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Turkey’s Role in Syria Conflict: Regional Militias and International Coalitions

November 16th, 2015

By Barbara Matias – Research Assistant

Since its eruption in March 2011, the Syrian Civil War has incited millions of casualties and refugees, dozens of Security Council sanctions, the rise of the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS), as well as foreign military involvement and, most recently, a major unattended migratory crisis hitting the European Union at its core. This humanitarian disaster keeps escalating as new dynamics and power plays surge – in late July 2015 Turkey announced its decision to increase its own involvement in Syria’s conflict, by engaging in a series of airstrikes targeting ISIS and allowing the United States access to their airspace.

This brief delves into what Turkey’s newfound involvement could bring to the political and military situation in Syria, given their strategic geopolitical position.

Background on Turkey’s domestic and foreign affairs

The Republic of Turkey’s domestic affairs have been marred by internal and external scrutiny in recent times, as the country recovers from the political unrest incited by their recent general election on November 1st, whose turn out cemented President Tayyip Erdogan’s much-contested rule as leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). As the date neared, the security situation worsened, in which tensions between the Turkish majority and the Kurdish minority (the largest ethnic majority in Turkey, representing a total of 18%[1] of the country’s population) remain on the rise. Most significantly this is on the rise in the mainly Kurdish Southeast region, which continues to be plagued with both armed movements or attacks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in support of their search for political or civil rights and their demands for a separate autonomous sovereign state. Violent episodes have been especially recurrent in the recent run-up to the aforementioned parliamentary elections and in the aftermath of their contested results, from rallies and marches to airstrikes against the Kurds[2] – inevitably ending the 2013 ceasefire negotiated with the Kurds.

In parallel to this fragile domestic sociopolitical reality, Turkey’s foreign affairs have become tangled amongst the bordering conflicts of their Middle Eastern neighbours, notably Syria and Iraq. Looking particularly at its involvement in Syria’s civil war, the Turkish government has long condemned Bashar al-Assad’s violent approach to uphold government power and unyielding repression of anti-regime  movements or rebel protests.

Turkey, the Islamic State and the Syrian conflict

Given Turkey’s close proximity to the conflict at hand, a less passive and more interventionist stand had long shown signs of being inescapable. In fact, President Erdogan himself stated in a recent speech that ‘’we have a border with Syria, with Iraq. So we are the country that is under threat here[3].

Back in February, global news outlets reported on the three missing British teenage girls that had fled the United Kingdom looking to join the Islamic State as militants[4], using the Turkey-Syria border of Kilis to access the troubled region. This not only highlights clear breaches to the UK’s security system and how wide ISIS’ message has spread, it also stresses Turkeys central importance in preventing foreign fighters from entering Syrian territory though their borders . In total, the number of foreign fighters reaching Syria or Iraq to join the conflict has now recently reached over 30,000 people[5] – many of whom reach the countries at hand using southern borders of Turkey, which continually must deport thousands of hopeful recruits back to their countries once they are analyzed as potential flight risks. There has also been substantial criticism of Turkey’s ability and willingness to control their borders with Syria, with numerous countries calling for Turkey’s government to do more to prevent illicit travel of foreign fighters and ISIS supporters. This reluctance to initiate stronger controls has raised concern from other governments who have sought them to take a more proactive policy stance. These same borders have also seen and dealt with other direct consequences of the conflict – Turkey has insofar provided shelter to nearly 2 million Syrian refugees[6] and Turkish coastguards have already captured or intercepted several sinking boats[7] filled with refugees fleeing conflict, including Syria, Iraq  or Afghanistan.

The conflict and Turkey’s role in an international context

Nonetheless, only over the summer did Turkey’s political leaders decide to increase their involvement in the Syrian crisis, alongside unilateral action, they have also aligned themselves officially with the US led coalition fighting ISIS.[8] In late July, it started launching a series of airstrikes against PKK’s home-base in Northern Iraq and conceded American militaries access to their airspace in order for them to garner advantage over the southern side of the border. This governmental decision follows the killing of 32 Turkish students in Suruç, a Turkish town bordering Syria[9], just days before in an attack perpetrated by ISIS. This attack directly pushed President Erdogan to take the measures cited above, as well as declaring that “Turkey and the US have decided to further deepen this existing cooperation against ISIS[10], in search for elimination of a national security threat.

Many international critics have dismissed declared humanitarian interpretations of this government action, instead insisting that it serves as a pretext to target their ever-present Kurdish population and to attack the PKK movement, as Kurdish military successes have allowed them to gain control over territories previously controlled by ISIS and Assad. This has concerned Erdogan’s hardline government and it has been widely argued that he is opportunistically using the ISIS threat to target the Kurdish population. This had detrimental implications on the relationship between the Kurdish and Turkish populations throughout the country, proving not only a security threat, but one that will have long term implications on political and community relationships. Although Turkey’s involvement in using its geographical and military might to target ISIS has been widely welcomed – as well as necessary and inevitable – the apprehensions over a more domestic interest have often overshadowed the potential advantages Turkey could offer the coalition against ISIS.

