Turkey and The West in Syria

Kyle Orton\The Henry Jackson Society December 2016

Turkey began the “Arab Spring” period pursuing a policy of “zero problems with neighbours”. Primarily because of Syria, where Ankara got drawn further and further into the battle against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, this policy fell apart.

For Turkey, the threat of a contiguous statelet along its border controlled by the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the U.S.-led Coalition has chosen as its primary ground ally against the Islamic State (IS), has motivated a number of policies that culminated in a direct intervention in Syria in August 2016. Turkey cannot afford to accept the territorial ambitions of an affiliate of a domestic terrorist group as it views its internal Kurdish situation entirely through this prism, rather than also a consequence of Ankara’s repressive policy towards Turkey’s Kurds.

Al-Qaeda in Syria has used Turkey as a rear base and its networks on Turkish territory constitute a key node in its global network, able to strike at Europe and America if and when a decision is made. While Turkey’s intervention has helped exacerbate divisions between the Syrian opposition and al-Qaeda, some of the Islamist groups’ Turkey supports in Syria, notably Ahrar al-Sham, have strengthened al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch.

After the attempted coup in Turkey there has been a wide-scale crackdown, which has targeted all opposition to the government. This has accelerated Turkey’s drift toward authoritarianism and damaged the anti-IS cause by removing key military officials with whom the West was working. It is possible that the West will lose, or be threatened with the loss of, basing rights altogether in Turkey.

Key Recommendations

  1. Work with Turkey to delineate an acceptable role for the PKK in Syria, imposing some limits on an organization that has heretofore enjoyed uncritical Western support. This will help avert opening another front in the war, and diverting resources from the anti-IS campaign.
  2. Though the removal of Bashar al-Assad by force is no longer feasible, the maintenance of the West’s official posture that wishes to see him ousted remains essential in helping bring allies, inside Syria and in the surrounding states, to support Western strategy, including fighting IS and al-Qaeda. Applying penalties against the pro-Assad forces for egregious crimes might keep open the chance of a political settlement.
  3. Have Turkey crack down on al-Qaeda’s operations on its territory, and pressure Turkey to reduce its support to Ahrar al-Sham and other Islamist groups that enable al-Qaeda in northern Syria, or condition such support on these groups distancing themselves from al-Qaeda
  4. Explore alternative basing locations, notably Cyprus and Iraqi Kurdistan, to ensure there actually is an alternative if the Coalition is evicted from Turkey and to ensure meanwhile that Ankara does not have excessive leverage from the ability to make this threat.


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