Turkey finds itself in the crossfire of an international disaster that seems to be tangling the leadership of the AKP party and Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) into a knot it cannot seem to get out of. With the start of Syrian Civil War on the 15th of March 2011, the international community, and in particular Turkey, has been emphatically involved in trying to resolve the violence by removing the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and transferring power to a transitional body. In approximately three years of bloody battle, U.N. reports list the death toll in Syria to be over 100,000 people and up to 335,000 have fled the country as refugees. With the chaos in Turkey’s backyard spiraling out of control, the Turkish government has a difficult challenge of balancing its internal/domestic interests and its national security interests.
The ruling AKP party in Turkey has two intertwined priorities that they are desperately trying to navigate. How does the Turkish government provide security and stability to the people of Turkey while at the same time forcing the Assad regime out of power? President Gül has made it clear that the situation in Syria is Turkey’s top foreign policy agenda, even elaborating that within every high level meeting Syria is top priority.
These internal desires for Turkey, particularly its regional power aspirations, are then compounded by its seemingly new international community obligations. In a White House joint news conference with the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke of the United States and Turkeys continuing support of the militants in Syria, to aid in the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This statement lies at the heart of the Turkish government’s foreign policy stance in regards to the removal of the Assad regime and possibly the most direct miscalculation in Turkey’s future.
It is well known within the diplomatic and national security communities that Turkey is using its close proximity with the Syrian border to support rebels fighting against the Assad regime. Syrian rebels and its associates now use much of the border between the two countries as a transit route, a logistics hub, and a rest stop. “Ankara’s calculation has been that Assad has to go, and Turkey will allow anyone who wants to fight Assad to go into Syria,” said Soner Cagaptay, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “To Turkey it didn’t matter that much if there were some bad guys, because once Assad was gone the good guys would take over and clean out the bad guys.” However, this decision by the government has prompted serious and possibly disastrous consequences for Turkey.
Intelligence accounts indicate an increased radicalization of the Syrian rebels who are fighting the Syrian regime. Estimates by IHS Janes, a defense consultancy estimates that nearly half the rebel fighters in Syria are now aligned to jihadist or hard-line Islamist. Additionally, Al Qaeda-linked groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have captured territory in parts of northern Syria near the border in recent months. Furthermore, recent reports have found that Turkey knowingly or unknowingly has supported al-Qaeda based groups in the region. These accounts have prompted the Turkish Prime Minister to publicly deny the government’s involvement with these groups. Prime Minister Erdogan stated, “on the contrary, any such structures would be subject to the same fight we carry out against separatist terrorist groups. We have taken the necessary steps against them and we will continue to do so.” Even so, this revelation doesn’t clear up the much more alarming question about the radicalization of its Kurdish, Alevi and Sunni Muslim populations.
Turkey’s policy of robust support for the rebel fighters has not only failed to overthrow President Assad or the Syrian government, but it has also had led to a rising threat from extremists linked to Al Qaeda who dominate the Syrian battlefield. American officials have recently criticized Turkey for enabling these extremists rebel groups by indiscriminately providing weapons and allowing these fighters to cross its southern border into Syria. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad warned that neighboring Turkey will pay a “heavy price” for supporting what he referred to as “terrorists” in his country.
President Assad’s assessment could not be truer for the coming months and years to come. The test for Turkey will inevitably come from these three aspects: border security, internal unrest and asymmetric threats. Most important is the insurgence of Jihadist fighters in Syria near the Turkish and Syrian border. This is explicitly dangerous not only because these fighters are uncontrollable, but also because their extremist ideas might find fertile ground among many young people in Turkey. “Turkey is going to have to make some very, very difficult decisions, given the way Syria has unraveled,” said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University in New York. “They are backing up, recalibrating and saying, ‘OK, what is our long game going to look like?'”