The Syrian conflict, and the resulting fall-out, has presented Turkey with a dilemma that might not have a solution. Increased internal violence and insecurity, strains in international relationships, and expensive refugees are all problems that Turkey faces thanks to the blowback from the Syrian conflict but Ankara is not really in any position to do much about the underlying issue. The best Turkey can hope for is to weather the storm as best it can.
Turkey has been in the forefront of the Syrian conflict since the beginning. Turkey was one of the first most vocal countries in calling for Syrian reforms. Once that failed, Turkey was one of the first countries to come out in support of the Syrian opposition and the Syrian National Council (SNC). Turkey, while not officially recognizing the SNC, does host the group and gives it tacit and unofficial support.
Turkey has also heavily supported Syrian opposition groups, although Turkey has been less supportive of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with many members complaining of the lack of arms support and limited freedom of movement in Turkey. Ankara has lambasted the Assad regime, been the safe haven for the majority of the defections from Syria, and has hosted nearly 100,000 refugees fleeing the conflict.
Current Turkish policy towards Syria is a sea-change from the policies of the early 2000’s where Turkish-Syrian relations were considered the poster child for the “zero problems” policy of the Turkish government. In the initial response to the Arab Spring protests, Turkey attempted to remain within this zero problems framework by encouraging reforms on the Assad regime. When Assad instead pursued violent repression, Turkey moved closer to the SNC and the opposition. For a more complete breakdown of the Turkish-Syrian relationship and Turkey’s shift to the Syrian opposition see this excellent article by Bayram Balci.
The durability of the Syrian Assad regime has really put Turkey in a bind. In response to Turkish support for Syrian opposition, Assad is purportedly providing support to the PKK in Turkey. This support probably doesn’t go as far as some local officials in Turkey claim, but the conflict is certainly bleeding over the border. The PKK is also much more active than in previous years, much of this blamed on the Syrian conflict and the resultant insecurity combined with increased state support from Syria and Iran. The political vacuum in northern Syria, which I previously wrote about here, is further worrying Turkey and has the potential to cause tensions in the relationship with the KRG. The refugees staying in Turkey are also dragging down the Turkish economy, although some of this cost will be offset by international aid.
There is little that Turkey can do, at least practically, to reverse this situation. As the situation stands now, the best case scenario for Turkey in Syria would be the quick resolution of the conflict and the establishment of a strong central government in Damascus, preferably one which feels gratitude to Turkey for support during the civil war. This scenario is unlikely. Syria is mired in a civil war with each side supported by state proxies; Iran supports the Assad regime and Turkey, to a markedly lesser degree, supports the opposition. Turkish support has been limited to hosting the groups and rhetorical support. There have been limited arms deals and funding is largely Saudi and Qatari instead of Turkish. Without increased military aid, to include tanks, artillery, or other heavy weaponry that Turkey is unlikely to provide, or a more unified opposition, it’s likely the conflict will continue at the present level and continue to negatively impact Turkish security.
Ankara has tried to encourage safe-havens and border zones in order to re-establish border security to some degree, as well as alleviate strains on the country from massive numbers of refugees. Turkey has called for international involvement in these schemes but there is little support and Turkey would find it difficult to impose these unilaterally. Escalating the conflict with unilateral Turkish military involvement has little popular support, within Turkey or internationally, and seems to be off the table. Any military intervention would need to be some form of international/NATO response which, again, is unlikely. Providing the FSA with heavy equipment to counter the regime is an option, but one frowned upon by NATO and doing so would land Turkey in hot water with its western allies.
With no realistic options to end the conflict, Turkey is left with little choice but to grin and bear the consequences. Unfortunately, both for Turkey and Syria, it is likely that the problems will get much worse before they get better.