Ankara’s Attuned Syria Policy

Displaced Syrians wait to cross the Orontes river into Turkey on February 5, 2014. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Displaced Syrians wait to cross the Orontes river into Turkey on February 5, 2014. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

After nearly three years of conflict, Syria’s future is still tied to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and that is a big problem for Ankara. Turkey’s diplomats are now carefully calculating their next moves on Syria after their previous policy seemed to be getting them nowhere.

Since Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Tehran in late January, Turkey and Iran have been attempting to reconcile their divergent policies on Syria. This is no easy task as Turkey and Iran still disagree on the fundamentals of a post-Assad era. While Erdoğan has urged Assad to step down, Iran remains a staunch supporter of the Ba'ath Party government. The two do however agree on the need to douse the threat posed by Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria.

Ankara’s support of Syrian opposition groups has long been causing it problems. Turkey’s government has repeatedly come under criticism for not doing enough to prevent the arming and sheltering of Islamist fighters in its territory.

But Turkey’s indiscriminate support of opposition fighters, including those who form part of the radical (ISIS) or the Al-Nusra Front, has recently become more cautious. Turkey’s leaders have become increasingly aware of the threat posed by extremists to their own country’s security. They have also realized that their previous strategy of favoring certain opposition groups above others has not paid off. Previously, Kurdish leaders accused Turkey of supporting jihadist groups in an attempt to curb the influence of Kurds fighting in Syria. Turkey’s intelligence agency is said to have pursued a divide-and-rule strategy, if true it only appears to have divided the Islamist and Free Syrian Army battalions, but not the Kurds.

Concerns about Al-Qaeda-related groups gaining ground in Syria have also alarmed Turkey’s allies in the region. The Sheikh of Qatar met with the Turkish prime minister and president last week to discuss regional issues including Syria. Qatar, like Turkey, has recently adapted its Syria policy to move away from a military solution and toward a political one. The prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, Nechervan Barzani, also travelled to Turkey over the weekend amid fears over the increasing ISIS threat to the stability of the Kurdistan region.

France and Turkey may also be searching for parallel policies in Syria after French President François Hollande expressed his solidarity with Turkey’s handling of the crisis during his visit to Ankara last month. Hollande is likely to have taken Turkey’s concerns to the White House where he met with US President Barack Obama last week. The US and Turkey, on the other hand, are still very far from coming together on the issue of Syria—particularly over greater international intervention.

As Obama prepares to visit Saudi Arabia, there may well be more tweaks that need to be made to Turkey’s Syria policy. Diplomatic maneuvering at the UN could still yield results for a political solution in a possible third round of Geneva II talks, which would further weaken Turkey’s call for intervention.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.

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