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Prior to the beginning of the Arab Spring, Turkey and Syria had built a close relationship that allowed for cooperation on many levels. Yet, after protests for democratic reform began in Syria, Turkey started to advocate for a regime change, making a U-turn on its previous foreign policy over the course of the following months by supporting the Syrian opposition with military support as well as a base for their operations. This was a significant shift in foreign policy on Turkey’s part and although the relationship between Syria and Turkey had previously been defined by conflict, after Bashar al-Assad (below: Assad) came to power in 2000 and the election of the Justice and Development Party 2002 (below: AKP), a time of cooperation began between the two countries (Özden, 2016). Turkey’s “Zero Problems with Neighbours” approach to foreign policy focused on political dialogue, economic interdependence and the security of the region, whilst not pushing for democratization (Aras and Akarçeşme, 2012). With the beginning of widespread calls for democratization in Syria, however, an opportunity to advance trade and economic prosperity presented itself and based on the assumption that a swift change in government would occur in Syria, the Turkish government offered support to the rebels in an attempt to ensure future cooperation with a new government (Yakış, 2014).
To this day, Assad remains in power in Syria whilst relations between Turkey and its once close partner in the region have significantly worsened (Ayata, 2015), which poses the question, what lead Turkey to withdraw support from the Assad regime and take this risk?
One factor contributing to the decision made by the Turkish government to implement this significant change in foreign policy is the importance of the stability of the Arab region. Turkey had been able to develop diplomatic relationships with other states, leading to increasing economic prosperity for the countries involved. However, a civil war disrupting trade and economic growth was expected to have lasting consequences for the entire region, as previously seen after the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the USA. In this instance, Turkey opted to support the Syrian rebel forces, whilst at first upholding diplomatic relations with the Assad regime (Ayata, 2015).
Furthermore, the decline in US hegemony, which is a direct result of the interventions undertaken post-9/11 and the resulting damage to the US image abroad, especially in the Arab World lead to an opening in the foreign policy landscape. The Obama administration, in an effort to change the image of the US abroad, opted not to intervene in Syria in 2011 (Aras and Akarçeşme, 2012), which was also due to the lasting effects of the economic crisis in the US and Europe (Önis, 2012). This led to Turkey taking an opportunistic leap and deciding to attempt to follow a US roadmap (Özden, 2016).
Another very important point are the duties and burdens that Turkey sees put on herself as a model country in the middle east, which is defined by secularity (to some extent), democracy and a young entrepreneurial population (Fuat Keyman, 2016). The country attempted to introduce positive change by cooperating with Middle Eastern countries and even by acting as a mediator if conflict occurred (Aras and Akarçeşme, 2012). In light of this position as a democratic voice in the region, the Turkish decision-makers stated that the reason for Turkish intervention in Syria was to help the Syrian people (Özden, 2016). At first, Turkey urged Assad for reforms to satisfy the will of the people and ensure future stability, which he refused to do. After the AKP clearly emerged as the winner of the 2011 elections in Turkey, foreign politics took a turn in a more interventionist direction, demonstrating a will to support democratization in the region and to present itself as a strong actor. Even though Turkey took a clear stance against Assad from the beginning of the uprisings, the fact that the President simply refused to introduce reforms demonstrates a lack of leverage on Turkey’s side. By providing soft power instruments such as financial assistance, technical expertise, and civil society support to aid the rebels in quest to remove Assad from power, and later, even deploying tanks to the Free Syrian Army, sent a clear message the regime (Yakış, 2014).
In addition to all this, the conflict between Turkey and its Kurdish population, which has shaped Turkish domestic politics to some degree for decades has an impact on Turkish foreign policy towards Syria. From the beginning of the conflict in Syria, the Turkish government was aware that destabilization of the Syrian border could cause disruptions in the slow and difficult peace process between Turkey and its Kurdish population. It was in President Assad’s interest to disturb the stability in the region near the Turkish border, so he granted new freedoms to the Syrian Kurds, who formed autonomous enclaves. Ironically, more rights as a minority is exactly what the Syrian Kurdish population was fighting Assad for. This illustrates that Assad’s sole intention was to destabilize the border regions near Turkey to disrupt relations between the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (below: PKK) and the Government. Another issue that contributed to this uncertainty along the border was the wave of refugees that began to enter Turkey from Syria, this higher rate of movement constituted a security threat along state lines (Ma’oz, 2014). As a consequence of these developments in border regions, the Turkish Government actively tried to advance the domestic peace process with the PKK, which is classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU, and the US (Krajeski, 2012), who as a result deployed troops to Syria in an effort to fight against the Assad regime (Ayata, 2015).
The decision to change its foreign policy toward Syria, considering all these factors, would have appeared to have a positive influence on the situation. Supporting rebel forces, should have been a key factor in bringing about swift change of government, advancing peace in the region, avoiding a humanitarian crisis and securing future economic and diplomatic relations between the two countries. Today, however, Assad is still in power, millions of Syrians have been misplaced and died, and the war-torn cities may never return to what they once were.
- Aras, B. and Akarçeşme, S. (2012) ‘Turkey and the Arab Spring’, International Journal, 67(1), pp. 39-51.
- Ayata, B. (2015) ‘Turkish Foreign Policy in a Changing Arab World: Rise and Fall of a Regional Actor?’, Journal of European Integration, 37(1), pp. 95-112.
- Fuat Keyman, E. (2016) ‘Turkish foreign policy in the post- Arab Spring era: from proactive to buffer state’, Third World Quarterly, 37(12), pp. 2274-2288.
- Krajeski, J. (2012) ‘Taking Refuge: The Syrian Revolution in Turkey’, World Policy Journal, 29(2), pp. 59-68.
- Ma’oz, M. (2014) ‘The Arab Spring in Syria: Domestic and regional developments’, Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict: Pathways toward Terrorism and Genocide, 7(1).
- Yakış, Y. (2014) ‘Turkey after the Arab Spring: Policy Dilemmas’, Middle East Policy, 21(1), pp. 98-106.
- Önis, Z. (2012) ‘Turkey and the Arab Spring: Between Ethics and Self-Interest’, Insight Turkey, 14(3), pp. 45-63.
- Özden, H. (2016) ‘TURKEY AND SYRIA FROM 2011 TO 2013: FROM INTIMACY TO A DILEMMA’, Electronic Turkish Studies, 11(2), pp. 1029-1049.