The Collapse of Turkey’s Syria Policy

Mr Gul says that ‘what we tried to do did not work out.’

By Jeremy Salt – Ankara

Catastrophic for Syria and disastrous for Turkey. So can be summed up the consequences of Turkish intervention in Syria over the past two years. While not admitting that they were wrong, the architects of this policy, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, appear to be backing off, at least to the extent of tightening border security and seeking to repair the damage they have caused to relations with neighboring states. In early August Davutoglu visited Tehran and now President Rouhani of Iran has been invited to Ankara. So has Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki, with Davutoglu due to visit Baghdad in a few days.  Both Davutoglu and Erdogan have also shut down the vociferous support they were expressing for the deposed Egyptian president, Muhammad Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government. Now they seem to agree that what happens in Egypt is the business of the Egyptian people.

By throwing its weight behind an armed movement seeking the overthrow of the Syrian government, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi) took Turkey where no other government had gone since the proclamation of the Turkish republic in 1923. It provided space for the mobilization of armed men crossing the border to kill Syrian soldiers and civilians (‘Assad loyalists’). It backed the establishment of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the so-called Syrian National Council, a group of exiles which has been absolutely dysfunctional from the start despite the millions of dollars shovelled its way by Turkey and other ‘friends’ of Syria.

There is no argument that Syria’s oppressive political system needed changing. The starting point of the debate was how and at what cost. With the single exception of open armed intervention, the policy pursued by these so-called ‘friends’ of the Syrian people has been the worst possible option even from the point of view of Syrians who do not like the Baath party. There have been no benefits, save for the solidarity engendered amongst the people by this attack on their country. It has been massive death and destruction all the way.

Turkey’s role has been pivotal in the campaign launched by the ‘Friends of the Syrian People’ to bring down the Syrian ‘regime.’ In the allocation of responsibilities, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Libya have supplied arms and/or money for bribes and the purchase of weapons. The US has provided intelligence, training and coordination and perhaps arms as well as the officially declared  ‘humanitarian’ support and provision of non-lethal military equipment but the opening up of territorial space as a rear base for the armed groups by Jordan and Turkey has been no less a critical element in the campaign to destroy the government in Damascus.

On the ‘rebel’ side the conflict is now completely dominated by salafist takfiri groups. Over the past three years tens of thousands of jihadis from all over the world have poured into Syria to join them. The main route is through Turkey. The new arrivals meet their contacts in the southeast and stay in safe houses before being smuggled across the border. In the towns and quarters they have infiltrated in northern Syria the imposition of codes of public dress and behaviour are a pointer to what the whole country can expect if the armed groups ever succeed in establishing their Islamic emirate. In Al Raqqa ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Bilad al Sham) has banned women from wearing jeans, and men from wearing low hanging jeans or having their hair cut short. Clothes are no longer allowed to be put on display in shop windows. Hair dressing salons have been closed and women must wear the hijab and are for-bidden from appearing in public by themselves. Harsh punishments up to the point of death have been declared for infractions of the rules. Beatings, public executions and disappearances underline the dangers of not obeying. The brutality of ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra and other Islamist groups is well established yet only now do the ‘Friends of the Syrian People’ appear to be coming to terms with the consequences of what they have done, not because of actual concern for the Syrian people but because of the threat to their interests across the region and at home.

In Turkey’s case the threat is immediate. Today’s Zaman – until recently a strong supporter of the ‘revolution’ in Syria – reported on November 4  that ISIS had  sent two of seven bomb-laden vehicles into Şanliurfa province with the intention of exploding them in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir or other major cities. The intelligence sources passing on this information also warned that ISIS was capable of amending its plans and explode them somewhere in the southeast instead. ISIS had already threatened to launch suicide bomb attacks inside Turkey unless the government opened the border crossings at Bab al Hawa and Bab al Salameh, which it closed after ISIS  took control of the town of Azaz in September. It was ISIS that exploded two car bombs in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli in May, killing more than 50 people (far more according to some sources close to the scene), wounding close to 200 and destroying the municipal offices as well as dozens of shops and cars. The group also carried out the Bab al Hawa bombing on September 17 which killed seven people.

