▲Trilateral summit of Russia, Turkey and Iran in Sochi in November 2017 [Turkish Presidency].

ANALYSIS / Albert Vidal and Alba Redondo [English version].

Turkey's response to the Syrian Civil War (SCW) has gone through several phases, conditioned by the changing circumstances of the conflict, both domestically and internationally: from giving support to Sunni rebels with questionable affiliations, to being one of the targets of the Islamic State (ISIS), to a failed coup attempt in 2016, and always conditioning its foreign policy decisions on the Kurdish issue. Despite an initially aggressive stance against Assad at the beginning of the Syrian war, the success and growing strength of the Kurdish civil service examination , such as result of its role in the anti-ISIS coalition, has significantly influenced Turkey's foreign policy .

Relations between Turkey and Syria have been fraught with difficulties for the past century. The Euphrates River, which originates in Turkey, has been one of the main causes of confrontation between the two countries. Turkey's construction of dams limits the flow of water to Syria, causing losses in its agriculture and generating a negative impact on the Syrian Economics . This problem is not limited to the past, as currently the project GAP (project of Southeastern Anatolia) threatens to further compromise the water supply of Iraq and Syria through the construction of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric dams in southern Turkey.

In addition to disputes over natural resources, Hafez al-Assad's support for the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the 1980s and 1990s greatly hindered relations between the two countries. However, conflict was avoided altogether with the signature of the protocol of Adana in 1998. Another source of discord between Syria and Turkey has been the territorial claims made by both nations over the province of Hatay, still claimed by Syria, but administered by Turkey, which incorporated it into its territory in 1939.

Despite the above issues, Syria and Turkey enjoyed a good relationship during the decade leading up to the Arab Spring and the revolutions of the summer of 2011. The international response to the Syrian regime's reaction to the uprisings was mixed, and Turkey was unsure of what position to take until, in the end, it chose to support the rebel civil service examination . Thus, Turkey offered protection on its territory to the rebels and opened its borders to Syrian refugees. This decision signaled the initial stage of the decline in Syrian-Turkish relations, but the status significantly worsened after the downing of a Turkish plane on June 22, 2012 by Syrian forces. This resulted in border clashes, but without the direct intervention of the Turkish Armed Forces.

From a foreign policy perspective, there were two main reasons for reversing Turkey's non-intervention policy. The first reason was a growing series of Islamic State (ISIS) attacks in July 2015 in Suruc, Central Station in Ankara and Atatürk Airport in Istanbul. The second, and arguably the most important reason, was Turkey's fear of the creation of a Kurdish proto-state in its neighboring countries: Syria and Iraq. This led to the launch of Operation Euphrates Shield (also known as the Jarablus Offensive), considered one of Turkey's first direct military actions in Syria since the SCW began. The main goal was to secure a area in northern Syria free from control of ISIS and Democratic Union Party (PYD) factions. The Jarablus Offensive was supported by article 51 of the UN Charter (the right of nations to self-defense), as well as several UN Security committee resolutions (Nos. 1373, 2170, 2178) pertaining to the global responsibility of countries to fight terrorism. Despite being successful in achieving its objectives, the Jarablus offensive ended prematurely in March 2017, without Turkey ruling out the possibility of similar future interventions.

Internally, Erdogan's military intervention and assertive posturing aimed to gain public support from Turkish nationalist parties, especially the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Grand Unity Party (BBP), as well as general public backing for the constitutional changes then being proposed. That would give Erdogan greater executive powers as president. Consequently, a foreign distraction campaign was more than welcome, given the growing domestic unrest and general discontent, following the coup attempt in July 2016.

Despite Turkey's assertiveness sample towards Syria, Turkish military intervention does not indicate strength. On the contrary, Erdogan's actual invasion of northern Syria occurred in the wake of disputes (between Syria and Iraq) that threatened to undermine Turkish objectives, both at home and abroad. Thus, limited United States (US) interference and the failure of rebel forces to topple the Assad regime meant the perpetuation of the terrorist threat; and, more importantly, the continued strengthening of Kurdish factions, which posed the most effective force against ISIS. Indeed, the Kurds' success in the anti-ISIS coalition had helped them gain worldwide recognition similar to that of most nation-states; recognition that meant increased financial support and increased provision of weapons. A Kurdish region, armed and gaining legitimacy for its efforts in the fight against ISIS, is undoubtedly the main reason for Turkish military intervention. In any case, the growing Kurdish influence has resulted in Turkey's shifting and ambiguous attitude towards Assad throughout the SCW.


