Almost a year since unrest broke out in Syria, its uncompromising president, Bashar al-Assad, has proven unwilling to undertake any political reforms or surrender power. The United Nations (UN) Security Council took up the issue, but a draft resolution condemning the violence and backing an Arab League plan for a power transfer was vetoed by China and Russia. Demonstrations and riots are met with violent repression, allegedly resulting in 5,000 casualties. And recent suicide attacks in December and January, while an Arab League observer mission was struggling to convince the Syrian regime to listen to reason, show that both the regime and the resistance will stick to their hard-line positions, igniting more violence than ever.

As the death toll rises, pressure for an international intervention is mounting. And that puts Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbor, in a difficult position. In any form of international intervention, Turkey is bound to be the frontline country because of its location and its historical diplomatic and economic ties to Syria. The West does not want to take the lead. The United States and European countries are facing stark economic hardships and have major elections on the horizon. Neither is willing to start another war abroad. Many of Syria’s neighbors are either not in a position to play a part in an intervention or do not want to participate. Iraqi authorities have remained neutral since the Syrian crisis began, and Lebanon, which would have a lot to lose from regional destabilization, is much too weak to initiate any action. Jordan meanwhile is struggling to keep its economy afloat—the crisis in Syria has already done damage there—and would have a lot to lose from a change of regime in Syria.

Bayram Balci
Balci was a nonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, where his research focuses on Turkey and Turkish foreign policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
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Though seemingly in the best position to make an impact in Syria, Turkey will not take action on its own. Unilateral moves or a botched operation would threaten the image Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has crafted of Turkey as a model for the Arab world. Even more dangerously, intervention in Syria could inflame the chronic problem of Turkey’s Kurdish population.

Thus, Turkey has not made a move yet, but is waiting for strong backing from the international community, including its Arab neighbors. In the meantime, repression and violence continue in Syria.

Pressuring Syria

Turkey’s dilemma is compounded by the fact that all attempts to put pressure on Syria have failed so far. In November, the Arab League imposed unprecedented economic sanctions on Syria, and on December 26, the league sent an observer mission of 165 delegates to the country. But the presence of visiting officials had little impact on regime-sponsored violence against protesters, and they left on January 26.

Assad has also thus far refused to accept the Arab League’s proposed transition process, which would include an end to the crackdown on protesters, acceptance of a cease-fire, the release of prisoners, and the implementation of democratic political reforms. But the Arab League has not given up demanding that the Syrian regime back down. Recently, the Qatari prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim  Al Thani, took the lead and insisted that Bashar al-Assad turn over power to his vice president, Farouk al-Sharaa, an experienced politician, diplomat, and member of the Baath Party old guard.

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council took up the Arab League’s proposal and debated the steps it could take to increase the pressure on Damascus. But Russia and China both stood in opposition to the UN resolution calling for a Syrian-led transition process.

Several scenarios for an international intervention to help the Syrian opposition and facilitate an overthrow of the Assad regime have been discussed. One proposal, suggested by Turkey, would create a buffer zone on Syrian territory, like the one that was established in Iraq in 1991 to protect Kurdish civilians from the attacks of Saddam Hussein’s armed forces. A second option, offered up by France in November 2011, calls for the creation of protected humanitarian corridors to help get supplies into Syria. Their establishment would not require Syrian authorization but would require an international mandate. And some military experts, backed by Syrian opposition leaders, have suggested yet another scenario: implementing no-fly zones over Syria to protect opposition groups involved in the resistance.

On the ground, the cooperation of Turkey would be necessary to implement any of these international operations. Turkey has much leverage over the decisionmaking process, but there are a number of factors at play and Turkey’s choices are not necessarily easy to make.

The Break between Assad and Erdogan

It is an indication of the degree to which Arab uprisings have challenged the status quo in the region and forced Turkey to rethink its foreign policy that Prime Minister Erdogan is even considering participating in any of the interventions discussed above.

Until recently, Syria and Turkey enjoyed excellent relations, cooperating since 1998 on numerous programs in the realms of politics, trade, and security. The two countries established an integrated economic market in 2004 and set up a joint office for bilateral trade in 2007, programs which gradually resulted in the economic rebound of the subregion. Turkey and Syria lifted visa requirements, held joint military training, and signed technical military cooperation agreements as well. This warming of relations was unprecedented for Turkey, as Ankara traditionally only had close relations in the region with Israel.

