Turkey, Syria and vicious circles

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Hardly a day passes without a new development in the Turkey-Syrian saga. Last evening, as I was flying from Istanbul to Sofia, Turkish airforce intercepted a Syrian Air passenger plane over suspicions it was carrying weapons from Moscow to Damascus. This comes after a tense week which saw Turkey’s military shelling Syrian army’s positions across the common border several times in retaliation for mortar fire killing Turkish civilians.

Turkey is in a really tough spot of late. Full-blown military action against Assad’s regime is unthinkable. The German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends Survey suggests that up to 57% of Turks are opposed to any military action, even if sanctioned by a UN Security Council Resolution. The government’s critics sense a danger that Syria could become Turkey’s Afghanistan should an intervention take place. Turkey would be bogged down, caught in the cross-fire of intercommunal strife as the Syrian conflict takes an increasingly sectarian tack, with Turkey seen as an essentially Sunni power rather than a mediator and peacebuilder. But an Afghan scenario is equally likely if Turkey sits on the sideline and watches as Syria descends even deeper into the hellish spiral of bloodshed.

At the recent Istanbul Forum (an annual get-together run by STRATIM – an outfit chaired by ECFR’s good friend Suat Kınıklıoğlu) experts were deeply concerned that Turkey is becoming frustrated by its inability to do anything about the weapons and cash flowing from Qatar and Saudi Arabia (its informal allies who similarly support the Free Syrian Army (FSA)) which end up in the hands of radicals and perhaps even the PKK. Assad’s narrative of the conflict is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. In such a situation the threat for Turkey would be to turn into Syria’s Pakistan – a volatile state on the verge of failure with violence prone to spilling over a lawless frontier. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, in other words, with neither intervention, nor non-intervention doing Ankara any good. Indeed the war in Syria is already exacerbating the Kurdish issue in Turkey as well as the relations between the Sunni majority and the Alevi community. (Alevis are not the same as Assad’s Alawis, but the distinction gets increasingly blurred, especially after Erdoğan recently blamed the leader of the largest opposition party Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, an Alevi Kurd, of acting out of solidarity with his co-religionists in Damascus.)

Whose fault it this? Many point an accusing finger at Foreign Minister Davutoğlu for maneuvering Turkey into this uncomfortable corner. Of course it’s more complex than that, though it is certainly true that currently it’s PM Erdoğan and the Chief of General Staff General Necdet Özel doing the bidding. I would point out at a more long-term tendency: the linkage between domestic politics and foreign policy that deepened in the AKP decade. In the old days, the two formed a virtuous circle. Foreign policy activism generated domestic support for the party. For instance, the talk about the Turkish model for the Arab Spring countries legitimated the government’s policy at home. Now foreign exposure is backfiring. The intrusion into the webs of Middle Eastern politics is raising tensions and increasing polarisation at home, with the end result of constraining the capacity of Turkey to act in an increasingly complicated and challenging environment. 

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