State-run Media and Alternative Opinions: The Turkish Perception of the Conflict between Syria and the Islamic State

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The Republic of Turkey has its longest common border with its neighbour, the Syrian Arab Republic. Tensions at this border have been ceaseless since the outbreak of the domestic violence in Syria in 2011 that later turned into civil war.
Starting as what can be described as a pro-democracy movement (BBC, 2014), it soon became a national turmoil with expressed demands for the resignation of the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad. The conflict has long since gained a rather sectarian spirit, mainly between Syria’s Sunni majority as the opposition and Assad’s Shia Alawite faction. By August 2014, the fatality rate of the conflict had risen to more than 190.000 (BBC, 2014).

Additionally, the US State Department stated on record in 2012 that the al Nusra Front was not only involved in early fighting in Syria, but had already established a nationwide presence carrying out hundreds of attacks in every major city in the country. Officially, the group is designated as a foreign terrorist organisation and considered an alias for al Qaeda in Iraq (DoS, 2012). The ascent of these excessively violent, highly equipped and well trained extremist jihadist groups in the region, with the financial and hardware support from a number of foreign countries such as Qatar, has recently gained international attention to the point of forming a coalition among world powers led by United States. The Islamic State (IS, considered to be an offspring of al Qaeda) has shot to the top of the list and is currently leading the pack as the main unified terrorist organisation.

Turkey, despite its geopolitical position, has so far shown little interest and much reluctance in getting actively involved in the coalition to fight the IS. Unlike Iran and – to a lesser degree – Russia, Turkey has taken its place on the side of the countries which support regime change in Syria. That notwithstanding, the country’s passive stance towards IS has triggered various allegations concentrating on the fact that the extremist militants seem to have been assisted by Turkey.

Secret operations of a number of C.I.A. officers in Southern Turkey were reported by the NY Times in June 2012. The report further claimed that, paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, different weapons were allegedly being transmitted mostly across the Turkish border via a shady network of intermediaries. The US government had also acknowledged that Syria’s neighbours would provide arms to the rebels (NY Times, 2012). Similarly, there is ample evidence that, for the purpose of IS fundraising in general as well as the recruitment and courting of foreign fighters, Turkey has effectively become a safe haven and easy route of transit to fighting hot spots in Syria (Daily Beast, 2014).

In 2012, Reuters reported that ‘’Turkey has set up a secret base with allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar to direct vital military and communications aid to Syria’s rebels from a city near the border. It’s the Turks who are militarily controlling it. Turkey is the main co-ordinator/facilitator. Think of a triangle, with Turkey at the top and Saudi Arabia and Qatar at the bottom.’’ (Reuters, 2012). Turkey has a long-established policy of standing side by side with Saudi Arabia and Qatar in providing support to the Syrian opposition either military or financially in pursuit of their policy to topple the elected Syrian government and to overthrow Assad. This has led to a critical internal perception within the country mostly from secularists asserting that such a strategy has been directly beneficial to IS to further prosper. Yet all of these allegations have been strongly rejected by the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi), Turkey’s ruling party. In support, the government reported that Turkey has managed to track down, detain and deport more than 1,000 European fighters back to their countries of origin (Todays Zaman, 2013).

During more recent fighting between the IS and the Syrian military in the town of Kobane, located in Syrian Kurdistan, Mr Demirtas, the co-leader of HDP (Haklarin Demokratik Partisi) Turkey’s pro-Kurdish political opposition party, claimed that the Islamist Jihadists were firing on the defending Syrian Kurds from the Turkish side of the border. This was later ruled out by the Turkish military. Moreover Sebahat Tuncel, HDP Istanbul MP, claimed that ‘’…for two years, Turkey has been sneaking in arms and food and support to the al Nusra and IS while publicly saying it does nothing.’’ (LA Times, 2014).

However, there has also been a strong affinity in Turkey towards the extremist groups in Syria as voiced by a number of Sunni Turks who feel sympathetic towards the jihadists on the grounds that Sunni Muslims have long been subjected to oppression (Williams, 2014). On December 3rd at the ’60-nations’ meeting in Brussels (RFE/RL, 2014), it was reiterated by the coalition powers that the priority rests upon a common commitment towards defeating IS rather than focusing on regime change in Syria. However, it was made clear that the latter was still the primary concern of both President Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutoglu.

