Sectarian dimensions of Turkey’s involvement in Syria

Far from acting on humanitarian impulses, Turkey’s government has been trying to influence the Syrian civil war in such a way as to ensure that the political structure emerging in the post-Assad era would not constitute a security threat to the current political status quo in Turkey – a status quo in which the Kurdish and Alevi minorities are a long way from being recognised and treated as equals. And for this reason, under current circumstances, it is unlikely that Turkish involvement in the Syrian crisis would pave the way for a more egalitarian and democratic politics where Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Druze, Arabs, and Kurds were all equally accommodated, writes Halil Gürhanli.

From friends to foes

Since the beginning of the uprisings in Syria in March 2011, Turkey’s relationship with its southern neighbour has been deteriorating with an unprecedented pace. Turkish government’s initial “friendly” advice for Damascus to accelerate the democratization process in order to avoid further violent clashes quickly turned into a direct call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down in June 2011. Besides suspending all its bilateral agreements with Syria, Turkey has taken initiatives in hosting the Syrian National Council (SNC) in Istanbul and Free Syrian Army (FSA) in its southern province Hatay. Although it is difficult to speculate on Ankara’s level of involvement with the armed wing of the Syrian opposition, increasing number of journalistic analyses explicitly indicate that Turkish government is actively involved in setting up a ‘nerve centre with allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar to direct vital military and communications aid to Syria’s rebels from a city near the border’.

This had led, for the last year or so, Damascus to consider its northern neighbour as openly hostile. It is also regarded as the main reason why a Turkish military jet was shut down after violating Syrian airspace in June 2012. Referring to these events in a recent interview, President al-Assad accused Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of being “two-faced” and responsible for making Turkey a party to Syria’s bloodshed. Erdogan has also been making several, equally harsh statements about his Syrian counterpart; accusing al-Assad of dishonesty, cowardice, and attempted genocide. Most recently in early August 2012, he even questioned whether al-Assad was ‘really a Muslim‘.

No longer “brothers”

So what happened? This may sound like a rather naïve question but any observer of the Turkish-Syrian relationship would be justified, at least to some degree, to ask what exactly has led these two neighbours to clutch each other’s throats again. It is a surprise because while the Western countries to a large extend spurned the Baath Regime in Syria over the past decade, Erdogan was busy cultivating close economic and socio-cultural ties with al-Assad since the day his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in November 2002. Until just a couple of years ago, Erdogan and al-Assad used to address each other as “brothers” and were even photographed spending their family holiday together in August 2008. As “brothers”, could they not somehow come up with a more diplomatically correct solution to the situation, rather than sinking down to this absolute bottom where one brother, Turkey, harbours and actively supports the armed opposition in its own territory while the other one, Syria, uses the “enemy of its enemy“, i.e. armed Kurdish separatist movements, asa buffer zone on the south of the border? [1]

For the most part of the 20th century, bilateral relations between the neighbours were considered as ‘universally poor and often tense right from the founding of the Turkish Republic’ (Fuller 2008, 93). Besides having disputes over Hatay/Alexandretta territory and water sources regarding Euphrates and Tigris rivers where Turkey constructed several dams during 1990s, the countries came to the brink of war as recently as 1998 when Turkey gathered its army at the southern border and gave Hafez al-Assad a blunt ultimatum, telling him to cease support for the separatist Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) and expel its leader, Abdullah Öcalan (Altunisik, 2004, 363-78). Lastly Turkey’s rapprochement with Israel in the late 1990s led to the Syrian perception that the alliance was directed against it, threatening the latter of being sandwiched between two unfriendly states.

AKP skilfully managed to overturn this traditional Turkish policy of ‘conscious alienation and controlled tension’ toward Syria by taking a proactive stance in building economic and cultural relations between the countries (Aras, 2005). In line with the policy framework put forward by the Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in his book Strategic Depth, Turkey started to promote its cultural, economic, and political influence further in the Middle East in order to reach “zero problems with neighbours“, whatever their past or current misdeeds. This process kick-started with Erdogan’s groundbreaking visit to Damascus in December 2004 where a free trade agreement was signed between Ankara and Damascus which eventually tripled the volume of bilateral trade in five years from $752 million in 2004 to $2.27 billion in 2010.

The following year, as an explicit gesture of good will, Turkey began clearing ‘the nearly 450-mile long, 1500-foot wide minefield between the two countries (planted in 1952 at the height of the Cold War)’. Turkey also took initiative to act as a mediator for indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria over the tangled issue of the Golan Heights in 2008 (though this Turkish initiative collapsed soon after the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2009). And finally in September 2009, Davutoglu and his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem signed an agreement in Istanbul allowing for a visa-free passage between the two countries which increased the cross border relations immensely.

New-Ottomanism disintegrating

This new foreign policy of the AKP government (dubbed as “Neo-Ottomanism”), which aims to cultivate close political and economic relations with predominantly Muslim countries by utilizing Turkey’s shared cultural and historical background, seems to have been disintegrated at the start of the so-called Arab Spring. At these times of immense change and future oriented political imagination, the AKP government’s insistence on rekindling the “glorious” Ottoman past and rebuilding the future on its blueprints does not resonate well in the region. It seems to have even backfired in Syria.

