Straddling the Strait: Where does Turkey Stand?

Syrian refugee camp on the Turkish border. (Wikimedia Commons/ Voice of America News: Henry Ridgwell on Turkish border, "Refugees Flee Aleppo; Hot, Barren Turkish Camps Await")
Syrian refugee camp on the Turkish border. (Wikimedia Commons/ Voice of America News: Henry Ridgwell on Turkish border, "Refugees Flee Aleppo; Hot, Barren Turkish Camps Await")
Syrian refugee camp on the Turkish border. (Wikimedia Commons/ Voice of America News: Henry Ridgwell on Turkish border, “Refugees Flee Aleppo; Hot, Barren Turkish Camps Await”)

In a move that shook the world for more than a few diplomats, Reuters recently published an exclusive investigative report claiming that on at least two occasions in 2013 and 2014, Turkey supplied lethal aid to Syrian rebels, including Islamist groups, and that at least some of that aid later ended up in the hands of the Islamic State (IS) and other jihadist units operating over the border in Syria. The May 21 report cited a Turkish prosecutor and court testimony from Turkish gendarmerie officers who searched trucks escorted by the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (called Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı, or MIT). The Reuters investigation appears to have taken several months, if not over a year. The local police and gendarmerie alleged that the MIT was caught covertly supplying weaponry to areas of Syria controlled by Islamist rebels on two occasions, in November 2013 and January 2014. Since then, the prosecutors and over 30 officers who searched the MIT trucks have been charged by the Turkish federal government with crimes ranging from carrying out an illegal search to revealing state secrets, military espionage and attempting to overthrow the government of Turkey.

Exactly whose hands these weapons ended up in remains uncertain. At the time, the Syrian territory closest to where the shipments were discovered was under the control of Ahrar al-Sham. This hardline Salafist group was then led by Abu Omair al-Ahamy, who was a known associate of al Qaeda leaders including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Shamy was killed in Aleppo in February 2014.

Ibrahim Kalin, the official spokesperson for Turkish President Erdogan, recited to Reuters the oft-repeated official statement that “Turkey has never sent weapons to any group in Syria.” But as the Reuters report suggests, there is ample evidence to the contrary. Additionally, the MIT has the support of President Erdogan. When questioned on the incident last August during a television interview, he commented that “You can’t search an MIT truck, you have no authority.” He further claimed the trucks were carrying humanitarian aid to Turkmen communities.

But according to Reuters, Turkey was supplying lethal aid to rebels in Syria, which begs the question: Whose side is Turkey on?

Regardless of what the trucks in question were carrying or where they were sending their supplies, there can be no doubts that President Erdogan is juggling conflicting foreign policy interests while preparing for the upcoming general election on June 7. Turkey straddles the Bosporus Strait, and is geographically part of both Europe and the Middle East. Many of NATO’s European members are heavily focused on the Ukrainian crisis, their energy security and the financial state of the EU. All of these things are problematic for Turkey, NATO’s southeastern anchor. But lately, Turkey’s focus has been largely on the Syrian civil war that continually ravages Syrian and Iraqi lands south of Turkey’s long Anatolian border. The primary objective for the Turks in this conflict so far has been to maintain their own territorial sovereignty. Given the strength of the Turkish military and stability of the government in Ankara, this has not been much of an issue. The core of Turkey lies in the northwest, in the area surrounding Istanbul and Ankara. The rugged Anatolian landscape serves as a significant buffer between Turkey’s population centers and the chaos swirling in the Arab lands to the south.

The only recent threat to Turkish sovereignty involved the tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of Ottoman Empire founder Osman I, which was located on the bank of the Euphrates River in Syria, about 30 kilometers south of the Turkish border. Shah’s tomb has long been guarded by a platoon-sized element of Turkish soldiers, and Shah’s burial site is considered Turkish sovereign soil. As IS approached the area in February, the decision was made to exhume the remains of Suleyman Shah and move them to a new location in order to avoid a large-scale confrontation between IS fighters and the Turkish guards. On February 22, the Turkish military conducted the operation, bringing home the contingent of guards in a rapidly executed rescue mission. Suleyman Shah now resides in a new, temporary tomb. It is still in Syria, but now less than 200 meters from the Turkish border. The Assad regime naturally condemned the operation as a violation of Syria’s territorial sovereignty.  But the Assad regime has no interest in fighting Turkey over such a relatively trivial matter, and Turkey is not willing to join the melee just to take down Assad. What’s more important is that the Suleyman Shah incident highlights a continuation of the Turkish government’s non-confrontational policy towards the Islamic State.

Back in October of last year, the city of Kobani came under siege from IS forces. The city lies on the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border and is (or was) inhabited predominantly by Kurds, who also populate a large swath of eastern Turkey. Much to the chagrin of Kurds in the area, the Turkish government stationed tanks on the border in a firm stance against any violent spillover, but did nothing to assist the besieged Kurds militarily. Given the uneasy and often violent history between Ankara and the Kurdish people, this was not much of a surprise. While Erdogan could have scored major points with the Kurdish minority in Turkey by intervening, he was unwilling to make Turks the target of the Islamic State’s brutality or Assad’s barrel bombs. As a result, Turkey stood back and watched while keeping Anatolia secure.

For its part, the Islamic State has not conducted any major operations in Turkey. IS has been expanding in two ways. First, it has been expanding its influence by supporting small cells located throughout the Middle East. Second, it has been gaining the loyalties of more distant, well-known terrorist groups in Asia and Africa, most notably Nigeria’s Boko Haram, which pledged allegiance to IS in March. But IS activity in Turkey has been largely limited to recruiting, since many jihadists enter the Syrian battlefields from across the lengthy Turkish border. An uneasy truce between the Islamic State and Turkey can be observed; both want the Assad regime to fall. Since IS has no air force, a Turkish no-fly zone is no threat to them—they would actually gain mobility from the absence of Syrian aerial attacks.

