a risk that Syrian refugees could become caught up in the aftermath to the coup.
Continuing to Mend Ties with Russia
Erdogan’s options in Syria are dependent on Ankara’s regional and international alliances. In the months before the military uprising, Erdogan had begun to revise his foreign policy to break out of growing international isolation. This included rebooting his relations with Israel and, more importantly for the Syrian dilemma, seeking improved ties with Russia.
Turkish-Russian relations had already been strained over the Syrian issue, when, on November 15, 2015, the Turkish Air Force downed a Russian Su-24 that it claimed had strayed into Turkish airspace. This prompted a furious Russian response, including the imposition of economic sanctions. However, after some six months of mutual hostility, Turkey reached out to Russia with a grudging apology, which led to the lifting of some sanctions. On July 1, foreign ministers Sergei Lavrov and Mevlut Cavusoglu met in Sochi, where they discussed, among other things, Syria. Moscow has, since, sought to use the diplomatic opening to encourage a shift in Ankara’s Syria policy, though Erdogan has so far shown no indication of wanting to end his opposition to Assad.
A few days after the attempted coup, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed that the evolution of the Russian-Turkish relationship “will depend on how we will cooperate on the settlement of the Syrian crisis.” Turkish officials have not yet reacted to these pressures, but they have signaled their desire to continue to improve relations with Moscow. Soon after the coup had been put down, Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek seized the opportunity to blame the shooting down of the Su-24 on anti-Erdogan elements. It may be true or it may be a very convenient cop-out. Cavusoglu also recently praised Russia’s “unconditional support” after the attempted coup. In other words, the Russian-Turkish discussions about Syria can be expected to continue.
How Will Washington Respond?
Turkey’s relationship with the United States, which is its primary military ally through NATO, seems to have come under some strain as a result of the coup. One reason is that the Turkish government has accused the Islamist ideologue Fethüllah Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania, of being the mastermind behind the putsch. While it remains unclear whether Turkey has launched a formal request for Gülen’s extradition, the issue is already provoking tensions on both sides.
The United States and Turkey have clear disagreements about which diplomatic policies to pursue in Syria and which opposition groups to support. Still, they have been able to contain these differences and work closely together over the past five years. The coup attempt is not going to change that, but Turkey’s apparent instability and Erdogan’s ongoing crackdown seem to be causing serious concern in the United States. Erdogan’s evolution towards Islamist-led authoritarianism will win him no friends in Washington, and further complications in the American-Turkish relationship could easily translate into new rifts over Syria.
Still, Washington has a strong incentive to maintain good relations with Erdogan, since Turkey is an indispensable facilitator of American influence in Syria and, even more importantly, serves as a cornerstone of the U.S.-led regional security structure. That view has been clearly expressed by James G. Stavridis, a retired U.S. general who served as NATO supreme allied commander from 2009 to 2013 (and was considered a potential running mate for U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton). Stavridis recently published an article in Foreign Policy arguing that the U.S. must stand ready to counter a likely “strong negative impact on the ability of the Turkish military to perform its duties,” by reinforcing the alliance with Ankara and being more publicly supportive of Erdogan’s government, which, he reminded readers, is democratically elected. Stavridis also suggested that the United States should be more “sensible and supportive of Turkish positions on how to deal with the Islamic State and Bashar al-Assad’s regime” and increase American support for Turkey’s war against the PKK.
Given that the United States relies heavily on PKK associated groups in northern Syria, such concessions to Ankara could have implications not only for Turkey’s role in Syria, but also for the role of the United States in Syria.
Sorting Through the Post-Putsch Mess
The reason for Stavridis’s concerns are obvious: preserving a strong and sympathetic Turkish military leadership is a core U.S. security interest. After the coup, the air base at İncirlik—from which the United States and other nations fly many of their sorties against jihadi extremists in northern Syria, and which houses part of the American nuclear arsenal—was shut down, though only temporarily. As a measure of how deep into the security establishment Erdogan’s purge has cut, he is apparently abolishing his own presidential guard, while about a third of the country’s generals and admirals are said to have been charged with involvement in the plot.
Speaking to Reuters on July 23, Erdogan said he had already tasked his government with reorganizing the military: “They are all working together [so as to determine] what might be done, and ... within a very short amount of time a new structure will be emerging. With this new structure, I believe the armed forces will get fresh blood.”
Losing such a large part of the top brass would throw any army into disarray. For a government already embroiled in a civil war with the PKK and a proxy war against Assad in Syria, while also being targeted by jihadi attacks, it could be quite debilitating. As an example of the issues at stake, the most senior military figure arrested for involvement in the plot against Erdogan was General Adem Huduti, whose Second Army is responsible for the borders with Syria, Iraq, and Iran. How will Huduti’s arrest affect Turkey’s ability to patrol these borders, the army’s performance in the conflict with the PKK, and Ankara’s ability to shape the situation in northern Syria?
In other words, a deliberate change in policy is not the only the way the attempted coup could affect Syria. Even if the Turkish government decides to stay the course, it could become weakened and preoccupied by internal unrest and purges, forcing it to take its eyes off the war in Syria at a crucial moment. And as Turkish domestic policy and the structure of the country’s ruling elite change, this will surely have longer-term effects on the decision-making process and on how the government perceives Turkish national interests. Meanwhile, the coup could influence how Turkey balances its commitments to other actors involved in the Syrian war, including Russia and the United States.
But for now, the only thing that seems certain is that as Turkey changes, the nature of its involvement in Syria is likely to change as well. And that, for many in Syria, could be a matter of life or death.