The Syrian Civil War and the End of Turkey’s Liberal Dream


Throughout recent history, Turkish foreign policy has habitually followed international norms and placed its faith in international organizations, especially in matters of defense. As a result, the country’s strategic character stood out among its neighbors. Yet the fallout from the Syrian Civil War has forced Ankara to move away from its rules-oriented liberal approach to foreign policy (which I discussed in more detail in my previous article for War on the Rocks), and begin adapting its institutional capabilities and strategic thinking to new threats in a new environment. This process is off to a rough start.

It is telling, in this regard, to observe how the region’s states have reacted to unrest on their borders in recent history. When Iran plunged into the chaos of revolution in 1979, Saddam Hussein saw an opportunity to invade his neighbor. When Ukraine stood up in protest against its pro-Russian leader, Putin sent in unmarked Russian forces to fan the flames of a rebellion and later annexed a part of the country. By contrast, when protests began to shake the Syrian regime in 2011, then-Foreign Minister Davutoglu flew to Damascus to talk to Assad. He warned the Syrian leader that a civil war would be disastrous and that he should refrain from using force against his own people. “I tried to explain this to him on that one Ramadan day, without any food, for seven hours,” he later said. None of the reporting of the visit suggests that Davutoglu exerted any leverage over Assad. He seems to have believed that he could change the course of events by the power of argument alone. Of course, Assad must have been thinking about his erstwhile Egyptian colleague Hosni Mubarak, who was in jail at the time, or perhaps he thought of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was forced into exile.

Once it became clear to Ankara that Syria would enter a civil war, the Kemalist reflex would have been to seal the border immediately. That was not an option for the AK Party leadership. Erdogan felt that Assad — whom he saw as his junior — had disrespected him, and this prompted the same single-minded determination otherwise reserved for his domestic enemies. This led Turkey to enter a proxy war across its border. It was the country’s first such war in its Republican history — and it showed.

After more than five years of war, the Assad regime is weakened, but will live. The self-proclaimed Islamic State spreads its tentacles across the region, including into Turkey itself. And Turkey now has a border with a de facto Kurdish state governed by the PYD, a Syrian offshoot of the separatist PKK. The Islamist rebels supported by Turkey are weak and divided, while the PYD enjoys Western backing and appears more united than ever before. Meanwhile, Iran and Russia are propping up Assad both in the field and in diplomatic negotiations with the West. It is safe to say that the war has not gone well for Turkey.

Turkey’s main problem has been that the opposition militias it supported were incoherent in organization and unpalatable in their ideologies. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a loose conglomeration of rebel groups, and is far from posing a real threat to Damascus or Raqqa. Ahrar ash-Sham, a Salafist outfit, is a moderately effective fighting force, but is hardly under Turkey’s control, and considering its cooperation with al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, too radical to be included in peace talks. In 2015, Ankara tried to organize the Turkmens under the Sultan Murad brigade, but it was hard to build momentum by that time, as many Turkmens had already been scattered across different rebel groups around Aleppo. The train and equip program — initiated in concert with the ever-reluctant Obama administration — has been a spectacular failure and was shut down in 2015. Other such programs led by the United States have had to be more modest. In sum, there never existed a reliable ground force in Syria whose interests were aligned with those of Turkey.

Steeped in the ways of power politics, Iran and Russia have meanwhile propped up the Assad regime against the battery of rebel groups. Iranian-backed militias across Syria have been supporting Shia groups against rebels and since the early years of the war. More recently, the Russians have been fielding crucial hardware such as tanks and anti-air systems, and since September have used the Latakia air base to bomb their client’s enemies into submission. These two powers are built for proxy war. They have extensive experience sending their forces beyond their borders in order to achieve foreign policy objectives — in this case, preventing Western encroachment on their spheres of influence.