The aforementioned scenario became more intricate when, just last month, President Vladimir Putin announced Russia will increase its logistical backing and support training of the Syrian army[11], and began launching airstrikes against Syrian rebels. The complex power play keeps thickening, as latest reports indicate Russian jets being shot down for violating Turkish airspace, en route to Syria. On this regard, another layer of complexity mustn’t be overlooked. Turkey is a member of NATO since 1952, meaning it is bound and protected by its principles – including the cornerstone collective defense clause of Article 5, which reads that ‘’an armed attack against one or more of [the member states] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all’’ and met with the means deemed ‘’necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area’’[12]. Given this fact, any violation of Turkish airspace constitutes a violation of NATO airspace and a threat to the Alliance’s integrity. Major international actors have come forward to condemn Russia’s incursion in the conflict – Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, condemned them as ‘’unacceptable violations of Turkish airspace by Russian combat aircraft’’[13], and Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary General, reminded that, given this “dangerous provocation (…), NATO is ready and able to defend all allies, including Turkey against any threats to deploy forces[14], further urging Russia to ‘’align its efforts with those of the international community in the fight against ISIL’’[15].

Policy recommendations/Way forward

The major impediment to accurate, solid and lasting policy measures is the simple fact that several different, even opposing, interests are at play – the Turkish government seeks a weakening of the Kurdish movement with as a threat to national security, whereas the Western coalition (attached to NATO, of which Turkey is a member state) finds in the Kurds an ally in their fight against ISIS and Assad’s authoritarian regime. Meanwhile, the Russian Federation – yet another major player in the international arena, holding veto power in the United Nation’s Security Council – has officially aligned with the Syrian government and consequently against the United States’ coalition. Faced with this web, the best policy recommendation would ultimately be to have the international arena itself make the best of its diplomatic and political organisms to try and ‘untangle’ the web. Informal bilateral conversations between leaders could prove useful, yet holding a formal summit with for all parties to discuss actual measures to take or to avoid may enable, or at least promote, a better understanding and harmonization between allies and opponents. It must be recognized, however, that despite the fact that such agreement would be the ideal situation, this is vastly hopeful and unlikely given the complex geopolitical situation presented.

While Turkey’s actions seem to be in sync with those of the United States and NATO, the fact that its offensives have been chiefly aimed at Kurdish lands and means their commitment to bringing down ISIS takes a second place, whereas the American offensive displays the opposite set of priorities, even finding an ally in the Kurds. Therefore, President Obama and President Erdogan should map out a clear plan for their intended action on the region and conflict (concerning Islamic State, Bashar al-Assad’s government, Syrian rebel forces, Kurds in Northern Iraq). This would not only strengthen their cooperation per se, but also facilitate their bilateral intelligence sharing, coordination of political agendas and gathering of humanitarian aid.

Another issue that is a direct result of the ongoing war is the fact that individuals are increasingly opting for a more radicalized approach. The Islamic State has grown more successful in conducting fundraising campaigns and using social media to directly target key audiences of remote future recruits. They build on the lure of being a part of something and fighting for a higher cause. This naturally generated a big problem for Turkey, much more in need of counter radicalization measures to prevent recruitment to ISIS. While the main Turkish political rhetoric, particularly in the running up to the elections earlier this month, has focused on targeting the Kurds and the sharp maneuvers underway or in project to counter this minority, the internal aspect is also relevant. The most common approaches among the European countries trying to combat the negative effects of radicalization have been two: reintegration or prosecution. Denmark and Belgium, for example[16], have focused on reintegrating returned foreign fighters in their communities in a rehabilitation effort to de-radicalize them and even use them as invaluable examples of how much more fruitful and pleasant a non-radicalized life is. This inclusion further avoids them becoming a threat or outlier element in the community that welcomes them back. France, Germany and the United Kingdom, on the other hand, have presented the harsher approach of prosecuting returned combatant, following legal guidelines and sanctions, from prison sentences to nationality revoking. The Turkish government should adopt a subscribed stance on how to deal with their own returned combatants and growing radicalized population, especially given the dire nature this pressing issue has on their national security – be it by integrating former foreign fighters in an effort to harmonize the sociopolitical scene, or serve them as hard example of how the law’s though hand handles radicalization.

Additionally, Turkey should strive to implement tighter and more effective border control, particularly in its southern region, in order to better prevent the increase of foreign fighters reaching Syria or Iraq. Also, given the ongoing mass migration wave and collective concern of incoming refugees and unsafe routes undertaken, it could be advantageous to increase cooperation on this issue, as well as the funding to target organized groups of people smugglers and facilitators.

Considering it all, as more and more powers come into play and the conflict continues to entangle under these recent set of policy measures, the Syrian war and fight against ISIS and the Assad regime becomes an ever-escalating conflict in dire need of negotiations and flexibility from all parties involved. However useful, this soft diplomatic approach is not to be expected. As the rules keep shifting, it will be interesting to see what the outcome of Turkey’s general election – which earlier this month gave an uncontested victory to President Erdogan’s ruling AKP party – will bring to tense domestic relationships alongside the transnational security situation.

[1] CIA, 2015 [Link]

[2] The Gurdian, September 2015 [Link]

[3] Reuters, October 2015 [Link]

[4] BBC News, February 2015 [Link]

[5] New York Times, September 2015 [Link]

[6] CNN, September 2015 [Link]

[7] Al Jazeera, September 2015 [Link]

[8] New York Times, July 2015 [Link]

[9] The Guardian, July 2015 [Link]

[10] CNN, July 2015 [Link]

[11] Business Insider, September 2015 [Link]

[12] NATO, April 1949 [Link]

[13] European Union Press Releases, October 2015 [Link]

[14] EU Observer, October 2015 [Link]

[15] NATO Press Releases, October 2015 [Link]

[16] The Guardian, November 2014 [Link]

About Barbara Matias

Bárbara Matias is a Research Assistant in the Human Rights and Conflict Resolution research division. Her research interests include the enforcement of human rights, gender issues in the developing world, transatlantic relations and the Middle East.