Turkey learned the wrong lessons from the past years of war in the Middle East. Unmoored, Ankara is now more aggressive, more nationalist and more Islamist than at any other time in its modern history. Its foreign policy reflects this.
Under the spell of President Recip Tayyip Erdogan, double-speak is commonplace. Turkey professes multilateralism but pursues unilateral goals. It’s officially secular but wastes no opportunity to empower conservative Islamic groups. It screams its adherence to the rule of law, freedom of the press and of worship and is comfortable making mass-arrests, silencing the free press and hunting-down minorities. Ankara declared war on ISIS but its operations are reserved for Kurds—particularly in Northern Syria. All in all, Turkish rhetoric does not match its reality.
Some depict Turkey as having an Ottoman Moment or experimenting with Neo-Ottomanism, but this is inaccurate. Instead of the bustling, ethno-cultural melting-pot of those imperial times, the Turkey of today is a hybrid state; founded with a Sultanic ruler who dangles between the internationalist creed of Islamism and the fervour of Turkic ethno-nationalism. But while it’s ideological twin-peaks might, on their own, misguide and infuse its leadership with inflated perceptions of national power and destiny, events have conspired to keep its military ambitions somewhat grounded. Ankara is learning its limitations and its opportunities—and how to respect the former and exploit the latter.
When war erupted in Syria (2011), the Erdogan clique was full of excitement. Its frayed relationship to Israel and its growing Islamic credentials helped unmoor it from its republican legacy. Rather than towing the US or European line, Turkey was ready to carve out its own strategic niche and Syria would provide it the legitimacy needed to lead. Unfortunately for Erdogan — obsessed with legacy — Turkey’s initial optimism was soon tempered. It would not be the only exogenous actor entering the fray. Iran — Turkey’s enduring rival — was also quick to use the Syrian war as a springboard to consolidate some of its objectives: propping-up the Al Assad regime and, through it, establishing its northern flank through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean. Instead of providing Ankara an avenue to reemerge as a great Middle Eastern power, the Syria war is leading Ankara on the road to perdition and revealed — for all to see — the limitations of its power.
Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian war was complicated from the very beginning. Having thrown its weight behind the anti-Assad-Iran-Hezbollah axis by training, equipping and deploying the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Ankara locked itself in a particular role—champion of a secular insurgency in an increasingly religion-fuelled, sectarian conflict. The FSA was stillborn. Founded in 2011, comprised of defectors from the Syrian Arab Army, the FSA was structured as an armed force but preformed poorly; lacking adequate command, control and communications capabilities and an overarching set of strategic objectives besides the removal of the Al Assad regime. The original FSA did not last a year before the bulk of its members drifted to the growing number of Sunni jihadi groups. Against the backdrop of Al Assad’s and Iran’s sectarian agenda, Syria’s Sunnis — especially around the trade-hub of Aleppo — grew increasingly alarmed by the deployment of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah to support Al Assad forces and sought to fight radicalism with radicalism. Turkey saw yet another opportunity and exploited it.
Turkey’s strategy rapidly evolved from supporting secular forces against Al Assad to organising and unleashing an Islamist tidal wave that is now impossible to contain. With Doha’s financial support, Ankara threw its weight behind a cocktail of extremists in Syria including: Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (aka HTS, aka Jabhet Al Nusra) — an Al Qaeda umbrella group composed of Jabhet Ansar Al Deen, Jaish Al Sunna, Liwa’ Al Haq, Harakat Noor Al Deen Al Zanki and the Turkmen Kataeb Turkman Suria — and Muslim Brotherhood militias such as Jaish Al Islam and Ahrar Al Sham.
Ankara softened its borders to facilitate the ease of international jihadis streaming over its frontiers en route to Syria and Iraq. While these charges have been vehemently denied by Ankara, the evidence continues to mount as to Turkey’s role in allowing the so-called ‘jihadi highway’ to form, together with foreign fighters logistical centres in the Turkish towns and villages along the Syrian frontier between 2013-2014. By one account, in 2013, some ‘30,000 militants traversed Turkish soil.’ 2014, showed only a slight reduction in the jihadi flow via Turkey. All in all, Turkey relied on radicalised jihadi groups to maintain its relevance in Syria—and the region. It facilitated their flow to conflict areas, allowed evacuations of fighters back to its national territory and had developed important communications lines with the upper echelons of ISIS, it knowingly purchased oil and antiquities from ISIS and cut side-deals with the terror-state to secure its (technical) enclave of ‘Suleyman’s Mausoleum.’ Ankara even took up the mission of ISIS and launched a series of operations against Syrian, and Iraqi, Kurds. The enemy of the enemy slogan is certainly apt in this case.
Immense pressure — not least from its NATO allies — led to Turkey’s 30 May 2017 decision to rebrand the defunct FSA as the Syrian National Army (SNA) and to grow distance between it and ISIS. But this was a fig leaf and the SNA were never provided enough support for them to be effective. Instead, they have become an organisation sans fighters, money, ideology and legitimacy while Turkey’s prize fighters of Jaish Al Islam remain in control of Idlib and in partnership with Al Qaeda. It is worth noting — for the record — that neither the FSA or the SNA have ever fought ISIS. Turkey worked with and not against jihadis in Syria.
This is the context behind Turkey’s latest adventurism. The opportunity to invade and hold positions inside Syria may have been made possible by the vacuum opened by the US redeployment out of the area but Turkey’s ambitions are enduring. It is now waging comprehensive war against both Kurdish civilians and militias and will not stop until the Kurdish population is fully disarmed and subdued (in Syria). In the short term, Turkey seeks to achieve the double objectives of:
Returning Syrian refugees (re: three million) to its new-held territories in Syria—those traditionally populated by Kurds
Increasing the strategic buffer between the more entrepreneurial Iran which is, piecemeal, dissecting Syria and bringing it under the yoke of the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah
However, in the labyrinthine maze of levantine politics, it is more likely that Ankara’s early gains will be met by a string of unpredictable events ranging from new state-to-state confrontations — Russia, Iran, Syria, Israel and most of the Arab world are loathe to allow Turkey to carve out a strategic niche in the porous borderlands — to a renewed wave of Kurdish violence within Turkey itself including a likely spate of terrorist activity. A rereading of Humpty Dumpty may be the most apt book on Erdogan’s bookshelf as he dives into the Syrian fray headlong.
 See Ahmet S Yayla and Colin P Clarke, ‘Turkey’s Double ISIS Standard,’ Foreign Policy, 12 April 2018. This work is available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/04/12/turkeys-double-isis-standard/