Turkey isn’t equipped to deal with the threat emanating from Syria, partly because it wasn’t supposed to be. Unlike Iran and Russia, Turkey is part of the most powerful security alliance on the planet, NATO, and as such was built as part of a greater whole rather than a standalone force. As the war gained pace, Turkey maintained a laundry list of things it requested from its allies, including warships with Aegis missile defense systems in the Eastern Mediterranean, PATRIOT anti-missile systems, AWACS radar planes, detailed air defense plans, and other capabilities. Many of these were granted, albeit halfheartedly. Ankara became frustrated in late 2015 when the United States withdrew its PATRIOT missile defense systems deployed along Turkey’s border with Syria for “critical modernization upgrades.” Most importantly, the Obama administration repeatedly rejected Turkey’s main request: the creation of an international safe zone on its border surrounding the city of A’zaz. The Obama administration knew that Turkey did not have the capabilities to enact safe zones on its own and obdurately watched as Russia and Iran increased their hold over Syria.

At first, the policy community in Ankara didn’t know what to make of NATO’s reluctance, but whatever ambiguities there were about flailing NATO — and especially about U.S. support — were swept away with the Obama administration’s insistence on supporting the PYD in Syria. Early on in the Syrian civil war, Ankara maintained regular contact with PYD leadership and tacitly agreed to allow U.S. support to the group, which was widely regarded as the most effective fighting force against the Islamic State. To circumvent its own anti-terror laws, the Obama administration made a distinction between the PKK, which it defines as a terrorist organization, and the PYD in Syria.

But the peace process between Ankara and the PKK broke down in mid-2015, and the Turkish military waded into a bitter fight to expel the Kurdish insurgents from the Southeast, starting with the districts of Sur, Cizre, and Silopi. Turkey was now on a war footing with the PKK and PYD and expected its ally to adjust its position accordingly. But the Obama administration clung to its position that the PKK and PYD are technically separate entities.

The issue at this point was not legality, but fidelity. Conservative voters in Turkey have long been instinctually opposed to U.S. policy in the region. Now, overt American support for the PKK — at a time when funerals of Turkish soldiers were a daily news item — was infuriating. Erdogan channeled this notion during one of his regular speeches, thundering, “Are you on our side, or the side of the terrorist PYD and PKK?” The situation may be the most significant divergence between U.S. and Turkish interests since the Cyprus crisis in 1974. Back then, Turkey’s unilateral action appeared as a momentary lapse in discipline. It was the exception that proved the rule. In the absence of the structured outside pressure of the Cold War, today’s disagreement over the PYD feels like a permanent loosening of the ties that bind the two countries. As those ties loosen, Ankara’s policy community is spinning off in ever wider and more perilous circles.

Turkish security institutions

In his recent profile of President Obama’s foreign policy views, Jeffery Goldberg writes that “Obama now considers [Erdogan] a failure and an authoritarian, one who refuses to use his enormous army to bring stability to Syria.” The claim here is that Turkey’s security establishment was capable of bringing stability to Syria, but was held back by Erdogan. Yet one close look at Turkey’s main military and intelligence institutions reveals that this proposition is doubtful. Turkey may have a large army, but it is unable to project power into complex political environments. Nor does Turkey possess an institutional culture that is accustomed to handle the political strain that foreign military action can exert on a bureaucracy. The Syrian Civil War has exposed these deficits.

It is useful in this regard to think about what the Turkish military could have done, but refrained from doing. There were several times when a Turkish ground invasion was discussed, most recently when the regime forces cut off Turkey’s access to Aleppo. Yet the military stayed put. Again and again, the AK Party government mulled an invasion, but chose to continue supporting the rebels. Meanwhile, it worked to eliminate any factors that could draw its military into the war. The tomb of Suleyman Shah, 27 kilometers deep within Syrian territory and guarded by Turkish troops since the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, was moved to the Turkish border after receiving threats from Islamic State militants. When the Islamic State raided Turkey’s consulate in Mosul and took 46 Turkish citizens hostage for more than three months, Ankara negotiated with the group to get them out, avoiding outright confrontation and refraining from retaliation afterwards.

The Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) participated in the war primarily through shelling and aerial bombardment. Airpower was Turkey’s primary mode of deterring movement of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), but entering Syrian airspace has been out of the question ever since Turkey shot down a Russian airplane in November of 2015. Turkey is now restricted to shelling, which slows down YPG advances but is unlikely to impede the group for long. Overall, the TAF has been absent from the war in Syria. Without a military in the field, Turkey was unable to set up a safe zone where it could house refugees, and perhaps more importantly, prevent the regime forces and PYD from cutting off Aleppo.

