Turkey’s Syria Problem

An agreement is in place to consolidate and destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal—the international community’s response to the use of the weapons by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. If implemented, the deal, which was brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on September 14, could bring significant benefits because war will be averted. But as the country most exposed to the consequences of the conflict in Syria, Turkey remains unconvinced of the deal’s efficacy.

Turkey cautiously welcomed the agreement. But for Ankara, the chemical weapons deal is at best incomplete and at worst a digression from the real political objective: removing Assad from power. Turkey has long supported the overthrow of Assad and believes that no peace can be achieved while he remains in power. Although Turkey does stand to benefit if chemical weapons are removed from Syria, Ankara is increasingly concerned that the deal is an internationally acceptable alternative to the difficult but potentially necessary option of toppling Assad by force.

Sinan Ülgen
Ülgen is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on Turkish foreign policy, nuclear policy, cyberpolicy, and transatlantic relations.
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With U.S.-led military action currently improbable, Turkey’s preferred policy in Syria is unlikely to come to fruition. What’s more, the drawn-out inspections process that is on the table does nothing to address the civil war that has plagued Syria for two and a half years—and that is particularly problematic for Ankara.

The agreement presents both opportunities and risks for Turkey. But regardless of those outcomes, one thing is certain: Ankara will continue to bear the brunt of the conflict in Syria.

The Deal

It is not a given that the deal will succeed. The U.S.-Russian disarmament agreement is ambitious in scope and will be difficult to implement. It expedites the inspections process and hastens the time frame for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. The effort will be complicated and have a number of pitfalls—all of which could threaten to unravel the agreed process of chemical disarmament.

As part of the agreement, Syria submitted a declaration of its chemical weapons stockpile to the international community. Damascus is also required to allow inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN to have “unfettered right to inspect any and all sites” in Syria. They will conduct interviews, inspect facilities, and collect documents to ensure that Assad’s initial declaration was accurate. According to the deal, the complete “elimination of all chemical weapons material and equipment” should take place by “the first half of 2014.” In parallel, on September 15, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon received Syria’s formal instrument of accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits the production, stockpiling, and use of such weapons.

Russia will be expected to put pressure on Assad to allow elements of the Syrian bureaucracy to fully cooperate with the inspectors. But even if Moscow succeeds, other bureaucratic tasks could prove difficult. When Libya gave up its chemical weapons in the early 2000s, for instance, the rather mundane task of translating documents and reviewing information took three to four weeks and was done in London, Washington, and The Hague. Inspection teams were forced to rotate in and out of the country. That process ended up helping the inspectors in their work, as the time spent outside the country allowed the teams to better prepare for inspections and coordinate with their Libyan counterparts. But this type of planning takes time. It is likely that inspectors in Syria will have to undertake a similar operation, but they will be expected to do so much more quickly, exacerbating the difficulties.

At the same time, the parties will have to establish a protocol for resolving disputes should the inspectors run into trouble while verifying Assad’s initial declaration. In a number of cases in Libya, lower-level officials were wary of handing over sensitive documents for fear that then Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi would punish them for violating his trust. The United States and the UK had to set up a higher-level team with members of Qaddafi’s inner circle. If a question or problem came about, the team would meet, and the senior Libyan officials would instruct the lower-level officials to cooperate.

Then there is the matter of actually collecting and dismantling the weapons and weapons components. The United States and Russia have agreed that the “most effective control of these weapons may be achieved by [the] removal of the largest amounts of weapons feasible, under OPCW supervision, and their destruction outside of Syria.” According to the Wall Street Journal, the United States believes Syria’s chemical arsenal to be “scattered to as many as 50 locations in the west, north and south, as well as new sites in the east.”

The U.S.-Russian agreement requires Assad to order his troops to consolidate Syria’s deployed chemical weapons at a small number of sites. Assad will probably consolidate the weapons and precursor agents—substances used to produce weapons-grade chemicals—at a few sites under heavy guard. The OPCW will then seal the facilities and place them under continuous monitoring. In turn, as teams rotate in and out of the country, they will verify that none of the stockpile has been moved or tampered with. One likely place for consolidating these materials is near the Russian naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus.

It is likely that Syria will ask for technical assistance—most probably from Russia—to help destroy its stockpile in Russian facilities. Once secured and made safe for transportation, some of the chemical weapons and precursor agent could be placed on ships and transported to Russia for destruction. In another scenario, the OPCW could ask Jordan to store the weapons and allow international teams to set up a mobile destruction site there.

