Understanding Syria’s four-front war

By Christopher Phillips

Middle East Eye, 5 August 2014

Syria’s civil conflict has evolved into a four-front war involving a fight between Islamic State and Damascus, between IS and mainstream rebels, another between the rebels and Assad – and finally one between IS and Syria’s Kurdish militias

As the world media has been preoccupied with the Gaza conflict, Syria has just had the bloodiest week of its civil war. Some 1,700 were killed in seven days, with a renewed push from Islamic State (IS) accounting for much of the violence.

Confident after its victories in Iraq and deploying newly looted military hardware, IS’s sudden charge and the reaction to it in Syria and outside, has tilted the conflict on its axis, challenging various assumptions and shifting dynamics. Increasingly, we can talk about a war being fought on four overlapping fronts by four groupings of actors: the Assad government, IS, the mainstream rebels and the Kurds.

The first front is between IS and President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Assad facilitated IS’ rise by cynically releasing jihadists from prison to radicalize the opposition and then deliberately avoiding military confrontation. Its growth has helped him. IS alarmed the West, prompting some to suggest a rapprochement with Damascus is the least bad option; it terrified his own population, reinforcing the government’s message that it was their only defense; and it physically attacked his enemies in the mainstream rebels while avoiding his own troops. Any implicit alliance was shattered this month, however, when IS stormed three separate government targets in Homs, Raqqa and Hassakeh, killing hundreds of government troops, then gruesomely videoing their heads on spikes afterwards.

Such heavy losses have rocked Assad’s domestic supporters, provoking rare outrage and criticism on social media. Most accept the government’s characterization of all the opposition as sectarian jihadists and many, especially Alawis, have sent thousands to die to defeat them.

IS seem the most brutal of all, especially to another core constituent, Syria’s Christians who have been aghast at the recent expulsion of their coreligionists from Mosul. Yet these defeats challenge the government’s ability to actually defend its supporters. Assad’s forces are actually weaker as a result of the IS attack in Iraq, as many of the Iraqi Shiite militia who had fought for him returned to defend their homes. However, he cannot afford to isolate his base, and a more concerted campaign against IS can be expected, stretching his resources thinner. This was seen already when one lost area, the Shaar gas field in Homs, was retaken.

Assad misread Syria’s second front, the war between IS and the mainstream rebels. He assumed that IS would finish off the weakened rebels before turning on him. True, IS has recently conquered many rebel territories, pushing Jubhat al-Nusra out of Deir es-Zur and making inroads into the Aleppo countryside, but it is no longer playing Assad’s game. As it expands and occupies more land, it requires further troops and an acquiescent local population. While it still seeks military victories over rival rebel groups, it also wants to woo their fighters. Similarly, according to the Delma Institute’s Hassan Hassan, it is making more effort to win hearts and minds in the regions it conquers. Turning its guns on Assad achieves both goals: countering any former accusations that it was the government’s ally and presenting itself as the best route to its overthrow.

On the other side, the mainstream rebels seem as divided as ever. While they temporarily united to push IS out of the north in January, the various militia and fiefdoms continue to compete for territory and resources. The Washington Post noted how the US’ closest ally, Harakat Hazm clashed with Ahrar as-Sham over control of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing last week. Despite Western attempts to paint these rebels as “moderate” the reality is that most are, more accurately “non-IS Islamists”, with Jubhat al-Nusra an al-Qaeda affiliate. Given how fluid allegiance to rebel militia has been, there is a real chance that idealistic young fighters impressed by IS’ momentum could peel away.

This is increasingly likely as the rebels face defeat in Syria’s third front, the war between themselves and Assad. By ignoring IS, Assad has focused on recapturing Aleppo. He has replicated the brutal tactics used to recapture Homs in March: depopulating hostile districts with barrel bombs before moving on the rebel fighters remaining.

Retaking Syria’s second city would allow Assad to declare the war won, even if much of rural Syria remains out of his control, and would certainly cripple the rebels. This decline and IS’ surge has prompted urgency in Washington, and the familiar calls to “arm the rebels” are heard again, with some proposing the rebels could be trained to simultaneously resist Assad and IS.

This is fanciful. IS defeated Iraq’s national army within days and there is no reason to suggest an uncoordinated collection of feuding militia could rapidly overcome three years of disunity to do better. Even if they could unite, the resources proposed are too few. President Obama has authorized $500m to train and arm rebels, but this won’t appear until 2015 and the covert weaponry delivered so far is restricted to eight small carefully vetted groups, having limited impact.

Moreover, after the MH17 disaster in Ukraine, there is even less appetite from the White House to deliver the anti-aircraft MANPADS that hawks demand. More positively, after three years of backing rival rebel groups, the IS crises seems to have sobered Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and stronger coordination may follow. These efforts may prove enough to keep the mainstream rebels in the field, probably around Deraa and Idleb, and may even prevent too many fighters switching to IS. However, it is unlikely they can form a realistic rival to IS and the increased support will probably come too late to prevent Assad’s march on Aleppo.

Changes have also come on Syria’s fourth and least reported front: the battle between IS and Syria’s Kurdish militia. The Kurdish militias, led by the PYD – the PKK’s Syrian wing – have used the Syrian civil war to carve out autonomous regions, clashing with IS in the process. July saw intense fighting over the PYD-controlled border town of Ain al-Arab / Kobani, prompting a radical new position from Turkey.

Fearful of Kurdish nationalism, Turkey had previously opposed the PYD closing its border to prevent any support from the PKK. In contrast it allegedly turned a blind eye to those supporting IS. However, the IS attacks into Iraq prompted a U-turn. With Ankara now realizing the size of the IS threat and fearful that Ain al-Arab would give it a launch pad into Turkey, the border was opened prompting a stream of 1000 PKK fighters into Syria to help the PYD hold off the advance. While Kurdish-IS clashes will likely continue, the emergence of a united PYD-PKK military force is a new dynamic. Ironically it may provide Turkey with a much-needed IS buffer, but it also increases the likelihood of an autonomous Kurdish Syrian region becoming a reality.

