Turkish Military Operation in Syria Complicates Georgia’s Foreign Policy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 147

(Source: Turkish Ministry of Defense)

On October 17, a few days after the start of the Turkish military incursion into northern Syria, Turkey’s ambassador to Georgia, Fatma Ceren Yazgan, who does not appear often in front of the press, invited Georgian and foreign journalists to a news conference in Tbilisi. In addressing the reporters, she made several important statements about Turkish-Georgian relations (Interpressnews.ge, October 17).

Ambassador Yazgan stressed that, particularly in recent days since Operation Peace Spring began, a “wave of misinformation about Turkey is being spread in Georgia.” She underlined that these fabrications came from “various sources,” adding, “A very big wave of misinformation appeared especially with regard to the Adjara region and Turkish-Georgian relations. I would like to emphasize that the border between Turkey and Georgia is delimited and marked” (Interpressnews.ge, October 17). The region of Adjara is presently an autonomous republic inside Georgia.

According to the diplomat, Turkey found “false information, such as, for example, that in 2021, on the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Kars, the validity period for the treaty will expire and Turkey will try to seize Adjara.” The Turkish envoy implored the Georgian media “not to pay attention to such misinformation.” Ambassador Yazgan alleged that disinformation about Ankara’s supposed plans to seize Adjara “is [being] disseminated on various websites, some of which are somehow linked to the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party—a Kurdish militant and political group considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and most Western countries], and their dissemination serves provocative purposes.”

The Turkish ambassador expressed concern that when it comes to the Peace Spring operation, some media outlets are attempting “to reshape public opinion [into believing] the Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army (the force formed by displaced persons from Syria), are jointly carrying out massacres of civilians in Syria.” She asserted, “If civilians are harmed by Turkish forces or any forces under its control, appropriate measures will be taken.”

Peace Spring is not directed against the Kurds, but against the PKK, the ambassador declared, noting that the group “was established as a leftist organization in the Cold War era, then turned into a nationalist, separatist terrorist organization that launched terror attacks on civilians in Turkey and attacks against Turkish border guards.” She explained to reporters that her statements were triggered by comments in the Georgian press, certain statements by Georgian politicians about the Turkish military operation, as well as “tensions between Turkey and the United States over the issue of Syria” (Interpressnews.ge, October 17).

It is likely that the ambassador was alluding to an October 14 rally by members of the Labor Party of Georgia, in front of the Turkish embassy in Tbilisi. During the demonstration, Georgian Labor leader Shalva Natelashvili called on the Turkish army to “immediately leave northern Syria, where the heroic Kurdish people live.” The rally was also notably attended by Kurds living in Georgia. Some of them held flags symbolizing the Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey (Imedinews.ge, October 14). The Labor Party is not represented in the Georgian parliament, but it is quite influential politically and in some parts of society.

The Turkish ambassador’s rare press conference highlighted the degree to which Ankara is closely monitoring the reactions in neighboring countries (including Georgia) to Turkey’s foreign policy actions. At the same time, however, Yezgan’s diplomatic but sharply direct statements put the Georgian leadership in a difficult situation: having to balance between two strategic partners, the US and Turkey.

In Tbilisi, there is no unity of opinion on the Syrian issue, even after the compromise that was reached during negotiations between US Vice President Michael Pence and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkey remains Georgia’s number one trading partner, and all overland transit networks connecting Georgia with the West pass through Turkey. Moreover, Ankara plays an important role in the economic development of the partially Muslim region of Adjara (see EDM, September 5, 2013, October 1, 2015, February 8, 2016). On the other hand, Tbilisi considers the United States the main guarantor of Georgia’s independence in its ongoing confrontation with Russia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In this situation, the Georgian authorities are trying to “balance” the country’s foreign policy in order not to harm relations with either ally. A recent hearing in the Georgian parliament of Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani prominently exemplified this ongoing search for “equilibrium” in a region complicated by intersecting conflicts of interest.

Speaking to the legislature on October 17 and responding to questions from deputies, Minister Zalkaliani emphasized that his country is “closely monitoring the events in Syria.” He declared, “We are watching this process very carefully. It is a very sensitive issue. We also recognize the interest of our strategic partner Turkey in ensuring a secure environment along its borders. At the same time, we are interested in reaching an agreement between our two main strategic partners—Turkey and the United States—as this will largely provide security in the region” (Netgazeti.ge, October 17).

According to Zalkaliani, the government is “seriously considering and analyzing the impact of the Turkish operation in Syria on Georgia, both in terms of economics and security.” The foreign minister added, “All agencies responsible for economic and security matters are constantly monitoring and consulting with international partners, including Turkey, the US and our European partners” (Radiotavisupleba.ge, October 17). Notably, the Georgian government is holding to this policy despite the fact that several leaders of the European Union, with which Tbilisi signed an Association Agreement in 2014, have actively criticized President Erdoğan for his military operation in Syria.

Yet, the need to seek a geopolitical “balance” between a neighboring friendly state (Turkey) and a strategic partner (US) is subject to a “supra-party consensus” in Georgia. Indeed, during Foreign Minister Zalkaliani’s hearing, none of the members of parliament from the main opposition parties—European Georgia and United National Movement—criticized him or the ruling Georgian Dream party for trying to maintain “positive neutrality.” As Russia continues to increase economic and political pressure on Georgia in the run-up to next year’s parliamentary elections (see EDM, July 31, September 25, October 10), policymakers and politicians in Tbilisi clearly believe their country can ill-afford to alienate any of its close friends at the moment.