Turkey’s Conundrum in Syria

Since the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rise to power in 2002 under the leadership of President (formerly Prime Minister) Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has pursued a foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” However, Syria has been the crucial exception to this policy after Turkey cut ties with Syria in 2011 in response to Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on demonstrators. Since the severing of relations, Turkey has aided rebel groups by allowing free transit to Syrian rebel groups in and out of Turkish territory. This has included all rebels, and Turkish authorities have tended to overlook the passage of fighters affiliated with terrorist groups like the al-Nusra Front until recently, due to the al-Nusra Front’s alliance with Syrian rebels against the Assad regime.

Now Turkey is in an awkward position due to the United States’ decision to bomb Islamic State terrorists with a coalition of Sunni Arab allies. While Turkey shares the same goals as the United States with regards to eliminating Islamist terrorists in the Middle East, they have also placed substantial political capital on facilitating the overthrow of the Assad regime. At the moment, it appears that the airstrikes against the Islamic State, al-Nusra Front, and Khorasan have permitted the Syrian government forces to make gains in retaken rebel held territory. Therefore, at the very least in the short-term, it appears that the American led airstrikes are resulting in a relative shift of power in favor of the Syria government, which is counter to Turkish interests. Simultaneously the conflict in Syria and Iraq has brought the question of Kurdish nationalism back into view, and Turkey is wary of moves, such as empowering Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, which would strengthen of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey.

As a result, Turkey has to deal with several conflicting goals: One, eliminating terrorism and extremism, two, overthrowing the Assad regime, and three, limiting the risks of a revived Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey as much as possible. As Turkey is increasingly pressured by the United States and several Arab nations to take stronger action against Islamic State and other terrorist forces, it will have to make a decision on whether to remain relatively neutral, as it has been, or to take a more active stance to work with the United States and its partners to eliminate extremist forces.

It is becoming increasingly likely that Turkey will act in the coming weeks to aid the United States in its efforts against the Islamic State. However, the actual intensity of Turkish effort will likely depend on how much the US-led coalition will work towards ensuring dictator Assad’s ouster. At the current level of limited support for the Syrian rebels, Turkey may decide to broaden its crackdown on the transit of radicalized fighters and revenue heading to the Islamic State. Yet absent a credible guarantee to ensure a Syrian rebel victory, Turkey is unlikely to open its airspace or join in the United States’ airstrikes against the Islamic State. In order to get Turkey to join the coalition to defeat the Islamic State, it will require a broader effort against Assad to ensure that Assad does not get the advantage from the US-led airstrikes.

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