The Many Roles of Turkey in the Syrian Crisis

by Aslı Ilgıt , Rochelle Davis | published January 28, 2013

For more on ties between Kurds in Syria and Turkey, see Denise Natali, “Syrian Kurdish Cards,” Middle East Report Online, March 20, 2012.

For background on water issues, see Hilal Elver, “Turkey’s Rivers of Dispute,” Middle East Report 254 (Spring 2010).

On October 4, 2012, the Turkish Grand National Assembly approved a motion, by a vote of 320 to 129, authorizing deployment of the armed forces in “foreign countries,” essentially where and when the government saw fit. It was an expansive, vague-sounding mandate, but in fact there was only one target: Syria.

What precipitated the motion was an incident in the town of Akçakale on the Syrian border earlier that month, in which mortar shells killed five Turkish citizens. Initial reports about the source of the attack were conflicting, but Turkey immediately blamed “the military campaign waged by the Syrian Arab Republic’s armed forces…against the nation’s territories.” The prime minister’s office dated this “campaign” to the September 20 clashes at another border post. But the October parliamentary vote was only a step in a “militarization” of Turkish policy toward Syria that had been building for months. In June, after Syria shot down a Turkish fighter jet, killing the two pilots, Turkey changed the rules of engagement on its southern frontier: Any “military asset” approaching from Syria would be considered a threat. Since then, the Turkish military has been directing personnel and equipment to the 545-mile border with Syria. By the end of January, the Turkish troops are to be reinforced by six batteries of Patriot air defense missiles, and their US, German and Dutch crews, sent under the auspices of NATO.

Yet it is not just security concerns that have shaped Turkey’s approach to the Syrian crisis. Turkey has assumed a number of roles -- from attempting mediation to hosting refugees to sheltering armed opposition groups. This multi-faceted engagement is part of Turkey’s overall effort to position itself as a major player on both the regional and global stage.

There has been a public outcry in Turkey about both the Syrian war’s spillover and the Turkish government’s response. Many secular Turks saw the October motion for the deployment of armed forces as emblematic of a growing desire on the part of the governing party -- the Justice and Development Party (AKP) -- to assume a leading role in the Muslim world. The feeling was that the broad war powers would draw Turkey into a battle that is not its own, empowering the AKP in the process. Critics argued that the AKP’s policy toward Syria has made Turkey a party to the conflict, undermining Turkey’s principle of non-interference in neighbors’ domestic affairs and eroding its credibility as an impartial mediator. More cynical commentators also said that the Turkish government wants to position itself as the seat of a “new caliphate” in the region.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Turkey will be able to assume a greater leadership role in the region. It is likewise uncertain if the open support for the Syrian opposition, and in particular the Society of Muslim Brothers, will be understood as compromising Turkey’s position. What becomes of Turkey in this regard will be a direct result of what happens in Syria when the regime headed by President Bashar al-Asad falls. Until that time, Turkey seems intent upon playing several different roles in the conflict and staying on the good side of the United States, the European Union, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Nations and the Syrian opposition.

Syrian-Turkish Relations

Syria and Turkey have had an uneasy relationship since the end of World War I, when both states were carved out of the Ottoman Empire. Until the 1990s, three contentious issues dominated the relationship: Syria’s claims to Hatay/Iskenderun, a province in southern Turkey with numerous Arabic-speaking inhabitants; disputes over the waters of the Euphrates and Orontes Rivers, both of which flow through each country; and Syria’s support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, the Kurdish nationalist organization that Ankara and its allies have long considered a terrorist group. In 1998, tensions heightened to the point that Turkey threatened military action. Soon thereafter, Syria decided to expel PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, whom it had been harboring, and to cease all support for his organization. The 1998 Adana Agreement paved the way as well for cooperation in economic, political, security and cultural domains.

