Turkey’s Reaction to the War in Syria

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 24

Just as in other parts of the world, the Syrian civil war has been discussed deeply in Turkey. Turkish public opinion has different views on the Turkish government’s policies on Syria. For example, in the last election, although Erdogan’s party received 50 percent of the votes, the majority of the voters do not support the Turkish government’s policies toward Syria. [1] Every single phase of the Syrian civil war has created complex and different problems for Turkey in the areas of security, economy, foreign policy and domestic politics. In order to understand the process and its outcomes we can touch on four different topics.

Turkey-Syria Relations Before the Civil War

The AKP (Justice and Development Party) came into power in 2002, after an economic crisis. Turkish society had a skeptical approach towards the party’s members due to their Islamist ideologies. Erdogan and his colleagues had serious legitimacy issues both in the domestic politics and in the international arena. Initially, the AKP pursued a coherent policy towards the West in order to avoid further pressure and resolve its legitimacy problem. During this period they used the EU membership process and negotiations as a strategic tool. On the other hand, the government pursued a “zero problem with neighbors” policy in order to reduce the role of the military in politics, overcome the economic crisis and find new markets. In this context, besides all other neighbors the government developed good relations with the Assad regime in Syria. An increase in trade had been observed. Citizens benefited from visa exemptions. In addition to these, Erdogan developed personal relations with Assad.

The Road to Civil War

In 2011, as the Arab Spring occurred, Erdogan’s party won another general election. Economic success helped the party to gain support from the public and to overcome the issue of legitimacy both inside and the international arena. After this point, Erdogan thought that he did not need the European Union anymore due to the weakening of the military and the opposition parties. Additionally, a peace process started with the PKK, a 30-year-long and troublesome problem for Turkey’s government and society.

At this very moment the Arab Spring arose. Erdogan and his team reutilized their Islamist ideologies and motivations, which they had been sidelining for some time. They realized that the Arab Spring could provide the opportunity for their Islamist ideologies to spread in a vast geography. Under these circumstances, a potential Muslim Brotherhood rule in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt seemed only a matter of time.

According to Erdogan and his friends, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria had an extremely high potential to become the ruling party in a post-al-Assad Syria. The Sunnis, who constitute the majority in the country, had been distant from being the ruling power for years, which has instead largely been in the hands of the minority Alawite sect. In case of an election, it seemed that the Sunnis would automatically take power due to their majority. Thus, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the time, Ahmet Davutoglu, visited Bashar al-Assad and advised him to quit his position and called for free and fair elections during this meeting. But al-Assad ignored his advice. According to Davutoglu, the regime was weak and it would collapse if a widespread scale social movement appeared on the streets, just as happened in Tunisia and Libya. So, speeding up the process was essential. Together with its allies, Erdogan gave support to the insurgents in Syria. As time progressed the insurgents failed to defeat al-Assad and eventually their character changed. Radical and jihadist groups became dominant on the field and with the Islamic State coming into the picture, the jihad that started in Syria became a global threat.

The Changing Character of the Syrian Civil War

It is now a fact that Turkey’s Syria policy has failed. There are many reasons for this. Apparently, Erdogan analyzed the political system in Syria, its institutions, social structure and geopolitical position wrongly. Erdogan’s lack of knowledge on the topics of the insurgency and the Syrian civil war is obvious. The main reason for the wrong analysis was his prejudiced “Islamist ideology.” On the other hand, Erdogan ignored the advice of several institutions and simply bypassed the advice coming from military generals and diplomats during important decision-making periods in the Syrian civil war.

Another reason is that he promoted the armed militants rather than the political actors during the initial insurgency period. Erdogan also made the mistake of “interfering in the internal affairs of his neighbors.” Soon after that, the interference with covert operations and proxy wars got out of control and eventually started to affect Turkey’s own national security.

The lack of capacity and inexperience of government institutions in the means of “covert operations” and “proxy wars” started to become a problem inside Syria. Control over the “friendly insurgents” was lost. The allies’ priorities on Syria policies were misunderstood and besides that, the intentions and approach of pro-al-Assad countries were not analyzed correctly. Sectarian perspectives and anti-Western prejudices played an important role in these failures. Al-Assad’s resistance and his success in avoiding “regime change” became a personal problem for Erdogan and Davutoglu, which eventually caused them to make irrational decisions.

