Turkey’s Syria Policy: A Course Correction?

September 15, 2016
Turkey’s foray into the Syrian conflict has been, beyond a shadow of doubt, our worst foreign policy blunder since the founding of the Republic in 1923. The political, security, economic and trade costs are too obvious, unlikely to disappear soon and need no elaboration except to say that the erosion of the trust others placed in us was perhaps our biggest loss.

For a long time, our allies asked us to seal off a 98 kilometer stretch of our border with Syria (*). In response Ankara said that it regards ISIL as a terrorist organization, that it is fighting it but it is impossible to seal off the border. Thus, a porous border combined with Ankara’s Assad obsession gave the impression that Turkey, with an “ends justify the means” approach, had been tolerant of ISIL and al-Nusra, if not supportive. Now, with Turkish armed forces in Syria, the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) almost claims to lead the fight against ISIL. It is ardently calling for lasting peace in Syria. We no longer call Syria “our backyard” but say “Syria belongs to the Syrians”. What are the underlying reasons for this change of attitude? And, does it represent a genuine course correction?

Firstly, since May 24, 2016 we have a new prime minister who seems to have grasped the disastrous consequences of the policy hitherto followed.

Secondly, it has finally dawned upon the JDP that the much praised policy of “precious loneliness” actually meant exclusion, isolation and reduced effectiveness on the international scene.

Thirdly, it has become increasingly clear that in the absence of adequate cooperation with Turkey, major actors would turn to local groups such as the PYD in Syria.

Fourthly, US-Russian efforts to forge a united front against ISIL and al-Nusra and pave the way for Syria’s political transition, regardless of the difficulties involved, has convinced the JDP government to reconsider its Syria policy with a view to assuming the role of a major regional partner for both Washington and Moscow and ensuring “a seat at the table”.

And lastly, the government may have thought that such a “policy change” would help blunt the criticism directed at Turkey’s dwindling democracy and the purges undertaken after the horrific coup attempt of July 15.

Does this represent genuine change in Turkey’s Syria policy? Looking at JDP’s record it is difficult to answer in the affirmative. Because, JDP’s foreign policy prioritizes ideology over national interest. It is closely linked, including its language, with internal political calculations. Public discourse may change but positions are carved in stone. During its fourteen years in power, the JDP has half-heartedly admitted one mistake and that was its long-standing cooperation with the Gulenist movement and that admission came only after July 15.

How may Washington and Moscow perceive this “change”? After all, they are the major actors in Syria.

President Obama had said: “… The United States will at times work with governments that do not meet, at least in our view, the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests. Nevertheless, we will not stop asserting principles that are consistent with our ideals, whether that means opposing the use of violence as a means of suppressing dissent, or supporting the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights…”

Turkey’s relations with the US currently fit this definition. So, the question becomes whether the two countries would be able to work together on their core interests in Syria and Iraq despite extreme mutual dislike. Washington would cooperate with Ankara to fight ISIL and al-Nusra, try very hard to help avoid further escalation between Turkey and the PYD but will not write a blank check. They could not do it even they wanted to because they have to act together with Russia.

The pace of rapprochement with Russia will be directly related to Ankara’s Syria policy. While answering journalists’ questions in Hangzhou on September 5, President Putin also dwelt on Turkish-Russian relations. In general, his comments were more reserved than the remarks he made to the press together with President Erdogan on the occasion of the latter’s visit to Moscow on August 9, 2016.

In responding to a question regarding Turkey’s Syria incursion President Putin said that it was not a surprise; Turkey has many problems there; Russia could not be one hundred percent certain of Ankara’s objectives in Syria; and, Russia will not welcome any action that runs counter to international law’s norms and principles. On bilateral relations he said:
“As for the question of restoring our bilateral relations, this work is going to plan. It is progressing not as fast as our Turkish partners would like, but we have an interest in acting swiftly too. It is always a very rapid process to demolish something, but building it anew is always far more complicated…
“What is most important is that we have established the base for restoring full-fledged cooperation. This foundation was laid by the letter the Turkish government sent to us, apologizing for the tragic incident with our plane and the death of our pilot. This was also connected to the fact that, as you know, Turkey has arrested the pilot that shot down our plane. The person who shot from Syrian territory at our pilots when they ejected has also been arrested.
“Now we are hearing that this incident took place without the Turkish government’s approval in the aim of complicating our relations with Turkey. Apparently, this was done by the same people who later attempted to carry out a coup d’état. We do not know the full facts here and are waiting for the results of the investigation the Turkish authorities are conducting. In any case, we see the Turkish government’s desire to restore our bilateral ties.”

The conclusion to be drawn from the foregoing can only be that Russia is more than likely to oppose an extended Turkish military presence in Syria after ISIL and al-Nusra (now calling itself “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham” to create confusion about its identity) are defeated or degraded. In other words, for continued rapprochement with Moscow Ankara will have to revise its Syria policy. This would be under compulsion and would mean a change neither of heart nor mind.

Turkey’s foray into the Syrian conflict with its disastrous consequences constitutes a bitter lesson for Ankara. Unfortunately, once a country which gets herself into such a foreign and security policy dead end there are no easy ways of going back. What kind of advice can one offer? Nothing that would dramatically change the picture overnight. In the short and middle term, however, Ankara would be well-advised to:
• Put its own house in order, the first step being a return to the democratic path and restoring national unity,
• Try recovering its lost soft power,
• Give genuine support to Syria’s political transition without taking sides,
• Refrain from trying to achieve through military means what it failed to achieve politically,
• Rebuild mutual trust with Washington and Moscow,
• Put the emphasis on national interest rather than ideology,
• Engage in quiet diplomacy rather than bravado, and
• Stop treating foreign policy as a function of internal politics.

Although some details are emerging, the agreement reached between Russia and the US on reviving Syria’s cessation of hostilities has not been made public. Even if it were, an agreement is not just a written text. At least politically, it is a whole with the record of negotiations, views exchanged in the corridors and even body language of those sitting around the table. Is it possible to imagine that Turkey’s Syria incursion was not discussed during these talks? How much Ankara has been informed of the what was agreed and what was disagreed; what was left to be understood? Only time will tell because nobody else would…
(*) “Turkey Needs to Build Trust”, December 14, 2015.

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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