Of Military Coups, Purges and Interventions: Turkey’s Syria Dilemma

 

On the evening of 15th July 2016, I landed in Istanbul and crossed the buzzing capital to embark a ferry that took me a few miles away to the beautiful island Büyükada, to participate in a two-day workshop organized by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars together with the Global Political Trends Center, Kültür University in Istanbul. The topic of discussions was Iran’s relations with its neighbours one year after the nuclear agreement made with P5+1. Cruising the Bosphorus in spectacular sunset in the company of two Turkish ladies met on their way to visit their family, little did I know that a military coup was in the making…let alone that the workshop’s participants would be accused of staging it. That same evening, after receiving messages from relatives inquiring about military operations in Turkey, I tuned into the few channels available in the hotel and watched in bewilderment as President Erdoğan issued an appeal over FaceTime for people to take the streets and oppose the putschists. During the night, muezzins in the mosques relayed the call for public mobilization. Police cars and navy gathered massively on the island.

After the failed attempt, I spent a few days in Istanbul. In the city, the feeling of national unity was overwhelming. I tweeted about the impressive mobilization at Taksim Square where thousands of pro-Justice and Development Party (AKP, Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi) crowds mingled with secularists and far-right nationalists. Syrian refugees waved the flag of the Syrian revolution to celebrate the failure to topple the government that offered them asylum.

A few weeks later, a pro-Erdoğan newspaper published an article on how ‘US-sponsored conspirators’ had gathered on Büyükada to plot the coup. They were talking about our policy workshop (!), which was significantly less exciting. They had it all figured out. After all, Büyükada was the island where the British government conspired in 1919! Now, the US government was doing what the British had done nearly a century ago. Actually, workshop participants were not predominantly from the US but from the region (Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey). A few were former diplomats and the majority were scholars and think tank experts from the Woodrow Wilson Center, the International Crisis Group and the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Being accused of both plotting a military coup and being an agent of foreign powers was very serious for me. Although the allegations were sufficiently outlandish for them to gain any real traction, I took great offence as a citizen and academic from the region. Throughout my career, I’ve made a point to preserve my professional and moral integrity and maintain my independence from state agencies inside and outside the region. But none of this had any value whatsoever in confronting the newspapers. No matter how I tried, I could not get the Turkish press to retract the allegations or publish my statement.

On a broader level, this coup initiated a two-fold reaction on the part of the Turkish government. Domestically, Erdoğan initiated a massive campaign against alleged Gulenists, targeting any individual suspected of dissent. It made no difference that many of our Turkish colleagues present at the workshop were Erdoğan sympathizers; one even wrote a weekly column for Karar, a renowned pro-AKP newspaper. They were interrogated and publicly shamed; and until this day, several of them remain suspended from their position.

One month later, on August 24th 2016, Erdoğan sent his army along with Free Syrian Army fighters into Syrian territory. This military intervention came after five years of troubled relations with the Southern neighbour. Syria and Turkey used to boast about their ‘common destiny, history and future’. The mutual relation transformed from enmity in the 1990s to détente in the early 2000s, grew into amity after AKP’s rise to power in 2002, and reverted back to enmity in the aftermath of the Syrian uprising. In the process, Syria and Turkey’s ‘special’ relation collapsed. After March 2011, the Syrian crisis morphed into full-blown violence, adding to the immense death toll, the number of wounded civilians, massive human displacement inside and outside the country, and unprecedented levels of physical and cultural destruction. Since then, the Syrian regime lost control of wide swathes of its territory to Kurds, Islamist opposition fighters and, after 2013, to Jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). During this time, Turkey experienced increased turbulence on its territory. The conflict led to an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees, an emboldened Kurdish militant movement, which spread from its remote mountains to the heart of South-Eastern cities such as Diyarbakir and Cizre, and which was re-empowered by the proclamation in November 2013 of Western Kurdistan (Rojava) in Northern and North-Eastern Syria, as well as cross-border operations perpetrated by ISIS.

According to Turkish scholars met in the workshop, Erdoğan’s new foreign policy was motivated by the twin domestic threats of ISIS and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In previous months, Turkey pursued a parallel military and diplomatic strategy: to increase military support to Syrian opposition groups in the northern Aleppo province to counter the Kurdish (PYD/YPG)-led and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF); to seek new international partners by mending relations with Russia. By launching direct military operations, Turkey sought to weaken the Kurds as America’s main security partner in northern Syria.

Internationally, the coup prompted the activation of meetings between Erdoğan and Putin. This rapprochement with Russia, Assad’s main ally, initiated a change in Turkey’s official language and approach to the Syrian regime. For the first time since 2011, an official statement called for the participation of Syrian leadership in future negotiation processes. The future of Syria was discussed at the end January 2017 in Astana (Kazakhstan) between Turkey, Iran and Russia – so far with no significant breakthrough between the selected Syrian representatives at the table. It is yet too early to assess whether these recent foreign policy re-alignments, combined with strategic developments linked to the recapture of Aleppo by the Syrian Government thanks to Russia, Iran, Iraq and Hizbullah’s support, will initiate a new chapter in Turkey and Syria’s relations, and what consequences lie ahead for Syrian opposition groups and refugees in Turkey. But the consequences are far-reaching. And while Erdoğan continues to face an insoluble dilemma on the South-Eastern front, he also initiated a disturbing new chapter on the domestic front.

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Marwa Daoudy is Assistant Professor in International Relations at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Prior to arriving at Georgetown, she taught at the University of Oxford’s department of Politics and International Relations and was a fellow of Oxford’s Middle East Center at St Antony’s College (UK). Her recent article published in CRIA Volume 29, 2016, Issue 3 ‘The structure-identity nexus: Syria and Turkey’s collapse (2011)’ can be found online as a Free to Access article here

 

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