On the other hand, “speeding up the process for al-Assad’s fall” and the open door policy for encouraging the Sunni Muslims to rise up had unforeseen outcomes. More than two million refugees entered Turkey and the Turkish government’s spending on those who crossed the border to Turkey is presently around $7 billion, and it is likely that the numbers will increase in the future as the number of refugees continues to grow. Turkey’s “open door policy” also however made it easier for the foreign terrorist fighters to also cross the border from Turkey to Syria, and vice versa, spreading some elements of the civil war to Turkey proper.

Syria also became the center for attraction for Turkish citizens with different motivations. Citizens of Turkey joined different militia groups. As the insurgency became prolonged, the radical groups committing unlimited violence gained power. As the Islamic State became the preeminent radical group, Turkey’s relationship with radicals damaged its relationship with its allies. On the matter of backing insurgents, Turkey did not share the same views with its allies.

During the first stage of the insurgency, Turkey cooperated with Barzani in order to control the Syrian Kurds. However, the PKK overshadowed Barzani and Turkey with its experience, aggressive stance and clever strategy, underlining Erdogan’s weak analysis and wrong strategic decisions.

The attacks on Kobane, Erbil and Mosul by Islamic State undermined Turkey’s role and political claims in Syria. As a result, Turkey had to remain silent against the rise of PYD in Syria on one hand, and on the other hand had to open the İncirlik Air Base to the United States. Another development that has limited Turkey’s actions in Syria is the Russian military intervention in the region. Following Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian military aircraft on November 24, 2015, relations with Russia grew tenser, and Turkey’s role in Syria started to diminish.

Turkey and the United States have different approaches regarding the area covering the distance of 98 kilometers, which is controlled by the Islamic State, along the Turkish border in between the two Kurdish enclaves. According to the Turkish side, this area will be ideal for a buffer zone, which President Erdogan still imagines can be achieved. However, there are no strong enough “moderate” opposition groups on the battlefield to push Islamic State back and clean up the area. On the issue of “moderate” opposition and the status of the PYD, Turks and the United States have not been able to reach a consensus. According to the Turkish side, the PYD is a part of the PKK. Turkey still feels threatened by the establishment of geographically and politically integrated Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria, keeping in mind that the adjacent territory is governed by the Iraqi Kurds.

Turkey declared Islamic State a terrorist organization in October 2013. Since last year, Turkey has deployed 25 percent of its land forces to the Syria-Turkey border to enhance physical control there to prevent illegal trade and human trafficking. Turkey also strengthened security checks in its airports for foreign terrorist fighters arriving from other parts of the world. Immediately after the deployment, the flow of illegal human trafficking, as well as oil and other smuggling declined sharply. According to data compiled by the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, the amount of fuel seized on the border decreased while the amount of drugs seized increased, a clear sign that the Islamic State likely switched shifted its strategy from oil smuggling to that of the narcotics trade, after Turkey began to crack down on the oil trade. Ironically, this fact seldom receives attention in the West. Compared to 2014, there has been a serious decrease in the amount of smuggled fuel that was seized while crossing the Turkish border. In 2014, the seized fuel amount of fuel totaled 3,201,000 liters. For the first six months of 2015, however, this number dropped to a mere 27,000 liters (Hurriyet, July 25).

Meanwhile, there has been a serious increase in the amount of drugs seized along the Syrian border. The numbers amounted to a total of 6,566 kg for 2014. For the first six months of 2015, this number increased to 1,495,000. In addition, the total amount of cigarettes that were seized also experienced a major increase, rising from 454.999 in 2014 to 620,000 for the first 6 months of 2015. Interestingly enough, there was a major increase in cross-border cattle-smuggling. For example, the total amount of cattle that were seized in 2014 totaled 5,723, while the number has been around 4,500 cattle for the first six months of 2015. Despite all the evidence of Turkey’s efforts to crackdown on the Islamic State, Ankara still has trouble convincing its allies and other countries about the scale and success of its effort to crackdown on Islamic State and block its cross-border smuggling (Hurriyet, July 23).

Costs of the Syrian Civil War for Turkey

The Syrian Civil War continues to affect Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies. Even though Erdogan clearly states that al-Assad’s regime is the primary issue, this claim has no basis. All of Turkey’s Western allies view the situation in Syria and Iraq through the prism of Islamic State and consider it to be a global threat except for Erdogan. Expecting a regime change in Syria turned into a new wave of global terrorism, and this contains risks for Turkey and relationships with its allies. Besides the allies, relations with Russia and Iran are extremely tense. It is dramatic that Turkey’s closest allies are the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Syrian civil war has unsettled the social, political and ideological fault lines of Turkey, and it is producing more problems for the economy, society and national security.