The ensuing decade witnessed a “normalization” of relations that turned into what some observers referred to as a “model partnership in the Middle East.” [1] With Bashar al-Asad succeeding his father in Damascus and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP taking the reins of government in Ankara, there were more and more official delegations. The exchanges at various levels eventually led to a Joint Political Declaration and the establishment of a High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council, both concluded during President Asad’s visit to Turkey in 2009. At various Cooperation Council meetings, the two countries signed more than 60 agreements and memoranda of understanding covering questions of politics, security, commerce, culture, health, agriculture, environment, transportation, education and water. The 2007 Free Trade Agreement and the 2009 Visa Exemption Agreement further strengthened Syrian-Turkish ties. Trade volume rose from $796 million in 2006 to $2.5 billion in 2010, while tourist visits doubled.

The thriving bilateral relations also generated joint diplomatic initiatives in the region. In 2007, Turkey began playing middleman between Syria and Israel in indirect negotiations aimed at bringing about Israeli evacuation of the occupied Golan Heights. The talks were suspended due to the resignation of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in September 2008 and, two months later, Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip. In June 2010, Turkey and Syria, along with Jordan and Lebanon, established the Quadripartite High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council to create a zone of free movement of goods and persons.

The warmth between the two countries was due partly to the conviviality between Asad and Erdoğan. “We have always said that there should be no problems between brothers,” Erdoğan asserted on February 6, 2011, as the two laid the foundation stone for a joint “friendship dam” on the Orontes. The statement evoked a favorite phrase of Erdoğan’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who before entering government service had written a book saying that Turkey should have “zero problems with our neighbors.” A little more than a month later, however, major problems began to arise with Asad, the neighbor to the south.

Special Relationship

The ongoing crisis in Syria began with peaceful demonstrations calling for the release of political prisoners. By the middle of March 2011, it was an uprising: Ordinary Syrians were regularly in the streets demanding democratic reforms, the lifting of emergency laws in place since 1963 and multi-party elections. Some protesters emulated their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt by calling as well for the fall of the Asad regime.

The Syrian regime responded as it had to past unrest, with employment of paid informers, public beatings of protesters by plainclothes forces, widespread arrests of young and old, brutal interrogations and torture, and the use of live ammunition and snipers. There was talk as well of concessions, such as holding talks to “set a framework for dialogue,” but all while the violent crackdown proceeded. An army assault on the southern city of Dar‘a in April prompted more than 300 members of the ruling Baath Party to resign. By June, it was estimated that 1,400 people had been killed and over 10,000 arrested.

In these early months of the crisis, Turkey was actively involved in “back-door diplomacy” aimed at persuading the Syrian regime to implement “shock therapy” reforms, including lifting emergency laws, releasing political prisoners, and allowing political parties to form and operate freely. The Turkish government seemed to believe that its special relationship with Damascus could bring about these measures and thus broker an end to the Syrian strife. By June 2011 Asad verbally accepted the proposed reforms, even allowing for the return of the Muslim Brothers, although explicitly without the right to form a political party. [2] The Brothers had been driven out of Syria or deep underground by severe state repression in the mid-1980s. At this point, they were a dominant force in the exiled opposition and one that was insisting that Asad abdicate. Erdoğan’s sympathy for the Muslim Brothers came through clearly in his reported proposal to Asad that a new Syrian cabinet be formed with Muslim Brothers in a quarter or even a third of the seats. Asad reportedly rejected this proposal, though Turkish officials did not confirm they had floated it after it appeared in the press.

The “back-door diplomacy” proceeded for some time, even as Turkey became the locus of action on two other fronts.

Refugee Host

Already in April 2011, there were hints of a second important role for Turkey in the Syrian crisis: refugee host and humanitarian aid provider. At the close of that month, around 250 Syrian villagers crossed into the Hatay region of Turkey. Foreign Minister Davutoğlu ordered an emergency meeting, announcing Turkey’s readiness to take in Syrians “who are not happy at their homes.” Another group of at least 10,000 refugees arrived in June following violence in the small town of Jisr al-Shughur. Most reports suggest that defecting soldiers killed some 120 police officers, after which the majority of the residents fled out of fear of regime retaliation. Later, Syrians began fleeing due to general insecurity, hunger or need for medical attention. In many places, particularly the Hatay area, family and trade ties cross the border, and so people on the Turkish side opened their houses to the initial group of displaced, collecting money for them as well. Public hospitals treated the displaced for free.

