While the role of the US, Russia, KSA, and Iran are vastly discussed when it comes to the convoluted dynamics of Syria, the Turkish factor is not underlined as much as it is required. The involvement of Turkey since the beginning of the crisis has been more consistent than the US position or Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) especially when it comes to opposing Bashar al-Assad. Hence, Ankara’s opposition to Assad will continue to be an impediment in not only achieving a breakthrough of a trilateral alliance of Russia, Iran, and Turkey but for the future of Syria.
Turkey entered the Syrian crisis in 2011. The significant phase of Ankara’s involvement in Syria can be associated with the training of Syrian Army defectors in summer of 2011. These defectors are also linked to the genesis of Free Syrian Army. Later on, Ankara joined the Friends of Syria. Turkey has armed the opposition forces against the Assad regime in the past few years. However, what makes it interesting it how Ankara has over the years moved out of the alliance and appears to be reasserting it as an autonomous actor since last year.
Turkish policy in Syria has three main tiers. One of the most known facets is an antagonism to Assad’s regime. The second one concerns with containment of the Kurds, which are considered one of the most significant internal and external threats. And the third one is to manage the influx of Syrian refugees, which is the largest among other hosting states. This is not to undermine the historical relations with Syria, however, the contemporary policy appears to be revolving around above-mentioned three tiers.
Turkey shares an approximately 822-kilometer border with Syria. These borderlines were drawn under the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916. The geographical contiguity makes Ankara vulnerable to not only the internal crisis of Syria, but it provides it with leverage to influence the internal dynamics as well. The operation Euphrates is one of the examples, which played a role in containing the ISIS threat in 2016. The rebel-controlled areas of Azaz and the region near the Euphrates was the main target of the Turkish military. It aimed to rid the region of the ISIS in addition to the Syrian Democratic forces. In other words, the success of this offensive emboldened Ankara to intervene in Syria in 2018.
The Operation Olive Branch was launched in January 2018 in the area of Afrin in order to fight Democratic Union party, which was under the control of Syrian Democratic Forces. This also proves Ankara’s attempts to reassert in not only Syria but to gain leverage in the dynamic of the Middle East region. Likewise, Ankara’s significant role in a Qatar impasse with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Iran is another example of the claim.
The Operation Olive Branch has achieved success in terms of taking the control of the Syrian-Turkish border; however, if it is extended to the other part after the victory of Afrin, especially to Manbij, it can open new fronts in Turkey and pose a problem for the cease-fire efforts in Syria. Even though the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is based in Turkey and the tussle between them and the anti-Kurds movements has been going on for many years, however, for Ankara, the PKK is declared a part of the Syrian based People’s Protection Movement (YPG).
Ankara’s role in the peace talks led by Russia is another factor that has gained significance over the past few months. The last meeting among the three states, Russia, Iran, and Turkey was held in Ankara. It laid stress on working for the stability and constitutional measures of the Syrians. While all three states maintain divergence in many aspects, however, one of the common denominators that bring them closer is their interest in decreasing the role of the US in Syria. Therefore, it may be the only precursor of their cooperation; however, it is potent enough to deepen their alliance in the future.
The increased emphasis on defining the Turkish identity, given the significance of the Turkish election scheduled on June 24, 2018, is likely to determine its policy in Syria. The link of this factor can be understood by taking into account the reaction from Ankara over the Kurdish protest held in Cologne, Germany. The foreign minister of Turkey vehemently opposed it in the official statement. The issue of Syrian refugees is another factor which distinguishes the government candidates from the Turkish opposition. Simply put, if the opposition leader wins the elections, the refugees will probably be forced to go back to Syria, however, if the government win again, it may prove to be a positive sign for the approximately 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.
*Iqra Mobeen Akram works as a researcher at an Islamabad-based think tank.