Turkish scholars and analysts inside the country display varying views on this matter. Mr Ufuk Ulutas, the director of the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), takes an AKP-supporting stance. He indicates that ‘’there is also no need for Turkey to change its current position because the US-led operation is clearly unsuccessful. The recent suicide bombings in Kobane show this. The coalition is pursuing a misguided strategy and there is no reason why Turkey should be part of this.’’ (Al-Monitor, 2014).

Turkey has placed pre-conditions for more operational participation with the coalition rather than a merely tactical cooperation. By establishing a Safe and No-Fly Zone (NFZ) inside Syria, similar to the NFZ before the successful take-over of Libya by NATO and a number of allied Islamist extremist groups, Turkey is suggesting a similar tactic to assist the opposition in their combat with the Syrian military and to provide security for the internally displaced civilians. Yet, a substantial agreement over this matter has not been reached between Turkey and the US-led coalition powers, especially with the US government still undecided over the question of a Libya-style offensive. Instead of condemning and preventing the atrocities and humanitarian disasters committed by groups like IS, Turkey seems to insist merely on a more consolidated and sophisticated practical plan for the overthrow of the Assad government. Considering the bigger picture, Turkey’s geographical location and the mass influx of Syrians seeking refuge to the country, validates the significance of the conflict for the government.

As a direct consequence of the Syria-IS war, the long standing hostile Turkish-Kurdish status quo inside the country has recently experienced renewed tensions. The conflict in the Kurdish town of Kobane between Kurds and IS militants has seen Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish Kurds uniting in a new form of alliance, without ignoring the significant internal disputes still existing among the different Kurdish groups in the region (Al Jazeera Turk, 2014). However, the degree of atrocities committed in Kobane by the extremists has also raised a general domestic outrage, especially in the provinces with high-density Kurdish populations. It has also been argued that the AKP’s use of its historically less supporting attitude towards the Kurdish ethnicity as a justification for its passive condoning of IS, aims at weakening the Kurds by letting them fight Islamists first (Ananicz, 2014).

In 2012 a resolution process had begun among PKK (Kurdistan Isci Partisi) and the Turkish army in order to promote dialogue between the parties and to put an end to the previous armed conflicts. However, no constitutional or legal reforms have so far been implemented. Didem Akyel Collinsworth, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, thinks that ‘’…the state still sees PKK elements as the largest domestic security threat. That mentality hasn’t entirely changed in Turkey, and therein we see the dilemma of which way to go – you can see this reflected in Turkey’s policy […].’’ Moreover, with Turkey’s next elections due in June, direct involvement with respect to the conflict in Syria would not be one of the ruling party’s priorities. It would be strongly rejected by the Turkish public from a domestic point of view, primarily due to its public security implications. Therefore, it would be in the AKP’s best interests to keep the domestic status-quo as peaceful as possible.

Meanwhile, Turkish politics have had their own share of long existing, yet recently amplified, internal clashes between a number of Islamist groups that resulted in a large number of arrests of editors, columnists, journalists and police officials. These arrests have dominated the headlines of domestic media up to the end of 2014. Hurriyet Daily News, a news agency known for its secularist opinions, argues that the underlying motive for the recent outrage throughout the country dates back to 2009 when criticism was aired by Fetullah Gulen, the self-exiled leader of the Hizmet movement, about an Islamic group called Annotators locally known as Tahsiyeciler (Hurriyet Daily News, 2014). Fetullah Gulen has remained a close ally of the Turkish government until late 2013. Both the Annotators and the Gulenist groups are subscribing to the same Islamic source as their main book of reference, namely Risale-i Nur. However, the fact that the Annotators advocate a reinterpretation is strongly objected by the Gulenists (Hurriyet Daily News, 2014).
Pro-Gulen media outlets, like the Daily Zaman and Samanyolu TV, have been consistently and fiercely critical of the Annotators which have been alleged of conducting criminal activities and maintaining a workable relation with al-Qaeda (Hurriyet Daily News, 2014). After the release of all its members that had been taken into custody, the Annotators counter-sued the Gulenists. This, however, served no practical consequences at the time, taking into account of the close ties between latter and Turkish government. In a recent turn of events, President Erdogan pledged then to root out the parallel state, whereby he now also referred to his former allies, the Gulenists (Foreign Policy, 2014).