By the terms of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, to which Turkey is a signatory, the Turkish state grants refugee status (and the right to asylum) only to “persons who have become refugees as a result of events occurring in Europe.” Officially, Syrians in Turkey are recognized not as refugees but as “guests.” Nonetheless, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Turkish state “has declared a temporary protection regime for Syrians. The core elements include: i) an open border policy with admission to the territory for those seeking protection; ii) protection against forcible returns (non-refoulement); and iii) access to basic registration arrangements, where immediate needs are addressed.” In addition, the prime minister’s Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate and the Turkish Red Crescent have provided tents or containers as living spaces, meals and sometimes cash assistance, as well as education, religious and communication services.

Throughout the summer of 2011, Syrians moved back and forth across the border. Based on the number of entries and returns, it seems that Syrians came to Turkey for safety when their villages or cities were under attack or they needed urgent medical care, and then returned home when the danger had abated. The same pattern obtained among Syrians moving back and forth to Lebanon, also in numbers close to 10,000.

In early September, however, Turkey began setting up six refugee camps for the more than 7,000 Syrians there. By the end of 2011, Turkey was the largest host of Syrian refugees, but the movement across borders kept the total numbers fairly stable. In the first months of 2012, refugees continued to trickle across the borders with Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. All of these states kept their borders open, although Turkey and Lebanon had periodic closures, and Iraq began to receive refugees in March. Other countries -- Armenia, Egypt and Libya, among others -- also began to take in people displaced from their homes. March and April marked a particularly severe exodus, following a number of Syrian regime offensives, and in mid-April Turkey recorded over 23,000 refugees. The flood began in the summer of 2012, when thousands of displaced Syrians crossed the borders daily, reaching a total of more than 675,000 at the beginning of 2013. The numbers of Syrians in both Lebanon and Jordan have now surpassed the number in Turkey, although each are at more than 200,000 refugees in the country, both registered and awaiting registration. An estimated 2.5 million more are displaced inside Syria, together with the refugees making up some 15 percent of the population.

At present, Turkey hosts (and largely funds) 15 refugee camps -- 13 tent cities and two container sites -- in seven border provinces, with refugees numbering 154,705, although this number does not include those with Syrian passports who can enter the country without a visa and stay for up to three months (this number was estimated at around 60,000). In November 2012, the Turkish Interior Ministry enacted a law allowing those with Syrian passports to extend their stay for up to one year. The Turkish finance minister declared, in answer to a question in Parliament, that the government had spent 533 million lira ($300 million) upon the needs of Syrian refugees through 2012. [3]

Despite the shows of official support for the refugees, the state has concerns -- and not just about the sheer numbers. In March 2012, Erdoğan appealed to the UN to establish a “safe haven” inside Syria for Syrians facing “humanitarian disaster.” Turkey repeated the request in August as the number of refugees approached 100,000. It recalled Turkey’s push for a safe haven in northern Iraq following the 1991 Gulf war, when 400,000 Iraqi Kurds had crossed the mountains into Turkey. Then, with US backing, the UN mounted Operation Provide Comfort to relocate the Kurds into a zone of northern Iraq and protect them there. Turkey’s burden was reduced, but many in Turkey felt the price was high: The safe havens in northern Iraq soon played host to PKK training camps.

There are similar worries now about the Syrian Kurds. Over the summer and fall of 2012, there was an increase in attacks attributed to the PKK in Turkey, prompting fears that the PKK was exploiting the instability on the Syrian-Turkish border to infiltrate arms and fighters. The Turkish government accused the Asad regime of playing the “Kurdish card” with its withdrawal from the Kurdish areas of Syria that summer. At that point in the war, the Syrian army may have had little choice but to abandon these peripheral areas, but the Turkish government saw the move as deliberate, a means of allowing Kurdish arms and fighters to enter Turkey. Since then, however, the situation has become murkier. The Syrian Kurds themselves are divided, and non-Kurdish forces in the Syrian opposition have accused the PKK and its Syrian affiliate of hindering the fight against the regime in Damascus. In January, two jihadi opposition groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ghuraba’ al-Sham, allegedly crossed from Turkey to engage Kurdish forces in and around the border town of Ra’s al-‘Ayn. This incident in turn brought speculation that Turkey is sponsoring the jihadis to fight its own battle with the Kurds. The vast majority of Syrian refugees from Kurdish areas seem to have fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, which is hosting 77,000 Syrians as of late January.