Meanwhile, the Turks have not actively participated in anti-IS coalition airstrikes led by the US and its Western and Gulf allies, launched in September 2014. Turkey is, however, home to a US air base. When the airstrikes began, Erdogan voiced support for the operations, which targeted the al-Qaeda aligned Khorasan group and IS targets in both Syria and Iraq. He stated that Turkey could provide “military or logistical” support for the operation, leaving the door open to future involvement.

Turkey doesn’t have a favorite in the Syrian conflict so much as it has a least favorite  – the Assad regime – whose actions are responsible for the countless Syrian refugees who have fled to Turkey. For Ankara, anyone who wants to depose Assad is welcome to do so. The Islamic State is the most powerful actor besides the regime in Syria, so Turkey won’t impede any IS activities. But Ankara also knows from the Islamic State’s rhetoric and operations throughout the Middle East that its ultimate goal is to create an all-encompassing caliphate. That too would be unacceptable for Turkey, but the prospect of a pan-Islamic caliphate is a long way off. So far, IS has only posed a significant threat to the sovereignty of weak and failing states, and doesn’t have the operational prowess to make territorial gains in more stable countries like Turkey or Saudi Arabia.

Besides the Islamic State, every other rebel faction is out to get rid of Assad as well. These groups range in ideology, practices and strength from the secular, US-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) to jihadist groups to ethnic Kurdish militias. Many of these groups find themselves in conflict over incompatible ideologies and long-standing feuds. These smaller groups also tend to find themselves pinched between regime forces in the east and IS strongholds in the west of Syria. The medley of smaller militant groups are Turkey’s best options to use as proxy forces in Syria, and many are in dire need of military assistance.

In deciding whom to support, Turkey must turn west and juggle the concerns of its European and American partners, whose attention is divided between the Middle East, Ukraine and tensions in the South China Sea. While Turkey may see the Islamic State as a lesser evil than the Assad regime, its NATO partners disagree. The US, its Gulf partners and Israel do not want to see the Islamic State supplant Assad and rule all of Syria. For the US, it is better to have a Syria divided among evildoers and to focus instead on keeping the Baghdad regime intact. There are no good options right now in Syria for the US or its European partners. The West’s preferred politically moderate, secular rebel forces have been holding a weak hand for a long time now in Syria, and providing them with lethal aid means undertaking the risk that those supplies could fall into terrorist hands. Publicly taking sides with the Assad regime to oppose terrorism is still morally and politically untenable among NATO members. Letting the civil war continue unabated is actually the best of all these bad strategic options.

Western powers find themselves doing four things under US leadership: 1) giving parcels of aid to refugee camps in Jordan, Syria and elsewhere, 2) bombing the least desirable jihadist elements in an effort to maintain the current balance of chaos in Syria, 3) preventing terrorist attacks outside the region, and 4) attempting to preserve a semblance of a government in Iraq by reluctantly accepting Iranian help in the region. Turkey has only been an active partner in the humanitarian aid mission and contributing to counterterrorism efforts outside the conflict zone. It is unlikely to join the airstrike coalition or to assist the government in Baghdad. But Turkey’s opinion about the utility of assisting certain groups does not align with the thinking of its NATO partners, as evidenced by the smuggling activities uncovered by Reuters.

So whose side is Ankara on? For now it stands alone. Technically, Turkey is a NATO treaty ally, but given its reluctance to participate in NATO operations in Iraq, anyone can see that the NATO-Turkey relationship has been fraying slowly over time. NATO offers Turkey a hedge against aggression from Assad, but Turkey remains reluctant to take part in US-led NATO missions. Additionally, Turkey depends on the United States to keep Iraq from imploding. Like the Arabs, Turkey is uncomfortable with expanding Iranian influence in the region. But Turkey is unlikely to openly challenge Iranian power, unlike the Saudis, who have been actively fighting Iranian supported Houthi militants in Yemen. Turkey also has the unique problem of dealing with a quite large Kurdish population with territorial ambitions. Keeping the Kurds in check is a national security priority for Ankara, and the Turkish government would undoubtedly diverge from its allies’ policies to keep Kurdish militants under control if necessary. Turkey also does not want to arm Kurdish forces fighting in Syria or Iraq for fear that those weapons could be used against Turkey in the future.

Like the US, Turkey is unlikely to fight outside of a supportive coalition. But its interests no longer align with those of its NATO allies, and so it finds itself isolated in many areas. Perhaps the upcoming elections will result in a change for Turkish policies, but for now its foreign agenda will remain intact. Turkey will have to come up with solutions for its foreign policy challenges on its own, lest they be resolved in favor of its foes. Maybe letting the Islamic State achieve its short-term goals in Syria wouldn’t be so bad for Turkey, if Ankara could figure out a foolproof and bloodless way to prevent IS from achieving its larger ambitions in the future.

Good luck with that, Erdogan.


The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors or governors.


Jack Anderson

Jack Anderson is pursuing an independent degree in Geopolitics of Central Asia at Washington and Lee University. In the summers of 2013 and 2014, he studied Azerbaijani under the Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship Program. Jack has also served as a remote intern for the US Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan. He recently returned from Baku after studying as an exchange student at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. While in Azerbaijan, he conducted research trips to Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. On campus at Washington and Lee, Jack is a member of the club baseball team and handles logistics for several student organizations. His other academic interests include geology, economics, international security, game theory and strategic studies.