Tough Choices for Ankara

November 8, 2021

Another operation by the Turkish Armed Forces in Syria is looming. President Erdogan gave the signal last month. Military reinforcements were sent to the border. On October 26, the Turkish parliament approved a motion extending authorization to launch cross-border operations in northern Iraq and Syria for two more years, as well as continued participation in the UN Interim Force in Lebanon. Yet, some are skeptical. Because there is no international support for such an operation.

On September 14, 2021, President Assad met with President Putin in Moscow. In remarks to the press before the meeting, Mr. Putin said, “I believe that the main problem lies in the presence in some parts of the country of foreign armed forces without any mandate from the United Nations or your permission, which clearly runs counter to international law and undermines your ability to use your best efforts to consolidate the country and promote recovery at a pace that would have been possible, if the legitimate government controlled the entire country.”

In fact, this is Russia’s steadfast Syria policy. And together with Washington, Ankara was among the addressees of President Putin’s message. For Moscow, any legitimate foreign military presence in Syria requires either an invitation by Damascus or a UN Security Council resolution. Moscow, while taking opportunities to drive wedges between Ankara and its traditional allies, would tolerate Turkish operations only up to a point.

As for the US, President Biden holds the view that a Turkish military offensive into northeast Syria, would undermine the campaign to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, endanger civilians, and further threaten to undermine the peace, security, and stability in the region, and thereby constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States. Thus, he has extended the national emergency declared by his predecessor to deal with that threat.[i]

And on October 27, during the UN Security Council Briefing on Syria, Chinese Ambassador Geng Shuang said, “… Since Turkey illegally invaded northeastern Syria, it has repeatedly cut off the water supply service from the Alouk water station, affecting hundreds of thousands of civilians, and causing enormous difficulties for the UN’s humanitarian relief work in the area. China urges Turkey to abide by the international law, including international humanitarian law, protect civilians, maintain infrastructure operations, and guarantee humanitarian access for the UN…”[ii]

This was the first such intervention by China and probably a response to Turkey’s joining forty-three other nations in a statement criticizing China’s repression of Uyghurs. Nonetheless, it was an important statement at the UN Security Council which should not be ignored.

Moreover, on November 5, Presidents Xi Jinping and Bashar Assad had a phone call. The readout of the call issued by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said:

“Xi Jinping pointed out that Syria is one of the first Arab countries to establish diplomatic relations with New China and one of the co-sponsors of the UN General Assembly resolution that restored China’s lawful seat in the United Nations. Since the establishment of China-Syria diplomatic ties 65 years ago, bilateral relations have withstood the test of changes in the international situation, and the friendship between the two countries has grown stronger…

“Xi Jinping pointed out that China firmly supports Syria in safeguarding its national sovereignty, territorial integrity and national dignity, and firmly opposes interference by external forces in Syria’s internal affairs…”[iii]

In Syria, Russian and US policies are in sharp contrast. In 2012, China and Russia vetoed a draft resolution designed to pave the way for another Western intervention in Syria, after  Libya. China is not involved directly in the Syrian conflict, but its general approach is close to Russia. Despite differences, however, China, Russia and the US appear united in their opposition to another cross-border operation by Turkey. In times of strategic competition with predictions of a new cold war, bringing the three together must be a remarkable diplomatic accomplishment.

In reference to operations in Syria President Erdogan has often said, “We may come overnight, all of a sudden without warning.” Last week, his spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, referring to these statements said that Turkey is already there, Turkish Armed Forces are vigilant as always and will not tolerate threats from terrorist organizations such as the PKK and ISIS. Does “being there” mean that “we do not need to go there”? Perhaps.

Turkey’s participation in the regime change project in Syria was a huge foreign and security policy mistake. Because, ten years ago, we had good relations with Damascus. We did not have a PYD/YPG problem. We enjoyed good relations with Russia and regional countries. We were not diplomatically isolated. Our democratic decline had started to adversely impact relations with traditional allies but diverging security interests had not become a problem. We did not have tens of thousands of jihadist fighters right across the border in İdlib. And, we did not have four million Syrian refugees in Turkey.

For damage control Ankara needs to:

  • Weigh carefully  the pros and cons of another cross-border military operation;
  • Bear in mind that Turkey and Syria are to remain neighbors;
  • Avoid becoming the last regional country to resume diplomatic relations with Damascus;
  • Give unreserved support to Syria’s political transition.

When the history of the past two decades is written, most would agree that our involvement in the Syrian conflict marked the beginning of our democratic, political, diplomatic, and economic decline.

On December 9-10, 2021, President Biden will host a virtual Summit for Democracy for leaders from government, civil society, and the private sector. The Summit will focus on three main themes: defending against authoritarianism, the fight against corruption, and promoting respect of human rights.

Last week a list of invitees was leaked. The list has already led to controversy because of the questionable democratic performance of some invitees. A senior U.S. official involved in the planning of the summit told Reuters that invites were sent to countries with different experiences of democracy from all regions of the world. “This was not about endorsing, ‘You’re a democracy, you are not a democracy.’ That is not the process we went through,” the official said. Biden administration officials say they had to “make choices” to ensure regional diversity and broad participation.[iv]

Apparently, Turkey is not invited to the Summit. If this proves to be the case, another item of discord would be added to the long list of differences between Ankara and Washington. Of course, what Ankara could possibly say at the summit about defending democracy against authoritarianism is another matter.







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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