Guest Author, Ayhan DOĞANER, Security Expert
Today, Syria is one of the most important geopolitical conflict areas with global and regional implications.
The civil war in Syria, the military and logistical support given to the PKK/PYD under the name of fighting the Islamic State (IS, ISIS, DAESH) deployed in Syria, and the attempt to establish a Kurdistan state in the region for the last 120 years have activated the geopolitical fault lines in the region. This development, which may have strategic consequences, is not limited to Turkey but also includes Syria, Iraq and Iran.
The attack on the US base on the Syrian-Jordanian border on January 28 by Iranian-backed proxy forces and the subsequent US retaliation against Iranian interests on February 2 against targets in Syria, Iraq and Yemen are deepening the crisis in Syria and the region.
Turkey has recently neutralized a large number of terrorists in Syria following the PKK/PYD attacks on its military bases in northern Syria and northern Iraq, as well as the ongoing cross-border operations.
Current conjuncture in Syria
In Syria, the United States, the Russian Federation, Turkey, Iran, Iran and even Israel intervened in Syria based on their national security and geopolitical interests. In a way, this development has brought them side by side and sometimes against each other.
The opposition movements that started in Syria in 2011, which culminated in a civil war under the influence of the Arab Spring, led to many political, military, economic and social problems, as well as terrorism, the impact of which went beyond Syria’s borders.
In the same conjuncture, the Islamic State and PKK/YPG terrorist organizations, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon, found a living space in Syria and gained a solid ground for logistics, armed training and terrorist acts.
The Syrian government is unable to exercise its sovereignty in its northern and eastern regions, Idlib, northern Aleppo, Hasakah, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. Syria has faced serious economic problems due to the loss of relatively fertile agricultural land and energy resources, and has been forced to buy its own oil from the PKK/YPG.
The security problem persists in areas outside the government’s control, as well as in areas under the government’s own control. Migration in and out of the country is causing serious demographic, social and security problems. In the southern region of Suweyda, Druze grievances have at times reached the level of conflict. The problems with the Druze have also affected the Druze community and political organizations in Lebanon and Israel.
The presence of Syrian and Iranian-backed Palestinian groups and Hezbollah has led to Israeli airstrikes against Syrian territory. The fourth month of the Hamas-Israel conflict has increased the risk of conflict in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and the risk of conflict spreading to other countries in the region, due to Iran’s proxy force Hezbollah. The Iran-led axis of resistance has also threatened the security of the US presence in Iraq and Syria. Attacks in the Red Sea, again by Iran’s proxy forces, have brought the regional problem to a global dimension, with the potential to cause serious problems for world trade and supply chains.
In addition to the civil war, the ongoing Hamas/Israeli conflict in Syria has made it a volatile country at the very center of the region.
Salafist takfiri groups found a living space in Syria. The US is supporting another terrorist organization, the PKK/PYD, under the guise of Israel’s security and the fight against Islamic State elements. The aim of establishing an independent Kurdistan state in the region paves the way for the problems in the region to continue to increase and have global consequences.
Security implications of the conjuncture in Syria for Turkey
Preventing the formation of a four-part (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran) independent Kurdish state, which has the potential to encircle Turkey from the south, and preventing the geographical, political and economic integration efforts of each part, is of vital importance in the context of Turkey’s security strategies and geostrategic objectives.
The creation of a Kurdish state is a project with geopolitical implications. The Mesopotamia region and its immediate surroundings, where the Kurds are trying to form a political union, is a geography with important water and energy resources in the Middle East. The region that the PKK is demanding from Turkey includes the Euphrates and Tigris basins, which contain important water resources in the Middle East. Likewise, Israel’s faith-based geostrategy points to this region.
With the ongoing instability in Syria and Iraq, the authority vacuum and the support of foreign powers, the PKK/YPG terrorist organization continues its actions against Turkey. The increasing cooperation of the Talabani/Kurdistan Patriotic Union in Northern Iraq with the PKK is another threat to Turkey.
Although the PKK/YPG terrorist organization’s action efforts against Turkey are considered a tactical development for the organization, these efforts do not have a chance to turn into a strategic success.
