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Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Is Turkey Getting Dragged into War with Syria?

Is Turkey Getting Dragged into War with Syria?

by Dr. Can Kasapoglu

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 170, April 18, 2012

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Since the first wave of uprisings in Syria, Turkey has
gradually hardened its stance toward the Baathist dictatorship. However, as
Assad continues to weather the rebellion while strengthening ties with the
PKK terrorist group and with a nuclearizing Iran, Ankara fears a reemergence
of the threatening strategic landscape of the 1990s. As the turmoil in Syria
continues and the security environment of Turkey worsens, two factors might
lead to unilateral Turkish military intervention in Syria: a refugee crisis
that forces Ankara to establish a buffer zone within Syrian territory,
and/or defensive military measures needed to stop PKK terrorism.

Since the first wave of uprisings in Syria, and with the increasingly
violent crackdown strategy of President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey has
significantly shifted its position toward the Baathist regime.

Until recently, it was Ankara's belief that Assad could be charmed by soft
power and economic opportunities, and possibly, by giving Syria an
opportunity to get closer to the West, via Turkey, particularly when Turkey
was distancing itself from Israel. Thus, in 2009, Ankara strived to forge a
strategic partnership with Damascus, at which time Turkish–Syrian
rapprochement culminated in joint military exercises and cabinet meetings.

This foreign policy approach had been designed by Turkish Foreign Minister
Ahmet Davutoglu, former chief advisor to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
Erdogan. Davutoglu is known as an idealist academic who refrains from
adopting power politics in a tough environment. He has advocated the
reduction of tensions with Turkey’s neighbors ("zero problems") in order to
enhance Ankara’s influence in the historical Ottoman territory.

With the spread of the "Arab Spring" to Syria, Davutoglu tried to convince
Assad to adopt democratic reforms – but the regime continued with its
violent crackdown. Eventually, Ankara expected the Assad regime to fall. It
has gradually hardened its rhetoric against the dictatorship, becoming a
harsh critic of Assad. Moreover, Turkey is now the main backer of the Syrian
opposition, as it hosts the political center of the Syrian National Council
and the headquarters of the Free Syrian Army.

The Syrian crisis has challenged the well-intentioned but unrealistic
Turkish foreign policy of recent years, forcing Turkey to confront the true
nature of the contemporary Middle East. Nowadays, Turkish decision makers
seek to create a new Syrian ally by supporting the rise of the Sunni
opposition in place of the current Alawite regime. A Sunni regime in
Damascus would help counterbalance Iran's Shiite expansionism in the region.

Yet, Iranian-backed Assad continues to survive and gain time to maneuver. As
well, Assad has increased his support for the PKK terrorist group. The
organization's Syrian Kurdish elements, which have always had close ties
with the Syrian security services, became even more active in recent months.
Sources in the Turkish press claim that members of the Syrian intelligence
have started operating among the PKK terrorists. In parallel, the PKK seeks
to turn the "Arab Spring" into a “Kurdish Spring” by mobilizing violent mobs
in Turkey's streets. As well, the terrorist group recently escalated its
subversive activities against Ankara despite the government’s negotiation
efforts for a peaceful solution to Turkey’s Kurdish problem.

Furthermore, Iran's Shiite expansionism in the region, along with its
competing interests in Syria and its nuclear program, makes it an important
rival for Turkey. Iran's influence is also felt in Iraq, which is basically
controlled by pro-Tehran elements. The strengthening of the Shiite bloc is
evident in Iraq's recent hosting of the Arab League Summit – the first time
a Shiite-led state has held the meeting.

Thus, Ankara is now facing the pro-Iran Shiite crescent of Tehran, Baghdad,
and Damascus, complemented by a rise in PKK terrorism. Such a security
environment is reminiscent of the threatening strategic landscape of the
1990s. This time, however, Turkey's decision makers are not able to use the
leverage of a strategic partnership with Israel as they did then. While
Saudi Arabia and Qatar can lend some support by sponsoring the Free Syrian
Army, they can hardly counterbalance the Iranian-led alliance.

Considering the veto power of Moscow and Beijing in the UN Security Council,
the determined support of Tehran, and the unwillingness of the West to
exercise a military option against Syria, Assad might be able to withstand
international pressure even in the midst of a civil war. Such a war might
turn into a regional confrontation between the Shiite and Sunni blocs, and
Turkey might be dragged into it. Indeed, Turkish President Abdullah Gul on
April 5th stated before the Turkish War Colleges that the dangerous
escalations in Syria, Iraq, and Iran might turn into an armed conflict and
stressed that diplomatic activism and military preparation is a must for

A civil war in Syria carries two potential threats for Ankara. First, Turkey
might find itself alone against a Tehran-led alliance. Second, the violence
in Syria could have a similar result to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq – that
is, the establishment of Kurdish autonomy in the north under PKK dominion.
Northern Syria might become a safe haven for terrorists and/or a link to the
separatist Kurdish entity in Iraq.

As the turmoil in Syria continues and the security environment of Turkey
worsens, two factors might lead to unilateral Turkish military intervention
in Syria.

The clashes in Syria might cause a major refugee crisis which would force
Ankara to establish a buffer zone within Syrian territory. Although the
probable justification for intervention would be preventing a humanitarian
crisis, securing a buffer zone in Syrian territory is in essence a military
operation. If Damascus responds with force, Erdogan’s government will
probably order the Turkish Armed Forces to fight the Syrian army. However,
this course of action may lack public support in Turkey.

Another military option would be defensive action to stop PKK terrorism,
aided by Damascus, from mounting. Unlike the first option, confronting
terrorism and preserving national unity would garner the support of the
majority of Turks. Of course, Iran’s possible response to any Turkish
intervention in Syria is an important constraint on Ankara’s freedom of

Can Kasapoglu, who holds a Ph.D. from the Strategic Research Institute at
the Turkish War College, is a visiting post-doctoral researcher at the
Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.

BESA Perspectives is published through the generosity of the Greg
Rosshandler Family

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