Despite these changing dynamics, none of the four groupings looks likely to win outright. Assad might take Aleppo, but he will face increased public pressure to take on IS, stretching his limited military resources. The mainstream rebels may be facing imminent defeat, but they probably have enough external support to remain in the field.

Syria’s Kurds now have PKK support, but that remains subject to Turkish border policy. Even IS, seemingly in the ascendency, must manage the shift from invader to occupier, and win over enough fighters and civilians to continue its march west. IS’ recent charge may have shifted, dissolved or solidified the Syrian civil war’s fronts and actors, but it seems more likely to perpetuate the conflict further rather than hurry its end.

Erdogan’s War

By Christopher Phillips

Published in Middle East Eye, 4th June 2014

The days when Recep Tayyip Erdogan was hailed as a democratic reformer at home and a diplomatic visionary abroad seem a distant memory. The violent suppression of protestors commemorating the Gezi Park protests this month, and his alleged punching of a critic after the Soma mining disaster are the latest in a long line of repressive actions fuelling a growing opposition movement.That said, the Turkish prime minister retains substantial support that delivered him victory in March’s municipal elections with 43% of the vote, boosting his chances of being elected president in August.

In foreign policy, however, there are no silver linings. Erdogan’s hopes of joining the EU have broken down; his close ties to US president Barack Obama are strained over the crackdowns; while his steadfast support for the Muslim Brotherhood has rocked relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Yet one area stands out as Erdogan’s greatest foreign policy headache: the ongoing civil war in neighbouring Syria.

While Syria’s three year war is often characterised as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, Iran, the US and Russia, it is Turkey that has played one of the most central roles. After calling for president Bashar al-Assad to stand down in 2011, Ankara allowed the rebel Free Syria Army to be based in its territory. This facilitated military success against Assad in northern Syria in 2012-13.

With Ankara’s acquiescence, rebels captured most of the crossings along Syria’s 910km border with Turkey. This, along with Turkey’s much vaunted “open door” policy to Syrian refugees allowed fighters, funds and weapons to steadily flow south. While Turkey denies providing weapons directly, eye witness accounts and journalistic investigations dispute this and, at the minimum, a blind eye has deliberately been turned to arming by allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the CIA. Either way, Turkey became the vital staging ground for the rebels’ war with Assad.

Yet this approach has failed. Ankara modelled its strategy on the fall of Gaddafi in Libya in 2011 and expected a US-led international intervention once a rebel foothold was secured. But no intervention came, with the last hope seemingly extinguished when Obama called off a proposed strike in September 2013 after a regime chemical weapon attack.

Assad, with considerable support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, has meanwhile halted the rebels’ charge south and the opposition has fractured into various Islamist, jihadist and al-Qaeda affiliated militia – some more concerned with fighting one another or carving out local fiefdoms than fighting Damascus. Indeed, external backers including Turkey have contributed to these divisions by supporting divergent groups based on ideological affinity and short term military goals.

Assad remains in power and is likely to stay for some time. Though he may never reconquer northern Syria, the region looks set to become a security threat on Turkey’s doorstep, a safe haven for Jihadist and Kurdish separatist militia. Turkish media claimed that one such group, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIL), were behind the Reyhanli bombing that killed 51 Turks in May 2013. Add to this the 800,000 refugees now sheltering in Turkey, and the internal sectarian tensions Ankara’s involvement in Syria has caused, it seems that 3 years after Erdogan cut his ties with the Ba’ath regime, his goals remain unfulfilled and his country is worse off.

So how culpable is the prime minister? Erdogan was already the leading force in determining Turkish foreign policy, alongside Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, but he took a particular interest in the Syria crisis, being personally outraged when his former ally Assad refused to halt the violence as he’d promised in 2011. Erdogan subsequently lobbied Obama in person to intervene militarily, reportedly enraged when the 2013 military strike was cancelled.

There is little public support for his stance, with only 33% backing it in 2012, and, given the top-down nature of the premier’s leadership style, Turkish involvement in Syria might be seen as ‘Erdogan’s war’. Indeed, one must ask whether a different premier would have taken such an uncompromising and combative approach.

Moreover, it is an approach characterised by successive miscalculations. Erdogan firstly overestimated his influence over Assad, falsely believing he could persuade his ally to reform, then he under-estimated the durability of Assad’s regime, thinking it would crash as quickly as other dictatorships in Egypt or Tunisia. He then over-estimated the willingness of the US to intervene militarily as it had in Libya, and finally over-estimated the opposition’s unity, not realising the ideological and personal fissures that would split the already disorganize rebels.

In fairness, Erdogan was joined in his miscalculations by many leaders who opposed Assad. However, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the West don’t share Syria’s longest border and risk the level of blowback that could befall Turkey.

In spite of failure so far, there seem few signs of any shift in Turkish policy. Turkey’s involvement could even escalate. A recent leaked tape showed head of National Intelligence (MIT) and Erdogan ally Hakan Fidan proposing a Turkish invasion of Syria under a false pretext, though it also suggested caution from the military.

Similarly, when rebels led by al-Qaeda affiliate Jubhat al-Nusra captured the Syrian village of Kassab in March, Turkish commentators noted that, given the proximity to Turkey, the operation must have had Ankara’s support. Davutoglu emphatically denied any Turkish involvement or ties to Jihadist groups.

However, Turkey’s western allies increasingly see the Syrian war through a security lens. Three murders at a Brussels Jewish museum in May were allegedly the first terror attacks committed in Europe by a Jihadist returnee from Syria, and pressure will increase on Turkey to tighten its border. Any alleged Turkish ties to jihadists would also likely be increasingly scrutinised should attacks in Europe increase.