Turkey has developed significant capabilities in the field of combating terrorism with the measures it has taken during the 40-year-long PKK terrorist threat, the irregular warfare capabilities it has gained in the military field, the methods and systems it has developed in the field of intelligence, and the domestic and national technology weapons/ammunition systems produced in the defense industry. In short, at this point, area control has been achieved within Turkey, and the PKK terrorist organization has become unable to carry out actions within Turkey. With the political, social, economic and security policies implemented, new recruits from within Turkey were prevented.
The new geopolitical environment in the Middle East after the Cold War and the efforts of global and regional powers to revise the map of the region, the support given to the PYD, the extension of the PKK in Syria, and strategically, the aim of transforming the PYD, which is currently estimated to have 70,000 armed members, into a regular army, the PYD’s gains in Northern and Eastern Syria, especially the resources obtained from oil wells in the Deir ez-Zor region, are striking.
Before this problem turns into a global problem, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran should seek solutions through regional cooperation.
Turkey’s struggle against the PKK/PYD, due to its geostrategic goals and consequences, cannot be limited to the military fight against terrorism. At the end of 40 years, there is a need for an effective struggle in political, diplomatic and economic fields as well.
Another issue that needs to be evaluated from Turkey’s perspective is the Russian Federation’s support for the PKK, even if indirectly, given its traditional foreign policy. The office opened by the PKK in Moscow is noteworthy in terms of showing the political support given to the terrorist organization. The Russian Federation’s control of the airspace in Syria also serves the PKK/PYD and sometimes Israel.
Diplomatic and political policies are needed to minimize the foreign support for the PKK/PYD. Leaving aside its Cold War-era habits and taking into account geopolitical problems and new geostrategic developments, the US should seek to improve its relations with Turkey, which has recently experienced a crisis of confidence. The problems between the US and Turkey, which have been increasing over the last 10 years, should be improved by taking into account common interests, alliance relations in NATO, strategic and tactical cooperation in the past, and gains in the fight against terrorism (e.g. Al Kaida).
In terms of US interests, the situation in Syria, the geopolitical priority of the United States, the Asia-Pacific
The ongoing PKK/PYD – DAESH terrorist acts in Syria are a clear threat to the national interests and security of Turkey and Syria as well as the United States. The US’s use of another terrorist organization, PKK/YPG, in the armed struggle against a terrorist organization like DAESH increases the security threat and instability in Syria.
Based on the well-known principle of the US in the context of national security strategies that the US “will not fight a losing battle”, the US should question any support it gives to the PKK/PYD under the name of fighting the Islamic State.
In the context of the global threat, all parties, including the United States and Turkey, should stand on the same side against DAESH. Turkey, the US and other Western countries should come together under the umbrella of joint military task forces and strengthen joint operational and intelligence cooperation mechanisms in the global fight against Salafist/Takfiri religiously motivated terrorist organizations such as DAESH. In the fight against terrorist organizations with Salafist takfiri beliefs/ideology, RF and Iran should also contribute to this fight, taking into account the conditions of the region. It is known that this strategy has been tried in the recent past in the fight against Al Kaida, Osama Bin Laden and other Salafist takfiri organizations and has been successful.
The US must take into account the conflicts in the Middle East, starting from Iran and extending to the Red Sea, and even spreading to Yemen, Jordan and Pakistan, together with the geopolitical developments in the Asia-Pacific in line with its geostrategic interests.
It is known that for the last 20 years, the US, as a global power, has been trying to slow down the inevitable rise of China by leaving the Middle East and turning its attention to geopolitical/geostrategic developments in the Asia Pacific. Geopolitical developments in the China Sea and Taiwan are of close concern to the United States.
The PRC resolutely maintains its “strategic silence” in the Pacific. As an undisputed and permanent global power in the second half of the 21st century, the PRC will play a balancing role vis-à-vis the US in all economic, political and military spheres, contrary to US interests.
The US has recently used the Ukraine card in the context of its strategy to weaken its traditional enemy, the Russian Federation, politically, economically and militarily, and to encircle the Russian Federation with NATO. With the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO, the RF was completely encircled. RF’s economic and political losses have increased due to the two years of war.
In short, the national interests of the US can be summarized as strengthening its presence in the Asia-Pacific in the short and long term, and for this purpose, reducing and ending its interest and presence in the Middle East by ensuring Israel’s security.
