Turkey’s Syria Policy Under Pressure

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


The agreement between the United States and Turkey to establish a “peace corridor” or safe zone in northern Syria appears to be holding for the moment. Last month’s agreement envisioned the joint patrolling of the area by both U.S. and Turkish troops and had as its main objective the creation of conditions for the safe passage of Syrian refugees wishing to return home. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has touted the agreement as a high point of Turkey’s influence in what is happening in Syria and beyond. However, many in the region and even some of his former allies suggest that, rather than rising, Turkey’s influence in the region is at its nadir.

In an op-ed for the Saudi daily Arab News, Yasar Yakis—a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of Mr. Erdogan’s ruling AK Party—expresses the view that the tide of war in Syria is now running against Turkey’s interests, thus making it more unlikely for Turkey to get what it wants: “Turkey must have eventually understood that the Syrian wind is turning against it. The Syrian government, after having defeated most of the armed opposition — except the Kurds, which is a separate issue — is now focusing on Idlib…. Russia is clearly supporting Syria in this endeavor, because the Hmeimim air base is close to Idlib. Furthermore, there must be many terrorists of Chechen origin in Idlib. If they are not eliminated in Idlib, they may find their way back to Chechnya, in Russia. Moscow would prefer to eliminate them in Idlib. These subjects will probably be raised in the trilateral summit to be held next month in Turkey, and Erdogan may face tougher resistance there.”

Saudi Gazette’s Rami Al-Khalifa Al-Ali is also of the view that despite, some victories in the short term, Turkey’s long-term objectives in Syria are no longer in its hands: “For the past few weeks, Idlib and the northern countryside of Hama province have been subjected to a ferocious attack by the forces of the Syrian regime and its allied militias…. The region is also covered by the Astana and the Sochi agreement between Turkey and Russia which calls for a ceasefire in this area and for the heavy machinery of the armed Syrian opposition forces not to be used in areas under the control of the regime. However, since the Sochi agreement was signed, the violations committed by the regime’s forces have never stopped…. Erdogan sent his troops to Khan Shaykhun which will not cover up the failure of Turkey’s game. This ploy looks like a death dance in front of the massive military advance of the forces of the regime and Russia in Idlib and the countryside of Hama province.”

Pro-government voices in Turkey have pushed back against such characterizations, suggesting instead, as Daily Sabah’s Merve Şebnem Oruç does, that Turkey’s involvement in Syria was always about blunting the Kurdish threat against Turkey. Using that metric, recent shifts in Turkey’s priorities in the region are to be expected: “Ankara has changed its priorities and strategies due to the increase of regional threats. So far, the policy shift, especially the fight against terror organizations, has been significant. Turkey’s fight against the PKK was shaped by new tactical and operational strategies on the ground. Preventing PKK terrorist attacks and blocking their main resources have become the leading step…. The PKK’s existence in Turkey, Syria and northern Iraq will remain the leading national security problem for Turkey unless the group lays down its arms and/or dissolves itself.”

Despite efforts to spin Turkey’s increasingly difficult geo-political environment in Syria into a victory for Turkish long-term interests in the region, Asharq Alawsat’s Ghassan Charbel remains convinced that Turkey’s regional influence may be on a downward spiral: “Moscow has kept up a policy of offering small gifts to Ankara in order to guarantee that it continues to unsettle its relations with the US. Washington, which is starting to have doubts about Erdogan’s loyalty to NATO, in turn, has adopted a policy of small steps and small favors. It is humoring Ankara in the issue of the Syria “safe zone” …. These unsteady relations have made Turkish foreign policy prone to surprise turnarounds in complex regional circumstances and a very murky international scene…. A tense Erdogan wanders in a vast palace. An exhausting tango with Trump. A costly tango with Putin. He is in denial that the golden days are over.”

The latest iteration of this difficult dance with the US is the issue of the proposed “safe zone,” which was meant to allay the concerns of the U.S. and Turkey, respectively. And yet, there are fears that even this much-touted victory for President Erdogan may not be going as smoothly as previously thought: “President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suggested over the weekend that there was something wrong with the proposed safe zone in northern Syria. ‘We cannot agree to any solution except [Turkish] troops exerting direct control over the area,” said Erdoğan, announcing a deadline to show that he meant business: “If our troops do not begin to set up the safe zone east of the Euphrates on our own terms within 2-3 weeks, we will let our counterparts worry about the consequences.’ Erdoğan’s remarks beg the question as to whether the United States was stalling Turkey – a popular concern among Turkish observers.”

And yet, even on the Kurdish question — which Turkey considers a vital national interest —according to a Rudaw report, the hopes of a definitive victory against Kurdish fighters are unlikely to come to pass: “The decades-long clashes between the PKK and Turkish state have not yielded anything for either side because they cannot win militarily: the PKK cannot make Turkey implement its demands through war, and, likewise, Turkey cannot annihilate the PKK through military operations. The regional countries like Iran and Iraq do not want the PKK-Turkey conflict to be resolved, as they want to use the PKK to hit Turkey’s interests. The PKK has benefited from Turkey’s issues with its neighbors, typically in Syria. It has also covertly established relations with both Iraq and Iran. Whenever the PKK is weak, these countries try to strengthen it. Therefore, as long as the current political, social, and regional conditions continue, the PKK can guarantee its presence.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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