The European Perception of Turkey in the Syria Crisis

The discussions of Turkey’s foreign policy on the Syria crisis have followed a two-fold line. The dominant discourse has disregarded the wide manoeuvring room of Turkey in practice and reduced the policy to a dual choice (pro-Assad/anti-Assad). The opinion that has been applied by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has advocated that Turkey should provide all necessary support to the military opposition based on the assumption that the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which also obtained the support of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, would implement the democracy in the country. Those of this opinion have overlooked the existence of the civil opposition that genuinely wants to institute democracy in Syria and stands against both Bashar al-Assad and the FSA. It is quite evident that support has been given to the armed opposition in Syria, and in this context the Office of Syrian Opposition Support (OSOS) was established within the U.S. Foreign Ministry and started to provide (together with the U.K.) political and administrative education to opposition groups in Istanbul (The Telegraph, Aug. 26, 2012). As clearly indicated in The New York Times (June 21, 2012), CIA agents in Jordan and Turkey have controlled the amount and kinds of weapons and ensured that these are delivered to the armed opposition before being taken by other dangerous organizations in the region(1). The U.S. has remained diplomatically distanced due to the elections at the beginning of November, and in order not to cause a problem of legality, France and the U.K. remain content with providing advice at official level from afar.

Turkey entered into the crisis in Syria in a manner that would not comply with its interests due to early calculation failures.

In this context, how the Syria crisis and Turkey’s approach is perceived in Europe is crucial. It can be claimed that Germany has entered into a close dialogue with the Turkish government. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said during his visit to Istanbul that they were in solidarity with Turkey and pointed to the importance of decreasing the tension. Meanwhile, the Special Envoy of the German Foreign Ministry for Southeastern Europe, Nikolaus Graf Lambsdorff, said Turkey was in a very difficult position, adding: “Turkey seems to be working according to the trial and error principle and can sometimes be extremely optimistic or assertive.” According to Lambdsdorff, despite the various zigzags in Turkey’s Syrian policy this does not mean that the “zero problem” strategy of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has ended. According to this view, Turkey is already in a very challenging geopolitical location and it is therefore difficult to label Turkey wrong in this context. During the visit of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Germany on Oct. 31, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pointed out that they supported Turkey on the increasing tension between Syria and Turkey and that they felt responsible for the security of Turkey. Erdoğan himself said they needed the support of Germany. Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, stated that Turkey, whilst showing its best efforts to deal with the tension on the one side, had to respond to violations on the other side.


Even if these statements generate the image of a Europe supporting Turkey, American analysts (for example “The Lonely Man of the Middle East,” Stanley Weiss, Huffington Post, Aug. 28, 2012) and European analysts are unanimous on the fact that Turkey is isolated and that its expectations have not been met. Accordingly, Turkey’s permanent representative to the EU, ambassador Selim Yeneli, stated at a Berlin conference in October, organized by the Southeast Europe Association (SOG), that Turkey was feeling increasingly alone. His statements reflected Turkey’s disappointment that the western powers have not given the necessary support on the Syria Crisis.

Many analysts think Turkey is becoming increasingly isolated in the Syria crisis
The German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) analyst Günter Seufert has said that Turkey had calculated that the fall of the al-Assad regime would take about three months, but then realized that it had pushed itself into a blind alley as no support came from the west. In other news, published in Deutsche Welle on Oct. 7, it is noted that with Turkey having passed from the “soft power” strategy to the “military deterrence” strategy, it has not only gotten itself into a risk of war with Syria, but also into a crisis with Iraq, Iran and Russia. It also noted that Turkey’s aggressive attitude resulted in both great ambitions and deep disappointments. The news emphasized that Turkey had taken an attitude against the al-Assad regime with two other Sunni countries – Saudi Arabia and Qatar – increased the conflict with the Shiite Iraqi and Iranian governments, which are close allies of al-Assad, and that it had “from a position of zero problems, arrived at a position of zero neighbors.” Mohammed Ayoob (The Guardian, Oct. 4) stated that Turkey was trapped in the swamp of Syria. Ayoob said Turkey’s support for the armed opposition in Syria had both idealistic and realistic aspects. Ankara calculated that regime change in Syria would be rapidly realized and that it would be best in terms of economic and strategic interests to support the opposition, but that was wrong in its calculation and things did not develop as Turkey had expected.

The comment included in the German magazine Die Zeit (Oct. 18) under the title “Help, we have been left alone” starts as follows: “Turkey has long followed a ‘zero problem’ policy with its neighbours, but now it stands in conflict with all its neighbours. Proud and self-confident Turkey cannot recognize itself anymore.” It is stated that Turkey has lost its security and left itself open to attacks. In an article by Christiane Schlötzer in the Swiss Tagesanzeiger (Oct. 15) it is noted that the weaknesses of Turkish foreign policy, which tries to be influential, were revealed once again with Syria following the Gaza crisis with Israel. The article suggests that Erdoğan’s stormy statements, such as “We are not far from war” are signs of desperateness rather than assertiveness, and that the government feels that it has been left alone.

The fallacy of Turkish foreign policy in Syria becomes clearer with the increase in the incurring conflicts. The general discourse in Europe reveals that Turkey entered into the crisis in Syria in a manner that would not comply with its national interests due to early calculation failures, and that this might have high costs. According to the analysts it was a fantasy and false expectation to think that the al-Assad regime – supported by Russia, Iran and different parts of its population, and having financial and military power – would rapidly fall apart. Contrary to Saudi Arabia and the U.S., Ankara has followed a policy that bears the risk of being pulled into a swamp. Comments in Europe point out that the dreams of Erdoğan and Davutoğlu to wield great power like the Ottoman Empire do not comply with the reality and that there is no more place for such fantasies in the region. Analysts emphasize that the country has entered into the region without a sufficient forecast and with unpredictable results.

Unfortunately, Turkey’s policies have trapped itself in this situation without the need for an opponent.

Turkish foreign policy will not be relieved from the dilemma that it created for itself as long as the al-Assad regime remains. “Pin” is one of the most important strategies in chess, restricting the manoeuvring room of the opponent’s pieces. Unfortunately, Turkey’s policies have trapped themselves in this situation without the need for an opponent. It is very important that Ankara re-evaluates its foreign policy. Otherwise, as noted by the European analysts, the Syrian swamp bears the risk of becoming the Turkish swamp.

(1) Various international and national media outlets revealed that CIA agents in Turkey provided weapons to the armed opposition in Syria. The Chairman of the Peace Policy Research Institute, Erich Schmidt-Eenboom, mentioned in a statement to the German DW that the CIA had been particularly active in Turkey for months and that the intelligence agencies that caused the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya are now active in Syria. The President of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, David Pullock, and other news in the American media have confirmed this statement. From the perspective of Europe, France, the former colonial power of Syria, is playing the main role. According to the news of Deutsche Welle, the French Intelligence Agency cooperated with their partners in Saudi Arabia and Turkey to ensure that top level representatives of the al-Assad regime in Syria could escape from the country. Erich Schmidt Eenboom also stated that the German Intelligence Agency was active in Syria, too. “The new Chairman of the BND, Gerhard Schindler, wants to take risks in order to regain the trust of western partners after Germany stood outside in Libya,” he said.

About Can Büyükbay

PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science Center for Comparative & International Studies, University of Zurich