Strong relations with Syria were part of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s new policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” The idea was to build strong political and economic ties with neighboring countries despite the autocratic nature of their regimes in order to reinforce Turkey’s regional position. Turkey even reached out to centuries-long rivals, smoothing diplomatic relations with countries like Greece and Armenia.

But as uprisings spread across the Arab world, Turkey was forced to alter its approach. The defiance of authoritarian regimes across the Middle East in the face of their suffering populations was a doomed position, in Ankara’s view, and had to change. But the shift in Turkey’s foreign policy took time.

Ankara remained extraordinarily silent when the first authoritarian leader fell in Tunisia in January 2011. But then President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was also overthrown, and the Arab Spring started spreading to Libya and Syria. Prime Minister Erdogan changed his mind, and in May, he called on Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to step down.

By August, the zero problems policy was for all intents and purposes dead and buried when Turkey began providing a safe haven for Syrian opposition members to organize. In mid-September, Erdogan visited Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, and his popularity grew as he addressed the Arab street. U.S. President Barack Obama even praised him, saying, “Prime Minister Erdogan has shown great leadership on a range of issues and promoting democracy.”

As the Arab League increased its efforts, Erdogan soon took his diplomatic breakup with Damascus to a whole new level. In November, the day after the Syrian regime launched a particularly violent repression campaign against demonstrators in Hama, Erdogan urged Bashar al-Assad to resign and openly criticized him for his intransigence and cowardice, saying that there is no heroism in fighting your own people.

Where Does Turkey Stand Now?

Turkey seems to be an ideal partner in addressing the Syrian situation. Sharing a 600-mile-long border with Syria and home to NATO military bases from which missions could be launched, Turkey is an asset to any operation. In 1991, for instance, the base at Incirlik, approximately 6 miles outside of Adana in southeastern Turkey, provided the U.S. Air Force a base from which to launch patrols over the Iraqi no-fly zone. International air support for the Syrian resistance could easily be set up in this already internationally operated military site.

Like others in the region, Turkey fears that the Syrian situation may deteriorate into chaos and that Syria may split along ethnic and religious lines. Neighboring states could then become involved by providing assistance and support to any of these confessional or ethnic groups. Looking back at what happened in Lebanon and Iraq not so long ago, Turkish authorities have reason to be concerned. An open conflict in Syria, in which foreign forces intervene, would have serious consequences for regional security.

Turkey has already started to play an active role in assisting the Syrian opposition. On behalf of the Turkish government, Turkish nongovernmental organizations, such as the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief and Mazlumder, are in charge of mediation and cooperation efforts with Syrian refugees and opposition groups. These organizations are largely government organized, and the fact that they actively support Syrian refugees and opposition groups shows that the Erdogan government is, at least unofficially, very much concerned and inclined to help the Syrian resistance. Syrian opposition leaders were also granted the opportunity over the past few months to organize international meetings in Antalya and Istanbul.

The weak and disregarded Syrian liberation army, led by Colonel Riad al Asaad and made up of defecting officers, is also based in Turkey, where it is likely under the direct influence of the Turkish army. But little is known about this force. Turkish officials are very discreet about the topic and do not allow observers and media to contact the troops deployed in the forbidden border zone. 

Arab League sanctions against Syria, however, received a lukewarm response in Turkey. Many are concerned about the unexpected adverse effects they are already having, including a negative impact on Turkish businesses and populations with close links to Syria. Moreover, the sanctions could harm the civilian population in Syria, as the country’s economic and social situation is extremely weak and fragile. Sanctions may do more damage to the day-to-day life and survival of civilians than they will to the intransigence of Assad. Though reluctant to adopt the sanctions, Turkey in the end complied.

And in general, Turkish authorities are proving more reluctant than proactive about Syria. They fear for their own national security and are concerned about the impact action could have on their international image and status as a regional leader. Erdogan’s Turkey would have much to lose in terms of regional leadership if its armed forces compromised themselves in an unpopular operation.

Thus, Turkey is hesitating to make a decisive move. It is clear that Turkish military forces would not go into Syria alone. Before intervening, be it to set up a humanitarian corridor, a no-fly zone, or a buffer zone, Turkey would demand an international mandate, through NATO or the UN, with the active involvement of Arab countries. Ankara does not want to be perceived, especially in the Arab world, as a neo-imperialist, Ottoman power in the Middle East or a devoted servant of the West. The image of secular and modern Turkey has never been better among the Arab people, especially in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, where the new political elites there have openly expressed their admiration of the so-called Turkish model.

