What are the Turkish national interests in Syria?

What are the Turkish national interests in Syria?

When designing foreign policy, one first has to clarify what the national interests are, then try to generate a strategy to best achieve these goals. This is easier said than done. We all know that the survival of the state is the most crucial goal for every nation, yet, how do we define survival? What it means for the Norway of 2010 is not the same as for the Israel of 1967. National interests are dynamic-, time- and context-dependent. Even if slogans like “in the name of our national interests” remain the same, what these words mean change constantly. Sometimes change happens before scholars and pundits can catch up with the events.

The Syrian civil war has generated a situation as such for Turkish foreign policy. TV channels, social media outlets and print media are filled with information and arguments about Syria. There are several factions in the Turkish public opinion about what Turkey should do in Syria. One can very easily be accused of being a criminal for not tweeting curses against the al-Assads fast enough, while one can also be seen as a warmonger for just typing a message in defense of the Syrian people. Leaving all this aside, I would like to ask a very simple question. What are the Turkish national interests in Syria? Unless we can provide a rather clear answer delineating Turkish national interests, we cannot judge how (un)successful Turkey has been in Syria. 

My aim is for us to start a healthy debate on what Turkey aims to accomplish in Syria. I do not necessarily hope for rally-around-the-flag sentimentality but one that a majority of the foreign policy elite can agree upon. I can dissect at least three intertwined goals.

First and foremost, civil wars are contagious. Therefore, Turkey should aim to minimize the spillover effects of the Syrian civil war on its own territory. Turkey has already decided not to close its border to the refugees, and has declared the Syrian issue a domestic matter. This indicates that Turkey will most likely keep the border open and increase its involvement in Syria on multiple levels. While continuing on this path, we need to be vigilant that the events do not get out of control. Can Turkey survive its neighbor’s civil war?

Second, Turkey, along with other “involved” parties in the Syrian civil war, should decide what kind of a post-civil war Syria serves its interests best. In the medium term (5-7 years) of foreign policy planning, we need to consider not just the post-al-Assad era, but the end of the civil war. What kind of peace would serve Turkish interests best? The current players’ relative powers will change and what matters is maintaining steady and consistent involvement in Syria so that it can be an effective partner at the end of Syrian civil war. We must prepare for multiple contingencies, one of them being that Syria might not remain unified at the end of the war. In order to reach this goal, we need to have an idea of what we want in Syria.

Last, Turkey should consider how it can help prevent or minimize the possibility of a potential regional war. Many pundits have argued that Syria will explode. If we see the impact of sectarian fighting spilling over into other parts of the region, how does Turkey deal with that? So far Turkey has fought to remain outside sectarian rhetoric; however, some of its actions in Syria have been interpreted as sectarian by others. Turkey will have to clarify its path and consider the costs and benefits of taking and not taking sides, whether or not these options are available.

It is not easy to chart the waters of civil war in your backyard. Modern Middle Eastern history provides poignant examples of different types of interventions and involvement levels in civil wars, such as the Lebanese, Yemeni and Iraqi civil wars, for example. The most necessary step at this point, and a healthy point of departure for all pundits, is to question what we really want in Syria. It seems an easy question but it really is a devilish one once you start to imagine the tragic possibilities.

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