Turkey’s U-turn(s) in Syria

The views expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SyriacPress.

By Marcus Yalcin Beth Shao

“War is the continuation of politics by other means.” — Carl von Clausewitz

Although policymakers in Ankara have genuine interests in Syria and see the ongoing fight as an exercise of geopolitics, the stakes are even higher for the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For Erdogan, Syria is about political survival, as it defines his endgame.

In the spring of 2011, when Syrians first took to the streets to protest against the rule of the Baath regime, the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) in Turkey had just turned to infighting and Erdogan was busy introducing religious content to the Turkish educational curriculum. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader Erdogan was riding a mixed wave of Islamic populism that seemed unoppable. Be that as it may, when Syrian refugees arrived in the tens of thousands on Turkish soil, Erdogan’s domestic plans were disturbed. Slowly but surely, when the numbers of Syrian refugees in Turkey increased by the hundreds of thousands, Ankara was drawn into the affairs of Damascus. By the time the numbers of Syrian refugees in Turkey reached 1 million, Erdogan’s attitude towards Assad changed dramatically. From the “golden period” at the beginning of the new millennium, where the two presidents and their wives celebrated a holiday together in Bodrum, to Erdogan’s ambition to consolidate his one-man rule at home.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife along with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife, 2009. (Image: Anadolu Agency)

Turkey supported Islamist insurgents against Damascus when doing so strengthened Erdogan’s religious credentials at home. The Turkish government began arming, training inside Turkey, and funding opposition forces who fought against the Assad regime. Soon enough, Turkey became a haven for the Syrian opposition as well as a conduit for foreign jihadists who wanted to make their way into Syria. In 2012, Erdogan famously declared: “Inshallah, we will go to Damascus soon to hug our brothers. That day is close. Inshallah, we will read al-Fatiha at the tomb of Salahuddin and pray at the Emevi mosque there.”

Turkey’s defense of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the tears of Recep Tayyip Erdogan when the Egyptian security forces ousted Egypt’s president Mohammed Morsi, proved Erdogan’s ties with the Muslim Brotherhood’s international organization and their mutual interest in restoring “the era of Islamic rule”, seen by the Brotherhood as the basis for protecting “the Islamic nation”.

When the jihadist forces such as the Sultan Murad Brigade, the Levant Front, and Jaysh al-Islam gained a foothold in Syria and Iraq, the flow of refugees into Turkey increased. Millions of Syrians fled to Turkey and Ankara was forced to establish and supply vast camps to host the new arrivals. The gesture was expensive but morally just, Erdogan argued—an act of Sunni compassion and solidarity in the face of the Assad regime’s atrocities. Erdogan convinced the Turkish public that accepting refugees was an act of morality, compassion, and solidarity. The narrative worked and political opposition to the influx of refugees remained mute. But since day one there was an inescapable truth to the equation: Turkey could not host the vast numbers of Syrian refugees indefinitely.

Turkish Elections and Their Consequences at Home

The 2014 Turkish presidential elections were a rude awakening for Erdogan. Although he managed to win at least 51 percent of the vote, enough to get reelected, he had lost the confidence of voters from Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast.

Map of the results of the 2014 Turkish presidential election.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and its leader Selahattin Demirtaş had chipped away a big chunk of Erdogan’s popular vote. A year later, Erdogan’s AKP lost its majority in the parliament for the first time in over a decade. Again, a loss that was brought about due to the success of the HDP which continued to win over Kurdish voters. Being a man of shrewd politics, Erdogan changed his strategy. While earlier he led peace talks to reconcile with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — which has been engaged in an armed conflict with the state since the 1980s — in order to appease Kurdish voters, after the HDP blowback, Erdogan struck a political alliance with Turkish ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to secure a majority rule.

MHP had only one demand: they strongly opposed reconciliation with the PKK. As Erdogan capitulated to the nationalist demand, years of peace talks with the PKK ended abruptly. The president’s policy of accommodation and reconciliation made a U-turn and was replaced with anti-Kurdish rhetoric and policies. The U-turn also reflected Ankara’s consistent refusal to conceptualize the Kurdish issue as one of a significant minority in search of greater collective rights.

In June, the AKP-led government continued its crackdown on HDP by stripping two MPs of their seats in parliament. This explains the recent accusations of sexual assault against the Syriac member of Turkish Parliament Tuma Celik (HDP). Çelik has been a vocal critic of Erdogan’s government and a staunch defender of Syriac rights in the country. This year alone, he has criticized the government’s handling of a missing/murdered Chaldean couple, the arrest of three Syriacs — including a monk — on charges of terrorism, has called for the recognition of Syriac Sayfo Genocide of 1915, and has pushed for Syriac schooling rights.

Turkish Elections and Their Consequences in Syria

Subsequently, Turkey’s objectives shifted according to the AKP’s alliance with the ultra-nationalist MHP. Instead of regime change in Damascus, priority was now given to deny the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has links to the PKK, from establishing an autonomous region in northeastern Syria.

