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The Rising Costs of Turkey’s Syrian Quagmire
The Rising Costs of Turkey’s Syrian Quagmire
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory
Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory
Report 230 / Europe & Central Asia

The Rising Costs of Turkey’s Syrian Quagmire

Continuous refugee flows from Syria are stretching Turkey’s capacities and necessitate long-term adjustments as well as stronger international engagement to better share the burden.

Executive Summary

The Syrian crisis crashed onto neighbouring Turkey’s doorstep three years ago and the humanitarian, policy and security costs continue to rise. After at least 720,000 Syrian refugees, over 75 Turkish fatalities and nearly $3 billion in spending, frustration and fatigue are kicking in. Turkey’s humanitarian outreach, while morally right and in line with international principles, remains an emergency response. Ankara needs to find a sustainable, long-term arrangement with the international community to care for the Syrians who arrive daily. While spared the worst of the sectarian and military spillover, Turks are reminded of the security risks by deadly car bombs and armed incidents on their territory, especially as northern Syria remains an unpredictable no-man’s-land. The conflict was not of its making, but Ankara has in effect become a party. Unable to make a real difference by itself, it should focus on protecting its border and citizens, invigorate recent efforts to move back from the ruling party’s Sunni Muslim-oriented foreign policy to one of sectarian neutrality and publicly promote a compromise political solution in Syria.

Turkey needs to ensure that refugees fleeing Syria are able to access safe territory and receive international protection within a legal framework, but it should not have to pay for this alone. Turks have accepted the Syrians on behalf of the wider international community, which has a responsibility to share more of the growing burden. The high costs of building and maintaining shelters mean most newcomers end up outside the camps: the official number of such urban Syrians is around 500,000, but in reality it could be twice that. The influx puts pressure on local infrastructures and creates social tensions. As resources and patience stretch thin and security incidents proliferate, Turkey’s open door policy has its limits. Even with stricter border controls, however, Syrians continue to arrive, often illegally.

Ankara needs a comprehensive accommodation strategy, including giving refugees the option to integrate into Turkish society through jobs, access to social care, language training and education. This requires, first, a more comprehensive legal framework that expands the April 2013 law on foreigners and immigration. Donors can help logistically and financially by sharing expertise on and providing funding for mutually-agreed housing schemes for Syrians inside Turkey.

Turkey has been the main lifeline to northern Syria since 2012, with many countries and international and local organisations providing critical aid to at least 100,000 Syrians via a de facto humanitarian safe zone. It should continue cooperating to the full extent with international organisations to deliver humanitarian assistance. From Turkey’s perspective, taking care of the displaced inside Syria limits any new influx. But plans to address needs at makeshift camps for the foreseeable future overlook the dangers to both Syrians and aid workers as the environment becomes increasingly volatile. As Crisis Group argued in April 2013, the best option is to provide a way out of Syria for all civilians who want to leave their war-torn country.

Turkey may be bigger, stronger and richer than Syria’s other neighbours, but it still needs to feel supported so that it will continue to keep its borders open to refugees. In the past year and a half, Ankara has opened up to international assistance and registered more international humanitarian NGOs to work on the crisis. Nevertheless, residual fear of outsiders and bureaucratic obstacles still block Turkey from fully benefiting from available international resources. Third parties have contributed less than one tenth of what it has spent on the crisis so far. Donors should no longer hide behind Ankara’s initial rejection of foreign aid, or the fact that it handles the situation more effectively than Jordan or Lebanon.

While Turkey has successfully contained internal sectarian unrest, its Syria policy is highly unpopular domestically, not least with its large Alevi and Kurdish popu­lations. Feeling betrayed by Western failure to live up to promises of intervention or more support, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has re­calibrated its foreign policy in the past year. Its narrative has changed to include jihadi elements of the militant opposition in the growing list of security threats from Syria, along with the regime and its agents. In 2013, it reversed its all-out objection to engaging the Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (PYD), linked to Turkey’s insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and in March 2014, it let UN aid convoys cross into PYD-controlled areas when Syria finally opened one border crossing for UN humanitarian aid. In the bigger picture, Turkey wants to avoid prolonged military entanglement, but violent border clashes and occasional aerial confrontations with the regime increase risks of an escalation. Even so, extensive Turkish military intervention is unlikely without at least an international mandate and backing.

