North Africa, West Asia

Turkey's strategy for a prolonged Syrian civil war

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Turkey needs to develop a sustainable Syria strategy if it wants to deter any internal and external threats and be influential in Syria's future.

Ali Gokpinar
2 October 2013

Turkey's metamorphosed strategy has long been to topple Syria's embattled President Bashar al-Assad. Yet Turkish foreign policy has failed the test in Syria, revealing its limits and the discrepancy between Turkey's ambitions, capacity and geopolitics. Even if Assad hands over his chemical weapons stockpile and a political settlement succeeds, Syria is a failed state (and will be for the near future) thanks to simultaneous wars within the broader Syrian civil war, Syria's collapsing infrastructure and the ever-growing number of opposition groups. Reconstructing Syria with or without Assad will take years, if not decades. It is also clear that Turkey cannot remain indifferent to a prolonged Syrian civil war. So what is Turkey's strategy for a failed Syrian state, especially if Assad survives?

Well, there is no such strategy. As President Abdullah Gül recently remarked, Turkey is not prepared for a prolonged Syrian civil war, which makes Turkey all the more vulnerable to possible threats from Syria. A NATO member sharing 910 kilometers of border with Syria and tacitly providing logistical support to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and al-Qaeda affiliated groups to overthrow Assad, Turkey's worst-case scenario should focus on national security, refugees and diplomacy.

First, Turkey's national security strategy should focus on three aspects: border security, internal unrest and asymmetric threats. Antakya, Ceylanpınar and Akçakale all border Syria, and the first two are ready to explode -- their social fabric and security have been significantly affected. A common policy for all these cities should be to increase border security, limit rebel traffic to a minimum and soothe social tensions through political and social actions. In Antakya, the government needs to stop stigmatizing Alawites as pro-Assad and make gestures to alleviate the boiling social situation. The city's social cohesion was based on passive sectarianism, but that has been transforming into assertive sectarianism especially after three young people were killed this summer. Thus, an immediate intervention is necessary if Turkey wants to forestall social unrest.

Turkey's ambivalent relationship with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has not only been costly for Ceylanpınar but has alienated Kurds and increased distrust in the negotiations between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Kurdish actors. As a matter of fact, the PYD controls more than 500 kilometers of Turkey's 910 kilometer border with Syria. Yet the AKP government has provided logistical support to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra, which has been fighting the PYD for at least two months. It might seem favorable to Turkey to not have another strong Kurdish player in the region, but the Kurds will do whatever it takes to save this liberating moment. A Kurdish state structure in Rojava is imminent, and it cannot be contained through the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) forever. Thus, recognizing the PYD as the political representative of Syria's Kurds, similar to the KRG in Iraq, might be in the best interests of Turkey as it will contribute to the peace process, mitigate potential threats and deepen Turkey's economic ties in the region. Yet it seems this is a dilemma for the AKP government because of disruptions in the peace process and fast-approaching elections in 2014 that will make it difficult to explain such a policy to the party's nationalist constituency.

On the other hand, newspapers are reporting that Akçakale has become a hub for jihadist fighters. This is dangerous not only because these fighters are unruly, but also because their jihadist ideas might find fertile ground among many young people in Turkey. Turkey, however, can't cut off its logistical aid to these groups immediately because of its alliance with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Nevertheless, Turkey might take a gradual approach to decrease the jihadists' numbers on Turkish soil and devote more resources to moderate FSA groups rather than rely on one group. Jihadists are “foreign” to Syria and do not own the Syrian uprising. It is very likely that they will not win the support of Syrians. But, given their resources, they'll probably continue to terrorize the country. Thus, local Syrian groups might be more useful to achieve Turkey's goals and Turkey should not hesitate to talk to any local moderate group.

Why not use military force to deter any threats on the border, or perhaps use NATO's Article 5? Well, this is a tricky question. On the one hand, Turkey might be able to send strong signals to potential threats, but its inability to take action will damage the country's credibility just as it has over the last year. Assad and pro-Assad actors are smart enough to know Turkey's fault lines and these tools might be more dangerous than conventional means.

On the other hand, using NATO's Article 5 is an option to deter pro-Assad groups, but this option is problematic for two reasons. First, Assad is smart enough not to attack Turkey by conventional means or with medium- to large-scale operations. Second, it is strange to ask NATO to protect Turkey when Ankara is tacitly supporting jihadi groups that now control some parts of Syria. Thus, Turkey might send strong signals by increasing its security forces in bordering cities and use a carrot-and-stick approach to coordinate its real power with diplomacy.

The second pillar of Turkish strategy should address the state of the more than 500,000 refugees in Turkey. Turkey's current unsustainable Syrian “guest” strategy is based on the assumption that the Syrian civil war is ephemeral and Syrians will return home once the war is over. The number of refugees -- they are officially given guest status -- is likely to rise. The increasing number of refugees has drastically affected the Turkish economy in terms of the amount of resources devoted to refugees and increasing unemployment, especially in cities bordering Syria. First, Turkey should accept more international aid for Syrian refugees and implement a special employment program for cities seriously affected by the Syrian civil war. Second, it should provide more room for non-Sunni refugees by either establishing separate camps or cooperating with civil society organizations. Reports show that non-Sunni refugees fear retaliation if they live with Sunni refugees and indeed the attack on Alawite refugees in İstanbul is indicative of further sectarian problems. Third, Turkey should form a long-term strategy to transform the official status of Syrians from guests to refugees. Turkey should learn from the mistakes it made in 1991, when Iraqi Kurds sought refuge in Turkey.

Third, the country should use diplomacy and negotiate rather than take positions, and take advantage of Iran's newly elected President Hassan Rohani's initiative to engage with the western world. Although Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's position on Assad might not have changed, it is possible that a political settlement, in which Iran will play a key role, will end this civil war after all. But we should also question whether Iran can pursue its interests without Assad.

Also, Turkey might find it more useful to soften its harsh language and change its neo-Ottoman “pivotal country” discourse to one of equal partnership. Turkey's criticism of Middle Eastern countries might be valid. But it is counterproductive, especially when harsh discourse is used, as the cases of Iraq and Egypt clearly demonstrate. Indeed, Turkey could still pursue a value-driven foreign policy with softer language -- but combine it with proper tools.

Furthermore, Turkey needs to open all communication channels with all actors, including non-state actors, in the Middle East if the country wants to succeed in Syria. Of course, that doesn't mean being friends with everybody. It is impossible for the Turkish government to step back and be friends with Assad, but it might be wise to use leverage through other actors. In sum, Turkish foreign policy should be recalibrated to deal with the realities on the ground, pursue interests rather than positions and be flexible.

Overall, Turkey needs to develop a sustainable Syria strategy if it wants to deter any internal and external threats and be influential in Syria's future. The zero-problems-with-neighbors policy is dead, but Turkey still has the chance to modify its “strategic depth” doctrine in a way that will have tangible results.

This article was first published on Today’s Zaman on 27/9/13

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