In such circumstances how long can Erdogan’s forlorn strategy to topple Assad continue before Turkey too is forced to prioritise a more securitised approach? That said, given the stubbornness that has characterised Erdogan’s political career thus far, don’t expect any sudden U-turns on his war in Syria just yet.

 

Thanks for tear-gassing me, Tayyip (Notes from Turkey: Istanbul, Antakya and Ankara)

Caught in a protest

I am in Turkey at an interesting time. Last year I spent the summer here examining the government’s response to the Syria crisis, noting in a report that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s confrontation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is widely unpopular and could prompt serious opposition. While this summer’s anti-Erdogan demonstrations centred on Istanbul’s Taksim Square (and the brutality of the government’s crackdown) certainly surprised me, in essence they were rooted in the same tensions I had noted. The demonstrators’ central complaint was Erdogan’s arrogance as a leader, and his willingness to openly defy public opinion. This ranges from unpopular foreign policy, as in Syria, to sensitive domestic issues like recently imposed strict alcohol laws or the proposed demolition of Gezi Park in Taksim that prompted the unrest. Visiting Istanbul last month, it was clear from the activists and intellectuals I spoke to that protests were on hold rather than over. As it happens, they re-erupted two blocks from where I was staying in Antakya last week.

'Tayyip's Army' (Photo from the Guardian - http://bit.ly/18jPLqO)

‘Tayyip’s Army’ (Photo from the Guardian – http://bit.ly/18jPLqO)

Earlier in the summer, almost every city saw widespread and prolonged solidarity protests with Gezi Park. All but four of Turkey’s 81 provinces reportedly saw unrest, and most were met with a similar police response.  It has left its mark on the growing street-level opposition movement and one spark seems able to set off another round of nation-wide protest. That was provided on Monday night, when a 22-year-old, Ahmet Ataka, was killed by police in Antakya, himself protesting in solidarity with activists at MET University in Ankara. The cause of his death was a matter of debate: activists said he was hit by a tear-gas canister, while the police released videos showing a body falling from a high building, claiming he fell. Unaware of what had happened, I myself passed his improvised shrine on Tuesday morning and the angry crowd that had already gathered.

By the early evening, on my way back home, the police were blocking my path. Local youth had created improvised barricades, set fires on the road and a vast police presence had moved in to cordon off the area. Unlike most Antakyans, none of the police spoke Arabic: they were outsiders specifically brought in for this task. The officer gestured to me to turn back, suggesting that the rioters were shooting. However, all I heard were the repeated thuds of tear gas canisters being let off. Not knowing the city well and with my only route home blocked, I weaved my way through the side streets trying to get round the cordon. At points the air was thick with teargas, dense despite being quite far from the demonstrators. Police had gas masks to protect themselves but I had to wade through, spluttering and wincing. It wasn’t pleasant. Friends later told me that this has become common for most urban Turks this summer. The police’s tactic seems to be to fire vast quantities at protestors, irrespective of its disbursement. Later that same night an international under 21s football match between Turkey and Sweden had to be halted because tear gas had spread from nearby protests in Istiqlal Cadessi (off Taksim) and was incapacitating the players. Erdogan’s Police force, it seems, is as unconcerned by the general public as their Prime Minister.

Tayyip’s Army

Protestors have labeled the police ‘Tayyip’s Army’, militarized and well equipped with armoured cars, riot gear and a seemingly never-ending supply of teargas. But the label comes as much from the police’s perceived ideology, as it does from their appearance. Opponents claim that the majority of the police belongs to the Islamist Gulen movement, from which Erdogan’s AK Party draws much of its support. One activist claimed that at least 70% of policemen were Gulenists, and all the commanders. A commentator I spoke to argued these links were the product of a long-term trend begun in the 1980s when the socially conservative Motherland Party (many of whose members eventually joined the AKP) controlled the Ministry of Interior. At this time affiliation to Gulenism within the police was permitted and even encouraged. As such, today the police is dominated by those ideologically supportive of Erdogan’s Islamist policies that most demonstrators are protesting against. To the secularist opponent of Erdogan, the police are the Prime Minister’s foot soldiers to quash any dissent to his Islamic and conservative agenda.

Istanbul's Gezi Park - where it all started...

Istanbul’s Gezi Park – where it all started…

Ahmed Ataka was the sixth protestor to be killed by the police since the Gezi Park demonstrations began in June. Deaths are sadly not surprising given the uncompromising police approach. Erdogan insisted he would not back down or offer any compromise, calling the protestors ‘çapulcu’ or ‘bums’. (The opposition embraced this label and all over Istanbul I saw T-Shirts on sale stating ‘Everyday I’m çapulling’.) Whilst I was shocked by the level of police violence I saw in Hatay – with television showing some vomiting from too much teargas inhalation – an Ankara academic noted that this was fairly standard by Turkish standards over the last 15 or so years. What was different, he stated, was the nature of protestors. Turkish Kurds, for example, have long experienced this level of police brutality, without the same national or international outrage. What makes these protestors different, the academic stated, is their demography: middle class educated secular Turks.