However, it also likely that some weapons will have to be destroyed inside Syria. In this case, the United States or Russia could provide a mobile facility designed to incinerate precursor agents, though it is currently unclear who would pay for such an operation.

In addition to the weapons themselves, inspectors will have to dismantle the equipment used in the mixing of precursors and the filling of chemical munitions. This task can be done relatively quickly, but only if the regime was forthright in its original declaration and allows inspections at suspected facilities not included in that declaration.

At the same time, the OPCW inspectors will have to oversee the destruction of Syrian delivery vehicles. French intelligence asserts that Syria has the capability to deliver chemical weapons via Scud-C, Scud-B, M-600, and SS-21 missiles as well as gravity bombs and artillery rockets or shells. (The chemical weapons attack in Damascus on August 21 used artillery rockets.) By contrast, in Libya, Qaddafi had only one delivery vehicle: gravity bombs. As they were unfilled, destroying them was rather straightforward. Under the supervision of the OPCW, Libyan officials lined up the bomb casings in the desert, and a bulldozer ran them over. The process in Syria will be more complex and is likely to be similar to the experience with disabling Iraq’s chemical weapons arsenal in the 1990s. Then, inspectors had to painstakingly catalog a myriad of different delivery vehicles and ensure that they were destroyed.

In the U.S.-Russian agreement, the issue of ballistic missiles and other delivery vehicles is left unaddressed. The process in Syria is therefore unlikely to place any limits on such vehicles, but rather it will focus only on the destruction or disabling of chemical-specific warheads or artillery shells. That process would be easier if the bulk of Syria’s delivery vehicles were stored in a small number of locations. Inspectors could use a mixture of alcohol to render the chemical agent harmless before transporting it to a location for destruction.

All of this is complicated even further by the fact that the Syrian civil war continues to rage. Though the disarmament processes in Libya and Iraq were complicated, they were also successful—and undertaken in relatively peaceful environments. It is unclear how the process in Syria will take place against the backdrop of ongoing conflict. Salim Idris, the general who heads the military wing of the rebel Syrian National Coalition, has dismissed the deal and has indicated that his forces will not adhere to any ceasefire during the inspection process.

Amy Smithson, an expert on chemical weapons at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said that the agreement forces “what would probably be five or six years’ worth of work into a period of several months” and “in an extremely difficult security environment.” The inspectors will almost certainly have to undertake their tasks in less-than-ideal security conditions. According to Smithson, “this situation has no precedent.”

Benefits for Turkey

Clearly, the road toward disarmament is difficult. But if the deal is successfully implemented, Ankara could benefit significantly. The agreement should enhance Turkey’s security by eliminating the threat of Syrian WMD (at least the chemical weapons). That would protect Turkey from possible Syrian aggression with chemical weapons, especially because Turkey does not possess robust ballistic missile defenses to prevent strikes by Syria’s long-range ballistic missiles or by shorter-range rockets that could carry chemical agents.

One of the less obvious advantages for NATO-member Turkey of the U.S.-Russian deal is that Syrian disarmament could preempt a regional conflict that would have tested NATO’s collective-defense commitments, enshrined in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Turkish policymakers have tended to rely on NATO’s collective-defense pact to deter potential attacks from Syria.

Yet, the failure of NATO members to agree ten years ago to invoke the collective-defense provision of the North Atlantic Treaty in a scenario very similar to the current Syrian crisis seems to discredit the overconfidence that Turkish policymakers have in NATO. In a little-known episode of NATO history, the only Article 5 crisis-management exercise ever conducted by the organization ended in disagreement. Coincidentally, the scenario for the exercise, held in 2002, was designed to simulate an Article 5 response to a chemical weapons attack by Amberland, a hypothetical southern neighbor of Turkey. Amberland was known to have several Scud missiles, tipped with biological and chemical warheads, aimed at Turkey. During the seven-day exercise, the United States and Turkey reportedly took a more hardline stance in support of preemptive strikes, while Germany, France, and Spain preferred to defuse the crisis through more political means. The exercise apparently ended with NATO members disagreeing about the prospective NATO response before any attack was carried out or Article 5 was officially invoked.

Turkey would also benefit if the deal succeeded in eliminating the threat that Syria’s chemical weapons could end up in the hands of terrorist groups that could target Turkey. Currently, that threat is real. It was reported that a cell tied to the Nusra Front, a Syrian group linked to al-Qaeda, was captured in Adana, in southern Turkey, in May 2013 with 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of precursors used in the manufacture of sarin gas, most likely obtained from within Syria.