There is also growing tension between the refugees (and Syrians in general) and the Turkish population, especially in cities where camps are located. Locals are suspicious of the numerous “Islamist-looking” refugees “with long beards” who seemingly travel independently outside the camps, get free treatment at hospitals and even find temporary jobs at shops and farms. These refugees are making what is seen as “unfair money,” for example by selling their European-brand cars in Antakya without any tax obligations. Heads of local chapters of opposition parties questioned these “privileges” granted to people who “couldn’t even defend their own countries.” They brought the unease of the locals to the government’s attention, albeit to no avail. [4] Many Turks have started to believe that not all Syrian refugees are innocent civilians. Rumors abound of Turkey providing safe haven to armed rebel groups as well as foreign spies (visible in official-looking cars with foreign plates and ambulances said to be carrying people and weapons in and out of Syria). According to a CNN Türk report, foreigners spotted in border cities include French, Canadians, Americans, Britons and Arabs, including some with North African accents who are believed to be Islamist militants “transferred” from Libya.

Fueling the tension was the AKP government’s refusal in August 2012 to allow members of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party or CHP, to visit an Antakya/Hatay refugee camp called Apaydın. The CHP suspected Apaydın of being a base for defectors from the Syrian army and other armed rebels. The AKP government rejected the allegation that the camp was being used to train rebel forces, but did later admit that hundreds of high-ranking Syrian army officers and their families were living there. With criticism mounting, the government had no choice but to open Apaydın in September to visits from Parliament’s Human Rights Commission, though the timing and the individual permits had to be cleared with the Foreign Ministry. The visiting parliamentarians found no weapons, but of course camp officials may have used the time lag to remove evidence of military training.

Opposition Haven

For the first few months of the Syrian uprising, Turkey was anxious to keep its special relationship with the Syrian regime and thus careful not to align itself openly with the regime’s opponents. But Turkey was clearly beginning to rethink this calculus by the summer of 2011. In August, after Syrian army assaults upon Hama and Latakia in which scores of civilians were killed, Davutoğlu held a six-hour meeting with Asad. At this last high-level meeting between the two countries, the Turkish foreign minister warned the Syrian president that Turkey would cease its attempts to facilitate dialogue if killings of civilians did not stop immediately.

Syrian opposition groups had started to gather in Istanbul the preceding June, mainly under the auspices of Turkish NGOs such as Mazlum-Der, but with the approval of the Turkish government. The attendees at these conferences, with titles such as “Change for Syria” and “National Freedom Conference,” were not interested in dialogue with the regime in Damascus. Rather, they had formed to demand that President Asad and his confreres step down as a prelude to discussions about a new Syria. The Syrian National Council (SNC) formed in Istanbul in August, and for the next 16 months sought to be the main political address for the opposition.

Quietly, as well, Turkey opened its borders to armed rebel groups. In late July 2011, Syrian army defectors led by former air force colonel Riyad al-As‘ad fled to Turkey, where they set up the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA, its founders said, would “work hand in hand with the people to achieve freedom and dignity and topple the regime.” Linked to the SNC, the FSA also presented itself as an umbrella organization and vigorously opposed the idea of a bargain with the Asad regime. In reality, it was one group among the many that made up the rebel side in Syria’s civil war.

