On April 8, 2016, the Francophone Algiers daily El Watan quoted an Algerian diplomatic source as saying that for the preceding several weeks his country had been running a secret mediation mission between the governments in Ankara and Damascus, who “want to have an exchange regarding the Kurdish question and the desire of the Syrian Kurds to create an independent state.” According to El Watan, Algeria’s involvement began as an attempt to calm tensions between Turkey and Russia following the downing of a Russian Su-24 jet by the Turkish Air Force in November 2015, but a second Syrian–Turkish channel later opened up via the Algerian embassies in Ankara and Damascus.
Though El Watan is a respected newspaper in Algeria and has good sources in the government, these claims are impossible to confirm. However there has been an intense exchange of Syrian and Algerian delegations this spring. For the first time since the Syrian conflict started in 2011, the country’s foreign minister, Walid al-Mouallem, traveled to Algiers on March 28–29. Intriguingly, this coincided with a visit by French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. Algeria responded by sending their minister of Maghreb, African Union, and Arab League affairs, Abdelkader Messahel to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on April 24–25.
Syria and Turkey have been at daggers’ drawn since late summer 2011 when Turkey ended its previous support for Assad's government and joined the coalition of states seeking to overthrow him. Since then, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been one of the most hawkish proponents of military pressure on Assad and his government has worked with a broad array of Sunni rebel factions, including hardline Islamists, to that end. But with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces—a Syrian group linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, against which Turkey is waging a harsh counterinsurgency campaign—now rolling into the northern countryside of Aleppo, Erdogan’s priorities may be shifting. And that may in turn be part of a larger trend in Turkish foreign policy.
From Zero Problems to Zero Friends
Up until 2011, Turkey’s influence in the Middle East was growing rapidly. Then foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu pursued a doctrine of “zero problems,” which sought to engage countries in all neighboring regions and avoid being bogged down in local conflicts. Instead of seeking to project power and play a game of alliances, Turkey’s standing would rest on a combination of trade, diplomacy, and the Erdogan government’s ability to market itself as the prime example of democratic Islamic conservatism. It was a soft power doctrine and it worked wonderfully well—the “Turkish model” was suddenly the mot du jour all over the Middle East.
Five years later, this legacy is in tatters. Erdogan’s government is growing ever more authoritarian and is mired in scandals and internal problems, not least of which is the collapse of its once-promising peace process with the PKK. Erdogan and Davutoglu’s attempts at forceful involvement in Egypt, Libya, and Syria have produced nothing but humiliating setbacks and helped associate Turkey’s international image with sectarian Islamism. “Turkey has become completely isolated not only in its Middle Eastern environment but in fact in the international sphere,” Bayram Balci, a French expert on Turkey and Central Asia, told Syria in Crisis. “Except Azerbaijan, Turkey now lacks reliable friends or allies in the region.”
The Syrian conflict epitomizes all of these problems. Turkey has become stuck in a war that it cannot win and from which it has defined no clear exit strategy. The Turks made a bet that Sunni Islamist rebels would be able to overthrow Assad and install an Ankara-friendly government, but they have nothing to show for their efforts except regional chaos, 2.7 million refugees, and surging Islamist and Kurdish militancy. The Syrian war has also destroyed once promising relations with Russia, which implemented stinging economic sanctions on Turkey following its downing of a Russian Su-24 jet last November.
From the Turkish government’s perspective, the most dangerous development is certainly the rise of the PKK, a sworn enemy of the Turkish state for nearly four decades. Pro-PKK Kurdish groups such as the Syrian Democratic Forces have not only seized control of most of Turkey’s southern border, they are building strong ties to both the United States and Russia. For Ankara, this is a nightmare and the situation cries out for a change in policy.
Changing of the Guards
In early May this year, then Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu was suddenly pushed out of office and replaced by transport minister Binali Yildirim, a close Erdogan loyalist. As Turkey’s foreign minister between 2009 and 2014, Davutoglu was generally seen as the architect of Turkey’s foreign policy. His removal was quickly followed by other major staff changes in the top echelon of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Among others, the influential ministerial undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu was sent to New York to serve as Turkey’s permanent representative to the United Nations, while deputy foreign minister Naci Koru left for Geneva and the United Nations , and Can Dizdar, who had been the ministry’s director-general for the Middle East and North Africa, was sent to an ambassadorial posting in Abu Dhabi. Through these changes, Erdogan “basically dispersed the diplomatic cadre [that] was very influential in Turkey's foreign policy-making for the last years,” commented Ragip Soylu, a Washington correspondent for the pro-Erdogan newspaper Daily Sabah.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has since outlined four areas in which he seeks to change Turkish foreign policy, no doubt with Erdogan’s encouragement: Israel, the European Union, Russia, and Syria.