Turkey could also try to use the U.S.-Russian agreement to try to make headway on one of its recent policy initiatives. The ruling Justice and Development Party has strongly supported efforts to establish a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. One area that Ankara could try to exploit is the U.S.-Russian agreement’s failure to account for Syria’s suspected biological weapons program. Ankara could continue to raise this issue with members of the international community as part of a larger effort to promote a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Currently, only Angola, Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan are non-signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Israel has signed the treaty but has not yet ratified it. Turkey could therefore use the deal as a diplomatic springboard to put pressure on other states in the region to take steps toward realizing this long-standing goal.

Opportunities Come With Risks

From Ankara’s perspective, the deal also has drawbacks.

As long as the Assad regime continues to fulfill its obligations under the agreement, it will in all likelihood be immune to international military intervention. The United States has committed itself to the diplomatic process. Washington has indicated that it will keep its warships in the Mediterranean and that it has the authority to launch strikes; but it is very unlikely that such military action would be easily authorized even in the event of Syrian noncompliance. Turkey therefore has no chance of convincing the United States to undertake military operations in the near future.

The agreement, which required the cooperation of the Syrian regime, also restores Assad’s international legitimacy. The international community cannot embark on such a difficult process of chemical disarmament while at the same time adopting the rhetoric of regime change in Syria.

Ankara will find that as long as the deal is in force, its calls for Assad’s overthrow are unlikely to gain much traction among the international community. This is the main quandary for Turkish policymakers who have long argued that military action is needed to force Assad from power.

As a result, the agreement seems to substantially weaken Turkey’s efforts to win support for its more ambitious and assertive political objectives in Syria. Ankara will therefore have to work through different channels to maximize its interests in Syria.

Turkish officials maintain that they do not arm the Syrian rebels, but numerous press reports allege that Ankara is a major transshipment hub for weapons transfers from Arab countries in the Gulf to the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups. While Turkey would probably have continued this policy regardless of whether the United States undertook military action, Ankara looks set to increase its deliveries in order to help tilt the balance on the ground in favor of the rebels.

There is also the issue of Turkey’s restive border. Throughout the course of the conflict in Syria, Ankara has seen refugees pour into its territory. While Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has indicated that Turkey will continue to welcome and host refugees, the chaotic situation on the border represents a long-term threat to Turkish national security.

Ankara, perhaps for the first time in Turkish history, now has a large number of al-Qaeda and other extremist-affiliated elements on its border. The agreement could prevent chemical weapons from falling into the hands of these groups, but as long as the civil war continues, these extremists will continue to enjoy safe havens along the border. Turkey has been an al-Qaeda target in the past, and that threat is unlikely to subside. In addition, the Democratic Union Party (PYD)—a sister party to Turkey’s separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)— retains control over key towns on the Turkish-Syrian frontier and is planning to declare autonomy. Ankara has few options to prevent this from happening.

Turkish policymakers were eager to prevent the PYD from carving out an autonomous statelet on Turkey’s longest land border. Yet as the PYD has consolidated its position, Turkey has sought to co-opt PYD leader Saleh Muslim and convince him to not take any steps toward declaring Kurdish autonomy. These efforts have failed. As a result, Ankara’s only option appears to be to keep the border areas that are under Kurdish control closed and to support proxies that are fighting the PYD’s armed wing.

The Long Haul

Ankara is likely to continue to pressure the United States to take military action. However, Washington has repeatedly demonstrated that it would prefer a diplomatic solution. The United States has also indicated that it intends to use the U.S.-Russian agreement as a platform to reinitiate efforts to hold peace talks with the Syrian regime and opposition in Geneva.

Turkey has proxies in Syria and will probably be called upon in the future to exert influence over those allies in an attempt to convince them to full take part in the proposed Geneva peace conference. In the past, Ankara was wary of such a proposal. Yet, in the absence of any alternative, Turkey can be expected to play a begrudging role in the conference. In the interim, one likely result of the U.S.-Russian agreement is an increase in Turkish-facilitated arms shipments to rebel proxies.

More broadly, the trajectory of the Syrian civil war suggests continued stalemate. While Assad may be forced to give up his chemical weapons, the reasons for the conflict will persist. Turkey should therefore prepare to continue to bear the brunt of the civil war for the long term.

Aaron Stein is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).