Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Turkey's Twists and Turns on Syria

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Turkey's Twists and Turns on Syria

Article excerpt


Since 2011, over 100,000 dead1-including more than 10,000 children2-and nine million displaced, 3 the Syrian civil war has left the international community paralyzed. It has mutated into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional hegemony. 4 Other regional sponsors of the contending parties include Qatar, Turkey, Russia, and now Hizballah and al-Qa'ida.5 The United Nations Security Council is tied into knots with Russia and China vying to veto any resolution to intervene in Syria. Since no one has legal authority or the political will to intervene, the Syrian civil war throws into question the future of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. 6 Should R2P now be relegated to history, as a doctrine of the 1990s with no future in this century?

While the mass killings, torture, and rape taking place in Syria appear similar to the crimes that took place in the wake of Bosnia's divisions of ethnicity and religion in the 1990s, 7 the outflow of millions of refugees makes the situation more reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide, as one has not seen anything of this scale since 1994.8 This aside, the shadows of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya continue to loom over the Syrian dilemma. On the one hand, members of the international community feel the urge to act, on the other hand, fear of failure leaves them inclined to allow events to resolve themselves without military intervention. Though there are compelling arguments on both sides, the international community remains divided, and events largely depend on what regional powers do.

Turkey is an important regional power in the Syrian civil war, because it provides a safe haven and operational space for the Syrian opposition and has over "600,000 Syrian refugees with more than 400,000 living outside refugee camps."9 Since 2008, Turkey has gone from supporting the Bashar al-Asad regime to encouraging Asad to undertake democratic reforms to a policy of regime change. This is an unprecedented 180-degree turn in less than three years. Turkey has managed to back itself into a very difficult position with its influence in the region curtailed to its borders. This article will analyze Turkey's Syria policy from 2008-2013 at each stage and provide recommendations for the future.


Turkey has a long history with Syria, dating back to the days of the Ottoman Empire. More recently, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), having given up on aspirations "to join the remnants of Europe's other empires in the European Union (EU)," has been seeking to expand its influence in the Arab world.10 One way to do so was to seek rapprochement with the Arab countries in the region. The AKP's grand strategy has been to engage with the Arab world, after nearly half a century of disengagement, in order to reassert Turkey's standing as a regional power. Most of the neighboring countries in the region like Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon were former Ottoman provinces and were carved out of the Ottoman Empire by France and Britain in the 1916 Sykes-Picot accord.11 As a consequence, those countries have not fought and won independence in the same way Turkey has, and they lack Turkey's experience with democratic governance. Therefore, Turkey has often appeared to be the ideal role model for the Arab world.

Initially, Turkey preferred to be a bystander and did not want to be pulled into the Syrian conflict. It had just started to rebuild ties with Syria and did not want to risk ruining a hard earned relationship. Turkey and Syria were enjoying improved relations on the economic and political front. The two countries lifted visa restrictions and committed to enter into free trade agreements and hold joint cabinet meetings.12 Moreover, Turkey helped mediate talks between Syria and Israel. Turkey's philosophy of "zero problems with neighbors" was a key AKP policy as part of its effort to build bridges with the neighbors it had left behind in its embrace of modernity and pursuit of EU membership. …

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