By September, Ankara had decided to terminate all contact with the Syrian regime and impose an arms embargo on its neighbor to the south. During a three-day tour of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, Prime Minister Erdoğan predicted that “Bashar” (as he was now calling him) would pay a steep price for his regime’s repression. “The time of autocracies is over,” he said. “Totalitarian regimes are disappearing. The rule of the people is coming.” [5] Asad retorted in a November 9 interview with the satellite TV channel Russia Today, saying of Erdoğan: “He personally thinks that he is the new Ottoman sultan and can control the region as during the Ottoman Empire under a new umbrella. In his heart, he thinks he is a caliph.” The mutual name-calling signaled the definitive end of the special relationship between the two leaders and their countries. In November, Turkey recognized the SNC as the official representative of the Syrian opposition.

The International Front

Not surprisingly, Erdoğan’s stern words to the Syrian president coincided in time with Washington’s first references to a “Syria without Asad.” Together with the European Union, the US had begun pushing for sanctions on the Syrian regime at the UN Security Council in the midsummer of 2011. The US also froze the Syrian assets under its jurisdiction.

The Arab League’s position was also toughening: On August 7, 2011, it took the unprecedented step of condemning the Syrian regime’s actions. In November, the League voted to suspend Syria’s membership after it failed to implement an agreement to withdraw forces from cities and end army attacks on civilians. Subsequently, the Arab League put forward a peace plan -- monitors on the ground, troops removed from major towns, freedom for political prisoners and talks with the opposition -- but discontinued its mission in late January 2012 as the violence on the ground continued unabated.

The UN General Assembly has also censured Syria, but the Security Council has yet to reach a common position. Russia and China vetoed an October 2011 resolution to condemn the “grave and systematic human rights violations in Syria” and a February 2012 resolution to endorse a new Arab League peace plan. The most serious UN peace initiative to date was launched in February 2012 and spearheaded by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan. This six-point proposal, supported by Turkey, included a ceasefire and a UN Supervision Mission to be established in Syria in April. The Asad regime said it accepted the proposal, but the UN mission ended in short order when there was no ceasefire and no dialogue between the regime and the rebels. Annan resigned in August and was replaced as UN special envoy to Syria by Lakhdar Brahimi.

As the Annan mission proceeded, in any case, France had undertaken another initiative outside the UN framework. The initiative, called the Friends of Syria, brought together more than 80 countries (including Turkey and excluding, significantly, Russia, China and Iran) to increase the pressure on Asad. At its second meeting, in April 2012 in Istanbul, the group signed the Istanbul Declaration, urging Asad to carry out UN and Arab League-backed reforms and, more importantly, recognizing the SNC as a “legitimate representative of all Syrians” and an “umbrella organization” for the Syrian opposition. The Friends of Syria, however, were aware of the SNC’s shortcomings -- among them, the over-representation of the Muslim Brothers in the leadership.

In November 2012, at the urging of the Friends of Syria and the Arab League, both the SNC and the FSA joined a new and supposedly unified opposition leadership body called the Syrian National Coalition, based in Cairo. France, Turkey and the Gulf states immediately recognized this Coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The US followed suit soon thereafter. One month later, more than 550 rebel commanders attended a meeting in Antalya, Turkey to form a Supreme Military Council tied to the Coalition. The problems with representativeness remain, however: Roughly two thirds of this body is reported to be composed of Muslim Brothers and salafis.

A New Phase

Though Bashar al-Asad and his inner circle remain in power in Syria, and no end to the civil war is yet in sight, the issue of Syria on the regional and international levels has entered a post-Asad phase. Explanations as to what Turkey is hoping to achieve with its involvement vary depending on who is doing the explaining. Critics of the AKP and Erdoğan see the Syrian file as part of the prime minister’s grandiose dreams of regional leadership. Others see Turkey expressing a new confidence after ten years of strong economic growth and a solicitousness of its future commercial ties to Syria. Syria was Turkey’s third-largest trading partner in 2010, such analysts point out, suggesting that Turkey is therefore better off being closely involved in shaping the outcome of the conflict than sitting on the sidelines. [6]

