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Turkey's Syrian Dilemma
Regional powers aren't immune to blowback and other consequences of intervention either.
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Over the past eleven years we have become so accustomed to the United States intervening in the affairs of other countries, to include regime change and military invasion, it is sometimes possible to forget that some other nations have also found themselves mired in situations that they cannot extricate themselves from when they pursued similar policies. America’s closest and most important ally in the Middle East Turkey now finds itself in a largely lose-lose situation in its dealings with its neighbor Syria.

Turkey certainly has many detractors who point to the increasing authoritarianism of the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government, its increasing drift from secularism to a mild Islamism, and the de facto limits on civil liberties and rule of law demonstrated in its arrests and prosecutions of journalists and political opponents. But both visitors and longtime foreign residents would also note the country’s dynamic society and vibrant economy at a time when much of the Western world appears to be mired in self-doubt and historical revisionism. Turkey’s economy has been growing, currently at an 8% annual rate, and its centrality as a militarily powerful moderate Muslim regime has led to speculation that they are a possible role model for other developing Islamic states in the Middle East and North Africa.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey’s founder, was a passionate secularist, believing as he did that it was the Medievalism of Islam that retarded the nation’s development. He was also a nationalist. During and immediately after the First World War Turkey was a polyglot nation with large Greek, Armenian, Kurdish, Jewish, and Arab minorities. Turkish ethnics were a majority, but nearly half of the nation was non-Turkish. Pogroms against the Armenians and the war of liberation against an invasion by Greece produced major population shifts, sharply reducing the numbers of Christians in the country. But the other major ethnic groups remained. Ataturk’s solution to the country’s ethnic diversity consisted of declaring that henceforth all citizens of the Republic of Turkey would be Turks, whether they liked it or not and without regard to what language they spoke at home and how they chose to worship. This was referred to as “Turkification” and some languages, including Kurdish, were actually made illegal. Ethnic riots in the 1950s further reduced the number of Greeks, primarily in Istanbul, but the fundamental instability of the Turkish state based on its large, predominantly Kurdish minority remained.

Turkey has been engaged in an armed conflict with Kurdish nationalists since the founding of the republic in the 1920s. In the 1930s there were major resettlement programs in an attempt to break up concentrations of Kurds, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. By some estimates, Kurds constitute one quarter of Turkey’s population yet it is only recently that they have been able to use their own language and celebrate their culture though they are still subject to censorship and possible prosecution. The suppression of the Kurds has spawned an indigenous and also transnational terrorist movement seeking to create a Kurdish state made up of Kurds from Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. In support of the independence movement, a number of armed groups organized in the 1970s and have repeatedly crossed international borders and staged attacks inside Turkey as well as in neighboring Iran.

Turkey’s response to these attacks has been interventionism, initially against the Kurdish region of post-Saddam Iraq and more recently by acting preemptively against Syria. Hitting terrorist bases in Iraq, using intelligence supplied by the United States, has not exactly worked very well. The leading terrorist group the Marxist-Leninist Kurdish Workers’ Party or PKK continues to stage cross border attacks and continues to kill large numbers of Turkish soldiers and paramilitary policemen with the inevitable retaliation by Ankara against Kurdish targets killing large numbers of civilians.

As a consequence of the lack of anything that can be described as success against Iraq, Turkey has proceeded somewhat more gingerly with Syria, initially supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad in early 2011 and then pushing for reform when the violent suppression of protesters led Ankara to fear that there would be major refugee and security problems developing along the two states’ six hundred mile long border. The Turkish Foreign Ministry initially recommended not getting involved, but Prime Minister Erdoğan, perhaps vainly, saw Turkey’s potential role as decisive and gradually became more engaged in the developing conflict. Ankara eventually threw its support behind the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, providing bases and other facilities in Iskenderun and Antakya, close to the border. It also facilitated the transit of equipment from NATO sources and allowed major western intelligence services to set up shop in and around Adana. It permitted Saudi Arabia and Qatar among others to provide direct clandestine assistance to the rebellion in what was optimistically seen as a broadly based Sunni solution to changing the Syrian government.

