Turkey Running Out of Options on Syria

By Gönül Tol | Director of the Center for Turkish Studies - The Middle East Institute | Feb 26, 2016
Turkey Running Out of Options on Syria

Turkey is confronting a nightmare as its two archenemies, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), gain ground in Syria with the help of U.S. and Russian air cover. Turkey has long called for a no-fly zone in northern Syria to protect areas held by the opposition and a halt to the PYD advances west of the Euphrates. Frustrated with U.S. cooperation with the PYD, Ankara has insisted that the PYD is a terrorist organization and poses a grave danger to Turkey’s national security. But Washington has snubbed Ankara’s no-fly zone request and stepped up its cooperation with the PYD in the fight against ISIS.

Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict has added insult to injury. Since Turkey shot down a Russian jet violating its airspace in November, Syrian airspace has become off limits to Turkish planes and Western countries have grown even more reluctant to heed to Turkey’s call for a no-fly zone. Last week, Turkey began shelling PYD targets in northern Syria in a desperate attempt to stop the advance of Kurdish forces in northwest Aleppo. It also facilitated the transfer of hundreds of fighters from Idlib province into Azaz in northern Aleppo, near the Turkish border. Turkish forces escorted the rebels as they exited Syria's Idlib governorate, travelled four hours across Turkey, and re-entered Syria to support the embattled rebel stronghold of the border town.[1] Despite Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s vow to never allow the fall of Azaz to the Kurds and the Turkish military’s pounding of Kurdish targets in Syria, the PYD still managed to capture the strategic town of Tal Rifaat just south of Azaz.

When a suicide bomber blew himself last week in Ankara, killing 29 and injuring at least 60, Turkey thought that it was the perfect opportunity to make its case. Hours after the attack, Davutoglu identified the perpetrator as a Syrian national who was a member of the PYD. Although a different Kurdish militant group, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) and once linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), claimed responsibility—and the DNA evidence suggests the perpetrator was of Turkish origin and linked to TAK—the Turkish government insists on blaming the PYD. Speaking to his deputies on February 23, Davutoglu said: “Some are pointing to the PKK only to exonerate the YPG (Popular Protection Units – armed wing of PYD). They wanted a sub organization of the PKK to claim this attack, so that the YPG and the PYD would be able to continue having international support.”[2]

The United States seems unwilling to change course on the PYD. Several statements from Washington since last week called on Turkey to stop shelling PYD targets in northern Syria and reiterated America’s determination to work with the Kurdish force.  

A country that aspired to “ride the popular wave” in the region and cement its role as the “regional trendsetter” just a few years ago now stands completely isolated. But the stakes are too high for Turkey to call it quits. In a last ditch effort to change the dynamics on the ground, Turkey seems to have put another plan into action.

In an attempt to mobilize the United States into taking action in Syria, Turkey stepped up its cooperation with Saudi Arabia. Turkey recently announced that Saudi Arabia was sending troops and fighter jets to Turkey’s Incirlik airbase and the two countries were ready to launch an operation from land if the West comes up with a comprehensive strategy to counter ISIS.[3] Turkey and Saudi Arabia also seem to have taken a step to realign rebel groups to form a united front against the regime and the Kurdish forces encircling Aleppo. Last week, a new rebel coalition called Jaysh Halab (Army of Aleppo) consisting of several rebel factions, including Islamists and Free Syrian Army brigades backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, was formed. Ankara hopes that the new coalition, which pledged allegiance to Ahrar al-Sham’s former commander Hashem al Sheikh, can stop the advance of the PYD as well as the regime forces around Aleppo.

Ankara also intends to create a de facto buffer zone on Syrian soil. Turkey is refusing to open its borders to let in Syrians displaced by the recent fighting around Aleppo, arguing that Turkey has reached the limit on the number of Syrian refugees it can admit and will address the humanitarian needs of the refugees at the camps on the Syrian side of the border. Turkey can technically accommodate more refugees, but it is instead trying to secure humanitarian support for a military-administered camp in Syria. Ankara’s plan is to renew its call to create a no-fly zone to protect the civilians living in these refugee camps. It has already built eight camps inside Syria accommodating 77,000 refugees. Government circles believe that if the number of refugees living in those camps rises to 400,000, NATO would be forced to establish a no-fly zone.[4]

A no-fly zone in northern Syria may not only alleviate Turkey’s refugee burden, but also prevent the PYD from capturing Azaz and linking up Kurdish cantons. Turkey’s NATO allies, however, are unlikely to go along with Ankara’s plan. The United States has long resisted such calls and will not change its opinion in an election year. The Europeans are reluctant as well. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is concerned that President Vladimir Putin will do anything to test NATO, which is why she wants to do everything not to provoke Moscow.

Reshuffling rebel proxies may soon prove to be another futile attempt. With Russian air force backing the Kurds and the regime, and without anti-aircraft capability, there is little the new coalition can do to tip the military balance.

The shifting parameters in Syria have constrained Turkey’s room to maneuver and there is little reason to think that future will be less bleak for Ankara. Many in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) circles quietly accept that they are running out of creative ideas in Syria. Some prominent pro-government columnists have recently taken the risk to voice these concerns and call on the government to change course in Syria. Whether President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will heed these calls remains to be seen.    


[1] Suleiman Al-Khalidi, “Syrian rebels say reinforcements get free passage via Turkey,” Reuters, February 18, 2016, accessed February 24, 2016, http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-mideast-crisis-syria-aleppo-idUKKCN0VR0RH.

[2] “No doubt YPG-PKK behind Ankara bombing: Turkish PM,” Hurriyet Daily News, February 23, 2016, accessed February 24, 2016, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/no-doubt-ypg-pkk-behind-ankara-bombing-turkish-pm.aspx?pageID=238&nID=95578&NewsCatID=338.

[3] Lizzie Dearden, “Saudi Arabia sends troops and fighter jets to military base in Turkey ahead of intervention against Isis in Syria,” Independent, February 13, 2016, accessed February 24, 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/saudi-arabia-sends-troops-and-fighter-jets-to-military-base-in-turkey-ahead-of-intervention-against-a6871611.html.

[4] Abdülkadir Selvi, “Güvenlikli bölgeye iki şemsiye formülü,” Yeni Safak, February 17, 2016, accessed February 24, 2016, http://www.yenisafak.com/yazarlar/abdulkadirselvi/guvenlikli-bolgeye-iki-semsiye-formulu-2026865