As Bassam Haddad emphasizes, it raises deep suspicions about Turkish intentions even among the Syrian insurgents when, for instance, Erdogan states: ‘They ask me why I care about Syria so much. My answer is simple. It is that we are the remnants of the Ottoman states, the descendants of the Seljuks, and the descendants of the Ottomans.’ There are suspicions of ‘Turkish ambitions to control the region as a continuation of the Ottoman trend‘. This is particularly why, Haddad points out, the current Turkish policy vis-à-vis the Syrian civil war is actually hurting the cause of the Syrian opposition: ‘Those rebel groups who stand too close to Turkey are losing their support back home because the opposition appears to be losing its independence’ and shaping its strategy in conformity with the current Turkish priorities.

This is especially significant in the case of the Kurdish opposition groups who suspect that being financially and politically supported by the AKP government, the current SNC based in Turkey will and cannot fulfil Kurdish demands in Syria. As Aron Lund observes in his detailed analysis on Syrian opposition, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), ‘the single most important organization in Syrian Kurdistan […] disparages the SNC as “the Istanbul council”, portraying it as a Turkish puppet which ignores the plight of Syrian Kurds’. PYD leader Saleh Muslim Mohammed even argues that ‘the regime that they [SNC] are trying to force upon Syria with the help of Erdogan has absolutely no Kurdish presence‘.

This is partially related to the existential links the PYD has with the armed separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, with which Turkish army has been fighting a protracted conflict since 1984 [2]. In other words, the PYD, by its very nature, is inclined to oppose any actor who is embraced by the Turkish state. Through its support for the SNC, which represents at best 60 percent of the Syrian opposition, the AKP government is in fact damaging the Syrian opposition and driving a potentially insurmountable wedge between its various components. It is therefore plausible to argue that it is this deep distrust towards the Turkish-backed opposition which has recently led the PYD to cut a dealwith President Assad which ‘handed the PYD a control of key areas in the northeast‘ where the party has already opened up Kurdish cultural centres and organised local elections.

Sectarian dynamics

Then there is the “sectarian” dimension of the AKP government’s policy toward the Syrian crisis. Supporting exclusively the Sunni rebels and routinely denouncing the Assad government as the “Alawite minority regime”, Erdogan’s party has placed itself ‘not only against the Baath regime but also against the Alawites‘. There is actually an underlying domestic political concern related to the Turkish equivalents of the Arab/Syrian Alawites, Alevis, which partially explains the AKP’s sectarian stance. Estimated to make up to a fifth of the population, Turkish Alevis, like the Alawites, are an offshoot of Shia Islam and politically close to the secular Kemalist ideology (Ciddi, 2009).

Despite their numbers, the Alevi religious identity does not officially exist in Turkey. Demands for their temples (“cem houses”) to be legally recognised by the State are ignored, forcing them to remain as “cultural centres”. What is noteworthy, however, is the way in which the ruling Sunni conservatives do not refrain from singling Alevis out as “the other” or even as non-Muslims, as Erdogan recently remarked: “Alevis are an extremely fractured bunch; there are those who claim that Alevis are Muslims and others who say they are not. There are even atheists among them. If we are Muslims, our temple ought to be one and the same.”

The fact that the leader of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), happens to be an Alevi only escalates this sectarian tension, enabling the AKP leaders to suggest that the opposition’s critical stance against the government’s interventionist policy in Syria had to do with its leader’s Alevi creed. It seems so that playing on the prejudices of the Sunni majority in Turkey and Syria, the AKP government has found its “other” in the name Alevi or Alawite (there is no linguistic difference between the two in Turkish), into which the party leaders liberally throw whomever they consider as their “opponents” – be it the Baath regime in Syria, religious minority in Turkey, or the opposition party.


[1] Such a U-turn is, of course, not unprecedented for Erdogan. Just a few months before calling for Gaddafi to step down and lending his cooperation to NATO intervention to Libya, Erdogan had received the annual Al-Gadhafi International Prize for Human Rights and proclaimed that an international intervention in Libya would be “unthinkable” and “absurd,” attributing Western concern about the deteriorating situation there to “calculations” over oil, and alleging that the “real plan” being advanced is actually an old-fashioned “imperial carve-up.”

[2] As a part of the understanding between Ankara and Damascus during the rapprochement period, Syrian state used to keep a close eye on Kurdish armed groups close to Turkish border until Erdogan’s government took a clear anti-Assad stance. Especially since the beginning of 2012, PKK increased the scope and scale of its violent attacks in Turkey. This recent emergence of a de-facto Kurdish-controlled region friendly to its main domestic foe, i.e. PKK, indicates that ‘Turkey’s worst nightmares are beginning to come true in Syria.’


Altunisik, M.B. 2004. “Turkey’s Middle East Challenges: Towards a New Beginning?” in Turkish Foreign Policy in Post-Cold War Era. Idris Bal (ed.). Brown Walker: Florida.

Ciddi, Sinan. 2009. Kemalism in Turkish Politics: The Republican People’s Party, Secularism and Nationalism. London: Routledge.

Fuller, Graham E. 2008. The New Turkish Republic: Turkey as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World. Washington D.C.: United States Institute of Peace.

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