By reviewing its national security policies and priorities in line with geopolitical and geostrategic developments, the US should recognize its presence in Syria as temporary, and the US should be expected to withdraw from the Syrian theater over time. Indeed, the recent attacks against US interests in Iraq, Syria and Jordan and the questioning of the legitimacy of the US presence in Iraq and Syria are noteworthy developments.
Syria-Turkey relations before the Arab Spring
In the past years, Turkey and Syria have experienced various problems in the economic, political and security fields. In this context, transboundary waters, the Hatay issue, and the presence in Syria of terrorist organizations such as the PKK and Marxist-Leninist leftist organizations that carry out activities in Turkey are known as the first problems that come to mind. However, as a result of Turkey’s decisive stance, especially in the field of security, the removal of Abdullah Öcalan from Syria in 1998 and the Adana Memorandum, relations developed rapidly in political, economic, commercial and cultural fields (1998-2011).
Since its establishment, Syria has attracted attention with its policies close to the USSR/Russian Federation, the Arab-Israeli War, its occupation of Lebanon, and its anti-Israel and therefore anti-US policies as a basic foreign policy argument. Following the allegations that Syrian intelligence and Hezbollah were behind the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Lebanon in 2005, Syria was isolated by both the West and the countries in the region.
In the same period, with the change of government in Turkey (2002), the “strategic depth, zero problem” foreign policy, which aimed to increase cooperation with the Middle East and Gulf countries, which had been kept in the background for many years in foreign policy, to be sensitive to the solution of the Palestinian issue, and to improve relations with neighboring countries in particular, came to the agenda.
In this period, Turkey attracted the attention of the international public opinion with the regulations it made in the political, legal and economic fields and the foreign policy initiatives it implemented in the context of its goal of full membership to the European Union.
In short, while Turkey was improving its relations with Western countries with the aim of full membership to the EU, it was also improving its relations with Syria, which had been pushed into regional and global isolation, as the first step of a foreign policy aimed at improving its relations with the Middle East and Gulf countries. Erdogan and Assad, two different leaders in Syria and Turkey, had overlapping goals and policies in the same period (2007). The détente process that started with the Adana Memorandum on security and the participation of Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer in the funeral/condolence ceremony after the death of Hafez al-Assad was ready to evolve into a more constructive and strategic relationship under the leadership of Erdoğan and Assad.
In the period between 2007 and 2012, relations between Turkey and Syria developed rapidly in many political, security, economic and commercial fields and evolved to the point where joint Council of Ministers meetings were held. There was a period when diplomats and bureaucrats of both countries had difficulty keeping up with the bilateral relations developed by Assad and Erdoğan.
The Adana Memorandum was implemented with comprehensive cooperation and seriousness in the fight against terrorism. The PKK terrorist threat to Turkey from Syria was eliminated.
Turkey’s good relations with Israel, along with Syria, created an environment that contributed to peace in Israel/Syria and the Middle East. Turkey assumed an effective mediator role in the development of bilateral relations between Israel and Syria, which had been problematic. As of 2011, there have been important developments in this regard.
Turkey’s foreign policy gains in the Syrian arena rapidly increased their impact in the regional and global arena, while Syria was freed from its isolation in foreign policy with Turkey.
However, the events in Syria with the social political developments called the Arab Spring evolved into a civil war with the conservative structure of the Baath Party and the harsh interventions and reactions of the military and intelligence organizations against the opposition popular movements. Turkey, with its historical state wisdom and seriousness, made various recommendations to the Syrian government at the beginning of the conflict in Syria, when it had not yet gotten out of control. Turkey’s experiences, especially in the democratic and legal fields, were shared with the Syrian government. However, when the Baath Party, the military and the mukhabarat organizations in Syria continued to use their own violent methods and practices, relations between Turkey and Syria were severed in 2012.
Solution Proposals in Syria
For Syria and Turkey, the continuation of the current unstable situation in Syria is not in line with the national interests of both countries.
The solution of the problems between Turkey and Syria is not easy in the current conjuncture, but it is not impossible. The interests of Turkey and Syria are of strategic importance in the context of the territorial integrity of both countries and the solution of security problems. The irregular migration from Syria to Turkey and the West raises security concerns as well as humanitarian concerns. The governments of the two countries have to come up with logical, rational and permanent solutions with state wisdom.
