When blame is apportioned for the bloody sectarian morass into which Syria has fallen, Turkey will need to accept its fair share. More specifically, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will need to accept it.
Turkey’s Syrian policy is Erdogan’s Syrian policy. It emanated from the office of the prime minister when he filled that role, and from the president’s office since he gained that position last year.
Unfortunately the policy was predicated on the swift removal of his former ally Bashar al-Assad, and when this didn’t occur Ankara has been at a loss to come up with a coherent alternative policy approach. Turkey has been deeply affected by the Syrian crisis. Its long border has meant that from the earliest days it has been a recipient of Syrians fleeing the fighting in their country. It is projected to play host to 1.7 million Syrians this year, and the UN has praised the standard of its emergency response in dealing with them.
But Turkey also has been long suspected of allowing jihadists to move freely across its border into Syria. This border is more than 800km long, so it is very difficult to police. Whether by sins of commission or omission, Turkey stands accused of providing the easiest way for putative fighters to enter northern Syria. In return for toppling the Assad regime and not making trouble on the Turkish side of the border, so the argument went, Turkish authorities were willing to countenance their free passage across the frontier.
This fitted in with the broader narrative of a Turkey whose 20th-century secular political and societal foundations were being eroded by a creeping Islamification program encouraged by Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The ban on the hijab was repealed, there have been increasing restrictions on the sale and promotion of alcohol, the time spent on compulsory religious classes in secondary school has been increased and the Constitutional Court recently allowed religious marriages to be considered valid without a legally binding civil marriage first.
The inescapable conclusion concerning Erdogan and his AKP is that he is attempting to Islamise Turkey by stealth. The AKP denies these claims and counters that it represents a conservative, democratic outlook. But this conservatism is rooted in Erdogan’s piety and the contemporary Turkish Islamist movements to which the AKP can trace its roots.
Ankara’s foreign policy also has shifted during Erdogan’s tenure from a long-term focus on Europe and the goal of EU accession to more of a focus on the East. Some dubbed it neo-Ottomanism, a reprise of its centuries-old role as the key influence in the Middle East.
Part of this approach involved increasingly close relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly with Hamas and with the Morsi government in Egypt. This also drew Ankara and Doha together, as the Qataris saw support for the Brotherhood as a way of gaining influence on the Syrian opposition and annoying its Saudi neighbour at the same time.
The fall of Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and the proscription of the Brotherhood as a terrorist group by the Saudi authorities dealt significant blows to Turkey’s aspirations of increased influence in the region. And the civil war in Syria has further shown up the failure of Erdogan’s reliance on individuals and groups with Islamist identities as strategic partners.
Turkey’s stocks in Egypt and with many Gulf states plummeted because of his overt courting of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its relations with its Western partners, particularly its NATO allies, were similarly tarnished because of his reluctance to crack down on Islamist fighters using his country as the gateway to Syria.
Until recently, however, this has not cost Erdogan politically. He remains a wily political operator. From the time he was a successful mayor of Istanbul, he has presented himself as a strong, conservative nationalist. He understands Turkish politics better than anyone and has managed to outwit his political opponents and even the Turkish military along the way. But after a nearly unbroken run of political success, the AKP, despite gaining 40 per cent of the vote, failed to win a majority of seats in parliament in last June’s election for the first time since its creation in 2001.
It was a significant political reversal for an individual and a party unused to such events. Some saw it as a referendum on Erdogan’s desire to increase the power of the president and so denied the AKP the majority it needed to enact such legislation. The biggest fly in the ointment as far as Erdogan was concerned was that the pro-Kurdish alliance known as the People’s Democratic Party was able to garner 13 per cent of the vote. Potential coalition partners have been unable to come to an agreement with the AKP and the possibility of a new election looms.
At the same time, events in Syria have continued to move in directions antithetical to Turkish interests. Kurdish forces have been effective in battling Islamic State and creating areas in northern Syria under their control. Ankara has pushed very hard for a no-fly zone in northern Syria for years under the pretext of providing a humanitarian safe haven, but in reality because it suits Turkish purposes to do so. Washington has always opposed such a move and Ankara until recently denied the coalition use of its Incirlik air base for flying missions to Syria.
The suicide bombing carried out by a Turkish Islamic State recruit in the city of Suruc late last month that killed more than 30 people, followed by clashes between Islamic State militants and the Turkish military at Kilis on the Syrian border, meant Erdogan had not only to take action against Islamic State but to be seen to do it.
Even here, though, he appears to have sought political advantage. He granted US use of Incirlik for some fighter aircraft but at the same time claimed to have gained some type of agreement for a safe zone inside Syrian territory. The problem is, nobody knows exactly what the zone is supposed to look like or what security guarantees will be given to it and by whom, or even whether such an agreement exists. Some see it as a Turkish attempt to stymie the possibility of a contiguous Kurdish-controlled area on its Syrian border.
The Turkish government has also conducted airstrikes against Islamic State positions; however, criticism again has emerged that the weight of the Turkish military effort has been directed against Kurdish targets in Syria and Iraq.
The accusation is that Ankara is using the Suruc bombing as political cover for targeting the Kurds, and that the retaliatory actions against security forces in Turkey by Kurdish groups will bolster the stocks of Erdogan’s conservative nationalist party while reducing the political attraction of his political opponents.
It is a dangerous game that Turkey has been playing in the region, and one that may yet come back to haunt the nation. Erdogan may have shown himself adept at domestic politics, but he has shown a much less sure hand in his foreign policy decision-making.
Rodger Shanahan is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute of International Policy and an associate professor at the Australian National University’s National Security College.