So what has happened? Turkey’s expectation that there would be a quick resolution to the Syrian problem leading to a change of government that would soon restore order has proven to be a chimera, just as it was for the United States and its allies in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan. Instead, Syria is engaged in a civil war with neither side about to surrender but the rebels controlling an increasing number of border crossing points. An enormous refugee problem is developing, and there are concerns that a new government could easily prove to be both radical and ultimately destabilizing for the entire region. A successor regime might also lack authority and resources and so be powerless to prevent what Turkey fears most, namely an increase in manifestations of Kurdish national sentiment along the border. The Turkish press is already noting that there has been evidence of terrorists, including foreign jihadis who are using the camps to refit before returning to Syria, mingling with the 83,000 refugees that have been allowed to enter Turkey. The concern is at such a level that most movement of refugees has been halted and there has been consideration of Turkish military intervention to establish a safe zone on the Syrian side of the border, a solution to the problem that is no solution at all as it merely de facto moves the border back without resolving instability feeding the population shift that is fueling the crisis.

Now Erdoğan is also facing blowback at home. Popular support for the Turkish intervention in Syrian affairs is plummeting with most Turks supporting non-involvement and now saying that it had been a mistake to take sides. There have been demonstrations in cities including Antakya that have borne the burden of the flood of refugees. The fact that Ankara is now in so deep that there is no face saving way out has also not escaped the Turkish popular media, which has begun to strongly criticize the Prime Minister and his policies. There are concerns that southeastern Turkey, which has Kurdish and Arab majorities straddling both sides of long and largely indefensible borders, could easily become a semi-lawless zone awash with weapons and armed men looking for trouble. There is particular opposition to the Turkish Army’s actually having to intervene to restore order, with parallels being drawn to the clueless American misadventure in neighboring Iraq. Turks speak Turkish, not Arabic and, having been an imperial power once ruling the current Arab states, would be a demonstrably alien presence that would invite the Syrians of all stripes to rally around in opposition.

The situation is eerily reminiscent of the long hangover that the US experienced from its involvement in Iraq and the current national disquiet about how to get out of Afghanistan. It also demonstrates the truism that intervention in the politics of a foreign country is very rarely successful, even if that country is right on one’s doorstep, seems to be familiar and appears to be well understood.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Syria, Turkey 
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  1. Patrick says:

    Mr. Giraldi has the extremely rare talent in the America of today of seeing events related to the mideast in a larger strategic sense. This article captures that. It is ironic that efforts by the neocons and right-wing Israeli militarists to destabilize the mideast, as Richard Perle advocated in “A Clean Break,” is now boomeranging and is increasingly having the effect of destabilizing a member of NATO itself, Turkey, and who knows how far this destabiliztion will reach into Europe. What was it that was said about “as you sow, so shall we reap,” and the law of unintended consequences?

  2. Patrick says:

    Should read, As ye sow, so shall ye reap.

  3. tbraton says:

    An excellent piece, PG.

    “America’s closest and most important ally in the Middle East Turkey”

    I was going to take issue with your characterization, but then I realized that Israel is America’s “closest and most important ally” in the world.

  4. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I Used to read you quite a lot, PG. But that was in the past. Not after you detail here the reason Turkey got involved in Syria. Let’s see :”… the violent suppression of protesters led Ankara to fear that there would be major refugee and security problems developing along the two states’ six hundred mile long border.” So that’s the reason Erdogan allowed all this, this invasion of Syria from his border (not to mention,of course “major refugee and security problems”). Mr Giraldi…

  5. Turkey will do well for itself by avoiding any direct military intervention in Syria.

  6. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I’m glad that TAC is paying attention to Turkey. It is indeed our most important ally in the region, and has been since the CENTO era. Thanks to all the smog blown by the Israelis we tend to forget that Turkey is the only treaty ally we have in the Middle East.

