Problems of change and security in Turkey’s Syria policy

Problems of change and security in Turkey’s Syria policy

Before his visit to the U.S., Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was using chemical weapons against the opposition. He believed this argument could convince U.S. President Barack Obama to engage in a limited military intervention. Now he seems to have understood that he won’t be able to change Obama’s Syria policy, which leaves out the possibility of military intervention.

Although Erdoğan still hopes that al-Assad will be overthrown and the Baathist regime will be replaced, he realized this won’t happen fast and soon. Today the Syrian civil war is a problem for both foreign and domestic affairs. There are three elections in 2014, all prone to the effects of the Syrian problem.

As the settlement of the Syrian conflict becomes more unlikely, the whole issue is turning into a risk factor for Erdoğan’s career plan. Erdoğan needs to quickly revise his Syria policy to minimize the risks. We will see how pragmatic and flexible a leader he can be.

Nevertheless, despite a possible policy change, the Syrian problem might put Erdoğan in a difficult position in security, economic and social terms. Erdoğan can easily deal with the economic and social problems caused by Syria. So far he has spent nearly 1 billion dollars for the refugees and this did not cause uproar in domestic politics and public opinion. He might continue to spend money for the refugees. This won’t negatively affect his political career.

The greatest risk involves security. Leaving aside the ordinary crimes committed by the refugees, we can categorize the politically motivated security concerns under three headings.

First, there is the capacity of Syrian intelligence to organize covert operations inside Turkey like the one in Reyhanlı. Syrian intelligence can organize new covert operations including bomb attacks, sabotage and assassinations aimed at troubling the Erdoğan government and triggering ethnic/sectarian conflicts. We know that they can. Keep in mind that the majority of Turkish public opinion does not support the government’s Syria policy.

Secondly, if Erdoğan takes a stand against the jihadists in Syria after his U.S. visit – and he did show signs of such a stand – this might cause important security problems. A change in Turkey’s policy will disappoint the jihadists and might motivate those from both Turkey and other countries to get more interested in Turkish and Western targets.

Finally, if negotiations with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fail, the PKK might start using the Syrian border, causing more security problems. It seems that Erdoğan has a serious security problem on the road to elections.