Turkey’s Syria Predicament

February 22, 2018

In Syria, Turkey is running in a narrowing alley.

On the one hand, Secretary Tillerson recently said, “…we’re not going to act alone any longer. We’re not going to be U.S. doing one thing and Turkey doing another. We are going to act together from this point forward…” That remains to be seen. On the other hand, Turkey is quasi-partners with Russia and Iran in the Astana process. It is struggling to walk a fine line between Washington and Moscow. Relations between these two capitals, however, remain tense and confrontational. Through its measured cooperation with Ankara in Syria, Moscow is also targeting the further weakening of Turkey’s relations with the West.  Why shouldn’t it if the opportunity is generously offered? Moreover, the U.S. is engaged in a major effort to form an anti-Iran regional bloc to contain what it calls “Tehran’s malign activities”. Beyond saying that they are committed to Syria’s unity and territorial integrity, Washington on one side and Moscow and Tehran on the other hold conflicting views on Syria’s political transition. The former remains an adversary of President Assad while the latter are his principal supporters.  Back in October 2015, at the time of Russia’s intervention in Syria President Obama had said, “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” Perhaps, the Trump administration wishes to prove him right.

Surprisingly, however, we have somehow managed to unite them. All three are counseling restraint in Afrin.

Washington made this clear at the outset of the Operation Olive Branch.

During a press conference in Tehran on February 6, President Rouhani said that the operation will bear no fruit. He added, “Our ties with Turkey and Russia are very good, but our principled stance is that entry of a country’s army to another country should be on consent of the people and government of that country. Otherwise, that would not be right.”

Last Monday, following reports that regime forces were also moving into Afrin, Presidents Erdoğan and Putin had a telephone conversation. Kremlin readout of the call referred to the positive dynamic in Russia-Turkey cooperation and further strengthening of interaction in the Astana format but ended with the following:

“The situation in northwestern Syria, including in the context of the Turkish military operation near Afrin, was discussed individually.” (emphasis added)

At this juncture, a reference to Afrin is only understandable but the word “individually” seems to signal that Ankara and Moscow are not exactly on the same page over what is transpiring in Afrin.

A day later, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov notably said, “We recognize Turkey’s concerns about the developments in Syria and along its perimeter… Of course, we also recognize the Kurds’ aspirations… I am convinced that Turkey’s legitimate security interests can be realized and protected through a direct dialogue with the Syrian government. I strongly hope that all of us will act resolutely against any further attempts to hype up the Kurdish problem so as to keep up or even deepen the regional chaos and to split the regional countries.”

Restoring relations with Damascus would mean a major foreign policy reversal which domestic policy considerations may not allow, at least for now. Beyond that, such a move would cause disappointment in Washington. And, there are more discreet channels of communication open between the Assad regime and Turkey if not open dialogue.

In 2009, the communique issued at the end of the Damascus meeting of the “Turkish-Syrian High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council” referred to a “strategic partnership”, at the time a most fashionable label for Turkey’s developing external relationships. It mentioned common threats and challenges confronting the two countries. A year later, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, in remarks to the press with his Syrian counterpart in Latakia, underlined that the exemplary relationship between Syria and Turkey was serving as a model for regional partnerships and that the two countries were aiming at total economic integration with neighbors. And, two years later, it downed upon the Turkish government that Assad was a dictator and Ankara joined hands with the U.S., other Western countries and the Gulf states to oust him from power. Forgotten were the common threats and total economic integration. At present, with more than three million Syrian refugees, Turkey is fighting the PYD/YPG to support Syria’s territorial integrity. Our relations with the U.S. doesn’t hold much promise. Relations with Russia remain uncertain. One should remember that for decades we enjoyed solid relations with our Western allies and excellent cooperation with Russia. These were not mutually exclusive. We have recently purchased S-400 missile systems from Russia and the U.S. is saying that Turkey could be subject to sanctions for having done so.  We have zero friends in the region. We are no longer so very sure about President Assad being the devil. The word “strategic” has lost all meaning.

Yet, Ahmet Davutoglu proudly claimed recently that Turkey has followed a consistent and principled policy in Syria. The indisputable truth is this so-called “principled policy” has been nothing but a disaster. It has undermined Turkey’s national interests across-the-board, above all its security. Turkey’s partners in the “Friends of the Syrian People” group came far away. Turkey, however, shared a 900 kilometers border with Syria and was here to stay.

Turkey’s extracting itself from the Syrian conflict will take years and it will come at considerable cost. To move forward, the Turkish government needs to:

  • Remember that Turkey greatest foreign policy asset has always been its secular democracy and act accordingly;
  • Start healing Turkey’s polarization; put an end to the state of lawlessness in the country from violence against women to lack of respect to traffic rules;
  • Cut down the rhetoric regarding Operation Olive Branch. This is not the first time Turkey has undertaken a cross-border security operation. However, this is the first time such an operation has been televised almost as a war of conquest with bravado. This is wrong and would undermine whatever international support, if any, given to our incursion;
  • Stop seeing Turkey’s foreign and security policy as a tool of domestic politics;
  • Stop blaming others for all our mistakes since this only leads to loss of friends. Regardless of what President Trump may say about his predecessor, Obama-bashing is wrong and will not serve our relations with Washington;
  • Move from confrontation to cooperation;
  • Rebuild friendships. Notwithstanding how it may have been prepared, Prime Minister Yıldırım’s visit to Germany was a positive development.

And, for a course correction in our foreign relations, the people of Turkey must resist getting bogged-down in the day-to-day operational details of our incursion in Syria. While mourning our losses we should not lose sight of the broad picture and see that all of this is largely our own doing, that we looked for trouble.




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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