Turkey recently announced that only Syrian refugees would be allowed to cross the border to fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in the besieged town of Kobani. In an email interview, Sinan Ülgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, discussed domestic influences on Turkey’s Syria policy.
WPR: How unified is the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Turkey’s Syria policy, and how does the Turkish opposition view the AKP’s policy?
Sinan Ülgen: The Turkish government’s policy on Syria has never really been popular. There are no dissenting voices within the ruling party given the strong party discipline. But both with regard to the political opposition and public opinion in general, Syria policy remains one of the less popular foreign policy initiatives of the AKP government. The reason is that Turkish public opinion has traditionally been cautious and wary of intervention in other countries’ domestic affairs, which is a long-standing principle of Turkish foreign policy. But the AKP government, following the refusal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in August 2011 to heed to Ankara’s calls for initiating democratic reforms, adopted an aggressive stance and started to champion regime change in Syria. This sudden departure from the established tenets of Turkey’s foreign policy, as justifiable as it may have been, failed to garner much support among the Turkish public. Today, faced with the myriad security spillovers from the Syrian crisis, Turkish public opinion is less supportive of this ambitious agenda.
WPR: What policy has Turkey’s business sector advocated for, in light of lost commercial interests in Syria, and has that changed over the course of the conflict?
Ülgen: The Turkish business community has not really been a factor shaping the government’s Syria policy. In previous years, when the relationship with Damascus was markedly warmer, companies in Turkey’s southeast profited significantly from this rapprochement. Border trade was increasing, and many Syrians were traveling to Turkey for shopping, tourism and even medical care. Now this positive dynamic has ended. Turkey’s overall exports to Syria have fallen by 40 percent. But the severity of the political tension between Ankara and Damascus does not allow the business community to play a role in shaping policy.
WPR: How much leverage do the Kurds currently exercise over the AKP’s policy?
Ülgen: Turkey’s Kurds have recently staged violent street protests to express their dissatisfaction with what they perceive to be the inaction of the Turkish government in the face of IS’s siege of Kobani in Syria. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the political representative of Turkey’s Kurds, even threatened to pull out of ongoing peace negotiations with the government. They are intent on using the leverage provided by the negotiations to get the Turkish government to adopt a more interventionist stance on Kobani.
But so far Ankara has resisted this pressure. For Ankara, ensuring U.S. support for the regime change agenda in Syria is more important. That is the reasoning behind calls for setting up safe havens to be backed by a no-fly zone within Syria. Another factor shaping Ankara’s decision-making is the perceived affinity of the Kurdish faction in Syria toward the Assad regime. Ankara wants the Rojava, or Syrian Kurdistan, administration to break away from Assad and take part in the anti-Assad coalition.