Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

Topic Debate: Turkey’s Syria Problem

Background: Tensions between Turkey and Syria continued to escalate in early October after cross-border shelling killed 5 Turkish civilians. Soon thereafter both countries announced that they would be prohibiting the other’s civilian planes from flying over their territory.

In the conflict between President Assad’s forces and the Syrian opposition, Turkey has been actively supporting the latter through several means. Liz Sly, in the Washington Post, illustrates how Turkey has become a hub for the Syria revolution:

“Turkey’s role in the revolt goes far deeper than helping refugees, though to what extent it is actively aiding a war that has spun beyond the reach of world diplomacy is unclear. Turkey seems to be groping for a strategy to address the unfolding chaos on its doorstep, said Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group. (…) What is clear is that the Syrian conflict has already reached deep into Turkey. The quaint and ancient city of Antakya, the preferred destination for most Syrians crossing the border, pulses with the intrigue and gossip of the war next door.

Free Syrian Army fighters stride through its narrow streets, sunburned and sweaty from the battlefield, hoping to meet benefactors to provide them with money and arms.

Salafi Muslims, who have come to offer help from the countries of the Persian Gulf region, huddle over kebabs, their long beards and robes conspicuous in secularist Turkey.

Men who identify themselves as representatives of rebel battalions rent cheap hotel rooms and apartments, swelling the population of a city, once part of Syria, where many still speak Arabic as their native tongue.”

Debate: It remains unclear if the cross-border clashes will accelerate and where the escalation in tensions between the two countries will lead. The following articles address multiple factors vis-a-vis Turkey’s handling of the problem in Syria.

  • Reva Bhalla, the Vice President of Global Analysis for Stratfor Global Intelligence, explains that the challenge facing Turkey does not solely emanate from their dealing with Syria but that “Syria is merely the conversation-starter for much broader strategic disputes.” Turkey’s great challenge, according to Bhalla, is confronting and managing the interests of key regional players as it’s rise unwittingly rekindles memories of the its imperial Ottoman rule.
  • Daniel Steinvorth, the Istanbul Bureau Chief for Der Spiegel, considers Turkey’s options in a possible war not just against Syria’s Assad but also against Kurdish separatists. Steinvorth writes, “So are the freedom-loving Kurds, more than the Assad regime, the true targets of Turkey’s potential war plans? There is a good reason that [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s new military law only vaguely mentions “operations outside Turkish borders.” Similar language was used in the past to legitimize operations against presumed PKK positions in northern Iraq that were dubious under international law.”
  • In “Military Implications of the Syria-Turkey Border Incident” by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Jeffery White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute, Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, and Andrew J. Tabler, senior analyst at the Washington Institute, argue that the latest Syria strike “is further evidence that the longer Syria’s internal conflict continues, the more likely it is to become an external conflict that draws in its neighbors,” namely Turkey. The Washington Institute analysts go on to prescribe that “if Turkey takes a more active role by exerting control over the border area inside Syria, then the United States, its allies, and other countries interested in regional stability should all lend their support.”
  • Additionally, Cagaptay analyzes Turkey’s options for handling the Syrian conflict: “If the situation continues to escalate, Turkey’s history suggests that it is likely to follow one of three paths: continued low-intensity shelling, cross-border strikes, or an actual invasion.”
  • Eyüp Can, a Turkish journalist writing in the newspaper Radikal makes the case for why Syria’s sophisticated air defenses are the first of several reasons for Turkey to be apprehensive in committing to unilateral military action against Assad’s forces. Instead, Can asks, “before debating why Turkey should or should not intervene in Syria for political and humanitarian reasons, shouldn’t someone get up and tell us why it would be so difficult to set up a buffer zone?”

What do you think is Turkey’s best option with regard to its relations with Syria?

 

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