Moment of Truth for Turkey’s Syria Policy

December 3, 2015

On November 27, 2015 the Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration was pressing Turkey to deploy thousands of additional troops along its border with Syria to cordon off a 60-mile stretch of frontier that U.S. officials said was being used by the Islamic State fighters in and out of the war zone. This coincided with Turkish press reports that convoys of heavy weaponry were heading towards the south.

On November 30 President Putin held a press conference in Paris at the end of the UN Conference on Climate Change. He was extremely critical of Turkey:
“Now, as far as creating a broad coalition to fight terrorism… But we cannot achieve this until somebody uses part of the terrorist organizations to achieve short-term political goals, until we fulfill the UN Security Council resolutions on stopping the sale of oil unlawfully extracted by terrorists, the illegal sale of the works of art, and so on.
“We have just received additional information proving that unfortunately, large volumes of oil, industrial volumes coming from oil fields controlled by ISIS and other terrorist organizations, enter Turkey’s territory. And we have every reason to believe that the decision to shoot down our plane was dictated by the desire to ensure the security of these oil supply routes to Turkey – to the ports where it is shipped out in tankers, – while protecting the Turkmen is merely a pretext….”

His accusations regarding illicit oil trade were vehemently denied by President Erdogan.

On December 1, it was President Obama’s turn to address the press in Paris and this is what he said regarding Turkey:
“With respect to Turkey, I have had repeated conversations with President Erdogan about the need to close the border between Turkey and Syria. We’ve seen some serious progress on that front, but there are still some gaps. In particular, there’s about 98 kilometers that are still used as a transit point for foreign fighters, ISIL shipping out fuel for sale that helps finance their terrorist activities.
“And so we have been having our militaries work together to determine how a combination of air and Turkish ground forces on the Turkish side of the border can do a much better job of sealing the border than currently is. And I think President Erdogan recognizes that. I’m also encouraged by the fact that President Erdogan and the EU had a series of meetings around — or Turkey and the EU had a series of meetings around the issue of the Turkish-Greek border.
“We have to remind ourselves, Turkey has taken on an enormous humanitarian effort. There are millions of Syrians who are displaced and living inside of Turkey — not just refugee camps, but they are now moving into major cities throughout Turkey. That puts enormous strains on their infrastructure, on their housing, on employment. And Turkey has continued to keep those borders open for people in real need…”

It was obvious that he was trying to soften his criticism on border security with some praise on what Turkey had been doing for the Syrian refugees.

The same day, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter addressed the House Armed Services Committee. He said:
“But we all, let me repeat all, must do more. Turkey must do more to control its often porous border. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states joined the air campaign in the early days, but have since been pre-occupied by the conflict in Yemen…”

Pentagon and State Department officials have later said that they have no evidence to substantiate the allegations regarding Turkish government’s involvement in the marketing of ISIL oil.

As the foregoing shows the security of Turkey’s border with Syria remains a source of serious concern. As a matter of fact, Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq have never been fully secure. During the time of father Assad, Syria allowed the PKK to engage in terrorist activities against Turkey across the 900 kilometer border. With the coming to power of Bashar Assad the situation improved paving the way for an era of close cooperation between Ankara and Damascus. Turkey also shares a nearly 400 kilometer border with Iraq and the PKK has also used its Iraq bases to launch attacks against Turkey prompting Turkish governments to undertake numerous cross border military operations. Smuggling across these borders has always been a problem. The Syria conflict has no doubt made the situation worse. As the BBC succinctly put it, “the Syrian conflict has given rise to an extensive war economy in which murky deals are struck between a host of partners, including groups that are fighting each other on the battlefield.”

ISIL’s marketing oil is a problem. But, it is not the only problem. Russia’s Syria intervention has been a game changer. ISIL’s downing of a Russian passenger plane and Paris attacks have galvanized Russia and the West. The Vienna Process has not yielded any results yet but it has produced a roadmap for political transition and energized principal players. ISIL’s tanker convoys have been hit, leaving open the question “why not before?” All of this may lead ISIL to believe that a decisive military move by a larger coalition is on the horizon. Should this be the case, few ISIL fighters would wish to remain on the battlefield to the bitter end. Most would try to leave Syria and Iraq to raise the flag elsewhere at a time of their choosing. Nobody wants to allow this. And there is no question that the sealing off of Turkey’s border with Syria is of paramount importance in this respect.

Turkish government’s policy on Syria has been a failure. This policy has adversely affected our relations with regional countries. It has created strains between Ankara and our NATO allies, in particular the US. It has damaged our cooperation with Russia, meticulously built over decades. In brief it has yielded nothing but a growing list of problems and needless confrontations. Now it seems that there is one final chance for the government to repair some of the damage done. And that is sealing off the border with Syria in cooperation with our allies and giving full support to the Vienna process.

This seems to be the moment of truth for Turkey’s Syria policy…

About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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