The (slight) ethnic dimension

In Hatay there is a further ethnic dimension to the protests. The unrest was centred on areas dominated by Hatay’s Alawite community (known here as Nusayris, an ancient offshoot of Shia Islam). As a community the Nusayris are largely secular, and natural opponents to Erdogan’s Islamist agenda, but their opposition is deeper than that. They are not happy with the government’s policy towards neighbouring Syria. They sympathize with Bashar al-Assad, a fellow Alawi, to the point that some protestors were filmed chanting the pro-Assad slogan: ‘Syria, Allah, Bashar wa bas!’ (Syria, God, Bashar and nothing else!)[1]. Yet aside from any ethnic solidarity, they share the fears of many of Turkey’s secularists that Bashar’s fall will mean a victory for Sunni Islamists, possibly leading to increased Islamism in Turkey. Many Nusayris complain that Erdogan is exacerbating sectarianism in Turkey. They accuse him of echoing the Gulf’s anti-Shiism regarding the Syria conflict – as one commentator put it, “he is cynically pressing on all our faultlines.” Similarly, they oppose recent AKP plans to divide Hatay into two political provinces, one for Sunnis and one for Nusayris. Antakya has a history of tolerance, with Sunnis, Nusayris and Christians living side by side, and most residents oppose any divisions. Some of the more religious Sunnis in Hatay’s villages are reportedly more sympathetic to the AKP’s policies but the Antakyans I spoke to insist that in the city there is no appetite for sectarian divisions.

The view from Antakya - Syria just around the corner (on the left)

The view from Antakya – Syria just around the corner (on the left)

However, it would be wrong to characterize the protests as purely sectarian. The Nusayri may be at the vanguard of the anti-Erdogan movement in Hatay, but nationwide they are a diverse bunch. Throughout the day numerous Turkish cities saw anti-AKP demonstrations in solidarity with Ahmet Ataka, and the evening saw protests in Izmir and Istanbul, with the Police, inevitably, moving in hard. While Turkey’s non-Sunni minorities, particularly the Nusayris and Alevis (a similar Turkish-speaking Shia offshoot), may be more proportionally represented as they are most threatened by the Erdogan’s sectarianism, the majority are Sunnis, whether secularists or just democrats. Indeed, one person I spoke to who had been in Taksim in June expressed her pleasant surprise that veiled women stood alongside them, demanding an end to Erdogan’s autocratic practices.

Trouble ahead

It was clear from my trip that this movement is not going away, and Erdogan’s heavy-handed approach has only boosted its numbers. As seen by the Ahmet Ataka demonstrations I was caught up in, the anti-Erdogan movement is coordinated across multiple cities, meaning a single incident can spread like wildfire within hours. In 2011, as the Arab Spring began, Erdogan was hailed in both the West and the Middle East as a model for the newly democratizing Arab world to emulate. He was an Islamist committed to pluralism and democracy. His harsh crackdown on dissent in 2013 has exposed this lie. In reality, Erdogan had been edging away from democratic practices for several years. Though he successfully neutered the military, which interfered in Turkish politics for decades, he hasn’t accepted alternative forms of public scrutiny, arresting journalists at a dramatic rate. Indeed most of the Turkish press refused to report the Taksim protests. As one journalists said to me, “there was pressure from the editors and the pro-AKP owners to stay quiet. Noone wanted to lose their job.” Erdogan may compete in fair elections, but he seems to believe that electoral victories give him a mandate to do as he wishes until the next election, regardless of public opinion. Indeed, this is a major structural weakness of Turkey’s political system, which has an appointed president and no second chamber to scrutinize the premier.

Opposition mural, Harbiye, Hatay

Opposition mural, Harbiye, Hatay

However, though Erdogan’s reformist image at home and abroad may be shattered, he is far from finished. While the middle class secularists may be getting organized on the streets, the political opposition, the CHP, is still weak. Some are hoping that municipal elections in March will give Erdogan a bloody nose, focusing on an unlikely defeat for the AKP in the Istanbul mayoral elections. However, with Erdogan boasting a huge majority in parliament, supported by Turkey’s conservative religious hinterland, it is unlikely it will lose power any time soon. The Taksim demonstrations may derail Erdogan’s plans to ‘do a Putin’ by changing Turkey’s constitution to make himself a more powerful president, but if that happens, most expect him to remain as prime minster by altering his own party’s constitution which currently forbids this.

Yet Erdogan cannot rest on his laurels. The protests have rattled Turkey, and some wonder if the most likely challenge might come from within the AKP itself. Alongside Erdogan’s conservative base, the support of Turkey’s business community has been key to his success. Many are concerned by the damage to Turkey’s image that the constant cycle of protest and repression brings. Already it has damaged the tourism industry (occupancy rates in Istanbul hotels were very low this summer) and, more importantly, seems to have played a role in Istanbul losing its bid to host the 2020 Olympic games. If protests weaken the economy, key business leaders may begin to view the arrogant premier as more of a liability than an asset and urge the AKP to ditch their captain, with current President Abdullah Gul best positioned to swoop in. The role of the powerful Gulenist movement would also be key were any such internal coup to take place. In the long term these protests may serve as Turkey’s 1968, from which eventually civil society activists and a new generation of pluralist politicians emerges. In the short term, however, Turkey can expect the battle between the street protestors and their steadfast prime minister to continue.


[1] Ulusal TV broadcast, 2115-20, 10/9/13

The Security Situation in Syria and its Regional Implications

Below is the transcript of a presentation I recently gave in Marrakech:

I have been asked to talk about the security situation in Syria and its regional implications and will therefore divide my comments in two. First I’ll discuss the internal situation in Syria and then the impact of the crisis on the immediate neighbours and the wider region. Finally I’ll offer a few conclusions and, if time, possible policy considerations.

Slow collapse in Syria

The Syrian state is in the process of a slow collapse. Today, the regime’s authority extends over less than half of Syria. Under pressure from the armed opposition, Bashar al-Assad has withdrawn from certain ‘expendable’ regions to concentrate his limited military resources on key areas. This ‘rump’ Syria includes areas dominated by minorities that continue to support Assad, notably the Alawites along the coast. It also includes the tactically vital cities of Homs and Hama, connecting the coastal region with Damascus, but where the regime must deploy a heavy military presence as it enjoys less support. Perhaps the weakest, but most essential link in this chain of holdouts is Damascus itself. Though rebels control sympathetic poor suburbs, the regime has reinforced the centre and will likely fight to retain it in Stalingrad-esq street battles.