  7. It is apparent that Mr. Giraldi is well acquainted with current events in the Middle East, but ignorant of history of Turkey. Turkey didn’t carry out pogroms against the Armenias in Turkey, but genocide. The Turkish government of Young Turks organized and carried out a horrible plan to eradicate Armenians living in their historical homeland in Anatolia. As a result, 1.5 million Armenians perished and the survivors were deported to the Syrian Desert where thousands more died of thirst and hunger. Ironically, the Turks used the Kurds to perpetrate their plans.

  8. Anonymous • Disclaimer says: • Website

    I am frankly disappointed with Mr Giraldi, given that his columns at generally tend to freer of US foreign policy cliches. In this case Islamic Turkey, the successor to a Kemalist (literally) fascist construct, is in fact inherently unstable as a nation state; this is something some of its thinking politicians are coping with — hence Davutoglu is pushing for an imperial construct, which explains the interventionism in the Islamic context. In the effort to recreate an Ottoman Empire the leadership has been forced to play all manner of roles, including playing with the mighty, as in Saudi Arabia, and manipulating (even supporting) Islamic terrorist groups. That is the reason of the blowback with the Kurd rebellion. The US, whose foreign policy elites have little sense of history, is acting as the useful idiot in this process — iy will have little to gain in the long run and much to lose.

  9. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Armenians collaborated with under British Australians at the Gelibolu ,Greeks all the invaders, so What Armenians expected?
    Armenian the enemy of the Turkey obliterated as it happens in war.Together with many Greeks also fallen.
    That’s what happen when when there is war,when enemy invade either they will kill or be killed.
    Aristide Caratzas,even your name is Turkish,under 500 years of Othomaniko Dikio even swearing is Turkish,Turkish coffee,baklava(des) dolma(dakia) Karagoz(i)etc..
    When neighboor country slaughtering its civilians what Turkey do? not to help?

  10. baz says:

    personally, I am really surprised by the Turkish attitude toward Syria. I would have guessed that the AKP would take a tough non-interventionist and sympathetic middleman position in this crisis to further increase its influence in the region. Erdogan had built a reputation as the most popular muslim leader in the world before this crisis..

    Alas, this recent bout of stupidity on part of the turks is likely only to serve the agenda of the US and Israel in the region by throwing yet another bomb into mix of sectarian, tribal, racial and nationalistic anger in the middle east in preparation for another major war

  11. Ralf says:

    It is neigh impossible to do an intellectually credible job of portraying present-day Turkey without having to dig up its recent and not-so-recent past. This, however, is not as easy as it sounds. The official Turkish narrative is adamant in its rendition of history, and woe to those who dare to disagree with it. Giraldi, of course, is well aware of this and is not about to challenge (for personal reasons one would presume) the official Turkish narrative. Hence his frequent use of euphemisms and red herrings. He tries to sneakily delegitimize the Kurdish grievances by equating them with terrorism and Marxism-Leninism. Per Giraldi, what happened in the 1950s were “ethnic riots.” Really? That’s kind of too opaque, wouldn’t you say? Who was rioting against whom? So the organized persecution of the (remaining) Christians and Jews were not pogroms (yes, in this instance this would have been the right term to use!), but mere “ethnic riots”!
    Similarly, the genocidal annihilation of the Armenians was a “pogrom”, which debases its significance and complies with the official Turkish narrative. Incidentally, Giraldi fails to mention that the entire Assyrian population was annihilated in similar fashion. The citing of this fact would have disturbed the party line as well.
    This much is incontrovertible and could be argued with reasonable certainty: 1) the present-day Turkish political and social landscape is full of taboos which should not be brought up in polite conversation; 2) the Turks would very much like to extend their internal censorship to the rest of the world. And Giraldi has no problems in complying with Turkish censorship.

  12. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    …the violent suppression of protesters led Ankara to fear that there would be major refugee and security problems developing along the two states’ six hundred mile long border.
    Now we finally get it! The Turks got involved for purely altruistic reasons. That’s deep analysis indeed!

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