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Opinion: Turkey’s misguided Syria policy

Nathalie Tocci
November 4, 2014

Turkey should reconsider its muddled policy vis-à-vis Syria, the Kurds and the ‘Islamic State’ writes Nathalie Tocci. Instead of trying to follow conflicting goals, Ankara must do what is in its national interest.

Türkei Syrien Konflikt Tayyip Erdogan

Nathalie Tocci is Deputy Director of the Italian Institute for International Affairs (IAI) and Special Advisor to the EU High Representative.

Turkey has three goals in Syria: eliminating Bashar al-Assad, weakening the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and defeating the ‘Islamic State' (IS). The snag is that these three goals are incompatible, at least in the short term.

If Turkey is serious in its opposition to the ‘Islamic State' as its role in the US-led anti-IS coalition would warrant, it cannot simultaneously counter the Syrian regime and the Kurdish movement.

The ‘moderate' Syrian opposition is hardly decisive. In Kobani, the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), the military arm of the PKK-affiliated Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), are key. Absent Western boots on the ground, the only way to defeat IS militarily lies precisely in the role played by the Kurds and Assad, unpalatable as this may be for Ankara.

Of Turkey's three foreign policy goals in Syria, only two are genuinely linked to Turkish national security interests.

Nathalie Tocci
Nathalie TocciImage: Nathalie Tocci

Fundamental threat

First, IS represents a fundamental threat to Turkey - a greater threat than the Turkish government cares to admit. That is not only because of the alleged presence of IS cells in Turkey, but also because of the latent support the group receives in pockets of Turkish society.

A recent survey revealed that only 1.3 percent of the Turkish public supports IS. But the government, heading into an election year in 2015, may feel that a proactive stance against the group could alienate a far larger segment of Islamist-leaning public opinion. And beyond short-term electoral gains, IS's Wahabism poses an existential threat to Turkey and to the ‘soft Islamism' implicitly espoused by the ruling AKP party.

Second, Turkey's courageous attempt at pursuing peace with the PKK has been put on life support since the beginning of the battle for Kobani. Protests in Turkey's southeast against what Kurdish citizens viewed as the government's tacit support for IS resulted in dozens of deaths and many more casualties.

Peace with the Kurds

Turkish military forces also bombed PKK targets in the southeast, in the first major military confrontation since the beginning of the peace process. Although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asserted his determination to pursue peace with PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, he also quixotically defined the PKK and the PYD as terrorist organisations to which Turkey would not bow.

Turkey feels in a bind. If IS wins in Kobani amidst Turkish passivity, the peace process could be irredeemably shelved. If the PYD prevails militarily, it may become difficult to secure the disarming of the PKK.

Turkey may have hoped for a standstill between IS and the Syrian Kurds, but with a growing public outcry both in Turkey and in the West, coupled with the US decision to support the Syrian Kurds through air strikes and drops of weapons and ammunition, Ankara's position became untenable. In response, Turkey half-heartedly opened its territory for the transit of weapons as well as Peshmerga forces.

Toppling Assad

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is Turkey's third problem. Beyond Kobani, IS cannot be defeated by the Kurds alone. While the media spotlight is on the beleaguered city, IS is making headway in a more important strategic stretch along the Euphrates River.

The hard truth in the battle against IS is that the Assad regime as well as Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq are essential ingredients of the fight.

Indeed an anti-IS coalition worthy of the name should have brought together regional and international adversaries spanning from Saudi Arabia and Iran to the US and Russia, mandated by a UN Security Council resolution. That it was not is largely due to the not-so-Cold War raging in the region and beyond. In particular, Saudi Arabia is trying to transform the anti-IS coalition into an implicit anti-Assad/Iran alliance.

The Saudi strategy is understandable. Far less comprehensible is why Turkey insists on toeing the same line. Ankara should neither be ideologically bent on countering Iran nor for that matter, Bashar al-Assad.

Wrong course

It has coexisted for centuries with the former, while it has taken issue with the latter only after the Syrian regime turned against its own people. Turkey rightly argues that IS cannot be defeated politically until the root causes of Sunni disenfranchisement are addressed. But the best cannot become an enemy of the good, and the bright new democratic future for Syria that many dreamed of in 2011 is not around the corner.

Turkish foreign policy was once characterised by caution and pragmatism – two key ingredients to navigate a complex neighborhood. Why has Turkey seemingly abandoned this course?

Approaching the Syrian regime and Iran with pragmatism does not mean hurrying into alliances with unpalatable partners, nor does it mean abandoning principles. Diversifying from Sunni-only alliances can represent value added in an increasingly sectarian Middle East.

Moreover, countering IS and pursuing Kurdish peace are highly principled goals. For Turkey they are the only ones which truly touch on the deepest national security interests of the country.

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