As a defence to the many attacks on several mainstream media outlets, the CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi), Turkey’s main political opposition party, has called for a collective unification of all the opposing forces against the ruling political system (Hurriyet Daily News, 2014). The CHP also accused the AKP of nepotism by leaking a long list of names involved in backhanded interactions linked to the party and its members (Al Monitor, 2014). Overall, it seems no longer to be an argument whether Turkey has turned into a country that is prone to censorship. The Freedom of the Press and the Freedom of Speech have been severely limited with the vast share of domestic press coming under the control of government.

Similar to the buoyant internal political issues, the Turkish population has been equally dismissive about the AKP’s official position with regards to the Syrian conflict. A Turkish opinion poll, conducted by Metropoll, in September 2012 showed 56% of the surveyed dissenting with AKP’s approach of confrontation and support of an intervention in Syria against the elected Assad’s government in order to force latter’s ultimate fall and replacement (Metropoll, 2012).

Szymon Ananicz, a research fellow at the OSW department for Turkey, the Caucasus and Central Asia, also discusses that ‘’lack of public support for more active involvement in the conflict – especially in the pre-election period – along with the destabilisation of the state structures, will limit Ankara’s ability to take the initiative in the Syrian conflict. It is likely that, at least in the short term, Turkey will continue its policy based on the defence of its own territory and non-confrontation.’’ (Ananicz, 2014).

The Syria vs IS conflict is proving to be a showcase of the potency of Turkey’s foreign policy. So far it has mostly been dominated by the country’s official defensive approach towards its own territory and ensuring domestic security rather than taking on the role of a proactive international player. The argument could be that the country’s geopolitical position prevents any supporting stances and thereby jeopardizing its territorial security against any potential threats. Nevertheless, the Turkish government has recently approved a cross-border military intervention in Iraq and Syria (Al Jazeera, 2014).

Turkey’s cautious approach has as well been claimed to be a resulting aftermath of the 49 Turkish hostages that were taken at the Mosul consulate in June 2014 by IS militants. Objecting to the allegations of ransoms paid by the government in return for the release of the diplomatic employees, the AKP argued that the release was merely the consequence of political and diplomatic negotiations with the IS (Middle East Monitor, 2014).
Additionally, the Turkish public’s attention has been diverted by the Gezi protests in 2013, followed by corruption cases directly involving government officials in December of that year. In such a polarised domestic political climate, a civil conflict seems almost inevitable in response to any foreign policy the government would undertake to follow with respect to Syria and IS. Lauren Williams, a freelance Journalist based in Beirut and Istanbul, also stipulates that Turkey is challenged by its policy alternatives. She argues that ‘’whether the Erdogan government softens its hard line on Assad, collaborates more cooperatively with the United States in anti-IS policy, or hardens its position by resisting cooperation with the Kurds and continuing to back the mainly Sunni opposition in Syria, it risks rallying some sectors of society while alienating others even further […].’’ (Williams, 2014).

Yet, it remains questionable how long this passive policy can survive. The less Turkey would remain indifferent with respect to the humanitarian tragedies taking place at its borders, the more isolated it risks to become in the International community. The AKP’s foreign policy against the Syrian government has given rise to criticism by the leading opposite political parties, i.e. CHP and HDP. Both parties openly question AKP’s sincerity in combating IS. The argument put forward by the parties is that the underlying reason and main point of focus of the government is the toppling of the Syrian regime rather than IS. However, the primary step would logically be to put a permanent end to the jihadists’ recruitment inside the country.
Additionally, as reported by Thomas Seibert, the Turkey correspondent for Der Tagesspiegel, illegal border trade and smuggling diesel fuel between IS and Turkey is also another domestic interpretation behind the Turkish government’s reluctance to actively fight against the extremist group (Seibert, 2014). It allegedly implies the existence of a hidden cooperation between the AKP and IS.

