Syria: Ankara’s Simmering Problem
Turkey in Syria
Before the Syrian Civil War, Turkey was one of the loudest voices calling for regime change in Syria. When the fighting began, Erdoğan turned his back on any positive feelings that Bashar al-Assad and he may have still had and began supporting rebel forces (Aras 2012). Turkish government officials say that they searched for a way to “peacefully” bring about the “legitimate demands” of the Syrian people (“From Rep. of Turkey Ministry of Foreign Affairs” 2018). What was supposed to be a swift battle for Turkish forces has become a years-long war.
Though Turkey is, generally speaking, on the side of the rebels, some of Turkey’s interests in Syria are at odds with those of the United States. After the war began, Turkey began doing all it could to fight against Kurdish rebel forces in Syria, particularly the YPG, which the country believes is connected to the Turkish Kurd Worker Party, or PKK (Lowen 2018). Turkey now feels that it and the allies it started this battle with—particularly the United States—are pursuing divergent goals (Tuygan 2019).
Turkey: Allies and Enemies
When Turkey started its involvement in Syria, it fought alongside the rebel forces in northeastern Syria. At that time, it allied itself with international supporters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the most powerful of these being the United States. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah backed President Bashar al-Assad.
When the United States began to rely primarily on Kurdish forces, relations with Turkey deteriorated. Kurdish forces along the Turkey-Syria border are known to be aligned with the Kurdish PKK party in Turkey, which Turkey recognizes as a threat to its national sovereignty and security.
Later, as the United States began limiting its operations in Syria, Turkey relied on Russia to settle a ceasefire in parts of the country. Although the fighting hasn’t fully stopped, Turkey has had to work with Russia to achieve its interests in Syria and has targeted American-backed Kurdish forces.
Who is Really Fighting Who?
The fact that Turkey shares a nearly 1000-mile border with Syria means that it has different national security goals from those of the United States and its other allies that do not border Syria. Erdoğan, along with many Turks, maintains that the PKK is a terrorist organization with the goal of eradicating any country that controls the territory the PKK operates in. For Turkey, a long border with autonomous Kurdish territory isn’t just unideal, it’s an existential threat.
Moreover, Turkey faces severe economic problems (Miller 2019). These issues, along with security concerns, are the forces that caused Turkey to reach a ceasefire agreement with Russia in an attempt to focus more attention on the Kurdish threat (Kanlı 2019).
Some people who fight against al-Assad are Kurds, some are former Syrian soldiers, and others are Islamic jihadists. The United States is willing to support rebel forces unless doing so encourages the growth of dangerous and powerful Islamic jihadist groups. As part of its strategy, then, America only supports “moderate” rebel forces. The United States’ decision to back Kurdish forces comes as one that is important to American security, just as Turkey’s strategy is based on Turkish perceptions of security. Backing more radical forces could increase the terrorist threat to the United States (Chugtai 2019).
The Difference It Makes
Recently the Turkish government is having to answer for its economy (Pierini 2019). As economic problems further damage Erdoğan’s democratic legitimacy, Turkey will be pushed further into the arms of an ally that offers stability: Russia.
Erdoğan has pushed for absolute power and is using tactics that lead to some concerning conclusions for the West. Turkey has no choice but to go forward with allies that offer money, not ideals. The EU turned its back on Turkey by denying it entrance, and NATO overestimated its political sway in the fight over both the F-35 and the S-400 system.
Syria is just one more place that makes Turkey feel as if the West’s interests don’t overlap well with its own. Competing goals simply drive another wedge between the two. In the end, the only ally Turkey could find in Syria was Russia. Joining American forces and fighting alongside the Kurds was simply unacceptable.
Syria sadly proves to be one area where cooperation between Turkey and the United States seems to be a dead end, but without cooperation, the goals of either group cannot be attained. At this point, the strong nationalistic feelings that have led to the creation of extreme nationalist groups like the Grey Wolves (a violent, Turkish anti-Kurd vigilante group) must change if there is any chance of American-Turkish cooperation in Syria. Without cooperation there, Turkish relations with America and many other Western nations will continue to weaken.
Aras, Damla. “Turkish-Syrian Relations Go Downhill: The Syrian Uprising.” Middle East Forum. 2012. Accessed July 12, 2019. https://www.meforum.org/3206/turkish-syrian-relations.
Chughtai, Alia. “Syria’s War: Who Controls What?” | Al Jazeera. March 13, 2019. Accessed July 10, 2019. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2015/05/syria-country-divided-150529144229467.html.
“From Rep. of Turkey Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” Republic of Turkey Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 2018. Accessed July 13, 2019. http://www.mfa.gov.tr/relations-between-turkey–syria.en.mfa.
Kanli, Yusaf. “Time to Reconsider Syria Policy.” Hürriyet Daily News. July 4, 2019. Accessed July 11, 2019. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/opinion/yusuf-kanli/time-to-reconsider-syria-policy-144667.
Lowen, Marc. “Why Is Turkey Attacking Syria?” BBC News. January 20, 2018. Accessed July 12, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-middle-east-42762501/why-is-turkey-attacking-syria.
Miller, Chris. “Erdogan Is Writing Checks the Turkish Economy Can’t Cash.” Foreign Policy. April 30, 2019. Accessed July 8, 2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/04/29/erdogan-is-writing-checks-the-turkish-economy-cant-cash/.
Pierini, Marc. “Turkey’s Three Moments of Truth.” Carnegie Europe. June 13, 2019. Accessed July 12, 2019. https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/79307.
Tuygan, Ali. “Dangers of Overreach.” Türkçe. July 10, 2019. Accessed July 9, 2019. https://edam.org.tr/en/dangers-of-overreach/.