Though the regime retains pockets of the second city Aleppo and elsewhere, after a shift in tactics and a surge in foreign weapons, opposition forces now control large swathes of northern and eastern Syria. They are currently slowly expanding across eastern and southern Syria, hoping to eventually reach Damascus from either direction. Separately, the regime has withdrawn from the Kurdish regions of north-east Syria, and the two main Kurdish political groupings – one backed by Turkey’s PKK, the other by Iraqi Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani – are administering the territory in an uneasy truce with each other.

It is clear, by now, that Assad will never give up power. Assad and his tight inner family circle, led by his mother, have shown a willingness to give up half the country without compromising, suggesting there is no tipping point for them. The fact they have adopted a scorched earth policy and manipulated Syria’s minorities, especially the Alawites, into believing this is a war of survival, suggests they would rather rip Syria into sectarian fiefdoms than give up power.

Assad has been supported on this cynical and destructive path by key international allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, who have variously provided diplomatic support, finance, weapons and fighters. None has any particular love of Assad, but all fear an opposition victory might ‘flip’ Syria into a Saudi/western sphere of influence. Russia has backed Assad but even it now acknowledges the need for a negotiated transition, perhaps fearing that the collapse of Syria into anarchy is worse than diminished influence. Iran and Hezbollah see things differently. For them this war is zero sum, and both have sent fighters to prop up Assad: hundreds from Hezbollah and reportedly up to 15,000 from Iran’s Republican Guard. Unlike Russia, they see anarchy as better than an opposition victory, and have consequently created a Basij-style Syrian militia, the Jaysh al-Shabi, now 50,000 strong to fight and preserve its interests in Syria should Assad fall.

Anarchy or a failed state of some sort does seem most likely if Assad does fall, given the state of the opposition. While there are some reports of local committees forming and providing services in rebel-held areas, in general the opposition appears too fragmented and divided to realistically form a government capable of holding Syria together. Efforts by the West, Turkey and the Gulf states to form a united opposition in exile, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, have largely failed, with differences emerging over ideology, personal ties and external backers. The position of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which is disproportionally favoured by Turkey and Qatar but disliked by many secularists, is a case in point and recently caused the well-respected coalition president Moaz al-Khatib, to resign in protest.

The greatest weakness of the opposition coalition, however, is its inability to win the loyalty of the rebel fighters on the ground. Jihadist fighters, notably Jubhat al-Nusra, who completely reject the Opposition Coalition, are growing in numbers, swelled by foreign fighters and using the distribution of aid in war torn areas to win local support. They fight under a black banner with the stated goal of establishing an Islamic state and have played into Assad’s cynical manipulation of minorities’ fears by adopting sectarian slogans. In contrast, the non-Jihadist rebels, are a diverse collection of local militia, united by a desire to topple Assad and a three star flag, but little else. Their loyalty, ideology and names are quite fluid, but most are some brand of Islamists, such as the largest, the Salafist Farouq Brigades. There are increasingly fewer of the secularists or ‘moderate’ Islamists that western observers want to see, but they oppose Jihadism, and fights have already broken out with Jubhat al-Nusra. Even if Assad falls then, the chances are that a civil war of some sorts will continue. Certainly the remnants of the regime and Iran’s militia will continue to fight, but its likely the opposition will fight among themselves, not to mention the Kurdish forces.

Regional Impact

For Syria’s neighbours, the civil war has caused the immediate problem of a massive refugee influx – over 1 million in total – and the potential for political instability. Iraq, has witnessed the most related violence, with the under-represented Sunni community boosted by the success of Syria’s Sunni-dominated opposition. Violence from Sunni radicals, linked to Syria’s jihadists, has increased considerably since 2012 and Shia Prime Minister Maliki fears that the two together will reignite Iraq’s sectarian conflict, when Assad falls, or even before.

Lebanon similarly has seen its own sectarian tensions raised. Violence has broken out between pro and anti Assad groups, particularly between Sunnis and Alawis in Tripoli. Hezbollah, the most powerful Lebanese militia, has thus far resisted entering the fray, but may preemptively seize power in Beirut if Assad fell. Prime Minister Mikati’s recent resignation, raising the possibility that elections scheduled for June will be postponed, has stoked tensions further and Lebanon’s fate seems irrecoverably tied to Syria’s.

Like Lebanon, Jordan has received over 300,000 refugees and, while the immediate danger is less pronounced, there are long term worries. Jordan cannot afford to house the refugees, either economically or politically. It fears that jihadists in Syria will start to target Jordan, perhaps via the refugee population. Moreover, King Abdullah worries that the economic strains caused by the refugees alongside the popular perception that he is not doing enough to support the Syrian rebels will boost the growing protest movement against him. Consequently he has recently broken with his previous neutral policy to allow the West and Saudi to train rebel fighters in Jordan. Yet this risks making Jordan a possible target for Syrian retaliation.

Turkey, in contrast, is heavily invested in Assad’s fall, having facilitated the rebels arms procurement and access to Syria. However, its own fears of instability caused by the Syria crisis have lessened recently having neutralized Assad’s ally, the PKK, through an internal peace process and diluted internal sectarian tensions by moving Syrian refugees away from Turkish Alawi areas. But, these issues could yet resurface and it may yet suffer blowback for having allowed more radical rebels into Syria if it becomes a failed state.

Israel’s more ambivalent stance has shifted recently as the Syrian state unravels. Israel’s priorities are now to ensure that Assad’s vast chemical weapons are not transferred to Hezbollah, and to secure the occupied Golan Heights. In recent months Israel has become more active in the conflict: launching attacks on suspected chemical weapons convoys, firing on regime troops near Golan and constructing a massive new border fence. More unilateral intervention can be expected.

