For Turkey, it’s all about regime change in Syria

Ankara won’t intervene in Kobane – or elsewhere in Syria – unless the anti-ISIL operation hits Assad

Ankara will hold fast to its principles, writes Stein [Reuters]

After severing ties with Bashar al-Assad in August 2011, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has actively worked to hasten the dictator’s downfall. Turkey’s Syria policy unfolded over many months and eventually came to be defined by the government’s absolute insistence that Assad be forced from power via the use of military force.

The AKP had spent much of its time in office lauding the improvement in Turkish-Syrian relations. The geopolitically minded AKP argued that closer relations with Damascus would help advance Turkish economic interests because it was an ideal transit route for Turkish trucks headed to the oil-rich Gulf states. Thus, as the Arab revolts spread to Syria, Ankara’s first instinct was to broker a political compromise, whereby Assad would step down as president and become prime minister. The plan lacked any real political meaning, owing to the fact that Assad would have a say over his successor and maintain his control of Syria’s armed forces and intelligence services.

After Assad rejected this proposal in August 2011, Turkey broke ties with the regime and began to advocate for regime change. At that time, Ankara felt as if Assad’s days were numbered, and that the Syrian dictator would be overthrown in six months. To put pressure on the regime, Turkey imposed sanctions and began to work with other like-minded Arab states to facilitate the transfer of aid and arms to elements of the Syrian opposition. 

Secondary threat?

The regime’s stubborn grip on power, combined with the fracturing of the rebels, prompted Ankara to cooperate with hardline rebel groups that the United States and other western countries deemed too radical. Turkey viewed the extremist threat as secondary to the one posed by Assad. In fact, Ankara is of the opinion that the two issues are linked. Turkey argues that the Assad regime’s oppression and use of force against civilians created the conditions that led to the rise of ISIL in Syria. Ankara has since included the US in this criticism, arguing that the failure to intervene in the conflict more decisively at the outset, allowed for ISIL to gain strength.

Turkish president warns Kobane is about to fall to ISIL

Ankara rejects the idea that its border policy had much to do with the rise of the extremism in the Syrian conflict. The AKP has sought to deflect criticism that it indirectly contributed to the rise of ISIL by allowing scores of fighters to transit through its border. Turkey instead blames the European Union and the Arab states for failing to provide Turkey with actionable intelligence to intercept these men at the airport.

The AKP argues that it was far out in front of the extremist threat and that the West – primarily the US – failed to listen to Turkish advice about the rise of radicalism. Ankara made clear that once Assad was forced from power, the political opposition that it was helping to organise in Istanbul would then be able to assume power in Damascus. In turn, once a new government was formed, the sources of ISIL’s legitimacy would be removed, and thus the group could be more easily defeated.

Border policy

This logic helps explain Turkey’s border policy. The threat was not the foreign fighters per se, but rather the policies of the regime. Thus, in order to fight the regime, the rebels had to be aided, regardless of their ideology. In turn, once the rebels toppled Assad, the foreign fighters could then be dealt with as a secondary issue.

Turkey’s plan suffered a setback in mid-July 2012. In addition to the rebel infighting, the regime’s decision to withdraw its troops from the Kurdish majority areas of Syria led to the creation of the three cantons of Afrin, Kobane and Jazira. The withdrawal of the regime’s forces from these areas allowed for the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the sister party to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), to consolidate its power in the areas known as Rojava.

In turn, the PYD began to take steps towards autonomy. Turkey rejected the PYD’s actions and instead pushed the group to more closely cooperate with the Syrian opposition, ostensibly as a member of the Kurdish National Council (KNC) – an umbrella organisation of different Kurdish groups under the control of Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq. In parallel, Ankara turned a blind eye to the ongoing clashes between the PYD and the Turkish-backed rebel forces and even opted to close its borders with Rojava. (It later opened two border gates after the ISIL offensive began in Kobane to accommodate fleeing refugees.)

However, an agreement to cooperate struck in mid-2012 quickly fizzled out, as the PKK-inspired PYD and the Barzani-backed KNC squabbled over the power sharing provisions of the agreement. Turkey has a special relationship with the Barzanis and supported the agreement, albeit while also working with the Syrian opposition to ensure that a post-Assad Syria retained a strong central state and did not agree to the creation of autonomous, or federal, zones. The AKP’s desire for the maintenance of a strong central Syrian state in a post-Assad Syria certainly influenced the recent handling of the ISIL assault on Kobane.

In early October, Salih Muslim, a high-ranking PYD official, visited Ankara for a meeting with Hakan Fidan, the director of Turkey’s intelligence organisation. In exchange for Turkish support, Fidan is reported to have told Muslim that the PYD must end its ties to the Assad regime, end Rojava’s bid for autonomy, distance itself from the PKK, and integrate its forces with those of the Free Syrian Army. These demands are similar to others Turkey made of Muslim when he first visited Ankara in 2013.

Regime targets

This means that Turkey is unlikely to intervene in Kobane or Syria, unless it can be guaranteed that the anti-ISIL operation is expanded to include regime targets. Turkey still blames the regime for the rise of ISIL in Syria and continues to push the PYD to make concessions. Those concessions reflect Ankara’s overarching policy goal of installing a strong central government, committed to the maintenance of Syrian territorial integrity. Moreover, they are ultimately based on Ankara’s discomfort with the PYD’s connection to the PKK and the potential threat posed by an autonomous PYD controlled enclaves on its southern border.

Turkey’s priorities therefore are not limited to the “degradation” of ISIL, but rather are based on the belief that regime change is necessary to resolve the Syrian crisis. The US has yet to embrace the Turkish policy. This suggests that Turkey will not play a military role in the anti-ISIL coalition. While Ankara may eventually succumb to US pressure and participate in the air strikes, it is more likely that Turkey’s cooperation with the coalition will continue to be limited intelligence cooperation and border protection. Moreover, with regards to the PYD, Ankara continues to make clear that it expects the group to ally itself with the FSA, while also severing its ties to the Assad regime.

The consistency of Turkish decision-making since the beginning of the conflict suggests that Ankara will hold fast to its principles. However, absent sign-off from the US, Turkey will continue to be unable to follow through on its goal of regime change. The future therefore portends greater Turkish advocacy for a US-led air campaign to force Assad from power. These efforts, however, have to be accepted in Washington. This suggests greater Turkish frustration in the coming months.

Aaron Stein is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a doctoral candidate at King’s College, London and a researcher specialising in proliferation in the Middle East at the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.