The AKP leadership’s resolve to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gone stays strong, as does its support for the mainstream Syrian opposition. It hosts rebels and their families in well-built refugee camps, allows political and military opposition bodies to convene on its soil and gives logistical and material assistance. But Turkey has never been a main backer of the militant opposition inside Syria, and Gulf actors have gained more political influence. Still, involvement with the opposition’s main political body, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, helped garner support for Geneva II peace talks and ensure a degree of Kurdish representation. Turkey should use its leverage as a transit ground for supplies to rebel groups in northern Syria to encourage their compliance with international humanitarian law and non-sectarian practices. By maintaining open communication with regional counterparts, including Iran, Turkey should work reciprocally to de-escalate foreign involvement in the Syrian war and build an environment more conducive to peace.

Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory

Originally published in Politico Europe

Turkish leader’s instincts saved him from a coup, but his authoritarian instincts will again threaten his legitimacy.

Paradoxes have always abounded in the relationship between the Turkish military and the country’s politicians. Turkey’s armed forces — or factions within them — have justified their repeated interventions in politics with claims that they are saving the state from corrupt, populist politicians. The political class, for its part, frustrated as its leaders turn rotten, blames its degradation on over-dominant army interventions that keep wrecking the country’s democratic progress.

The recent attempted coup in Turkey was no exception. On Friday night, an email from a Turkish Armed Forces address said, in effect, that the military was breaking the law in order to restore the rule of law. In response, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on the Turkish people to take to the street in defense of the democracy he has done so much to undermine with attacks on the media and assaults on constitutional checks and balances.

And indeed, the people rushed to secure key points for the government. While some social media postings showed anti-government passers-by cheering on the tanks, a broad social and political alignment emerged against the attempted coup, including rare unison among all the country’s main political parties and media voices. More than 160 people were killed and 1,440 injured in clashes between soldiers sent out to seize power and the pro-government police force and loyalist army factions.

17 July 2016
Either Erdogan utilizes this incident to redesign institutions in Ankara to his own benefit...or he takes the opportunity with the solidarity that was extended to him by the opposition and different segments of society to reciprocate by investing more genuinely in rule of law and legitimate forms of dissent. The New York Times

Nigar Göksel

Senior Analyst, Turkey

In the end, Erdoğan and his supporters won the day, quickly reconsolidating control. And perhaps this is unsurprising. Election after election — scrupulously democratic in form, but dominated by authoritarian political party leaders in practice — have shown that about half the electorate still supports the president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

But nobody in Turkey has won in the long-term. The damage to the army — more important than ever, given the turmoil in Turkey’s neighborhood — will be severe. Internationally, Turkey’s already battered reputation has slipped down several more notches.

There are no specific links between the attempted coup and Turkey’s deepening secularist-Islamist divide. The government alleges that it is the work of a rival Islamist group loyal to Pennsylvania-based Fethullah Gülen.

But stark divisions remain nonetheless. The half of the country that does not support Erdoğan remains deeply unsettled by his party’s increasingly overt Islamism and his creeping takeover of all arms of the state and economy. The country’s unsolved Kurdish problem is feeding a harsh insurgency, and regional problems abound.

What happens next is anybody’s guess. Some commentators were remarkably prescient, drawing attention to unrest in the army well before this weekend’s events. The Turkish armed forces, after all, have been the backbone of the modern Turkish Republic since 1923, as well as the many Turkic states that preceded it during the past millennium. They have famously intervened in politics with full-blooded coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980-83; a bloodless post-modern show of force that ousted a government in 1997; and an abortive attempt by press release to block the election of Erdoğan’s predecessor Abdullah Gül in 2007.