Finally, a brief word on the wider region. While the civil war continues to be primarily driven by domestic players, it is also a battleground between regional powers. The Obama administration has adopted a Nixonian strategy of allowing regional allies to take the lead rather than directly intervening, allowing Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular to intensify their proxy war with Iran. Qatar is the more zealous partner, responsible for most of the arms going to rebels, while Saudi has shown more caution of late, worried about the emergence of jihadists that may lead to blowback at home. Worryingly, however, is that both sides are utilizing sectarian language and backing those who do – a trend that emerged after the fall of Saddam in 2003 to combat the consequent growth of Iranian power. This regional trend towards Sunni-Shia sectarianism is a major danger. It is being played out in Syria today but could have far reaching negative consequences across the region in the future.

Conclusions

So, to conclude, Syria is in a truly tragic situation, largely down to the cynical and vicious polices of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. However, it is still possible for things to get even worse. Despite all the talk of sectarianism in Syria, the majority of Syrians have thus far resisted sectarian violence, but this could change and, if it does, it is hard to see how Syrian society could ever be rebuilt. Similarly, while the Syrian state is in the process of collapsing, it has not collapsed yet. The longer the war goes on, the more Syria’s institutions will erode and when Assad is eventually toppled, the state will be too weak to function, leaving it as a potential haven for jihadists and warlords. These two scenarios would have massive destabilizing effects on the region and could be fatal to the state known as ‘Syria’. As such, while everyone wants Assad to go, it should not be a goal to be achieved at any cost. The main priorities must be the preservation of the Syrian state, the prevention of the descent into sectarian violence and preventing the spread of conflict to Syria’s neighbours.

I would recommend four policies to achieve these goals. Firstly, Syria’s neighbours need more economic and security support not least to help with the 1 millions refugees – who have been woefully let down by the international community – but also to stabilize the regimes of Lebanon, Jordan and, importantly, Iraq.

Secondly, don’t arm the rebels. Whatever the intentions, weapons are likely to fall into the wrong hands. Jihadist groups might steal hardware from ‘moderates’ and who’s to say ‘moderates’ given weapons won’t later radicalize? Though some argue that arming the rebels will tip the balance of power against Assad, Iran and Hezbollah would likely increase weapons and troop numbers to redress the balance, seeing the conflict as zero sum. Some have argued instead that by arming the rebels Assad may be forced to the negotiating table and a transition achieved, but Assad has no intention of negotiating and would rather destroy the state than compromise power. Arming the rebels just pours more fuel on the fire.

Thirdly, efforts need to be made to persuade the regional powers backing either side to back down from their zero sum approach. At present Syria is likely to be destroyed before one side comes out decisively on top, irrespective of any extra arms sent. Qatar in particular needs reigning in, and Iran needs to be offered a place at the table, possibly via a friendly third party, such as Iraq.

Finally, there is a need to return to the UN. Russia has accepted that Assad must go in the long run, but wants a transition that doesn’t require him to step down as a prerequisite. Compromises need to be made on all sides to prevent Syria’s disintegration. Russia being allowed to maintain its influence in a transition government that involves some elements of the old regime as already suggested by Syrian opposition President Moaz al-Khatib, should be considered. Some may call this and unrealistic, but it is no more unrealistic than the idea that arming the rebels will somehow hasten the war’s end. No option is pretty, but compromise and bringing Russia and the UN back on board looks the best bet to preserve the Syrian state and avoid extended regional chaos.

Into the Quagmire: Turkey’s Frustrated Syria Policy

My new paper for Chatham House on Turkey’s response to the Syria crisis can be downloaded here. The summary states:

  • After a decade of cooperation and closeness with Syria, Turkey’s policy has changed radically as a result of the 2011–12 crisis in Syria. It is now openly calling for the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and actively sponsoring the opposition.
  • Since March 2011 Turkey has escalated its policy towards Syria in four stages: trying to persuade Assad to reform; cutting diplomatic ties; supporting regional and international political solutions; and, supporting and aiding Syria’s political and armed opposition. While advocating a fifth stage – direct military intervention against the Assad regime, such as a no-fly zone or humanitarian corridor – Turkey is unwilling to act unilaterally.
  • Turkey has already received over 135,000 Syrian refugees, has been bombarded by Assad’s forces and fears the use of chemical weapons. Any further disintegration of the Syrian state could provide a launch pad for Turkish Kurdish separatists and might raise questions about Turkey’s own territorial integrity. Economic concerns have also been raised should the crisis spread into the key market of northern Iraq.
  • Turkey has recently proposed talks with Russia, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to help resolve the Syria crisis. While unlikely to lead anywhere in the foreseeable future, such a multilateral process may be needed to help stabilize Syria and prevent state collapse if and when Assad eventually falls.

The impact of Syrian refugees on Turkey and Jordan

My latest article, appearing in The World Today, October 2012

Syria’s refugee crisis is getting worse – for those who flee and for those who take them in. Christopher Phillips reports

As Syria’s uprising descends into a increasingly bloody civil war, the number of refugees fleeing the fighting has rocketed. In August alone 100,000 Syrians headed for the relative safety of neighbouring states, almost doubling the number seeking refuge since the unrest began to 235,000, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. Unregistered refugees mean the numbers are far higher.

Though they might have escaped the civil war, when they cross the border refugees face a host of new challenges. Syria’s Arab neighbours – Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq – are poorly equipped to handle the crisis and most refugees find themselves in hastily put together camps, or with families struggling to support themselves. Even Turkey, wealthier and better equipped than most, has struggled. Resources, shelter and work are all scarce for the refugees, and the international community has been slow to respond.

Yet the rapidly expanding crisis poses problems not only for refugees. The host states themselves are wary of the social, economic and political pressures their new guests have brought. Here we look at the effects on Jordan and Turkey.