There are a few reasons for the TAF’s absence from the field. First, the political dimension. There was residual political tension between the AK Party government and the military. During the first years of the AK Party government, this was based on the implicit threat of a coup. As the government — with the help of its then-Gülenist allies in the judiciary — neutralized that part of the military, the dynamic turned around, and many in the military leadership feared becoming targets in political battles. Disturbing Turkey’s isolationism would have been a risky endeavor requiring a level of trust simply nonexistent in civil-military relations at the time. Another political reason was the elections hanging over the AK Party government for much of the war, with opinion polls consistently showing that the public was against entering Syria. The AK Party leadership were not about to risk their seats for a cause about which they themselves were ambivalent.

On the strategic level, Turkey has had to police an 822-kilometer border with Syria. If Turkey did directly intervene in Syria, it would not be hard to imagine the violence spilling across to the Turkish side, given the length of the border.

Second, a lack of technical capability later came to the surface on the domestic front. By late 2015, when the war with the PKK had resumed, the TAF and police forces had to devote an overwhelming amount of their resources to the eastern districts of Silopi, Cizre, and Sur, and more recently Nusaybin. According to a military officer familiar with operations, few of the security forces involved had training in urban environments, and many lacked basic necessities such as riot gear and body armor. The PKK, on the other hand, had entrenched itself during the long truce with the government, with explosives buried beneath cement roads and well-trained snipers in key positions. To regain the advantage, the TAF relied heavily on artillery, practically blowing up whole neighborhoods . Overwhelming force here indicated weakness, rather than strength.

Third, manpower became a significant problem with possible ramifications on Turkey’s Syria strategy. In January, an estimated 2,000 security officials were engaged in battling around 200 PKK fighters in the district of Sur alone. According to one official, the vast majority of Gendarmerie Special Operations Battalions (JÖH) were at one point deployed in the southeast, along with many special operations forces. If Turkey were to invade Syria during this time, it would have suffered from a significant shortage of special forces. This was a major strategic problem for the TAF.

Earlier in the war, when the cease-fire between the government and PKK was in effect, this flow had gone the other way on the PKK’s side, with seasoned PKK fighters crossing the Syrian border to the PYD to make up the backbone of the YPG. While the PKK had prepared for the dissolution of the peace process and the resumption of war, any preparation for war within the TAF was seen as a lack of faith in the peace process, and thus the political leadership. As a result, the military was barely prepared for a war against the PKK, much less for invading Syria at the same time.

This triggered some structural and strategic changes throughout the system. General Hulusi Akar was appointed Chief of the General Staff in August 2015. Unlike many of his predecessors who spent much of their time thinking about politics, Akar was known as a workaholic who focused on minute technical details. He quickly assembled experts in Ankara to come up with a comprehensive strategy on urban fighting and a version of the “hearts and minds” campaign often referred to in counterinsurgency manuals used by the United States. New training programs have opened, and conscripts were excluded from serving in combat areas, which was a common sight in the past. Specialists in the Army War College and elsewhere have also stepped up their efforts to devise strategies dealing with complex environments, as illustrated by their recent symposium on “Hybrid Warfare” in March 2016. A mid-ranking military officer explained to me, “Things are not the same as before [the Syrian Civil War]…we know that we have to change.”

The Turkish institution that that conversely found itself thrust into Syria was the Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı (MIT), Turkey’s main spy agency. Before Syria, the agency focused on domestic intelligence and was hardly known in the region. In May 2010, Erdogan appointed Hakan Fidan as his chief spy. Fidan, a non-commissioned officer working at the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA) at the time, had written a PhD dissertation entitled “Diplomacy in the Information Age: The Use of Information Technologies in Verification.” He was widely believed to be starting a reform process in MIT that would render the agency more outward-oriented and professional, including the separation of domestic and foreign intelligence. Considering the nature of intelligence work, this would have taken years, if not decades. Yet when the Syrian Civil War erupted, MIT slammed into emergency mode.