Other commentators, who had previously dismissed chances of a coup, pointed to Erdoğan’s popular base, arguing that no conscript-based army could afford to try to move against it. For now, they seem to have been proved right by scenes of soldiers stripping off their uniforms or surrendering their tanks without a fight. One tank operator told a Turkish television station that he and his fellow soldiers had no prior notice of their mission.

It would be wonderful if the failure to seize power breaks Turkey’s cycle of lurching from coup to autocrat and back to coup again, with bouts of chaotic coalition governments in-between. Liberals and urban youth long for the day when overweening politicians and generals give way to a Turkey that gives primacy to rule of law, respect for legal contract and individual human rights.

The current Turkish context, unfortunately, is not propitious — perhaps one reason that the faction that launched the coup thought it had a chance of success. The gravity of the situation is even recognized by Erdoğan, who has an acute sense for political survival. In recent weeks, he made several changes to begin reversing Turkey’s catastrophic foreign policy mistakes of the past five years. Since 2011, all four pillars of the country’s national security — relations with the Middle East, Russia, the U.S. and the EU — have suffered grave damage.

Erdoğan opened Turkey’s doors to the Middle East, betting big on his Muslim neighbors. Instead, Turkey suffered severe blowback as 2.7 million Syrian refugees arrived and the rest of the region started exporting its conflicts to its territory, including six big attacks apparently by the Islamic State over the past year.

Arguments over Syria have crippled relations with Russia, Turkey’s biggest natural gas supplier and a major trading partner. This is only beginning to change after Turkey’s expression of contrition for shooting down a Russian warplane on its Syrian border in November, and Russia’s recent decision to lift its trade and tourism bans.

Turkey’s key relationship with its NATO ally, the U.S., has been similarly damaged by arguments over Syria. The U.S. backs a Syrian Kurdish faction that Turkey, with some justification, considers as part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). “Some parts of the Pentagon think they’re actually at war with Turkey,” one U.S. official said privately.

Finally, the recent deal with the EU over refugees, still in progress, has not really reversed Turkey’s loss of momentum since the early 2000s on progressing towards EU norms and solving the problem of divided Cyprus. Though, certainly, hostility from populist EU leaders and the Greek Cypriot rejection of a Cyprus deal played a role in this slowdown.

In one of the country’s gravest challenges, however, there is no sign of change: the mismanagement of the conflict with the PKK after the peace process collapsed nearly a year ago. According to International Crisis Group research, at least 1,700 people have been killed since then, mostly in the Kurdish-populated southeast, one of the bloodiest periods in a 32-year insurgency. After a decade in which a prosperous new era seemed possible, 350,000 Kurds have been displaced and huge swathes of Kurdish towns laid waste.

The paradoxes never end in Turkey: it was actually the Turkish armed forces that in the late 1990s did much behind the scenes to steer Turkey towards the EU candidacy in 1999 and made it easy for Erdoğan’s AKP to make so much progress after its election victory in 2002. And it was that same armed forces’ leadership that found itself in jail for years shortly afterwards, facing treason charges — with Erdoğan brandishing this flagrant injustice as a righting of the military-civilian balance in line with EU norms.

As this weekend’s events play out, the president may once again prove that he is an extraordinary political operator. But even if he uses the attempted coup to continue pushing a change to an executive presidential system, his rule will become even more brittle.

His legitimacy as ruler of all of Turkey is diminished with each drop in Turkey’s cruising altitude. The support he has from the pro-Islamic street is in, large part, because the constituency it represents believes that there is nobody that can take his place or protect their new-won status and interests.

Any visitor to the 1,150-room palace Erdoğan’s built for his ascension to the presidency in 2014 will be still struck by the fact that many of its large rooms and long gilded corridors are empty. For the first time in years, parliamentary parties united on Saturday to condemn the coup attempt — including Kurdish nationalists. As Erdoğan seeks to uncover those behind the attempted coup, he would be wise to build on this outstretched hand, and abide by the rule of law. The lonelier he gets, the harder it will be for him to keep winning. 

This article first appeared in Politico Europe.

Contributors

Director of Communications & Outreach
Hugh_Pope
Senior Analyst, Turkey
nigargoksel