▲visit of Erdogan to the command of Operation Olive Branch, January 2018 [Presidency of Turkey].


Turkey's changing stance on Assad

While Turkey aggressively supported Assad's ouster at the beginning of the SCW, this stance has increasingly taken a back seat to other more important issues of Turkey's foreign policy with its neighboring states, Syria and Iraq. Indeed, recent statements by Turkish officials openly acknowledge the resilience of the Assad government, a fact that opens the door to future reconciliation between the two sides. These statements also reinforce a very profuse view, according to which, Assad will be a piece core topic in any future agreement on Syria. Thus, on January 20, 2017, Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek said,"We cannot keep saying that Assad should go. A agreement without Assad is not realistic."

This easing of rhetoric towards Assad coincides with a positive shift in Turkey's relations with the Syrian regime's allies in the conflict (Iran and Russia), in its attempts to bring about a resolution of the conflict. However, the official Turkish position towards Assad lacks consistency, and appears to be highly dependent on circumstances.

Recently, a war of words initiated by Erdogan with the Syrian president took place, in which the Turkish president accused Assad of being a terrorist. Moreover, Erdogan rejected any subject negotiations with Assad on the future of Syria. For his part, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem responded by accusing Erdogan of being manager of the bloodshed of the Syrian people. On January 2, 2018, forces loyal to Assad fired shells towards Turkish territory. Such a launch prompted an immediate response from Turkey. On January 18, Mevlüt Çavusoglu (Turkish Foreign Minister) announced that his country intended to carry out an air intervention in the Syrian regions of Afrin and Manbij.

A few days later, Operation Olive Branch was launched, under the pretext of creating a "security zone" in Afrin (in Syria's Aleppo province); although it has focused almost entirely on expelling what Erdogan calls Kurdish "terrorists," which are actually composed of Kurdish factions backed by the U.S. These Kurdish groups have played a crucial role in the anti-ISIS coalition. The operation was reportedly launched in response to U.S. plans to create a border force of 30,000 Syrian Kurds. Erdogan stated in a recent speech :"A country we call an ally insists on forming a terror army on our borders. Who can that terrorist army attack if not Turkey? Our mission statement is to strangle it before it is born." This has significantly worsened relations between the two countries, and triggered an official NATO response, in an attempt to avoid confrontation between NATO allies in Manbij.

The US is seeking a balance between the Kurds and Turkey in the region, but has maintained its formal support for the SDF. However, according to analyst Nicholas Heras, the US will not help the Kurds in Afrin, as it will only intervene in the areas of mission statement against ISIS; starting from Manbij and towards the East (thus Afrin is not under US military protection).

Impact of the Syrian conflict on Turkey's International Office

The Syrian conflict has had a strong impact on Turkish relations with a wide range of international actors; of which the most important for both Turkey and the conflict are Russia, the United States, the European Union and Iran.

The downing of a Russian SU-24 aircraft in 2015 led to a deterioration of relations between Russia and Turkey. However, thanks to the Turkish president's apology to Putin in June 2016, relations normalized, ushering in a new era of cooperation between the two countries. This cooperation reached its pinnacle in September of the same year when Turkey purchased an S-400 defense missile system from Russia, despite warnings from its NATO allies. In addition, the Russian business ROSATOM has planned to build a nuclear power plant in Turkey worth $20 billion. Thus, the partnership between the two nations has been strengthened in the military and economic spheres.

However, despite the rapprochement, there are still significant differences between the two countries, particularly with regard to foreign policy perspectives. On the one hand, Russia sees the Kurds as important allies in the fight against ISIS; and considers them essential members in the post-conflict peaceful resolution (PCR) meetings. On the other hand, Turkey's priority is to bring democracy to Syria and prevent Kurdish federalism, which translates into its refusal to include the Kurds in PCR talks. Nevertheless, the ties between Turkey and Russia seem to be quite strong at the moment. This may be due to the fact that the (in Turkey's case, increasing) hostility of both countries towards their Western counterparts outweighs their differences regarding the Syrian conflict.

