The costs of the Syrian crisis

Although heavy-handed crackdown on Kurdish politics that is still underway, Turkey can still turn this operation into an advantage to resume peace talks with its own Kurds.

Until the Syrian crisis, not a single foreign policy issue had such a profound impact on Turkish domestic politics, foreign and security policies. Since its inception, the Syrian crisis has come to dominate Turkey’s foreign policy in a way that left it in an isolated position internationally, tarnished its already problematic image, and with an enormous amount of costs. Turkey, a country of 82 million, a NATO member, and with the biggest and more developed economy than its neighbors have been struggling with a crisis and a security issue that it, intentionally or unintentionally, helped to escalate. And eventually, Turkey has become a hostage of a crisis that it could have avoided such as the previous crises and conflicts in this region. I will argue here that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s Syria policy had three inconsistent stages, all of which had serious adverse effects for Turkey, Syria and the region.

The liberal era

During the reformist period of the AKP governments, roughly between 2002-2011, Turkey’s Syria policy was to create a sphere of influence in the Middle East, using its soft power tools including diplomacy, growing trade and investment, popular Turkish TV series, and Syria has been the linchpin of this policy. As a result, both Erdoğan’s personal ties with Assad and Turkey's relations with Syria deepened. Visa requirements were abolished, joint cabinet meetings were held, and Turkish exports and investment to this country grew enormously. Moreover, Turkey tried to expand its economic domination to Jordan and Lebanon, signing multilateral trade agreements.  

The Neo-Ottomanist phase

However, after the outbreak of riots in March 2011, there was a euphoria among the Turkish Islamists, the most prominent of them being then Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who met Syrian official 62 times. For them with the coming to power of the Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt “Turkey’s hour has come”. With the secular autocrats fell, their places would be filled in by the various branches of the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey, under Erdoğan, would be the leader of an “Islamist belt” from Tunisia to Damascus. Turkey shifted its policy to oust Assad in order to replace his regime with Syrian members of the Muslim Brotherhood to which the AKP is ideologically closer. In this second phase, the overambitious policy of overthrowing a regime in a neighboring country not only deteriorated the situation on the ground but also had devastating effects on the Syrian peoples, led massive refugee flow to Turkey and made the country a strategic playground for external powers.

The nationalist phase

Failed to overthrow the Assad regime, the AKP government had to revise its Syria policy to prevent the formation of any type of Kurdish entity in Syria. In this, it had to resort to a nationalist discourse, arguing unrealistically that the PYD is building a state stretching from the Iraqi border with an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea, albeit the Kurds in Syria have a population of around two million and lack necessary resources for an independent state that is sustainable. The Erdoğan government also had domestic concerns in launching three successive military operations into Syria. For the time being, it helps to cement its alliance with the nationalist MHP party and also helps to divert the attention of the masses from growing economic slowdown. In any case, the positive effects of the nationalist fervor usually prevalent during the military operations dissipates over time. The newly formed nationalist-Islamist coalition led Turkey to engage deeply in the Syria front with no clear exit strategy with serious political, economic and humanitarian backlashes. 

Future implications

A decade ago the AKP governments and pro-AKP academics and journalists were boasting that Turkey had a visionary and multidimensional approach to foreign policy and it was a regional power which is developing ties with Latin America, Africa and East Asia.

However, at least for the last five years, Turkish foreign policy was stuck on one single issue, Syria and the PYD/SDF domination of the northern part of the country. Turkey channeled all of its energy almost solely on preventing a Kurdish autonomy in Syria. This possibility occupied a central place Turkey’s relations with the US, the EU, Russia, Iran and even Saudi Arabia.   

Turkey's growing military engagement is making things even more complicated. While Turkish decision-makers believe that to be on the ground militarily brings advantages diplomatically and strengthens Turkey's hand it also makes Turkey more vulnerable to both the U.S. and Russia. Because Turkey’s military operation is subject to their blessings, any incursion into Syria reveals Turkey’s weaknesses.

Turkey used proxies first time in its history, and this helped decrease the loss of manpower during the operations. Although inexperienced in using a proxy, Turkey could effective use the Free Syrian Army which renamed Syrian National Army (SNA) in its incursions. However, there is a growing outrage to the misdeeds of some members of this army, and it may cause some headache for Turkey in the years ahead.

Turkey is apparently planning to remain in the area it is currently controlling in northern Syria as long as possible, and it will bring another economic burden. Although the number of SNA members is not officially declared, they are estimated to be around 110 thousand, a number mentioned in the media that may be exaggerated. It may be interesting to note that during the sudden depreciation of the Turkish lira in August 2018, many SNA members protested against being paid in lira, and instead demanded their salaries be paid in dollars. Not only the payments, Turkey has engaged in infrastructure undertakings and other services that may be costly.

Since the outbreak of the violence in Syria, and the formation of the PYD authority, Turkey’s Kurdish problem has been strongly tied to the developments in this country. The scope of Turkey’s Kurdish question has widened and become more complicated.

A silver lining in the Kurdish Issue

Although heavy-handed crackdown on Kurdish politics that is still underway, Turkey can still turn this operation into an advantage to resume peace talks with its own Kurds. Iraqi Kurds’ attempt to declare independence in 2017 was suppressed with a united front that brought Turkey, Iraq and Iran to prevent it. And Turkey’s three military incursions had already weakened the status of the Kurds in Syria, their bargaining power with the Assad regime diminished considerably and their chances to form a “statelet” in northern Syria declined.

The Turkish security forces have for a long time engaged in a fierce attack on the PKK inside Turkey and in northern Iraq region through its Pençe operations. The pro-Erdoğan media outlets were so confident that recent incursion and the ensuing diplomatic initiatives were a victory for the government. This should also mean that that the terrorist threat which Turkey takes as an existential threat, has to a large extent been eliminated. Therefore, if the threat posed to Turkey from inside and across border have been largely eliminated, then the conditions are ripe for reopening a new reconciliation process. This may cost Erdoğan to terminate its alliance with the nationalist but he and his party already know that this alliance is working against the AKP, and any possible peace initiative may be a good excuse for a breakup.