Ankara’s position on Syria is far from healthy | Michael Jansen - GulfToday

Ankara’s position on Syria is far from healthy

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Members of Turkish human rights NGOs hold placards during a demonstration in Istanbul. AFP

Ankara’s policies on Syria over the past eight years have been disastrous for that country, the region and Turkey itself.  At every stage of the crisis that has enveloped Syria, Turkish Prime Minister/President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made bad decisions and he continues to do so. The consequences of his actions were both predictable and predicted by pundits.

During the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, Syria’s government cracked down on civilians who had taken to the street calling for reform and, later, for regime change. Erdogan responded by pressing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to end the one-party rule of the Baath party. Erdogan’s aim was to open Syria’s political system to multi-party participation. In particular, he sought to end the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood. Assad dismissed Erdogan’s proposal.

If Erdogan had refrained from intervening after this rebuff, Syria’s government would have quelled the protests and, perhaps, offered at that time the limited reforms which were eventually incorporated in the 2012 constitution.

There would have been no war, no mass deaths, no massive destruction, no exodus of Syrians into neighbouring countries, including Turkey. Erdogan was not the only foreign actor at fault but others would not have joined the ongoing struggle for Syria if he had remained aloof.

Ankara responded by holding a conference attended by Syrian dissidents in May 2011 with the aim of bringing about Assad’s downfall. In August, the Brotherhood-dominated opposition formed the Syrian National Council which, in November 2012, after infighting was quelled, became the Syrian National Coalition.

It always was and remains a body without support within Syria, beset by internal rivalries, and reliant on backing from Turkey and Saudi Arabia.  Assad remains in charge in Damascus  and currently rules 65 per cent of Syrian territory.

Meanwhile Turkish intelligence was training Syrian army defectors who in July formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which was based in Turkey’s south where it was provided with arms and equipment to mount attacks on Syrian troops and government facilities. The FSA never became an effective fighting force and was overtaken by religious radical factions.

Turkey funnelled into Syria thousands of Sunni foreign fighters from North Africa, Europe, the Muslim republics of the Russian Federation, China, and elsewhere and provided support to al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-al-Nusra (now Haya’t Tahrir al-Sham) and Daesh.  Fearing a take-over of Syria by these groups Lebanon’s Hizbollah and Shia fighters from Iraq intervened on the government’s side and, ultimately, drove the radicals from areas which they had seized.

Ankara courted Syria’s Kurds who had not turned against the government and then betrayed them by encouraging Daesh to attack the Kurdish town of Kobane in September-October 2014. This battle drew in the US on the side of the Kurds who were subsequently adopted by Washington after they repulsed Daesh. This was an own goal for Turkey as the Syrian Kurds are closely tied to Turkey’s separatist Kurds.

Thereafter the Syrian Kurds took control of a wide band of territory on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey and captured a large tract of territory in the north and east. This development was Erdogan’s nightmare, prompting him to threaten to invade and drive the Kurds from the border region which he calls a “terror corridor.” The US has, so far, prevented this from happening.

In March 2015, insurgents who received an injection of funds and arms from regional powers, fanned out across the country and swept into northwest Idlib province. Russia responded, belatedly, by basing war planes in the neighbouring Latakia province and providing air cover for Syrian army operations against insurgents, rolling them back around Damascus and in the south and east.

In the north, the Turkish army invaded and occupied enclaves of Syrian territory and the Kurdish district of Afrin and expelled more than half of its inhabitants, creating a bitter rift with the Syrian Kurds.

Idlib is now ruled by Tahrir al-Sham with Ankara’s backing.  However, Tahrir al-Sham is branded by the UN and the international as a “terrorist” organisation and cannot be allowed to remain in power indefinitely in a strategic province which borders on Turkey. The Syrian army with Russian support has been campaigning against Tahrir al-Sham and its allies with the aim of returning Idlib to Damascus’ rule.  There are thousands of radical fighters and three million civilians in Idlib who could flood into Turkey if the Syrian army and its allies mount a full-scale offensive.  This would be a disaster for Turkey.

Throughout this period more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees have settled in Turkey where, during the early days of the exodus, they were welcomed. Ergodan sought to naturalise professionals, businessmen and technicians to utilise their skills and ensure their loyalty when elections took place.  He considered the mass of Syrian workers and farmers a “bargaining chip” in a political process that never amounted to anything.

Syrians and other migrants are no longer welcome or wanted. The town of Killis just across the border from Syria has an 80 per cent Syrian majority while Syrians comprise 20-50 per cent in other southern towns and cities.  Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir are struggling to host Syrians who are resented by local Turks.  

Syrians registered elsewhere when they arrived but have moved to these three cities are being sent to refugee camps, places where they are registered, or across the border to Idlib or Turkish-occupied enclaves where they do not belong.

Syrians are no longer an asset but have become a burden at a time the Turkish economy is in crisis and Erdogan, feeling threatened, crushes all opposition.  

Unfortunately, he cannot change course now and remains trapped by Syria’s civil conflict and the proxy wars regional and international actors are waging in Syria.  His politico-military policies have been as devastating for Syria as the invasion and occupation of Iraq by former US President George W. Bush. When Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party — which is modelled on the Brotherhood — took power in 2002, Erdogan developed delusions of grandeur. He believed he could become the most powerful regional ruler and promote conservative practices, values and culture to non-Turkish peoples of this region.  He wrongly thought he could start this process in Syria and failed. The conflict in Syria is far from over and will continue to have negative impacts on Turkey.

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