The relationship between Turkey and the United States is more ambiguous. As important members of NATO, both countries share important ties from work. However, looking at recent developments, one can see how these relations have been deteriorating. The main problem between Washington and Ankara has been the Kurdish issue. The US supports the People's Protection Units (YPG) militias in the SCW, however, the YPG is considered a terrorist group by Turkey. It is not yet known how their relationship will evolve, but possibly both sides will reach a agreement regarding the Kurdish issue. As of today (January 2018), the confrontation in northern Syria is at a stalemate. On the one hand, Turkey does not intend to give in on the Kurdish issue, and on the other hand, the US would lose its prestige as a superpower if it decided to succumb to Turkish demands. Support for the Kurds has traditionally been based on their role in the anti-ISIS campaign. However, as the campaign winds down, the US is finding itself in a bind trying to justify its presence in Syria in any way it can. Its presence is crucial to maintain its influence in the region and, more importantly, to prevent Russian and Iranian domination of the contested theater.

The US refusal to extradite Fethullah Gülen, a bitter enemy who, according to Ankara, was one of the instigators of the failed 2016 coup, has further strained their relations. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, only 10% of Turks trust President Donald Trump. In turn, Turkey recently declared that its agreements with the U.S. are losing validity. Erdogan subryaed that the dissolution of ties between the two countries would seriously affect the legal and economic sphere. In addition, Turkey's Zarrab was convicted in a trial in New York, for helping Iran evade sanctions by enabling a money laundering scheme, which was filtered through US banks. This has been a big problem for Turkey, as one of the defendants had ties to Erdogan's AKP party. However, Erdogan has called the trial a continuation of the coup attempt, and has dealt with potential criticism by organizing a media campaign to spread the idea that Zarrab was one of the perpetrators of the conspiracy against Turkey in 2016.

With respect to the European Union, relations have also deteriorated, despite the fact that Turkey and the EU have strong economic ties. As result of Erdogan's "purge" after the failed coup, the continued deterioration of freedoms in Turkey has strained relations with Europe. In November 2016, the European Parliament voted in favor of fail EU accession negotiations with Turkey, justifying its decision on the abuse of human rights and the decline of the rule of law in Turkey. By increasingly adopting the practices of an autocratic regime, Turkey's accession to the EU is becoming impossible. In a recent meeting between the Turkish and French presidents, French President Emmanuel Macron emphasized the ties between the EU and Turkey, but suggested that there was no realistic chance of Turkey joining the EU in the near future.

Since 2017, after Erdogan's victory in the constitutional referendum in favor of changing the system (from a parliamentary to a presidential system), EU accession negotiations have ceased. In addition, several European bodies, which deal with human rights issues, have placed Turkey on a "black" list, based a assessment, according to which the state of democracy in Turkey is in serious danger due to the AKP.

Another topic related to the Syrian conflict between the EU and Turkey is refugees. In 2016, the EU and Turkey agreed to transfer €6 billion to support Turkish reception of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. While this appeared to be the beginning of a fruitful cooperation, tensions have continued to rise due to Turkey's limited capacity to host such issue of refugees. The humanitarian crisis in Syria is unsustainable: more than 5 million refugees have left the country and only a small issue of them have received sufficient resources to restart their lives. This problem continues to grow day by day, and more than 6 million Syrians have been displaced within its borders. Turkey hosts, as of today, more than 3 million Syrian refugees and, consequently, Ankara's policies have result been greatly influenced by this crisis. On January 23, President Erdogan stated that Turkey' s military operations in Syria would end when all Syrian refugees in Turkey could return safely to their country. The humanitarian financial aid is being sent to civilians in Afrin, where Turkey launched the latest offensive against Kurdish YPG militiamen.

