Turkey’s Syria challenge

The Syrian conflict is entering its sixth year. The destruction, displacement and violence have reached a new level since the Syrian regime, with Russian airpower, began advancing north towards the Turkish border. This advance has cut aid routes to opposition groups and civilians while an estimated 70,000 have been displaced, half of them squeezed up against the Turkish border. Meanwhile, the Syrian quagmire is creating an ever-growing list of challenges for Turkey.

Top of the list remains managing the rising number of Syrian refugees in Turkey. The war has already displaced more than half of Syria’s population and 4.5 million refugees are registered in neighbouring countries. Their numbers in Turkey have surpassed 2.5 million and the government recently declared it had spent more than $10 billion caring for them while getting less than half a billion dollars from the international community. After having resisted the idea for a long time, the government has finally authorised work permits for refugees. This should surely help improve the dire situation of those living in squalor and discourage refugees from resorting to “negative coping” mechanisms, ranging from child labour to prostitution.

However, it’s also likely to create considerable resentment among locals increasingly feeling the bite from Turkey’s failing economy. Turkey is also under pressure from the EU to stem the flow of refugees to Europe. During 2015, more than half a million made their way to Europe; more are trying to make it to Greece across the Aegean Sea. The EU remains divided and a deal reached between Brussels and Ankara in November, to manage this flow and assist Turkey in managing the crisis, still hasn’t seen the light of day. There are mutual recriminations, while anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim feelings are strengthening the political right in Europe, complicating Turkey’s relations with the EU.

All of this is happening against the backdrop of Turkey increasingly finding itself drawn into the Syrian conflict and at odds with the US and its Nato allies. The government has bitterly criticised Washington for failing to take a stand against Russian attacks on civilians while cooperating with the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) that it considers a terrorist organisation closely associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The latter has been engaged in a bloody urban insurgency with Turkish security forces since a ceasefire broke down last summer. The violence has already caused a large number of deaths but also generated images of numerous Kurdish towns in Turkey resembling the destruction in Syria.

The US has chosen to work closely with the PYD as the only reliable ally against the Islamic State (IS) and accuses Ankara of not doing enough to defeat the IS. Clearly, Turkish and American priorities don’t overlap in Syria, leaving Turkey increasingly exposed in Syria at a time when the Syrian regime and Moscow are inflicting damage on the opposition Turkey supports.

Finally, Turkey faces a Russia seeking retribution for the downing of its warplane last November. Moscow has imposed costly economic sanctions and banned Russian tourism to Turkey, a significant source of income for Turkey. Meanwhile, the chaos has lost Turkey its export markets in the neighbourhood, aggravating Ankara’s economic difficulties. Furthermore, Russian military engagement in Syria has dramatically undermined Turkey’s ability to support opposition groups, let alone ensure humanitarian assistance. Its calls for no-fly zones in northern Syria have gone unheeded and are impossible to implement as neither the US nor the EU is prepared to take on Russia. Notwithstanding speculation that Turkey might mount its own military intervention, the fact that Turkey’s predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, lost every single one of the dozen wars it fought with the Russian Empire has so far pre-empted such escalation.

The Syrian conflict has created big challenges for the international community. Ankara’s own challenges demonstrate how Turkey, too, has been deeply affected but also involved in the conflict. Ankara’s priority should be to prevent itself from being sucked into a military adventure in Syria. Former Turkish foreign minister Yasar Yakis recently warned that a military intervention risks being in violation of international law and could even amount to loss of territory for Turkey. Instead, Ankara should continue to prioritise alleviating the suffering in Syria and helping refugees. Such an endeavour would earn Turkey international goodwill and influence.

This piece was originally published in The Indian Express.