Jordan under strain

Jordan has taken in Syrian refugees since the beginning of the uprising. Deraa, where protesters first clashed with the forces of President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011, is barely 6 kilometres from the border and shares familial and tribal links with the neighbouring Jordanian Houran region.

The first refugees were mostly people from Deraa seeking refuge with extended family, but as the violence spread Syrians from further afield – Damascus, Homs and Hama – headed south. Most arrive with shocking stories of Assad’s brutality. Ahmed, a farmer from the Deraa coun-tryside, speaks of his reluctance to leave Syria. ‘They killed my son,’ he said. ‘He wasn’t involved in any demonstrations, just working the fields, when a sniper shot him in the head. Even then, though, I didn’t want to leave. But then we heard stories of Assad’s men, the shabbiha, raping women in Deraa, systematically using sexual violence as a weapon. I was scared for my daughters so we fled.’ Crossing the border is no easy task. The Jordanian army has clashed with Syrian troops to prevent them firing on fleeing refugees. ‘We hid in the forests for three months, preparing to cross,’ said Ahmed. ‘We managed to avoid any Syrian troops, and climbed over the border at night. Then we were stopped by a Jordanian soldier and I was scared he might send us back as we had no papers. He just said ‘alf ahla’ [a thousand welcomes]. I wept.’

Ahmed, his wife and their five children are being looked after by a charity in a private home in Turah, a few miles outside Ramtha in the Houran. While wealthier refugees find their own accommodation, these officially sanctioned charities have been essential over the past year in finding homes for poorer Syrians, given Jordan’s reluctance to build refugee camps. But things are rapidly changing with refugee numbers mushrooming this summer to more than 180,000, according to the Jordanian government. It opened a camp in Zaatari in late July 2012, and a new law declared that any future Syrian refugees would have to live in organized camps. Conditions in this tent city are grim. Located on windswept barren land, where temperatures have regularly been above 40C, Zaatari witnessed a riot by refugees complaining about living conditions within weeks of opening. By then, the camp’s population was already 25,000, forcing Jordan to plan new camps.

Jordan is struggling to cope. Already a poor country relying heavily on money from the US and the Gulf to balance its budget, Jordan is worried about the economic impact of the refugee crisis. In August, together with the UNHCR, it made an urgent appeal for $429 million, revising this to $700 million within a week. While the US pledged $100 million, the international community as a whole has been slow to react.

Many refugees, fearing the reach of Syria’s intelligence service even in exile, choose not to register for a camp and live outside, adding to Jordan’s financial burden. One such refugee from Homs, Mustafa, spoke of the medical treatment he was receiving. ‘My eardrums were blown out when a government shell exploded next to my furniture shop,’ he said, ‘Thankfully the [Jordanian] government paid for the hospital.’ His six-year-old son, was attending a course over the summer to catch up on missed school work. While this was paid for by the UNHCR, he will now join a Jordanian school that already packs more than 40 children into each class. Mustafa himself said he will look for casual work, but with unemployment in Jordan at 14 per cent, the economy cannot absorb him or the many more like him.

So far Jordanians remain sympathetic to their Syrian guests. But there are worries that economic problems could mutate into political tension. Competition for resources such as jobs, education and health services may test the Jordanians’ hospitality, especially if refugee numbers continue to grow. Memories of the 1970 Black September civil war between militia drawn from Palestinian refugees and the Jordanian government will also make author-ities wary of any political activity among Syrian refugees. Already the government have reportedly denied entry to Syrians of Palestinian origin, fearing it may upset Jordan’s delicate political balance, although the government has denied this. Any link between Syrian refugees and Islamists will similarly worry Amman. The potential for the destabilization of Jordan grows with every refugee crossing its border.

Spillover in Turkey

Turkey’s response to the Syria crisis has been better organized than Jordan’s, being wealthier and better placed to cope with the 80,000 refugees that had arrived by late August. As in Jordan, Syrians are allowed to rent private accommodation, though they are denied the right to work. As most are from poor backgrounds, they live in official camps, unlike the dispersed refugees in Jordan. Turkey sought to control the situation early on, building four refugee camps in Hatay, Gaziantep, Kilis and Urfa. Until now, Turkey has largely been able to fund its response to the crisis itself; with the government controlled Turkish Red Crescent and AFAD disaster agency taking the lead rather than UNHCR. Foreign journalists are barred from entering the camps, although independent observers from Turkish charities attest to the good conditions inside.

Some refugees, who are free to travel around Turkey and speak to foreigners outside the camps, are more ambivalent about camp life. ‘It is our prison!’ says Mohammad, a teenager from Aleppo outside Kilis camp, ‘The guards treat us badly and life is too expensive.’ The Turkish government gives each refugee 20 Turkish Lira (£7) a week but, says Mohammad, this is barely enough for food. A few of the younger refugees risk their lives crossing back into Syria to buy subsidized cigarettes to sell in Turkey, but most are unemployed. As in Jordan, these frustrations have led to rioting. Kilis camp residents spoke of a demonstration in late July when they demanded better conditions, prompting the Turkish guards to fire tear gas at the crowd. ‘Women and children were hurt and fell down,’ explains Nawar, another Kilis resident. ‘There may be some bad people in this camp, but they have been oppressed [in Syria] for a long time. They are desperate and need money and food. I think they just reached breaking point.’

Kilis is the only camp with solid container homes, the rest being tented cities. Older heads complain of youthful ingratitude. ‘This is by far the best camp in Turkey, the rioters are just trouble-makers,’ says Karim, a middle-aged teacher from Hama. ‘I was first in Urfa camp but it was far too hot, which was unhealthy for my baby daughter. My wife and I crossed back into Syria, risking attacks from the regime army, just to get to Kilis and have a container home.’

