The Turkish army at the border crossing Akcakale (photo: dapd)
Turkey's Syria Policy

Ankara's Achilles' Heel

The Syrian conflict is exposing the limitations of aspiring regional power Turkey, as the West repeatedly urges leaders in Ankara to exercise military restraint. Turkish public opinion is also putting the brakes on a possible intervention in neighbouring Syria. By Thomas Seibert

After almost two years of crisis in neighbouring Syria, the only way Turkish diplomats can react to the conduct of President Bashar al-Assad is to shake their heads. A high-ranking official from Ankara says that Damascus has "still not understood" the signs of the times. Even Russia, a close ally of the Syrians, is cautiously backing off from Assad.
The Turkish government is certain that the Assad regime is facing its demise. But as recent developments have shown, Turkey has a limited capacity to influence what is happening to its next-door neighbour. Not only was Ankara unable to assert its demand for a no-fly zone over northern Syria, Turkey also failed to unite the Syrian opposition on its own territory.

No one is disputing the fact that Turkey, which shares a 900-kilometre border with Syria, is suffering the effects of the civil war. There are now up to 200,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey: Some 150,000 Syrians have found refuge in Turkish reception camps close to the border, with around 50,000 more living with relatives or in rented apartments.

Pressure from NATO

In October, five Turkish civilians were killed when Syrian mortars mistakenly fell on Turkish territory, and four months previously the Syrians shot down a Turkish reconnaissance plane over the eastern Mediterranean, killing both pilots.

Syrian refugee camp in the province Hatay (photo: dapd)
Spillover from the war: Turkey has now taken in some 150,000 refugees from Syria. People are continuing to seek exile in Turkey as an end to the conflict still appears to be elusive

​​But western partners have persistently urged the Turks to exercise caution: Turkish government threats to conduct military action in Syria were not met with understanding from NATO allies, but rather expressions of fear that such measures would trigger an uncontrollable escalation.

This is why towards the end of last year, NATO repeatedly underlined the purely defensive nature of its decision to send Patriot missile defence systems to Turkey, to protect it from a possible missile attack from Syria.

The stance of chief ally the US has played a decisive role here. As Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu seek to carve out a role for Turkey as key regional power, they are nevertheless aware that part of their nation's strength lies in its close relationship with Washington and other western powers.

Relations with the US merit particular attention. This is why Ankara was able to stomach the fact that its publicly issued demand for the establishment of a military safe zone over the Syrian border and a no-fly zone was rebuffed by the West.

The Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu (photo: AP)
Limited foreign policy clout: As Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu seek to carve out a role for Turkey as key regional power, they are nevertheless aware that part of their nation's strength lies in its close relationship with Washington and other western powers

​​Turkish public opinion also acted as a brake on any thoughts of a military intervention. Polls showed that Turkish voters were against any interference in Syrian affairs – a weighty argument in view of the nation's upcoming marathon of local, presidential and parliamentary elections.

Divided opposition

Turkey also registered little success in its attempts to unite the chronically divided Syrian exiled opposition movement, which met on Turkish territory since the summer of 2011. A change of leadership at the umbrella organization the Syrian National Council failed to secure a breakthrough – with success coming only at a conference in Qatar. The new formation, the Syrian National Coalition, chose Egypt as its headquarters, not Turkey.
As the new year gets underway, the Syrian conflict will however remain one of the most important Turkish foreign policy issues. The discourse will give increasing prominence to the question of what is going to happen when the Assad regime is finally removed from power.

As an exporting nation, Turkey is keen to see peace and order restored to its neighbour as quickly as possible; a failed state or a radical Islamist regime on the doorstep is a horror scenario for officials in the Turkish capital.

In the year 2013, Turkey will focus its attentions on preventing developments of this nature. But the experience of 2012 has shown that for all its striving to attain the role of a regional stabilizing power, Ankara is not in a position to achieve this alone.

Thomas Seibert

© Deutsche Welle / 2013

Translated from the German by Nina Coon editor: Lewis Gropp

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