Turkey’s Syria Challenge

Ankara can’t win against Moscow. It should instead focus on helping refugees.

Written by Kemal Kirisci | Updated: February 19, 2016 12:23 am

 ankara, turkey, syria, moscow, ankara aginst moscow, syrian conflict, russian airpower, turkish border, syrian refugees, syrian refugees in turkey, EU, indian express opinion

The Syrian conflict is entering its sixth year. The destruction, displacement and violence have reached a new level since the Syrian regime, with Russian airpower, began advancing north towards the Turkish border. This advance has cut aid routes to opposition groups and civilians while an estimated 70,000 have been displaced, half of them squeezed up against the Turkish border. Meanwhile, the Syrian quagmire is creating an ever-growing list of challenges for Turkey.

Top of the list remains managing the rising number of Syrian refugees in Turkey. The war has already displaced more than half of Syria’s population and 4.5 million refugees are registered in neighbouring countries. Their numbers in Turkey have surpassed 2.5 million and the government recently declared it had spent more than $10 billion caring for them while getting less than half a billion dollars from the international community. After having resisted the idea for a long time, the government has finally authorised work permits for refugees. This should surely help improve the dire situation of those living in squalor and discourage refugees from resorting to “negative coping” mechanisms, ranging from child labour to prostitution.

However, it’s also likely to create considerable resentment among locals increasingly feeling the bite from Turkey’s failing
economy. Turkey is also under pressure from the EU to stem the flow of refugees to Europe. During 2015, more than half a
million made their way to Europe; more are trying to make it to Greece across the Aegean Sea. The EU remains divided and a deal reached between Brussels and Ankara in November, to manage this flow and assist Turkey in managing the crisis, still hasn’t seen the light of day. There are mutual recriminations, while anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim feelings are strengthening the political right in Europe, complicating Turkey’s relations with the EU.

All of this is happening against the backdrop of Turkey increasingly finding itself drawn into the Syrian conflict and at odds with the US and its Nato allies. The government has bitterly criticised Washington for failing to take a stand against Russian attacks on civilians while cooperating with the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) that it considers a terrorist organisation closely associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The latter has been engaged in a bloody urban insurgency with Turkish security forces since a ceasefire broke down last summer. The violence has already caused a large number of deaths but also generated images of numerous Kurdish towns in Turkey resembling the destruction in Syria.

The US has chosen to work closely with the PYD as the only reliable ally against the Islamic State (IS) and accuses Ankara of not doing enough to defeat the IS. Clearly, Turkish and American priorities don’t overlap in Syria, leaving Turkey increasingly exposed in Syria at a time when the Syrian regime and Moscow are inflicting damage on the opposition Turkey supports.

Finally, Turkey faces a Russia seeking retribution for the downing of its warplane last November. Moscow has imposed costly economic sanctions and banned Russian tourism to Turkey, a significant source of income for Turkey. Meanwhile, the chaos has lost Turkey its export markets in the neighbourhood, aggravating Ankara’s economic difficulties. Furthermore, Russian military engagement in Syria has dramatically undermined Turkey’s ability to support opposition groups, let alone ensure humanitarian assistance. Its calls for no-fly zones in northern Syria have gone unheeded and are impossible to implement as neither the US nor the EU is prepared to take on Russia. Notwithstanding speculation that Turkey might mount its own military intervention, the fact that Turkey’s predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, lost every single one of the dozen wars it fought with the Russian Empire has so far pre-empted such escalation.

The Syrian conflict has created big challenges for the international community. Ankara’s own challenges demonstrate how Turkey, too, has been deeply affected but also involved in the conflict. Ankara’s priority should be to prevent itself from
being sucked into a military adventure in Syria. Former Turkish foreign minister Yasar Yakis recently warned that a military intervention risks being in violation of international law and could even amount to loss of territory for Turkey. Instead, Ankara should continue to prioritise alleviating the suffering in Syria and helping refugees. Such an endeavour would earn Turkey international goodwill and influence.

 

The writer is the TUSIAD senior fellow in the foreign policy programme at Brookings, Washington DC

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  1. S
    Sirius
    Feb 19, 2016 at 2:26 pm
    Russia should not allow Turkey to escape punishment, like India allowed Pak in 1971 under threat of international sanctions. Turkey *must* lose its Kurdish part, and *must* lose its European part for International stability by loss of influence in OIS . Erdogan must go ...
    Reply
    1. D
      Dennis
      Feb 20, 2016 at 9:47 pm
      You. Shouldn't worry about turkey. They are strong.
      Reply
      1. K
        K SHESHU
        Feb 19, 2016 at 11:19 am
        Turkey is fighting on two fronts !- syrian refugees on one side and Kurds on the other. NATO is only interesed in its military dominance over the area. US and the West care less about Turkish economy. They need hegemony over oil resources in gulf. They need turkey bases not Turkish people or their economy.
        Reply
        1. A
          Aditya
          Feb 19, 2016 at 9:27 am
          Hold yourself. This is not the way to talk to your Muslim brother.
          Reply
          1. K
            Kolsat
            Feb 18, 2016 at 10:13 pm
            Since the current group came to power a decade or so ago Turkey has developed visions of leading the Sunni Muslim world. It is becoming a highly Islamised nation. Therefore they dealt with the IS buying oil from them and allowing jihadists to p through Turkey's airports to join the IS army. Now it is reaping the fruits of its actions and I am sure will suffer economically.
            Reply
            1. K
              Ken
              Feb 19, 2016 at 12:56 pm
              Turkey will never win because those who cooperate with terrorists, , are doomed to lose and Turkey led by Erdogan walks the wrong path.
              Reply
              1. I
                Ingeborg Malik
                Feb 18, 2016 at 9:00 pm
                Turkey is the stan of West ..they have been just like stan indulging in Terror in Syria.Now ISIS has started their Terror against the hand that gave him Weapons,Hospital Treatment etc...just like what is happening in stan with TTP...both these Nations follow identical Strategy......Now Russia is there that is why they have BIG PROBLEM
                Reply
                1. I
                  irfan
                  Feb 18, 2016 at 7:20 pm
                  You mean to say that if some nation is weaker or smaller than the mightier nations, who threaten it, then the small nation should just keep quiet and get busy doing things to please the aggressor
                  Reply
                  1. N
                    Naidu
                    Feb 18, 2016 at 11:27 pm
                    After Syria its time for Porkstan..
                    Reply
                    1. R
                      Raj
                      Feb 18, 2016 at 9:21 pm
                      Islamic countries must be destro for the good of mankind.. Islam should be wiped out...
                      Reply
                      1. R
                        ramaswamy
                        Feb 19, 2016 at 3:20 am
                        Wrong perception and this is the reason for all the issue in middle east. First and foremost Turkey is running with Hare and hunting with wolves. It is fighting Syria as well IS but also clandestinely supports IS. Its time Turkey starts choosing right options.
                        Reply
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