Syria’s battlespace in October 2020. (Image: Liveuamap)

Erdogan shifted militants from Aleppo, Hama, Homs, and Idlib in west and northwest Syria to attack the YPG in the northeast instead. When Russia intervened militarily in the Syrian conflict on behalf of the Assad regime, the balance of power shifted towards Damascus. In 2016, when the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) retook the city of Aleppo and other major cities, Erdogan had redirected the Syrian rebel forces to the YPG frontlines. It was a striking change of policy. So much so that by 2017, Erdogan was back to working with Russia, Iran, and, indirectly, the Assad regime to create a new balance of power in Syria, one that excluded the YPG. The Astana peace talks established several de-escalation zones where all belligerents would abide by a local ceasefire.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan together with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rohani in Astana, Kazakhstan.

However, in practice, Assad — with the blessing and backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin — has frequently violated the truce and made small but numerous military gains. Meanwhile, Turkey launched its own military invasion into the YPG-controlled Afrin area while the Russia, Assad, and Iranian blocked reinforcement and resupply. Erdogan’s Syrian policy wasn’t the only thing that changed according to the political landscape. In the 2019 Turkish municipal elections, the AKP lost control of the major cities Ankara and Istanbul. Two decades ago, Erdogan had acted as the mayor of Istanbul, now he could not even master the popular vote over the city he once governed. The 2019 Turkish municipal elections were a significant setback to Erdogan and perhaps the weakest point in his political career in over 25 years.

Part of the AKP’s failure was rooted in the Turkish Lira’s currency crisis, brought about by bad loans and Erdogan intransigence on fiscal policy, and the growing public discontent with the presence of 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Being pious and acting with a moral compass is easier in times of financial and economic abundance. But when faced with an economic crisis, people tend to blame the unfamiliar for their problems.

Erdogan’s Nationalist Credentials

Turkey’s open border policy towards Syrian refugees was always meant to be a temporary resolution. The currency crisis however had depleted the public’s patience. Erdogan, being the shrewd politician that he is, adjusted accordingly. To regain public trust and convince future voters, he altered Turkey’s refugee policy. Turkish security agencies set up a hotline to gather information on illegal immigrants, while law enforcement services stepped up house searches and the detention of Syrian refugees with the goal of relocating them out of major cities.

Much like his U-turn on Kurdish policy, Erdogan’s agenda shifted according to the new political tides. Once the self-proclaimed magnanimous patron of all Sunnis, Erdogan now portrays himself as a nationalist and wants the refugees to go home. The trouble — and this is something they learned in Europe as well — is that refugees have rights according to international law. One cannot merely resettle millions back into a warzone, but Erdogan thinks otherwise. The Turkish solution for this Turkish created problem is to carve out a large enough “safe zone” along the Syrian–Turkish border to resettle millions of Syrians.

Turkey’s proposed “safe zone”. (Image: CNN)

His plan would send millions of Arab Syrian refugees into Syriac, Arab, and Kurdish-majority areas inside Syria — not incidentally, from Erdogan’s point of view, changing the ethnic makeup of the region in an attempt to undermine the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). Doing so would increase ethnic tensions, fuel conflict in a region that had been relatively stable in the Syrian civil war, and cause mass displacement in those areas.

The envisioned ‘’safe zone’’ would sit east of the Euphrates River and measure a length of about 480 kilometers and a depth of 32 kilometers — an area large enough to host at least 2 million refugees and thereby rid Erdogan of a political liability which the Syrian refugees have become for him. The Turkish plan includes the construction of 200,000 homes, as well as institutions for security, education, healthcare, and religion according to Turkish structures. This indicates that Turkey plans to stay in these regions. According to Turkish officials, the project would be internationally funded but would be licensed to Turkish firms which would provide the Turkish GDP growth rate with some serious percentage points. The initial plan kills two birds with one stone: it resettles the Syrian refugee while reanimating the economy.

The AKP hopes this will win back the popular vote. In a Turkey that is cash-strapped and where anti-Arab sentiment is rising, the AKP-led government is feeling the pressure to illustrate to the Turkish public that it is not prioritizing foreign refugees over its own citizens. Thus, despite its flaws and despite lack of funding, the Erdogan is pushing the agenda regardless. The irony is that Washington and Brussels are now criticizing Ankara’s harsh attitude towards Syrian refugees while they themselves have essentially locked their borders. Erdogan, who is increasingly isolated by his former allies, has been left to deal with the refugee dilemma on his own. In response to this ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ narrative, the Turkish president stated that he would open the gates and ignite a new refugee crisis in Europe if no aid is given to Turkey and if Europe labels the Turkish incursion as an invasion. The tense political standoff illustrates just how far relations have depreciated.

All in all, Turkey’s endgame in Syria has shifted over the years according to the domestic political needs of the AKP-led government. From bolstering religious credentials at home to advocating for the overthrow of the Assad regime to denying AANES a seat at Syrian peace negotiations and resettling millions of non-native Arab refugees in northeastern Syria. Erdogan’s rule is at stake, and that is all that matters to him — even if it means economic penalties for his country and yet more chaos and suffering for Syria. Turkish involvement in Syria is perhaps a textbook case of how war and politics complement one another.