On January 26, 2011 a young Syrian man set himself on fire as a sign of protest against the Syrian government. Emulating the start of the Tunisian uprising, this relatively insignificant act later culminated in mass protests, and since the end of March 2011, Syria has been rocked by a nationwide uprising calling for the replacement of President Bashar al-Assad and his Ba’athist regime. As the fighting escalated, civilians and deserters from the armed forces unified their forces creating the “Free Syrian Army”, which is currently the leading force of the revolt against al-Assad’s regime. The government has endeavored to suppress the uprising by any means, including besieging cities and murdering civilians. However, despite the brutal crackdown, the insurgency continues.
The impulses for the Syrian crisis are political repression, economic malaise, and sectarian discrimination.
Long before the match was struck there was the strong enduring sense of political repression exercised by President al-Assad. Despite inaugural promises that he would break with his father’s iron fist policy, al-Assad’s assurances turned out to be hollow. His regime has pursued oppression of the opposition, political arrests, imprisonments and executions, limitations of basic freedoms, political favoritism and other authoritarian measures.
Another major factor in the Syrian conflict is the country’s longtime economic malaise. The Syrian economy is characterized by authoritarian-type management with high-level corruption, nepotism and predation. Economic growth has been controlled by an elite affiliated with the Assad family, while the country has witnessed increasing poverty and unemployment, especially among women and the youth. According to unofficial statistics, unemployment figures are between 22 and 30 percent, and increasing, particularly among young adults (40 percent of the Syrian population is under 24 years) where unemployment is six times that for older adults.
The third main reason behind the Syrian crisis is sectarian disparities within the Syrian society. While the majority of the Syrian population are Sunni, the government is dominated by a Shia/Alawite minority. Even though the current crisis is not a purely sectarian conflict, the Syrian National Council, the Sunni-dominated opposition, has enjoyed assistance from Sunni states, including Turkey and the Gulf States. President al-Assad’s Alawite regime has the backing of Shiite Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
In spite of having numerous historical and geographic links—including the longest land border—relations between Turkey and Syria have been fraught for much of the Twentieth Century with tensions rising and falling and serious threats uttered from both sides. The causes include Turkish annexation of Hatay Province from Syria in 1939, disputes over the water supplies of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers since the 1970s, and Syrian historic support for the Kurdish terrorist organization, the PKK.
Relations between the two countries hit at an historic low in October 1998, when Turkey threatened Syria with military intervention unless the country expelled PKK founder and leader Abdullah Öcalan from Damascus and ceased harboring PKK terrorists. The resolution of the bilateral conflict, the Adana Agreement, established collaboration between Turkey and Syria vis-à-vis the PKK and marked a turning point for bilateral relations. For most of the decade after 1998, relations have flourished in all fields of life, including politics, economics, security and cultural matters. With the advent of the AKP government in 2002, cultural, economic and trade relations expanded as a free trade agreement was signed in 2004, and mutual visa-free travel was guaranteed in 2011.
At the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu endeavored to use personal diplomacy and friendship - and Turkish leverage - to stop the fighting. However, as these initiatives failed and civilian casualties inflicted by the security forces of the al-Assad regime increased, Turkish-Syrian relations severely deteriorated to the point of suspending diplomatic, trade and other relations and closure of the Turkish Embassy in Damascus. Early in 2012, Turkey became a major proponent of the Group of Friends of the Syrian People, the Annan Plan and other international initiatives to stop the violence in Syria. Since the cross-border shooting into the Syrian refugee camp on April 9, Turkey has even contemplated a military intervention if cross-border violence resumed or floods of refugees arrived on Turkey’s border.
Turkey has a number of interests in the Syrian conflict. One of them is to preserve the stability of its own borders and avoid a mass exodus of Syrian refugees into the country. As a stable Sunni state with an almost 900-kilometer-long border with Syria, Turkey is the immediate logical destination for Syrian refugees. Already a consequence of the violence, more than 25,000 Syrians have fled the country and are now living in Turkish refugee camps along the border. A refugee population of this size can be sustained by Turkey with few problems. But a substantial increase, bringing with them the possibility of destabilizing the southern part of Turkey, exacerbating the Kurdish question or causing increased problems of crime and smuggling, would likely not be tolerated.
A second Turkish interest is to limit the influence of Iran in the Middle East. Particularly since the launch of the Arab Spring, the competition between Iran and Turkey for the role of the regional leader has increased. The Syrian conflict can also be viewed from this perspective, as Turkey backs the opposition Syrian National Council, while Iran supports the al-Assad regime. In line with this, some would describe the Syrian crisis as a traditional proxy conflict between the two competing powers for enhanced regional hegemony.
A third interest of Turkey is to foster the country’s role in Middle Eastern politics. One of the key principles of the assertive zero-problem foreign policy of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s AK Party was to enhance Turkey’s status as a powerful actor in regional affairs and establish Turkish leadership in the Middle East through political engagement and trade. A recent remark by Foreign Minister Davutoğlu could not be more clear: “[a] new Middle East is about to be born. We will be the owner, pioneer and the servant of this new Middle East.” Therefore, the Syrian crisis can also be understood as a testing ground for Turkey to demonstrate its capabilities as a regional leader. If the outcome of the Syrian unrest should reflect the will of Turkey, the country would significantly increase its leverage in regional politics.
What is Turkey’s ambition? Turkey’s purposes are to make President al-Assad stop the violence, prevent a major humanitarian disaster (which would reflect poorly on Turkey’s handling of the crisis), make President al-Assad step down, and help a Turkey-friendly Syrian regime ascend to power. So far, the situation in Syria has been disappointing for Turkey’s ambitions and purposes.
What should Turkey do then? The country cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the events in Syria. Syria is too close and too consequential. Sooner or later Turkey will have to play a more active role in the conflict. The country has already commenced providing humanitarian assistance; it has endeavored to isolate the al-Assad regime in the international arena; it has started empowering the Syrian opposition; it is rumored to be arming the opposition. What it has not yet done is to intervene militarily. Is such a measure, however, desirable? Most international observers regard military intervention as risking further deterioration of the Syrian situation with a civil war likely and spillover into the entire region possible. Whether this would strike a match to the whole regional Kurdish powder keg must be a major Turkish worry.
One thing is clear: Turkey would not intervene unilaterally. Such an initiative would jeopardize Turkey’s positive role among Arab countries, create allegations that the country is pursuing a Sunni “neo-Ottoman” agenda on the regional level or a Western agenda on the international stage, and it would go against the country’s long-time anti-interventionist policies. Neither would such action have sufficient domestic support absent a flood of refugees or the rise of a similar national security issue.
In light of the foregoing the best option for Turkey at this time is to stay on its current path: take a clear stance against the al-Assad regime, support the opposition, provide humanitarian aid, and help to broaden the international coalition. This solution might not seem satisfactory for many people; however, seeing the complexity of the conflict and the possibility of its escalation, a slower and more cautious approach appears more advantageous for all parties then a rapid and reckless one.
Peter Vincze worked as Volunteer Coordinator at the American–Turkish Council. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations from Corvinus University of Budapest and a Master of Science Program in Political Science from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam with a specialization in International Relations and Transnational Governance. Besides Hungary and the Netherlands, Peter has studied in multiple other countries including Italy and Morocco.
Currently, Peter is a Master’s candidate in International Economics and Middle East Studies at the Johns Hopkins University/SAIS, where he concentrates on his academic field of interest, the wider Middle East. Born in 1988, Peter is fluent in English, and proficient in Arabic, Italian and Dutch.