Turkey’s Syria policy was a total failure. Indeed, no foreign policy failure in Turkey’s history was so abrupt, so clear and so costly. Turkey tried to dominate Syria in the 2000s, tried to overthrow its regime in the 2010s, both its efforts were unsuccessful. Such an epic failure would have its serious consequences and Turkey is still trying to cope with the consequences of its ill-defined and over-ambitious Syria policy.
However, there are two aspects of the Syrian crisis that the Erdoğan government was capable of mitigating the adverse effects emanating from its failure. One is the fact that, though morally indefensible, Erdoğan had no qualms to use the Syrian refugees as a leverage to blackmail the EU. The other is the swift adaptation of Turkey’s security apparatus to the ongoing proxy war in Syria.
Turkey did not have previous experience in conducting proxy wars. The reason is that, under the confidence of its mighty armed forces, Turkey mostly relied on its regular army. Thus, Turkey was relatively quick to adapt to the realities on the ground and rather successful in forming an army from the diverse groups of Islamist fighters despite the fact that it had no history of resorting proxy wars.
Syria as the theatre of proxy war
Unfortunately, Syria has become one of the testing grounds of the evolving concepts of war-making with many outside powers rushed in. The U.S., with the longest history of resorting proxy war, experience and resources could comfortably involved in the Syrian war, using both radical Islamists and PYD as proxies. Iran, too, was deeply involved in the conflict, using its Quds forces and Hizbullah to keep Assad in power. It is still unclear the support provided to ISIS but it is likely that some Gulf countries might have supported them financially.
While the U.S. was coordinating its efforts with Turkey in providing training and equipping (through CIA) the anti-regime Islamist fighters, it was at the same time forming a fighting force with the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (through Pentagon).
Multiple uses of Turkey’s proxies
Turkey had somehow a peculiar place in at least three aspects: first, Turkey shared a long, even longest border with Syria. Secondly, it was Syria that employed a proxy war on Turkey for about two decades through the PKK. Third, Turkey was the only outside power that had fluctuating goals in Syria. Initially, Turkey supported, trained and helped the formation of an army dubbed Free Syrian Army (FSA). This “army” fought against three adversaries of Turkey: the Assad forces, ISIS and the YPG, Kurdish forces equipped and trained by the US. Although this army could not win a conflict against the Syrian Army, it was more efficient for other tasks assigned to it. Belatedly realizing that removing Assad from power is beyond its capacity, Turkey had to redefine its goals and redirect its efforts with an aim to prevent the formation of a Kurdish entity along its borders.
Turkey’s Three Operations
Turkey’s military incursions into Syria started with the Euphrates Shield operation in August 2016 and took almost six months to clear the area mostly from ISIS. This operation had significant consequences for Turkey: first, in terms of timing, the Euphrates Shield operation came one month after the failed coup attempt and it showed the strength of the Turkish military. Nearly one third of its generals and hundreds of its officers were under arrest at the time, the military proved that what is left of it was still a strong fighting force. Secondly, the operation boosted the declined morale of the military and the public. And thirdly, it became a learning experience both in the conduct of the operation and in post-operation process. Turkish operations in Afrin (January 2018) and in Tel Abyad (October 2019) were built on the experiences Turkey gathered in the previous operation.
Benefits and risks of proxies
Using proxies in general brings lots of benefits most of which is the protection of the lives of the regular service members. The dead toll in each operation reveals the imbalance in this sense. In the operation Euphrates Shield while Turkey lost 71 men, the FSA’s loss was nearly tenfold, a pattern continued in the next two operations. It should be noted that in the last operation Turkey’s loss declined almost tenfold. The members of the FSA which is renamed as Syrian National Army (SNA), had local knowledge, easily intermingle with the local people and was instrumental after the operation to maintain the stability. However, the way the FSA/SNA conducted its operations was controversial at least, sparking debates and allegations on war crimes and lootings. This may cause headache for the Turkish authorities in the future.
Turkey, surprisingly, employed the proxy war in Syria rather efficiently. The effective use of the FSA/SNA was also tremendously beneficial for the Erdoğan government itself. The FSA was critical in achieving the much needed military success for Erdoğan in the Syrian front which otherwise would take a longer time. And the Turkish Army’s losses could have been much higher which would put the government in a difficult position. That is why Erdoğan hailed the FSA/SNA on every occasion. From military perspective, Turkey emerged as an experienced power from the Syrian crisis which may be its sole console.