Jessica Michek and Harry Parkhouse contributed to this post.
After large protests erupted in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and Taksim Square at the end of May, quickly spreading across the country, Turkey dominated the news. But as that unrest died down and as the rest of the Middle East grew even more chaotic Turkey disappeared from the headlines. In the last several weeks, however, we have witnessed the Turkish government beginning to react to the summer’s events. While not as captivating as the earlier protests, several events, ranging from the cautiously hopeful to the slightly peculiar, are noteworthy for what they indicate about the careful balance Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are trying to strike in their politics, both foreign and domestic.
Last week, BPC began a series on recent developments in Turkey. Previously, we examined the AKP government’s democratization package, Turkey’s attempts to cultivate better ties with China, the potential for a split between Turkey and the AKP’s most prominent leaders ahead of Turkey’s upcoming series of elections, and the recently announced U.S.-Turkish partnership to combat violent extremism. This week, we continue our coverage with the revelation that Turkey had broken the cover of an Israeli spy ring on Iran, and Turkey’s changing position towards the Syrian rebels.
For recommendations on how the United States should address these changing dynamics in Turkey, watch out for the report of the BPC’s Turkey Task Force, chaired by former U.S. Ambassadors to Turkey Morton Abramowitz and Eric Edelman, From Rhetoric to Reality: Reframing U.S. Turkey Policy, that will be released on this Wednesday, October 23.
The Syria Question: Turkey’s Difficult Position
At the beginning of the Syria conflict in 2011, Turkey was the first player to show its hand in full support of the anti-Assad movement. This initially involved strong vocal condemnation of the Assad regime, but then developed into active and public support for military intervention in Syria, the training of anti-Assad forces in Turkey, and the opening up of the Syrian-Turkish border for the transfer of weapons to rebel factions.
Because Western powers, especially the United States, have on several occasions misled Turkey with unfulfilled assurances that they would take active steps to directly arm the rebels, Turkey decided to independently support the most effective opposition fighting groups – extremist factions such as Jabhat al-Nusra.
Crucial to this has been the relatively open and unregulated Turkish-Syrian border, which allows for the transfer of weapons to rebel factions in Syria – largely bypassing the more moderate elements of the Syrian opposition in favor of Sunni Islamist extremists, although the Turkish government denies this. This has allowed not just for an exodus of refugees into Turkey, but also a flurry of new reserves for jihadist factions who have exploited this easy crossing into Syria – many of whom are Turkish nationals, assisting jihadist groups either as ideological fighters, mercenaries or smugglers.
More significant than this, however, is the active financial support for rebel groups by the government of Turkey which has undeniably trickled down to jihadist militias. The combination of Turkey’s lackadaisical approach to its border security and its direct participation in facilitating of the transfer of aid, money and weapons to these groups demonstrates the retention of a direct support line to jihadist groups in the face of international concern and condemnation of said groups.
Turkey, who once sought to lead international response to the Syrian crisis, has – as a result of its own policies – seen itself sidelined in recent developments, such as the U.S.-Russian deal on Syria’s chemical weapons as well as a hostage deal brokered by Qatar. The deal provided for the release of nine Lebanese Shiite hostages held by the Syrian rebels, two Turkish Airlines hostages taken by a Lebanese group in response, and approximately 100 female prisoners held by the Syrian regime. This success by Qatar who, like Turkey, has had its reputation as a broker in the Middle East damaged by the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and the lack of unity among the Syrian rebels, could herald its return to the role of a neutral arbiter in the region, a power that can both wield influence among the factions of the Syrian rebel movement and play a role in renewed negotiations with Iran – positions coveted by Turkey.
However, Turkey’s position has begun to shift as its support for the extremists begins to backfire. These groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have begun attacking other opposition groups as well as Syria’s Kurdish areas, which have thus far remained largely neutral in the conflict. Many of these skirmishes have taken place close to the Turkish border, leading to stray bullets and mortars hitting Turkish towns and villages and injuring or killing Turks. Such spillovers of violence, perpetrated by their own proxies, prompted last week’s retaliatory strikes by the Turkish military against ISIL – its first official strike on anti-regime forces. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu expressed that these groups were “betraying” the revolution in Syria, which could foreshadow a divorce between Turkey and the most odious factions of the Syrian rebels.
This has largely been viewed as a symbolic act, indicating Turkey’s shifting stance toward Islamist groups in Syria. The extent to which Turkey will fundamentally alter its entrenched position on Syria remains unclear, although pressure is undeniably mounting against Erdoğan and the AKP to decisively break from its past patronage of extremists and embrace a political solution. Turkey now has to weigh the risk of ceasing to support the more effective elements of the opposition with the risks posed by the empowerment of jihadist factions, namely engendering insecurity within Turkey – a difficult decision considering the fluctuating and unpredictable nature of conflict in the region.