On the other hand, as Turkey has been the recipient of a mass influx of Syrian refugees, the matter is perceived divergently among the nation’s public. A survey conducted by Hacettepe University in Ankara in November 2014 provides statistics of Turkey’s internal perceptions on this matter. 70% of the Turkish population perceive the Syrian refugees as an economic burden. Concerning issuing work permits for Syrian refugees and sharing the neighbourhood with Syrian residents, the approximate opposing percentages are respectively 47% and 50% (Hugo Hacettepe University, 2014).

Alongside with defending its territorial security against the IS offensive, protection of national interest is also conceived to be a major concern for the Turkish government. Yet, disparities have been showcased among public opinions in the country that seem to be invalidating the credibility of such claims.

At the same time the AKP is reluctant, with respect to its foreign policy towards the Syria-IS conflict, to take a pro-active role in supporting PYD (Demokratik Birlik Partisi), the sister organisation of PKK in Syria. However, it recently allowed for the transit of Free Syrian Army forces, the alleged moderate opposition, through its borders to enter Kabane (DW, 2014).

Soner Cagaptay, an analyst for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Turkey, concludes that Turkey’s Syria policy carries conflicting priorities.
Degrading IS, overthrowing Assad and subduing PKK all at the same time
(LA Times, 2014). The question should be asked whether the AKP actually considers the PKK as a greater threat than IS, since it regards the PKK as a terrorist organization. In light of this, Turkey could be seen as using the rise of IS as leverage over controlling its Kurdish minority. The conflict in Kobane has definitely hindered the resolution process, signing and executing the long negotiated peace agreement with the Kurds.

Taking in to consideration the fact that Kurds are making up one fifth of Turkey’s population, the term protection of national interests is debatable. This stance seems to tie in with contradictory policies towards interventions as shown by not just the Turkish government, i.e. the US intervention in Iraq on behalf of Iraqi Kurds and the later refusal to intervene on behalf of Kurds in Syria. Equally, using military force against the PKK, Turkey not only refuses to do the same to protect Kurds against the IS, but is also seen as an ally against the Kurds themselves (Guiton, 2014).

Another consequence of Turkey’s foreign policy may well be that the IS offense and security threat to the wider region is effectively assisting the Kurdish struggle and paving the path towards Kurdish independence. David Gardner, a Financial Times columnist, reported of a former Turkish diplomat claiming that ‘’the primary result of [Daesh] is that it increases sympathy for the establishment of an independent Kurdish state.’’ (Gardner, 2014). The Turkish diplomat further maintained that such a consequence would give rise to further bloodshed in the region.
Consequently, the official policy for regime change in Syria by Turkey may have serious repercussions in the region. Turkey’s border and the AKP’s foreign policy have been essential in allowing support to IS and their proxies in Syria.

The Turkish population has condemned the government’s strategy of silent support for IS and the toppling of Assad regime. Such a stance due to the fact that the Turkish government allegedly fails to accept the consequences of increased security threats of a prolonged war as well as the economic and humanitarian burden of a continuing influx of Syrian refugees. From a domestic point of view, with elections coming up in June, Turkey is also facing massive internal political conflicts. Therefore, further instability will be caused by the government’s continuing ambiguous foreign policy on Syria which will be stressed by any renewed fights with IS from and near Turkey. These events may well enable the Kurds to obtain wider support in Turkey itself and worldwide political support to further their independent movement away from Turkey.

The AKP’s reluctance to turn away from their passive or active support for IS may thus very well result in much more than just Syrian human catastrophes and in the very least a lot more than what the Erdogan government is bargaining for.

Author Biography 

Golnaz A. Jafari obtained her B.A. in English Language & Literature from Tabriz State University in her native Iran, she has also studied LLB in International and European Union Law and LLM in International and European Union Business Law respectively from University of Birmingham, United Kingdom, and the Vrije Universiteit Bruxelles, Belgium. Golnaz is specialized in International law, Global governance, International Economic law and organizations as well as European Union law, Policy structure & Institutional framework in general. In automn 2014, Golnaz joined GPPWs internship program.

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Picture Credit: Jan Sefti

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