Turkey’s unending dilemma in Syria: Will it intervene?

While the world seems fixated on the Greek default, trying to figure out the dimensions of the wave of instability it will unleash, Turkey has come close to exacerbating the chaos in Syria and the broader Middle East. In the last few days, the nation heatedly discussed whether or not to deploy troops into Syria.

It was only less than a year ago that Turkey faced a torrent of criticism for refusing to intervene against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), when it besieged the Kurdish town of Kobani. At the time, the Turkish leadership said that an intervention would violate Syria’s sovereignty.

Today, the reverse seems to be happening. The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is pressing hard for a military intervention to provide a safe haven for displaced Syrians within Syria and to prevent the emergence of “terrorist statelets” along the Turkish border. For the international community, this may suggest that Erdoğan is taking steps against ISIS—but a “terrorist state,” in the president’s lexicon, could also refer to any sort of state formation spearheaded by the Kurds. 

What explains the 180-degree turn?

There are more than two million refugees in Turkey that have fled the violence in Syria and Iraq. The responsibility to care for these refugees is taxing the public patience and government resources—so far, Turkey has spent $6 billion providing protection and care for the refugees. And more refugees will likely arrive: The displacement crisis caused by the clashes in Tel Abyad between the forces of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and ISIS this June is seen as the harbinger of a potential displacement of 200,000 to 300,000 people from the regions surrounding Azaz and Aleppo. 

When fighting first flared up in Tel Abyad, the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş promised assistance to the refugees—but on the Syrian side of the border. As the chaos intensified, however, local authorities did open the border. Close to 30,000 refugees poured in, raising the urgency to better accommodate refugees. This was one of the factors that fed into the idea of creating a safe zone directly north of the area where ISIS and anti-Assad factions are expected to pick a fight very soon.

Kurdish complications 

There are, however, a host of more complex, political considerations at play. When the PYD forces defeated ISIS at Tel Abyad, they also helped merge two Kurdish enclaves along the Turkish border. Many suspected that the United States encouraged the PYD to fight ISIS and provided air cover. Some commentators thought that this confirmed American willingness to support Kurdish plans for autonomy, as long as they remained committed to the struggle against ISIS. Ankara is worried about PYD’s affiliation with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in Turkey. In this regard, the “safe area” is meant to station Turkish military units to prevent the consolidation of the Kurdish enclaves into a coherent whole.

Turkey has long been accused of aiding ISIS. That the leadership does not seem troubled by having the so-called Caliphate as its neighbor, for many, insinuates a working relationship between the two sides. Kurds have frequently complained that, until the fall of Tel Abyad, Turkey had even been supplying electricity to the region controlled by ISIS while withholding it from Kurdish-controlled areas. From this perspective, the temptation to send in troops is driven primarily not by humanitarian concerns, but an effort to preempt further territory from falling into the hands of Kurds. 

Domestically, it’s also relevant that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority in the June 7 elections. Erdoğan’s aim was for the AKP to garner enough votes to push through a new constitution allowing him to perpetuate his increasingly authoritarian rule. Instead, the electorate lent its support to the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), allowing it to break through Turkey’s notoriously high electoral threshold of 10 percent and occupy the seats that would have been allotted to AKP members.

This electoral outcome may reflect that many conservative Kurdish voters had become disillusioned with Erdoğan after he refused to “do what it takes” in Kobani. When Erdoğan put the brakes on the Kurdish peace process in favor of following a more nationalist line, some voters finally defected from the AKP and supported HDP. 

The calls for intervention in Syria are seen as an extension of this pro-nationalist line at a time when Turkey is going through a difficult coalition-building process. Erdoğan has made it clear that he would prefer a coalition with the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), or what he calls a “re-run” election. His hope is that the electorate, wary of a weak coalition government, will support a majority government headed by the AKP.

The outcome no one wants 

So, will Turkey intervene? It seems unlikely, as the military has hitherto proven reluctant to press ahead. The military leadership insists that the parliament should decide, concerned about violating international law in the absence of U.N. Security Council authorization. Also, the military has a track record of resisting interventions, such as in Iraq in 2003. Russia remains resolved to continue its support for the regime in Damascus, as reiterated by President Vladimir Putin during the Syrian minister of foreign affair’s recent visit to Moscow; understandably, the Turkish military is wary of being drawn into a conflict with Russia—either directly or by proxy.

There are economic implications to consider, too—with the Turkish economy already punching well below its weight, an intervention would be deeply risky. Meanwhile, the Turkish public has become increasingly disturbed by Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian crisis. 

Odds are that the prospect of a Turkish intervention will remain mere speculation. Erdoğan’s chief advisor, İbrahim Kalın, has even announced that an intervention would not be rational. Nevertheless, this flare-up was not just a storm in a teacup—as long as chaos next door persists, many push-and-pull factors will tempt Turkey to intervene. Forging ahead with the current foreign policy, infamously dubbed as “zero neighbors without problems,” is likely to push Turkey deeper into the Syrian quagmire. But nobody will benefit from this: not Middle Eastern neighbors, not the international community, and not even Turkey (despite what some might assert).

For another take on this issue, see the post from Jeremy Shapiro and Ömer Taşpınar.