In this Q and A, Hugh Pope, deputy director of Crisis Group’s Europe and Central Asia Program, discusses Turkey’s latest change in policy towards Syria, Iraq and the coalition against Islamic State.
Does the parliamentary resolution accepted on 2 October 2014 – authorising Turkish troops to be deployed over the border and foreign armed forces to be based in Turkey – mean that Turkey is going to war in Syria or Iraq?
No cross-border action is likely, at least not yet. There is confusion in the Turkish capital as the government feels its way toward the safest of several dangerous courses. One Turkish newspaper splashed a headline this week about how, if necessary, “We’ll Go in Alone”. A few dozen Turkish tanks have been sent to the border and several thousand troops moved up in reserve. But Turkey is only inching toward direct action. Turkey’s defence minister says the government has no immediate plan to use the new authority to send troops abroad or accept foreign troops in order “to counter any possible attack on our country from all terrorist organisations in Iraq and Syria”. Instead, the main purpose appears to be to deter Islamic State jihadis from taking on Turkey, and perhaps to signal both determination and impatience to Turkey’s Western allies.
Any later invasion or sustained occupation of northern Syria also looks highly unlikely. Turkey does not have the Arabic speakers, administrative capacity or military experience to take direct control of Syrian territory for long. Such a move would also be unpopular domestically. In the past, Turkey has made similar threatening troop deployments up to its border – for instance, in 1998 it warned Damascus of war over Syria’s support for the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – but it has always been cautious. Cross-border operations against the PKK in the 1990s into Iraq were, theoretically at least, temporary hot pursuits done with the approval of the Baghdad government, or with some level of cooperation with Iraqi Kurds.
Another reason for caution is possible blowback if Turkey goes too far. Many Turkish officials believe IS ultimately serves Damascus’s interests and therefore they will only act against it as part of an overall attempt to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power. The Syrian regime could respond with missiles. Turkey is a NATO member with three batteries of Patriot missiles from the U.S., Germany and the Netherlands already stationed on its border, but these cannot provide blanket protection for all towns. On the other hand, Islamic State sympathisers or sleeper cells might attack Turkey’s tourism industry, which powers one tenth of the country’s economy.
Why is Turkey pushing for a no-fly zone and a buffer zone?
A Turkish official, briefing Crisis Group, suggested that Ankara’s sole intention would be to defend its border. Any action over the border would only be to create secure pockets to protect Turkey. Two Turkish soldiers have been killed this year in clashes with armed groups trying to cross, IS flags are flying right next to Turkish border posts, and there is concern that IS elements are infiltrating border towns that are overflowing with refugees.
As for a no-fly zone, Turkey has already warned Syrian aircraft not to fly closer than a few kilometers from the border. Turkey would have difficulty operating a larger no-fly zone on its own. Officials say they would like to see their allies set one up similar to the no-fly zone in Iraq in the 1990s, which ran deep into Iraqi territory along a certain parallel of latitude.
However, no other country is likely to support either a no-fly zone or buffer zone without a UN Security Council resolution, which is currently unthinkable given the opposition of Russia to any such idea. It could be done by a strong coalition of the willing, but diplomats in Ankara say this is also currently unlikely. Turkey has to act with caution, since it is a NATO member. NATO has said that any attack on Turkey would trigger NATO defence under Chapter V, but a unilateral Turkish cross-border action would be quite different.
If Turkey is not likely to act, why has this debate flared up now?
The Turkish parliament’s 2 October resolution to allow the government to send forces to Syria or Iraq marks the seventh time such a resolution has been renewed. But this iteration is more comprehensive than usual and a number of high-voltage lines of political tension have converged on policymakers in the past week. Above all, Ankara is becoming worried about how the ethnic and Shia-Sunni conflicts of the Middle East are cracking open the same fault-lines in Turkey’s own society.
Domestically, attack and counter-attack around the Syrian town of Kobane/Ain al-Arab has played out in front of television cameras lined up on Turkey’s border, putting the issue front and centre in Turkish media. It has triggered an influx of up to 130,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees in just one weekend in September, inflaming opinion among Turkey’s Kurds, who account for 15 per cent of the population of 77 million people. Kurdish politicians are demanding that Turkey back the Syrian Kurdish PYD militia that is fighting for its life in Kobane. However, that is no easy decision for Turkey, since that militia is umbilically linked to PKK insurgents who, despite an ongoing peace process, are the country’s biggest domestic security threat.
At the same time, a significant part of the Turkish public believes the Sunnis of Syria and the Middle East are fellow victims of injustice and that, even if IS tactics are repugnant, IS represents a legitimate Sunni grievance. Although some public polls show most Turks see IS as a threat, a Turkish official told Crisis Group internal government polling showed more sympathy for IS in the Sunni constituency of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). This makes it hard for a Turkish government to directly attack IS. In a way, Turkey’s staunchly Sunni political leadership and its more liberal model of government are even competing with the extremist Sunnism of IS. One government minister told Crisis Group that Ankara hopes to find ways to split extremists off from other Sunni forces fighting under the IS umbrella.
