Turkey’s Syria Policy: Leave Well Alone

Despite Turkey’s military and political achievements in the Astana process in cooperation with Russia and Iran, Ankara’s stance on the recent Western military operation against Damascus was highly unfortunate. It is worth taking a closer look at the reasons behind Turkey’s inconsistent Syria policy. In order to do that, we need to focus on three factors.

The human factor

First, we should pay special attention to the Sunni instinct rooted in the subconscious of Erdogan and his associates. This explains his sharp and harsh turnaround towards Bashar Assad and the Alawite/Nusayrite Syrian leadership. (According to different historical sources, the Alawites/Nusayrites are a Muslim community formed in Northern Syria in the 10th century by the extreme Shiites, who separated themselves from the rest of the Shiite community and based their doctrine on the Ismailites’ Batiniya method.) Following the assassination of Caliph Uthman in 656, the hostility and differences between the Sunnis and the Alawites grew from day to day. Thus, we can state that the political thinking of Sunnis and Alawites, particularly in the generation to which Erdogan, Davutoglu and others belong, is based on an utterly antagonistic perception. Accordingly, the human factor will hold back cardinal changes up until the moment when President Erdogan fully realizes the insistent need to change his attitude to Bashar Assad for the sake of his own political survival.

 The institutional factor

Second, Turkey has failed to conduct a stable, predictable and long-term foreign policy for a number of reasons. It lacks institutional support in the process of policy-making. There is no presidential analytical center in the country, a modern institution manned by professional experts in various areas. Erdogan himself and his inner circle lack the knowledge, understanding and practical experience needed for conducting a successful foreign policy. Neither is there a commonsense-based state system that would obviate inconsistent foreign policy approaches influenced by current events at home and elsewhere. 

The NATO factor

Third, we should not forget that the Republic of Turkey has been a NATO member since 1952 and its strategic institutions have been transformed and programmed as anti-Russian and compatible with the concept of this allied organization. Accusing Bashar Assad of chemical attacks and Vladimir Putin of masterminding the Skripal case, regardless of whether this is true to fact, is an offshoot of a single strategic plan, which, from the point of view of intelligence services, should tighten the discipline and unity within the Western bloc. Under these circumstances, Turkey as a NATO member is expected to take a position in a new Cold War that is being started against Russia. While Russia was being isolated diplomatically over the Skripal case, Turkey played neutral and rational. Following the recent Western coalition’s operation, which Ankara saw as an opportunity, it identified its position. In the mid-term, further events are likely to force Turkey to realign itself with the Western bloc.

The latest Western military operation against Damascus followed on the heels of the Russian-Turkish-Iranian summit in Ankara. In all evidence, it was not aimed at toppling or punishing Bashar Assad. The main aim was to create a rift in the Astana format. As we know, French President Emmanuel Macron went on record as saying that the Saturday missile launches by the US, France and Britain had separated Russia and Turkey. And his opinion seems to be true. Ankara has openly outlined its position by supporting the operation. Thereby it put a time bomb under its own national security, weakening the chances for mutually beneficial cooperation between Moscow, Tehran and Ankara in the Astana format.

Instead of strengthening its relations within the Astana format, which guarantees its achievements, Turkey is flirting with the Western coalition in the hope that it is able and ready to topple Bashar Assad. But eventually this may lead to the loss of support from both parties. In other words, to quote a popular Turkish idiom, the Erdogan government “may lose the wheat it has while on its way to buy rice.”

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.