At about the same time intelligence sources were leaking the latest threats to the media, the Turkish military stopped a convoy of three unspecified ‘vehicles’ trying to cross into Syria from Reyhanli. They were loaded with one ton of sulphur (used to make mustard gas) and eight sealed barrels which were placed under guard pending identification of their contents by chemical, biological and nuclear materials units from the government’s disaster and emergency management directorate. Jandarma had to shoot out the tyres to stop the three vehicles. One man was arrested but others fled into Syria. Only a  few days earlier a court in Adana had released the main suspect – a Syrian –  in a network believed to have been procuring chemical weapons material for the Jabhat al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham armed groups, on condition that he stay in Turkey until the court reaches its decision. When this point is reached it will be interesting to see if he is still around. According to the man’s own lawyer, quoted by a deputy from the opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP), ‘This is a political trial. Turkey will be embarrassed if there is a conviction.’

There are now 600,000 Syrians inside Turkey. Half are inside the camps and the rest are fending for themselves as best as they can. Many have been reduced to begging and sleeping in parks. The refusal of the government to classify the refugees as refugees but rather as ‘guests’  keeps the UN and other busybodies at arm’s length.

The depth to which southeastern Turkey has been infiltrated by salafist takfiris is finally being exposed in the mainstream media. Even in Reyhanli, according to Daniel Dombey, writing in the Financial Times (November 1), ‘wounded fighters can be seen everywhere. The town’s 78,000 refugees outnumber the 60,000 locals. The fighters are in Turkey to rest, recover and regroup before the next onslaught in Syria ….’. The men praise Recep Tayyip Erdogan. ‘Who is our father?’ asks a fighter from the Faruq Brigades (FSA units fighting alongside Jabhat al Nusra).’Father Erdogan – we worship him’, his comrades reply.

In the London Telegraph  (October 30), Ruth Sherlock reported that hundreds of Al Qaida-ISIS recruits are being kept in safe houses in southeastern Turkey before being shifted across the border into Syria. She writes: ‘These hideouts are generally apartments rented under false names in villages along Turkey’s frontoet with Syria. The recruits sometimes wait for weeks until they are cleared to cross the border. The homes are also used as ‘rest houses’ for Al Qaeda fighters from the frontline in Syria.’ Given the ubiquitous presence of the army, the jandarma, the police and MIT, the national intelligence organization, it would be difficult to accept that the Turkish government does not know where these people are or cannot track them down, yet this is what officials quoted by Ruth Sherlock insist. ‘We have never been soft on this issue. We do not tolerate the presence of extremists and terrorist elements on our soil. If jihadists have crossed it has been without our knowledge and out of our control.’ These denials fly in the face of the government’s support of the FSA despite the atrocities committed by its brigades and its reaction when Barack Obama put Jabhat al Nusra on the US list of terrorist organizations last December. Officials said the decision was ‘premature’ while the head of the SNC at the time, the now forgotten Mui’zz al Khatib, called on the US to reconsider.

In northeastern Syria (for the Kurds Rojova or western Kurdistan), the conflict between Islamist groups and Kurdish militias underlines the contradiction between the Turkish government’s efforts to reach a Kurdish peace inside Turkey and its opposition to the political aspirations of the Syrian Kurds.  In recent fighting the Kurds have routed Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS and consolidated their hold on territory. These developments are viewed with alarm in Ankara, which believes the Kurdish drive for autonomy in northeastern Syria will set the stage for the creation of an expanded Kurdish state linking Iraq and Syria. Yet it cannot block this prospective development without antagonizing the Kurdish government of northern Iraq, with which it has a close political, trade and investment relationship, and undermining its efforts to reach a settlement of the Kurdish question inside Turkey. In this complex situation something obviously has to give.

The fighting between the Kurds and the Islamist groups has been brutal. Car bomb attacks have been launched on the Kurdish civilian population. There has been hostage-taking and there have been massacres, with hundreds of people reported to have been killed during an attack on Tal Abyad by Jabhat al Nusra and other takfiri groups in early August, at about the same time they were cooperating in the massacre of close to 200 people in attacks on Alawi villages in the  Latakia governorate, and the kidnapping of women and children, some of whom their mothers claim to have seen in the videos produced by the armed groups in the aftermath of the chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus. FSA military chief Salim Idris said the FSA had been taking part in the Latakia operation ‘to a great extent.’

The Kurds say that arms continue to pour across the Turkish border. On August 25 – three weeks after the Tal Abyad massacre and four days after the Damascus chemical weapons attack, almost certainly carried out by the armed groups to create the pretext for open armed intervention by the US and its allies – 400 tons of weapons were reported by the armed groups themselves to have been moved into Syria from Turkey’s Hatay province. They were loaded on to 20 trailers and more weapons were said to be waiting for delivery.

