Print version

GTE Question of the Month, July 2015


As coalition talks are ongoing, the border to Syria is becoming increasingly unstable. Will Turkey intervene with ground troops in Syria?

Henri Barkey

It is unlikely that Turkey will intervene in Syria with ground troops. The military moves and talk of intervention are likely designed to influence domestic politics and the coalition formation process as well as make sure that President Erdoğan occupies the political limelight. The opening of the air bases to American aircraft was concluded before the uptick in the violence with the PKK and devastating bombing in Suruc. Air attacks against ISIS in Syria are designed to counter American criticisms that Turkey was not doing enough in the fight against ISIS. Still, a ground intervention in Syria would require a very large force, as the Turkish military would face unconventional threats from multiple sources in an unfamiliar and foreign territory. It is also likely to suffer many casualties, which would be hard to explain at home, especially when there is already a great deal of skepticism regarding the government’s Syria policy. In addition, it is not clear what the exit strategy would be. If such an operation were to be conducted to prevent the Syrian Kurdish group PYD from expanding westwards, how long would the Turkish force have to remain on the ground? Would the Islamic State or others not then perceive it as occupying Syrian territory, thereby inviting retaliatory attacks? All of these factors suggest that such an operation would be exceedingly risky for the government to undertake. Finally, an operation would saddle any new coalition government that is to be formed with an immense foreign policy crisis right from the start.

(Henri Barkey is the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center)

Senem Aydın-Düzgit

If an agreement can be reached, a coalition government is most likely to be formed between the AKP and the Republican People’s Party (CHP), or, less likely, between the AKP and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Although hard to speculate about, an AKP-CHP coalition may run the possibility of steering the country’s foreign policy towards a more rationalist line in which ideological orientations of the former era are dropped in favour of more pragmatic steps in the wider region. A possible AKP-MHP coalition, on the other hand, may provide a different, and less positive, outcome. After the elections, foreign policy pundits had already begun to speculate that if realized, this could be a ‘war coalition’ whereby Turkey would invade Syria to fend off the possibility of an independent Kurdish state or an autonomous Kurdish region along Turkey’s Southern border. It had been argued that this would not only help to serve the MHP’s nationalist purpose, but also bolster support for Erdoğan and the AKP in the case that early elections are held even after the forming of the coalition. In other words, it could help strengthen Erdoğan’s claim that the country needs a strong one-man rule, thus presidentialism à la Erdoğan, if it is to overcome these rising sources of insecurity in the neighbourhood. Some had even argued that Erdoğan may also go down that road in the case that no coalition is formed, as is the situation today, and early elections seem inevitable. Government officials had earlier stated that any entry into Syria would be with the purpose of strengthening the fight against the Islamic state, and that the PYD forces in Syria (Kurdish forces which are seen as an extension of the PKK by the Turkish state) are not perceived as the enemy. Nonetheless, the recent bombings of ISIS and PYD targets in Syria and Iraq, following the murder of 32 young socialist activists by an ISIS suicide bomber near the Syrian border, coupled with the end of the peace process with the PKK at home suggest that the war option is now being instrumentalised to make up for the AKP‘s domestic political loss at home. Yet it remains to be seen whether reason will ultimately prevail for the common good or whether Turkish foreign policy will further sink into the quagmire of its Southern neighbourhood along with rising domestic instability at home in the post-election era.

(Senem Aydın-Düzgit is Associate Professor and Jean Monnet Chair in the Department of International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University)

Soli Özel

Despite the fact that the Turkish government took advantage of its deal with the United States to open the Incirlik air base to use by coalition air forces I think that Turkey is unlikely to intervene militarily in Syria unilaterally. It may only do so in the context of an agreement with allies which does not appear to be in the cards.

About a month ago, a senior official, according to the reports of several Turkish journalists who attended a meeting with him, remarked that even if there were an intervention its goal would be to prevent ISIS from moving to the west. This, of course, contradicted the inflated rhetoric that emanated from the Presidency and the pro-President media that identified the PYD as the major security risk.

In fact, as the Turkish security forces were undertaking unprecedented actions against ISIS cells around the country, there had been a detectable change in the government’s attitude vis à vis ISIS that has in turn prompted threats from the organization. According to the senior official, Turkey does have a dialogue with the PYD, and so long as they do not engage in ethnic cleansing and try to move westward, both the dialogue and cooperation, when needed, are likely to continue.

Despite the Incirlik deal and Turkey’s intense aerial attacks against PKK forces positioned in Iraqi Kurdistan the general parameters that I have given have not changed. Having taken advantage of (or having abused according to some western sources) the deal on Incirlik whereby it became a fighting member of the anti-ISIS coalition, Turkey did not get the support from NATO allies that it sought at a special meeting in Brussels. Allies are displeased with Turkey’s obviously domestically driven effort of bombarding the PKK which in some ways invited the attacks by executing sleeping police officers in their apartment. Ankara was warned about not dropping the peace process and the intensity of the bombardment diminished since the NATO meeting. It is worth noting that on the one hand the attacks by the Turkish air Force against ISIS were limited and that they did not include attacks against PYD forces.

This suggests that the parameters presented for Syria by the senior officer still hold and it is unlikely that the Turkish military will accept putting boots on the ground. In Iraq such an option is unthinkable anyway.

(Soli Özel is a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University and a Richard von Weiysacker fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin)>