Unlike the military, MIT’s chief has an organic connection to Erdogan, which helped to make it the state’s primary instrument in enacting Syria policy. MIT began establishing contact with rebel groups and coordinating shipments of weapons and supplies to Syria. In 2011, MIT had a budget of 751 million Lira. By 2016, the institution’s budget is scheduled to reach 1.637 billion Lira. A large percentage of this funds the construction of a new headquarters and modern surveillance technology. The agency has also been heavily recruiting foreign language speakers, primarily those fluent in Arabic. Meanwhile, Fidan’s profile has risen to something akin to a foreign policy czar of President Erdogan. Fidan has participated in forums such as the 2015 G20 Leaders’ Summit and sessions in the White House, uncharacteristic appearances that illustrate the importance Erdogan attributes to his chief of intelligence.

Though it is difficult to assess MIT’s performance through open sources, it appears to be in the middle of a steep learning curve. For example, many MIT-supported Turkmen videos from the front possess an awkward and distinctly bureaucratic tone. The consolidation of rebel groups linked to MIT, such as the Turkmen Sultan Murad brigade, also only occurred in mid-2015, when the war was already turning against Turkey. On the whole, rebel groups Turkey supported through the agency never stood a chance of achieving strategic objectives such as taking Damascus or defeating the Islamic State in Raqqa.

Building up capacity in the field of intelligence is a long process, and Turkey’s efforts are likely too little, too late to change the outcome of the Syrian conflict. But Syria has been a wake-up call to the country, and future Turkish governments will likely invest more heavily into the establishment of foreign intelligence capabilities, especially relating to border countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

How Turkey’s Character is Changing

President Theodore Roosevelt, the progenitor of muscular American foreign policy in the 20th century, coined the phrase “speak softly and carry a big stick.” At the precipice of war in Syria, Turkey certainly did not speak softly — nor, as it turned out, did it have a big stick.

There are historical reasons for this. Turkey’s political class came up on liberal habits such as following rules, honoring international obligations, and staying out of other countries’ business as much as possible. The AK Party then brought the country out of its shell by reaching out to its neighbors on the basis of a shared identity. This worked well for some time, but the Syrian Civil War changed the region in a way that Turkey was not prepared for. Much like Europe of the 17th century, ethnic and sectarian divides are becoming the battle lines of regional power struggle. Meanwhile, Turkey’s alliance with NATO is no longer the lifeline it once was, and the country is increasingly confined to its own bubble. In this new environment, Ankara is learning that it must follow another set of principles. Abdülkadir Selvi, a senior columnist close to the government, recently wrote that “the only language the international community understands is power” to justify Turkey’s shelling of PYD positions. His line would be a tautology in Tehran, but it is a radical shift of gears for Ankara.

Such a shift is not without risk. Tehran, for example, wields power with great skill across the region, but its revolutionary zeal arguably leads to more harm than good. In crafting its proverbial “stick,” Ankara’s challenge will be to develop a strong military without becoming militarist and a strong spy service without becoming a police state. If they are to speak softly, Turkey’s leaders must find a way to unhitch policy from the beliefs and emotions of any individual, instead relying on Turkish institutions to determine the national interest. It is unclear how this can happen in the absence of finding balance in the country’s domestic politics.

It is still worth thinking about what a strong Turkey could have looked like. A humanitarian intervention and safe zone in Syria could have saved thousands of lives. A powerful Turkish presence in northern Syria could have made Turkey the liberator of Syria’s Kurds, rather than their enemy. A more precise military instrument could have made the war against the PKK a lot less destructive. Iran and Russia would have far less influence, while NATO and the EU would have a powerful partner to help shape the region.

Of course, none of this has happened, nor is it likely to in the near future. But the lost opportunity should motivate Turkey to rebuild the strategic capabilities it lost almost a century ago. Prime Minister Davutoğlu said in a recent speech that “in this region, the greatest friend of the Kurds, the Yezidis, the Arabs and the Turkmens is Turkey.” It is a noble idea, but to realize it, Turkey will have to develop its capabilities and learn to wield them wisely.


Selim Koru is an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), where he focuses on Turkey’s relations with the Middle East and Asia. You can follow him @SelimKoru.