Turkey’s relations with other countries in the area also affect its Syria policy. The strained relations between Turkey and Iraq are a result of Turkey’s seeming rapprochement with the autonomous Kurdish authority in the north, especially with regard to energy, in the face of strong opposition from Baghdad. Turkey also hosts Tariq al-Hashimi, the former Iraqi vice president, refusing to hand him over after he was sentenced to die in Iraq for alleged involvement with sectarian death squads. Given Iranian interests in Iraq, it is not surprising that Turkey’s actions are perceived as threatening in Tehran. The rising economic power of Turkey allows it to compete with Iran (and Russia) for regional influence, and obviously Europe and the US would prefer Turkish hegemony to Iranian. But Western support is not the AKP’s biggest concern. They are more interested in being a role model for the Middle East and being the voice of the Muslim world. They are developing their own concept of “strategic depth,” one which includes “zero problems with neighbors” and “rhythmic diplomacy,” attempting to reposition Turkey from the periphery of international actors to the center.

Whatever the end, Turkey continues to play multiple roles in the unfolding Syrian conflict.

First, Turkey’s mediation efforts continue, no longer aiming to broker peace between Asad and the opposition, but to swing Russia and Iran, Asad’s main international supporters, behind a vision for post-Asad Syria. In October 2012, with Egypt and Iran, Turkey proposed that Asad step down to make way for a transitional government headed by Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Shara‘. Asad rejected the idea outright, and al-Shara‘ also declared himself uninterested. In December, Turkey suggested that Asad be replaced by “elements” from the Syrian National Coalition in the first three months of 2013. This proposal is reportedly under discussion by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the US and the UN. On a December visit to Turkey, Russian President Vladimir Putin called it a “creative formula.” [7]

Second, though Turkey has taken on sole responsibility for the Syrian refugees within its borders, as the conflict dragged on, the government has sought help from international organizations and other countries. The openness to outside assistance has taken the place of the hope that the UN would sponsor safe havens in Syria. The director of USAID, during a November 2012 visit to Turkey, announced a $3.9 million program to subsidize food purchases -- by way of e-vouchers redeemable in camp shops -- to 100,000 Syrian refugees by the summer of 2013. The program is similar to the World Food Program’s Food E-Card system that, in partnership with the Turkish Red Crescent, provides food assistance to Syrian families in five camps. In addition, the UN Population Fund is preparing “family hygiene packages” to be distributed by the Turkish Red Crescent to 20,000 Syrian refugee families and the Saudi Relief Communities and Campaigns is erecting a 10,000-person container city in Kilis. The prime minister’s Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate is coordinating all the aid coming from abroad, which continues to grow along with the number of refugees.

Third, though Turkey no longer hosts the opposition, it is still a key supporter. Speaking in Doha, Qatar when the National Coalition was formed, Davutoğlu declared: “All those who support the rightful struggle of the Syrian people should declare clear support for this agreement and be more active.” [8] His strong endorsement again raises the question of whether the AKP leadership, in light of its many personal and business ties to Syria’s Muslim Brothers, has a special interest in seeing the Islamists among the Syrian opposition come to power.

Turkey’s intervention on all these fronts has been crucial to the survival of those fleeing the regime in Damascus and the build-up of military and political opposition to it. As Turkey takes on a greater role in international mediation, the behind-the-scenes politics it has been playing with the opposition may be significant in determining who ascends to the top of post-Asad Syria.

Endnotes

[1] Gamze Coşkun, “Ortadoğu’da Model Ortaklık: Türkiye-Suriye İlışkileri” [The Model Partnership in the Middle East: Turkey-Syria Relations], USAK Stratejik Gündem, February 10, 2011. Also see Hürriyet Daily News, January 2, 2011.
[2] Today’s Zaman, September 29, 2011.
[3] World Bulletin, January 27, 2013.
[4] See, for example, Hatay Haber, December 4, 2012. [Turkish]
[5] Today’s Zaman, September 16, 2011.
[6] Joshua Walker, “Turkey’s Time in Syria: Future Scenarios,” Crown Center for Middle East Studies (Brandeis University) Middle East Brief 63 (May 2012).
[7] Radikal, December 17, 2012. [Turkish]
[8] Sabah, November 12, 2012.

Image: Poster in Istanbul reads: “Winter is coming. Bread and blankets for Syria.” The poster is part of a campaign sponsored by the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, a Turkish NGO. (N. D. Griffin)

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