Regarding the relationship between Iraq and Turkey, in November 2016, when Iraqi forces arrived in Mosul to fight against the Islamic State, Ankara announced that it would send the army to the Iraqi border, to prepare for possible developments in the region. The Turkish Defense Minister added that he would not hesitate to act if Turkey's red line was crossed. This received an immediate response from Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi, who warned Turkey not to invade Iraq. Despite this, in April 2017, Erdogan suggested that in future stages, Operation Euphrates Shield would be extended to Iraqi territory: "a future operation will not only have a Syrian dimension, but also an Iraqi dimension. Al Afar, Mosul and Sinjar are in Iraq."

Finally, Russia, Turkey and Iran have cooperated in the framework Astana negotiations for peace in Syria, despite having somewhat divergent interests. In a recent call between Iranian President Rouhani and Erdogan, the Turkish president expressed his hope that the protests in Iran, which occurred in late 2017, will end. The relations between the two countries are strange: in the SCW, Iran supports the Syrian (Shiite) government, while Turkey supports the Syrian (Sunni) civil service examination . Something similar happened in the 2015 intervention in Yemen, where Turkey and Iran supported the opposing factions. This has led to disputes between the leaders of the two countries, however, such tensions have eased since Erdogan made a visit to Iran to improve their relationship. The Qatar diplomatic crisis has also contributed to this dynamic, as it positioned Iran and Turkey against Saudi Arabia and in favor of Qatar. Although there is an enduring element of instability in relations between the two countries, their relationship has been improving in recent months as Ankara, Moscow and Tehran have managed to cooperate in an attempt to overcome their differences to find a solution to the Syrian conflict.

What lies ahead for Turkey in Syria?

Thanks to the negotiations in Astana, a future agreement peace in the region seems possible. The "cessation of hostilities" zones are a necessary first step, to preserve some areas from the violence of war, as outlined in the Turkish strategic plan from the beginning. That said, the result is complicated by a number of factors: the strength of the Kurdish factions is a major element of discord, as well as a source of conflict for the powerful who will manage the post-conflict transition.

There are two main factors that have clearly impacted Turkey's foreign policy decisions regarding the Syrian conflict. The first has to do with the long and complex history of Turkey and its Kurdish minorities, as well as its obsession with preventing the Kurds from achieving a Degree territorial autonomy. If achieved, this would embolden the Turkish Kurds and threaten Turkey's territorial integrity. Turkey unilaterally attacked positions of the Kurdish civil service examination , including some backed by a NATO ally (the US), thus demonstrating how far it is capable of going to ensure that the Kurds are not part of the solution at the end of the civil war. All this produces uncertainty and increases the chances of new conflicts in Syria.

The second factor is related to the changing nature of the government in Turkey, with a move away from the Western-democratic model towards a more authoritarian and quasi-theocratic model , taking Russia and Iran as political allies. In its pivot to the east, Turkey maintains a fragile balance, considering that its objectives differ from those of its new friends (Russia and Iran), with respect to the political result in Syria. Recent developments indicate, however, that Turkey seems to be reaching a agreement on the Assad issue, in exchange for more flexibility in dealing with the Kurdish issue (part of the anti-ISIS coalition), which it considers a threat to its national security.

Currently, in January 2018, the relationship between Turkey and the U.S. appears to be at an impasse, especially in relation to the U.S.-backed group SDF. Erdogan has stated that, after his operation in Afrin, he will continue with a move towards Manbij. Therefore, under NATO auspices, a agreement is being negotiated to clearly delineate the areas in which both countries are militarily active. There is great uncertainty as to how long such partition agreements (under the guise of an anti-ISIS coalition) can last before a new conflict breaks out. However, it seems likely that one of the two possible scenarios will occur to avoid the possible outbreak of war between the great powers in the Middle East.

There are two options. Either a agreement is reached regarding the future role of the SDF and other Kurdish factions, with Turkey's consent, or else the US will withdraw its support for the Kurds, based on the mandate that their alliance was limited to joint fighting in the anti-ISIS coalition. In the latter case, the US risks losing the political and military advantage that the Kurds give it in the region. It also risks losing the confidence of its Kurdish allies, a fact that could have serious strategic repercussions for US involvement in this region.

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