The Kurdish Issue

The central concern for Turkey, however, is the effect any intervention, or lack thereof, would have on the Kurdish issue. Since the establishment of the modern Turkish republic by Mustapha Kemal Atatürk in 1923, the Kurdish people have been denied official recognition as a minority and have had no official status. In 1984, the Kurdish issue gained new saliency when the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which was founded to fight for autonomy and greater rights for Turkish Kurds, escalated its attacks against the Turkish government. Since the outbreak of that violent separatist guerrilla movement, there have been numerous victims on both sides, which, along with the military and financial efforts to “solve the problem” and the never-ending debates and political deadlock, undermine Turkish politics. Indeed, the Kurdish issue has been at the top of the political agenda of all governments in Turkey since 1984.

Syria played a key role in the PKK’s development. From 1984 to 1998, Syria was the most important supporter of PKK militants and their leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Since the arrest of Öcalan in 1998, Turkey has successfully reduced the strike force of the PKK. But when the Syrian regime started to falter in March 2011, Turkey’s main concern became the potential strengthening of Kurdish militants in the PKK. Ankara worried that the Assad regime would encourage the PKK as a form of reprisal against Turkey, allowing the group to reopen bases in Syria from which they could attack Turkey.

Those fears could be valid. In November 2011 from his mountain headquarters of Kandil, Iraq, Murat Karayilan, one of the most influential and powerful PKK leaders since Öcalan’s arrest, officially called the Kurds to arms but did not urge any further action. Since the Kurdish parties in Syria appear to be remaining neutral in the ongoing revolution, Ankara suspects their allegiance to Assad. And several Turkish media reports have recently mentioned the reopening of a PKK military support base in remote Syria, but they have not provided any evidence to support those assertions.

The Kurds’ wait-and-see tactics are a major concern for Ankara, which fears the Kurds of Syria might soon enjoy the same freedoms and autonomy as did Kurds in post-Saddam Iraq. That would put pressure on Turkey’s national and territorial integrity and on its internal security. Spurred by developments in Syria, Kurds in Turkey could intensify their claims for autonomy.

Turkey has already acted to head off such unrest. In October 2011 Turkish authorities launched a vast police campaign which resulted in the arrest of dozens of militants and sympathizers of the PKK and its underground urban branch, the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), which is suspected by Ankara to be a more political organization.

The Kurdish issue remains a focal point of Turkish internal as well as foreign policies. It blurs the position Turkey should be taking against the regime in Syria. In one sense, this history of conflict is just another reason for Turkey to take part in any international operation in Syria. That would give Ankara an opportunity to control the evolution of the Kurdish minority in Syria and to develop good neighborly relations with the Syrian Kurds, as it did with the autonomous Kurdish government in Iraq.

But the Kurdish threat to Turkey fuels as much hesitation as mobilization when it comes to a Turkish military operation. Some fear that an unsuccessful operation in Syria against Assad would only enhance his support for Kurdish separatism in Turkey. Damascus could also bring together Kurdish groups from both Iraq and Syria, reviving guerrilla operations in Turkey. Yet, others believe that getting involved in an international operation to overthrow Assad will break Kurdish irredentism.

Turkey is still vacillating between repression and tolerance of its Kurdish community, which only adds to Turkey’s hesitation to become involved in an external resolution of the Syrian crisis.

Preparing for the Future

What comes next is unclear. Though Turkey is a frontline country, it will not go into Syria alone. In any operation, Ankara will need its Western and Arab partners to reinforce security along its 600-mile-long border with Syria, to contain Kurdish separatism, and to help ensure the next regime in Syria will remain open to cooperation and good neighborly relations with Turkey. But Turkey’s internally and externally driven hesitations are at least in part causing the current international inaction on Syria.

What might develop should Assad finally leave power is even more uncertain. The forces that emerge might destabilize an already extremely fragile and volatile region. While Turkey considers its options and resolutions stall in the United Nations, Ankara is preparing for a post-Assad Syria, developing contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Syrian opposition forces. All the while, civilian casualties build and the international community looks evermore helpless.