Turkey has already started to warm up its relations with Israel. Contacts were made in Europe last year and a series of meetings then took place this spring. Both countries have an interest in building a gas pipeline and Israel already imports much of its oil from Iraqi Kurdistan via Turkey. Now, Jerusalem is dangling diplomatic and intelligence cooperation before Ankara, which could, in turn, clamp down on Hamas officials based in Turkey . But the Palestinian question is politically sensitive in Turkey, and obviously in Israel, and talks seem to be moving slowly.
Relations with the European Union are currently dominated by the refugee issue, in which Turkey has found an unexpected source of leverage. In return for taking migrants and refugees from Europe, Ankara is seeking visa-free admittance for Turkish citizens to the union. But negotiations over the Turkish-European refugees-for-access deal have recently stumbled, with the divided Europeans uneasy over the possible social, political, and economic effects of a deal that could mean drastically increased Turkish immigration to the union, as well as over Turkey’s authoritarian drift. For its part, Ankara remains unwilling to make required liberalizing reforms, including to its widely criticized anti-terrorism law.
Turkey’s Russian outreach is not going well. Erdogan recently sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Russia’s national day, the first official contact of that kind since the Su-24 incident. Swallowing his pride, the Turkish president wrote that he hoped their relationship would again reach the “level it deserves.” If this was an outstretched hand, it was brusquely slapped down when the Kremlin responded that the letter was insufficient and demanded an official apology. “My perception of what happened between Moscow and Ankara is that these relations unfortunately became too personalized,” says Nikolay Kozhanov, a Russian Middle East specialist and nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Some of my colleagues even call this the war of the two machismos. This state of relations is unnatural for both countries, but I’m afraid that we may see this conflict continue for as long as both of these guys are in power together.”
Turkish diplomats clearly have their work cut out for them. So what will they do with Syria?
Time to Decide on Syria
“Turkey’s policy in Syria is changing,” said Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Europe Center in Brussels. Due to the “unwavering support to the Syrian regime by Tehran and Moscow,” Ankara’s priorities have “moved away from regime change in Damascus” and toward the Kurdish issue. Indeed, in his first remarks on the issue since taking office Prime Minister Binali Yildirim despondently referred to Syria as a “meaningless war.”
Still, a complete reversal of Turkish policy is hard to imagine, and neither side has given any public signal of having revised its views. Turkish officials continue to demand Assad’s resignation, while the Syrian president recently slammed “Erdogan's fascist regime” and vowed to make Aleppo “the graveyard in which, by the grace of God, the hopes and dreams of this butcher will be buried.”
Of course, even if contact has in fact be re-established via Algeria, that does not mean that Ankara and Damascus are any closer politically. Conflict diplomacy is full of secret back channels, track-two talks, and other under-the-table maneuvers, but most never actually lead anywhere.
Perhaps the new Turkish attitude was best summed up by an anonymous senior official from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in remarks to Tulay Karadeniz of Reuters: “Assad is, at the end of the day, a killer. He is torturing his own people. We're not going to change our stance on that,” the official said. “But he does not support Kurdish autonomy. We may not like each other, but on that we're backing the same policy.”
For what it’s worth, the intended target of that policy seems increasingly unnerved and has noted every little sign of a Syrian-Turkish rapprochement over the past weeks. A PKK-friendly news website recently reported that the Baathist Governor of Hasakah, Mohammed Zaal al-Ali, was invited to meet with Turkish officials to coordinate the building of a wall along the Turkish-Syrian border in the Qamishli-Nuseibin area. And the senior PKK leader Duran Kalkan recently lashed out at Assad, saying that it seems an agreement was reached in Algiers, because now the Syrian president “speaks like Erdogan.”
For Turkey, changing course on Syria would be problematic and painful, but staying the course would be no less costly. At this point, Ankara seems to have resigned itself to the fact that the Syrian conflict is here to stay, arguing that the effects of the war will have to be managed pragmatically. A major political turn remains hard to envision, but it seems likely that there will be low-level adjustments and pragmatic arrangements along the border. Given Turkey’s dominant influence over key rebel groups in northern Syria, as well as over a large segment of the opposition in exile, even a limited change in Turkey’s Syria policy could end up sending ripples through regional politics.
For more on this topic, check in on Syria in Crisis tomorrow, when we publish a poll of Turkish scholars who give their views on the Ankara-Damascus relationship. I would also like to thank Turkey experts Michael Sahlin and Aaron Stein for useful discussions on Ankara’s foreign policy priorities.