Has Turkish Foreign Policy Created a 'Syrian Taliban'?

Article Summary
Since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in 2011, Turkey has been quick to do whatever necessary to aid in the ouster of the regime, but often without considering the repercussions.

Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, Turkey has devoted all its energy toward toppling the regime. Turkey has generously hosted all Syrian military and political opposition and provided them with logistical support. As a result, Turkey was accused of pursuing a sectarian policy. Yet Turkey still could not achieve its goal because Syria is “too big” for Turkey to handle. The real game in Syria is not played by those with imperialist dreams but by genuine imperialists. The Syrian regime will one day be deposed, but without anyone knowing what will follow.

Turkey’s Syria policy, which is but a “small fragment of the big game,” has become one of digging in its heels. While doing everything conceivable to change the Bashar al-Assad regime, Turkey is yet to achieve anything of substance. Ankara, which placed itself in the front ranks to intervene in Syria following the chemical weapons massacre, again found itself sidelined with the Russian maneuver and US acquiescence, at least for the time being.

While the world has opted to wait out the outcome of the US-Russia accord, Turkey is having to cope with the disappointment of “turning back from the gates of Syria.”

Efforts now are focused on how to alleviate this disappointment, the shooting down of the Syrian helicopter and the narratives that followed. Our media, as usual, immediately took a bellicose stance, although promises were made to soften the war rhetoric as part of the solution to the Kurdish issue. But headlines such as “We hit them,” “Instant jet response to border violation” and “Assad, here is your retaliation,” showed once again that the media’s national reflexes are still very much alive. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu raised the bar by declaring, “When it comes to Turkey's interests, we will raise the universe.”

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What happened was the accumulation of Turkey's anger at not achieving its goal of toppling the Assad regime, the disappointment of the US and Russia blocking an operation against Syria and missing a chance to exact revenge for Syria’s shooting down a Turkish F-4 plane in June 2012. True, Turkey had announced that it will hit Syrian military units that violate or even approach Turkish borders. Ankara says it did what it promised and what we did could be considered normal as per international norms. But the bitterness in statements and the mood in newspapers suggest something else.

Borders already violated

Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising and war, Turkey is not only violating the Syrian border, but is actually organizing the opposition in Turkey and allowing them to cross into Syria. We even treat their casualties. While this assistance was primarily for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) at the outset, it eventually covered all kinds of radical Islamist groups, especially the al-Qaeda elements that were initially a part of the FSA before declaring their autonomy. Turkey did not take a stand against these groups and they are now out of control. The true makeup of the FSA is now a bit obscure. According to comments from the West, “Turkey has a role in radical Islamists, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, dominating north Syria.”

The shooting down of our F-4 was a turning point. Until that time the Syrian army was in control of the north. After Turkey announced that it would fire on Syrian units that approach the border, the Syrian army evacuated the north. A de facto buffer zone came into being, allowing the opposition to easily take control of the region. Some border crossings were taken over by the opposition and some by Islamists. In other words, the opposition indirectly benefited from Turkey’s rules of engagement. Since that day, al-Qaeda-affiliated foreign fighters have been pouring into Syria from Turkish and Iraqi borders. An appropriate analogy could be that the “south of the Turkish border has become Pakistan’s Peshawar, where the Taliban reigns.”

These Islamist organizations, which seek to enforce Sharia, may be on the terror lists of many countries, but Turkey still calls them merely “extremists.” The British newspaper the Daily Telegraph wrote that there are about 100,000 anti-opposition fighters in Syria, of which 10,000 adhere to al-Qaeda’s ideology and another 30,000-35,000 are radical Islamists.

There are 30,000 more with more moderate groups with Islamic character. The secularists or pure nationalist groups who were at the spearhead of the uprising are now but a small minority.

'The day after'

The FSA, which is made up of mainly Syrian soldiers who deserted the army, does not have its earlier strength. In recent times, weapons sent to the FSA have ended up with organizations like Jabhat al-Nusra. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) — considered to be part of the opposition — has a different structure. It is the only organization that can cope with radical Islamist groups in Rojava. Moreover it is a rare secular organization that is fighting for the dream of a different Syria. The West’s reluctance, which annoys Turkey, is about not knowing what is going to happen a day later. There is a syndrome of “the day after.” If the current situation persists, obviously radical Islamist groups will dominate the region, except in Rojava [Syrian Kurdistan].

American hesitancy in Syria has to be attributed to existence of groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They expect the FSA to clean out these organizations. In recent days and for the first time, there have been clashes between the FSA and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, which could well be an important turning point. Turkey may claim “we mobilized the FSA,” but the real actor is the United States because Turkey is yet to show its clear position about the radical groups. It won’t be easy to eradicate al-Qaeda-affiliated groups at all once. The situation is not dangerous only for Syria but also for Turkey and the region.

It seems that the only country that doesn’t calculate the ramifications of the situation is Turkey, even though what happens in Syria today has the potential of affecting Turkey for years to come.

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