The devastating impact of Turkey’s failed Syria policy

Turkey’s foreign policy in Syria has failed on at least four counts. To begin with, Ankara has failed to force regime change, which was the very origin of its involvement in the Syrian conflict. 

Second, the war has led to the creation of an independent Kurdish political body within Syria, which is in direct conflict with Turkey’s objectives regarding the Kurds.

Third, despite its ambition to set the rules, Turkey today is an inferior player in Syria, submitting to the will of the war’s great powers, Russia and the United States, even in critical decisions.

Finally, the Syrian war has evolved into a deeply complex crisis that is likely to continue for years and hurt Turkey in a variety of ways, including economically and politically, but most importantly, militarily.  

The Syrian conflict holds special meaning in the history of Turkish foreign policy for one simple reason: from the start of its involvement, Turkey’s foreign policy in Syria was designed and carried out by Islamist actors in line with their ideological paradigm, marking a break from Ankara’s traditional Kemalist foreign policy.

Indeed, during the Syrian conflict, the Islamists of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) successfully abolished two traditional pillars of Turkish foreign policy: the principle of status quo in international politics and the principle of pro-Westernism.

Turkey, for the first time in its history, sought to change the regime in a neighboring country. To this end, Ankara has not refrained from using its army as well as employing militia groups. 

In addition, the AKP has brought in revisionism and non-Westernism, outlining a radically different stance than the Kemalists. This new foreign policy orientation is closer to Russia, even though this clashes with the Western security paradigm, including NATO.

Islamists have long been critical of Kemalists for having little courage in foreign policy, for ignoring the needs of Muslim-majority states and being under the tutelage of the West.

The Arab Spring gave the AKP a suitable regional setting to test its ideas. Accordingly, Ankara supported Islamist-linked militia groups in Syria, Libya and beyond, as Turkey became a “warring state” willing to embrace asymmetrical military methods.

The Syrian war offered the first chance to judge Turkey’s new Islamist-designed foreign policy, thus at one level Islamists are to blame for its failure.

On another level, Turkey’s failure is a result of an ongoing crisis within the Turkish army. The critical years of the Syrian war coincided with a deep institutional crisis within the military, which is closely linked to the ongoing political events in the country.

One major issue is ideology. As a historical institution with a Kemalist, modernist and pro-Western standing, the Turkish army today is without a clear institution identity, torn between its Islamist bosses and its secularist traditions. 

In addition, from Ergenekon to the failed coup, the army has been subjected to countless purges over the past decade-plus, which has spurred political infighting among various factions and undermined the promotion and merits criteria. 

This has led to a major restructuring, including most recently Erdoğan ordering more than 120 generals into new positions just last week. This surprise reshuffling, combined with a deeply problematic Syria policy, prompted five generals to resign.

“It is not in our country’s advantage to work against the central government in Syria and carry the load of an imperialist proxy war,” said retired rear admiral Türker Ertürk. “We are now doing immoral things in Syria, but they are not the advantage of our country.”

As part of a shift in policy from regime change to curbing Kurdish militants, Turkish troops are currently deployed in areas of northern Syria captured in two military operations against the People’s Protection Units (YPG), Kurdish militants allied with the United States in the fight against Islamic State yet linked to armed insurgents within Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly threatened to launch a third operation against the YPG east of the Euphrates.

Given all these developments, even the public appearance of the Turkish army has changed as it seems more like the army of an underdeveloped country, rather than the disciplined and modern form of the past. 

Another key issue with the army is the poor relations between its top officers and government officials. To a large extent, the AKP has developed a habit of using the army in Syria to achieve political goals. As a result, Ankara has devised plans that have no chance of success and may not even align with military logic.

One major deficit of Kemalist Turkey was the lack of civilian control over the army. But Islamist Turkey has its own problems in terms of civil-military relations. 

Civilians in many instances seem largely uninterested in military strategy even when it comes to purely military affairs. As a result, as we have seen in Syria, the Turkish army has become an instrument of frequently changing strategies, designed with mainly political intentions. 


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.