Regionally, Turkey is also conflicted. Like many Western states, it supported the armed Syrian opposition in the hope that this would overturn the Syrian government. Turkey allowed Gulf states to arm some groups, mainly by keeping its border open, all in the hope that this would end the war sooner. Meanwhile, the West backed away from direct action – despite giving Turkey strong indications that it would attack, especially after the Damascus regime was accused of using chemical weapons – and this has left Turkey facing long-term mayhem on its border.
Internationally, suspicion that the West does not have a realistic strategy makes it hard for Turkey to go along wholeheartedly with the coalition or the U.S. strategy of airstrikes. But at the same time, as it faces new threats from over its Middle Eastern borders, it needs all the American support it can get. The unpredictable President Erdoğan has done much to irritate the U.S. in recent years, for instance by exacerbating its frictions with American allies in the region like Egypt and Israel. Turkey’s geography and bases will always make it important to the U.S., but setting the relationship on a strong footing could require some new demonstrations of good faith and loyalty.
What impact will this have on the Turkey-PKK peace process?
The recent fighting in Syria has put the “peace process” between Turkey and the PKK under great strain. The result could be that it either breaks down, or that there is an unprecedented convergence. Implausible though the latter sounds, there are voices on both sides thinking the unthinkable about facing IS together.
Turkish officials remain unsure about which way Turkey should jump, but almost all voice a strong preference to face the future in alliance with the Kurds of the region. This is based on a sense that Turks and Kurds do share a long common history, a common Sunni religious tradition, and, in Turkey, are intermixed in a way that would be hard to unravel.
Turkey is showing renewed determination to end peacefully the 30-year-old PKK insurgency. On 1 October, the government published an official framework to discuss all aspects of what a peace deal will include, just the latest in a series of positive moves over the past 18 months that have given new momentum to the on-off negotiations under way since 2005 (See Crisis Group’s reporting).
Turkey’s Kurdish national movement has made the fight over Kobane/Ain al-Arab – which pits IS against Syrian Kurds of the PKK’s sister party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – into a litmus test of the peace process. If Kobane falls to IS and there is a massacre of its remaining inhabitants, PKK leaders say they will end the peace negotiations. The Kurds are asking Turkey to give the PYD fighters, who cannot save Kobane on their own, a lifeline of weapons supplies, but at the same time are asking Turkey to accept that Kobane remain a highly autonomous, model entity – an example of devolution that goes much farther than what is likely to work in Turkey. At the same time, Turkish Kurd leaders stridently insist that the Ankara government is backing IS. This may have been true in the past, at least indirectly, but this policy has changed (see below). The current crisis hardly seems the moment to be alienating a potentially vital partner, especially after Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu – clearly acting again to support the peace process – vowed on 2 October to do “whatever we can” to prevent Kobane from falling.
Indeed, both Turks and Kurds need each other more than ever. The spread of tensions into Turkey from Iraq and Syria shows Turkey just how much it needs to secure its Kurdish flank, while the Kurds need to accept that the time has come to compromise, since they are unable to beat the Turkish army in Turkey or IS in Syria. At the same time, there is every reason to believe that the two sides have the strong leaders, the motivations, and the window of popular support to reach a comprehensive peace deal. The crisis could therefore have the beneficial effect of forcing the two sides to work together better.
Why might Turkey take more action on the Syria conflict?
Few in Ankara – whether Turkish officials or indeed foreign diplomats – harbour any illusions that the recent wave of airstrikes will quickly solve the IS problem. But there are some who think that the answer to all the uncertainty and threats is to choose sides and to take action. Turkey’s messaging in the past week shows a change in attitude. Officials, speaking privately, are now nearly unanimous in seeing IS as a grave threat, not just to security over the border but within Turkey. President Erdoğan has openly called IS a terrorist organisation. One official briefing Crisis Group said the group should and would be “exterminated” by international action.
Erdoğan has also repeatedly spoken of the need for a “permanent” solution for Syria and, above all, for the 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. The influx since 2012 has strained Turkey’s resources to the limit, and in refugee-clogged cities Turkish public patience at the competition for housing and jobs is running out. Cross-border fire regularly lands in Turkey, at least two car bombs inside its territory have been linked to the Syrian regime and occasional violent incidents have already taken place in Turkish cities between security forces and jihadi militants.
Why does Turkey not simply revive relations with the Syrian state?
Although there are voices in Turkish think-tanks and opposition parties calling for some kind of normalisation with Damascus, particularly to deal with the IS threat, the Turkish political leadership and state bureaucracy stick to their position that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go first. Both Turkish political leaders and top diplomats remain furious about the feeling they have of personal betrayal. Before 2011, Ankara felt it was genuinely close to the Syrian president; that it gave him good advice on peaceful transformation; that Assad sincerely promised that he would implement reforms; and that he then coolly ignored this and instead began violent suppression of protests. The subsequent war has displaced many of Turkey’s favoured Syrian constituency, the conservative, pro-Muslim Brotherhood Syrian provincial middle classes.
Turkey has long called for muscular international action in Syria; indeed a major reason that Erdoğan finds it hard to back down on his demand that Bashar al-Assad leaves power is that he has closely associated himself with this policy on Turkey’s domestic scene. This is why Turkey is making any participation in the international coalition against IS conditional on serving an overall goal of regime change in Damascus.