Speaking to the Taraf daily, Salih Muslim, the head of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), said a shipment of arms had also been shifted across the border from Gaziantep province on August 2 and transferred to Arab villages near the Kurdish town of Kobani (Ayn al Arab), in preparation for an attack on Kobani. ‘It is impossible to understand how Turkey lets this happen. If the Al Nusra front is the enemy then this should be prevented …. When I was meeting with officials in Istanbul, FSA and Nusra members were meeting at a hotel in Gaziantep and making plans to destroy Kurds. Is it possible that the state did not know about it?’ About 70 representatives of the fighting groups were present at the Gaziantep meeting, among them Abdul Jabbar al Uqaidi, a senior FSA military commander. According to Uqaidi ‘they [the PYD] are the shabiha of the regime. Hopefully we will triumph over them.’ Shortly thereafter Uqaidi resigned in disgust over fighting between the armed groups and what he called the failure of the ‘international community’ to give them more help.

If another  ‘Afghanistan on the shores of the Mediterranean’ is being created in Syria, as Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, warned in an interview with the Guardian while visiting Edinburgh for a British-Turkish Tatli Dil (Sweet Talk) forum, Turkey, even if inadvertently,  has done much to set it up by the policy it has pursued. To hear Gul, Erdogan and Davutoglu talk, however, Turkey is the hapless victim in a crisis brought on by the government in Damascus and the failure of the ‘international community’ to act forthrightly. Gul even says the death of 100,000 people could have been avoided had his advice been followed.

According to media reports appearing in 2011 the advice given to Bashar al Assad by was that he enter into dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood and even bring it into government. When a CHP deputy repeated this claim in parliament the other day Davutoglu denied it: ‘We didn’t even mention the Muslim Brotherhood during our meetings with al Assad’. According to Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Muallim, however, speaking in February, 2012, the brotherhood was the ‘main bone of contention’ in talks with Erdogan and Davutoglu: ‘Erdogan kept asking Assad and Syrian officials in every meeting they held to establish dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood. We kept telling him that the disagreement between the Syrian regime and the Muslim Brotherhood goes back to the 1980s and cannot be resolved that easily’.

In fact, the brotherhood is a proscribed organization which has repeatedly sought the overthrow of the Syrian government since the 1960s, leading up to the bloody confrontation in Hama in 1982. If this was advice Bashar could not accept, then the option surely was to come up with something more palatable rather than jumping to the extreme of seeking his overthrow through armed action. It is evident that many thousands of Syrians who are now dead would still be alive had not the ‘Friends of Syria’ intervened in Syria, thereby turning a brush fire into an inferno.

Syria is not ‘dying’ as Mr Gul said but is rather being killed off by an unholy coalition of outside governments and the armed groups they have been sponsoring. The Turkish government may be changing its tune now but still has to be held responsible for the consequences of the decision it took to confront the Syrian government even if it was not aware at the start what those consequences would be. Mr Gul says the response of the ‘international community has been ‘very disappointing’ and the performance of the UN Security Council a ‘disgrace.’ This is precisely the view of the Saudi government, and is the reason why it rejected the seat offered on the UNSC. Mr Gul is on safe ground when making these claims because there is now little or no likelihood of direct military intervention in Syria. He should be thankful to Russia and China for blocking UNSC resolutions setting up the pretext for open armed intervention. Had his Prime Minister and Foreign Minister got what that they were advocating, a no-fly buffer zone would have been established in northern Syria, most probably triggering off a war in the eastern Mediterranean which would have engulfed the entire region. Turkey would have been sucked right into the middle of it.

Mr Gul says that ‘what we tried to do did not work out.’ Noone could argue with that. His government expected Bashar to fall quickly. Instead, more than two years later, 100,000 people have been killed and more than 2.5 million – one tenth of Syria’s population – have been turned into refugees inside or outside their country. Parts of Damascus and other cities now look like Beirut at the height of the civil war in the 1980s. Whole residential and commercial quarters have been destroyed. Factories have been looted and state buildings and infrastructure sabotaged. Repairing this tidal wave of destruction will cost hundreds of billions of dollars and as a state and society Syria will take decades to recover. Turkey is now suffering blowback, but that was just something else the AKP government could not see coming when it embarked on this dangerous, destructive and misguided policy. Yet now its architects are behaving as though the dire consequences are all someone else’s fault.

– Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He contributed this article to

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1 Comment

  1. Clearly ANY person who supports Netanyahu agenda is suspect. The Turk and saudis are really not legitimate Muslims, if they are abetting the takeover of Al-Quds. Syria under Assad has been the ONLY Arab force resisting the creeping annexation by the zionists, the rest including Turkey are all puppets.

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