The PKK has made the best use of the Syrian civil war. It gained legitimacy, geographical depth, new members, arms and experience. There are no doubts that it will become one of the most important actors in Syria in the future. This situation may also bring the Kurdish issue in Turkey to an unforeseen point. Throughout the Syrian civil war, the Islamic State strengthened its global network, with the help of local cadres stationed in Turkey. After the fall of Kobane, the Islamic State had the opportunity and space to carry out its ideological war with the PKK within the borders of Turkey.


It will take many long years to establish a steady security environment in Syria. Therefore, we cannot expect anything to be the same compared to the prewar period in Turkey-Syria relations. Additionally, the Syrian central government will be weaker in the future, causing a decentralized political structure. In this process, the sectarian, ethnic and religious disunity and tension will reflect on the political system. It would only be a surprise to expect that these reflections will only affect Syria. Developments will trigger the ethnic and religious fault lines of Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. In this respect, induced Kurdish political aspirations will become a predominant foreign policy issue in the Middle East region. The Kurds will play an important role in regional tensions between the various powers, conflicts and problems and finding solutions to these disputes. In fact, Iraq and Syria will likely witness an intensification of ethnic conflicts between the Arabs and Kurds. The PKK will likely consolidate its power and position while becoming more active in the region. On the one Turkey and the costs for thatyrian civil war

lobal threat.

. Radical and jihadist groups became dominant ion the field key’ hand, the strengthening role of the PKK in Syria will intensify Kurdish demands in Turkey, and on the other hand, it will be the determinant actor among the overall Kurdish groups. These developments will eventually put the strengthened PKK to a position and at the same time will trigger adversaries among the Kurds of the region.

Russia’s military existence in Syria might become supplemental for its policies around the Black Sea region. Within this period Russia will revitalize its historical relationships with the PKK by the extension of the Kurds. Russia can use the PKK against Turkey as a tool to undermine Turkish interests in the region. It is possible to say that the luckiest actor in the region will be Iran. Iran will strengthen its military and political position in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. This will of course pose grave risks for Turkey.

In the near future, the Islamic State organization will become a threat not only to the rest of the world but also to Turkey. It will take time to overthrow the Islamic State. Pressure on the group will eventually push the terrorist organization to look for new ways and practices to survive. Some of the radical foreign fighters who fought in Syria will go back to their countries following the same route, which they came through. By using their local cadres, these radicalized terrorists will pose a threat to Turkish national security.

The Syrian issue continues to damage Turkey’s relationship with its allies and neighbors. The crisis is highly unlikely to end in the near future and unfortunately there is no quick easy solution to resolving the Syria crisis. It will take years for Syria to regain its uniformity, and this will mean increasing threats and loss of money and energy for Turkey.

Nihat Ali Ozcan is a security policy analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) and a lecturer at the TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara.


1. See, https://www.gmfus.org/sites/default/files/TP%20Key%20Findings%20Report%20Turkce%20Final1.pdf

Syria and ISIS: parted Stances on Intervention. Approximately 57 percent of the Turkish public who answered the questions are against a military intervention against the Assad’s regime in Syria. Only 29 percent of the people support the idea. When asked what they would think if such an intervention came into reality, 37 percent stated that Turkey should completely stay out of this conflict, and another 30 percent said that Turkey should support a military intervention with non-military channels. Seventeen percent of the people stated that Turkey should join the military coalition. However, such an idea does not find support basis among the Turkish public when this intervention does not have the character to create a buffer zone in order to protect local civilians against the Islamic State. Generally asked, only 29 percent of the participants support the idea of a buffer zone. When the questions are elaborated, 35 percent of the participants support the idea of creating a military buffer zone to protect the Syrian opposition against Assad’s regime. Thirty-seven percent of the participants stated that a military buffer zone must be forged against the PYD, thus preventing the formation of a Kurdish populated area. No matter which scenario is put into practice, the majority of the Turkish public is against a military intervention. However, 47 percent of the Turkish participants do support the idea of sending troops to the buffer zone to protect the local civilians against attacks by Islamic State.