The solution in Syria should be developed directly between the two countries, based on trust and rightly on national interests. Each country should approach the other’s social, humanitarian, social, economic, political and military/security problems in a sincere and sensitive manner. In the current conjuncture, the focus should be on solving the problems by taking into account mutually justified demands. Neither country should come to the table with the condition of “my red line” and the ground for negotiations should be created on minimum common grounds.
At the beginning of the process, the support of the Russian Federation and Iran, which are important actors in the current chaotic environment in Syria, will be needed. It is often stated by intellectuals in the Middle East that “Iran is the painter, Syria is the original and Lebanon is the copy of the original”.
Taking into account the increasing intensity of the recent Palestinian/Israeli conflict, the possibility of its spillover to other countries in the region, the recent developments that have led to military operations/terrorist attacks against its own country, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Jordan and Syria, and the increasing tension with the US, Iran should contribute constructively to the resolution of the Syrian-Turkish conflict. Iran should take into account the PKK/PYD – PJAK threat in the context of the quest for an independent Kurdistan and the understanding that the Salafist/Takfiri threat is also a serious threat to Iran’s security and territorial integrity. In the current conjuncture, Iran and Turkey should come together on minimum commonalities on the Syrian issue. The deep-rooted accumulation and experiences of both states from history will be guiding in this regard.
The fact that PUTIN, the leader of the Russian Federation, has repeatedly advised Turkey to talk to Syria during the Astana process, and that this has created a ground, it can be stated that the Russian Federation is sincere in making a constructive contribution to resolving the Syria/Turkey disputes. RF should play an active mediator role in the Syria/Turkey crisis. Taking into account Turkey’s constructive role in the Ukraine crisis, which is vital for the RF, the RF should contribute to the solution.
Preservation of Syria’s territorial integrity coincides with the interests of Turkey, the Russian Federation and Iran. Syria/Turkey relations should be revitalized by taking into account the minimum commonalities, putting aside the individual interests of Turkey, the Russian Federation and Iran, which are controversial in other regional areas.
Public opinion and political actors in Turkey are believed to be in full consensus on the need to start direct talks with Syria. Considering the effects and losses of the ongoing civil war in Syria, it can be assessed that the Syrian public opinion is also keen on this issue. Recognizing that it is impossible to sustain the unstable situation, there is a need to focus on a common ground solution. The Syrian government should address the possible concerns of the RF and Iran in this process. Finally, steps should be taken to facilitate the support of the political structures within and outside Syria that are in opposition to the Baath Party/Assad regime, and the Syrian opposition should also contribute to the solution.
The current problems in Syria-Turkey relations can be summarized as follows;
– Turkey’s security concerns stemming from PKK/PYD, Turkey’s keeping troops/bases in Syrian territory in order to prevent the organization’s expansion from Iraq to the Mediterranean via Syria, and Syria’s assertion of this situation as a precondition for direct talks with Turkey,
– The existence of Salafist takfiri terrorist organizations in Syria, which pose a threat to both countries,
– Turkey’s relations with Syria’s internal and external opposition,
– Turkey’s relations with the Free Syrian Army/Forces, a military organization in Syria,
– Migration from Syria to Turkey can be summarized as three million Syrian citizens, , who are currently living in Idlib but are ready to migrate to Turkey due to security concerns.
In short, the current problems between Syria and Turkey that await a solution appear first in the security and political spheres. The problems related to economic, social and migration/demographic structure can be considered as relatively easier to solve once the first two problems are solved.
As before, the security problems for Turkey and Syria can be solved through the effective use of the Adana Memorandum. The foreign, military and other security bureaucrats involved in the Adana Memorandum mechanism have the necessary knowledge and experience in both countries. Sincere, solution-oriented steps taken by diplomats, military and other security bureaucrats, with the political directives of the leaders of both countries, can serve as the basis for further political steps. Between 1998 and 2012, the Adana Memorandum mechanism between the two countries first led to concrete developments in the field of security, and the trust-building and cooperation achieved in this field paved the way for political, commercial, economic and cultural developments since 2007.
In the crisis between Turkey and Syria, the contribution of diplomats, military and security/intelligence bureaucrats from both countries, who are the legal framework and basic elements of the Adana Memorandum, along with clear political directives, to peace will be invaluable.