Turkey Anxiously Weighs Cost of Escalation with Syria

The Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor published my article on Turkish-Syrian relations in 2011 yesterday. Titled “Turkey Anxiously Weights Cost of Escalation with Syria,” the article argues that Turkey has gotten out ahead of the world rhetorically, condemned Assad repeatedly, and threatened the regime explicitly—but still has not acted. I detail the highs and lows of relations over the past two years, beginning with the honeymoon of 2009 and ending with the collapse of 2011. The PKK is the wildcard here, I argue. And since Syria and Iran have sponsored Kurdish terrorism before, it’s the biggest question mark weighing on Turkey’s calculations. It partially explains why the Turks haven’t done more to pressure Assad. Here’s a snippet:

Turkey’s Syria policy, however, remains tempered by apprehension – the country’s inaction certainly proves this. Erdogan’s populist streak guarantees he will condemn Assad’s brutality, but, after revealing the presence of Syrian rebels in Turkey, the Turkish Foreign Ministry has curbed its bravado. Regardless of threats made months ago, Turkey still has not sanctioned Syria, most likely because Turkey’s business elite stands to lose too. Perhaps most conspicuous of all, Erdogan never fulfilled his promise to visit the refugee camps. Indeed, action remains elusive as officials calculate the cost of escalation. Should Turkey encourage regime change, officials know Syria and Iran – Assad’s only ally – could strike back by supporting the PKK.

Military confrontation remains unlikely although relations are reaching new lows. Striking the PKK would require action in Iraq rather than Syria; and attacking Assad for his encouragement of Kurdish terrorists would risk an all-out war, for which there is no popular support in Turkey. After some debate, it appears Turkey is no longer considering the creation of a humanitarian buffer zone in Syrian territory either. Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, admitted last month that military options were on the table but invasion was not an option (Hurriyet, October 7). Erdogan and the military are also sending different signals. In August, Erdogan referred to Syria as Turkey’s “internal problem” (Milliyet, October 31). Last month, however, Turkey’s Chief of Staff, General Necdet Ozel, disagreed during a television interview, arguing that Syrian unrest was “primarily the internal problem of that country” (Milliyet, October 31).

Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu said yesterday that it was time the Arab League assumed responsibility for the Syrian crisis. So far, the Arab League has failed to arrest the violence in Syria, but with Arab consensus crystallized, we may soon see Turkish action. From the conclusion:

The prospect of terrorism, the complicated nature of military solutions, and unrealized threats combine to suggest the cost of escalation is still too high for Turkey’s leaders. Condemnations will continue but the tipping point could be months away. The problem for Turkey is that it remains the only neighbor with any leverage; the country enjoys economic ties with Syria, which it could sever, and previous good relations, which it could revive. Other countries will consequently push Turkey towards decisive action, but with military operations being the least likely outcome for now.

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