Turkey’s Unpalatable Choices in Syria

Multiplication of Threats and Goals

Turkey’s interpretation of and approach toward the situation in Syria has been dynamic, as the nation has shifted its priorities and used different tactics throughout each stage of the crisis. At the beginning, the main goal was regime change. Yet the longer crisis continued, the more protracted and militarized it became — and additional threats started to emerge.

From mid-2012 onward, the Kurdish dimension of the Syrian crisis developed as the PKK-affiliated PYD began to fill the void created by regime forces retreating from the mostly Kurdish-majority northern Syrian towns. This caused concern in Turkey, but did not yet change its priorities in Syria. The search for a political settlement of the Kurdish issue, which began in the closing days of 2012, played a role in decreasing Turkey’s threat perception of this new development.

Fast forward to 2014, and self-proclaimed Islamic State group has become more central to the Syrian crisis, particularly during policy formulation for outside powers, adding a new element of threat for Turkey’s Syria policy. With ISIS’s quick victories, both in Syria and Iraq, the understanding and conceptualization of the Syrian crisis underwent a major transformation. It progressively turned into another “war on terror” phenomenon. The emergence and spread of ISIS has proved to be a boon for the PYD’s expansion of territory and gaining of international legitimacy and military equipment. At this stage, Turkey’s Kurdish peace process was already on life support due to the divergent visions for a solution, mainly over Syria and the PYD-dominated Kurdish enclave in the north. The peace process collapsed in July 2015 with the resumption of the fight between Turkey and the PKK.

The PKK then attempted to implement an urban warfare strategy inspired by the Syrian crisis in Turkey’s Kurdish majority east and south east regions, which elicited a heavy urban and rural military response. This period also coincided with increasing activities by ISIS in Turkey. Moreover, Turkish–Russian row over the downed Russian jet coupled with Turkey’s fraying relations with the United States has further emboldened the PYD and the PKK. To break this cycle, Turkey has scrambled to patch up relations with Russia, which it achieved in the second half of 2016, and which in return has once again paved the way for Turkey to more effectively deal with threats stemming from Syria.

In addition to this, one of the guiding principles of Turkey’s current Syria, or Northern Syria, policy is that it strives to create fait accomplis on the ground so that it can later leverage this in bargains — with the United States in particular. If it does not continue for too long, the current uncertainty in the United States will benefit this policy.

Reordering Turkey’s Priorities

At this stage, Turkey had three primary goals in Syria: preventing the establishment of a territorially-contiguous PYD-dominated Kurdish region along its borders, pushing ISIS back from its borders, and toppling the Assad regime. It has become clear that Turkey will be unable to attain all three of these goals, and it must reorder its priorities. Preventing the growth of a PYD-administered contiguous Kurdish region is now at the top of its agenda, while regime change from its priorities have dropped in importance, at least for the time being. The Russian and Iranian presence on the ground, coupled with the fall of Aleppo to the regime forces, have further confirmed this decision.

German Marshall Fund (GMF)
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