While Turkey has avoided the economic difficulties faced by Jordan, social and political costs are emerging. Worryingly, Syria’s sectarian problems could be exported. In Syria members of Assad’s Alawis sect, who have backed the president, are blamed by many from the Sunni Muslim majority for the regime’s violence. However, Antakya, the Turkish city in Hatay where many Syrian refugees have fled, is dominated by Turkish Alawis who are sympathetic to Assad and their co-religionists in Syria. There is little sympathy for the refugees.

‘They are all terrorists,’ said Mehmet, an Alawi businessman, ‘we hate them.’ Like many in the city, he equates all the refugees with the armed rebels given sanctuary by the Turkish government to fight Assad. Such rebels, many of whom are Islamist, have caused fear in this secular city. ‘They walk around with their long beards looking like al-Qaeda,’ said Olgun, an Alawi doctor, ‘I’ve heard they have told some Turkish Alawis, ‘after Bashar, you’re next!’’

Many Antakyan Sunnis agree that the refugees could destabilise the city. ‘Antakya has always been safe for all sects: Alawis, Christians, Sunnis,’ explains Ahmet, a Sunni business student, ‘Now I hear people are buying guns to protect themselves. This used to be unheard of.’

Despite Antakyans’ complaints, there are signs that the Turkish government is responding, trying in late August to move refugees out of Hatay. Similarly, new camps are being built further away from the border. Yet this may not undo the damage done, or ensure that Turkey’s different ethnic groups stay above the unfolding civil war in Syria. Already the dynamics of Kurdish politics in Turkey have been affected, with the secessionist Kurdish militants the PKK emboldened both by renewed support from Assad’s government and by recent gains by Syria’s Kurds.

The Syrian crisis is hurting Turkey far more than expected and, as more refugees flood over the border, new solutions are being sought to take the pressure off Turkey’s resources and calm its own population.

One option discussed by Ankara is to establish a safe zone inside Syria itself to house the refugees. This, however, would effectively require Turkey and Assad to go to war, a decision that will not be taken lightly.

The surge of refugees fleeing Syria’s violence seems to have caught the Jordanian, Turkish and other neighbouring governments by surprise. In many ways it says a lot for the determination of the Syrian people that they, like Ahmed from Deraa, resisted fleeing for so long. At the same time, the sudden surge seen in the summer suggests a major increase in violence and a loss of hope that the war will be over soon.

Their flight should not surprise us, however. Syria is in civil war and, as seen in Iraq and Lebanon in the 2000s and 1970s and 80s, that creates refugees. What is important now is that the refugee crisis does not become too great a burden on the host states, already under strain.

Recent Jordanian, Pakistani and Rwandan history shows us the dangers for host societies of a highly politicized and desperate refugee community if handled badly. While the international community have been unable to prevent Assad’s brutality, they can cushion the fallout for the hosts and improve the lot of Syria’s refugees soon to face a long winter in tent cities.

Turkey’s Syria Problem

By Christopher Phillips for Juncture and Open Democracy

Turkey’s cooperation with the Gulf states, reportedly establishing a secret shared command centre in southern Turkey to coordinate rebel attacks, may be designed to contain the influence of others and control which groups get arms. But Turkey’s recent regional resurgence in the Middle East is at risk of drowning in the Syrian quagmire.

The Arab spring should have been good for Turkey. Over the past decade, Ankara has built stronger commercial, political and cultural ties with the Arab world than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman empire. Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is widely popular on Arab streets. Indeed, in the wake of regime change in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, many spoke of emulating the‘Turkish model’ pioneered by Erdoğan’s moderately Islamist AKP party.

However, as spring has turned to autumn, whatever hopes Ankara may have had that like-minded democratic Islamist governments would emerge peacefully across the Arab world have slowly been dashed. Right on Turkey’s doorstep, the ongoing conflict in Syria shows no signs of ending soon. Yet the shape and scope of the conflict is not entirely incidental, and Turkey’s own missteps and miscalculations have played a major role in creating the quagmire that it has found itself being sucked into. As things stand, the Syria crisis not only threatens Turkey’s new-found regional influence and popularity but could also cause major problems at home.

Where previous Turkish governments had shunned the Arab world, AKP foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s mantra of ‘zero problems with neighbours’ saw Ankara engage with the Middle East at the same time as it maintained close ties with the west. Syria –its 911km border being Turkey’s longest – became the cornerstone for this engagement. After settling their historical differences over water, territory and Syria’s past support for Kurdish rebels, bilateral relations saw a dramatic improvement: Turkish exports to Syria quadrupled between 2006 and 2010, visa requirements were dropped and joint cabinet meetings were held. Erdoğan even holidayed with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Moreover, by opening up Syria, Turkey opened up the Arab world. Syria provided a trade route to Arab states further south and, whether through dubbing soap operas or sharing an anti-Israeli platform, helped to improve Turkey’s image on the Arab street.

Thus when the Syrian uprising broke out in March 2011, Erdoğan did not call on Assad to step down, as he had of President Mubarak in Egypt, but instead urged reform. Turkish foreign ministry officials claim that they even drafted a speech for Assad to deliver that outlined democratic reform. As Assad was deploying lethal force against then-peaceful protestors, Davutoğlu made several trips to Damascus to urge change, all the while insisting to Turkey’s western allies that his government could be persuasive. He was wrong. By August 2011, Turkey had realised that for all their closeness they had no real leverage and Erdoğan joined the growing calls for Assad to resign.

Ties rapidly deteriorated. Turkey hosted the political Syrian opposition, the largely ineffectual Syrian National Council (SNC), introduced economic sanctions and, when the opposition eventually took up arms, provided sanctuary for the armed opposition, the Free Syria Army (FSA). Tensions along the now-closed border escalated, with Syria even shooting down a Turkish jet in June, killing two. The possibility of NATO military strikes being launched from within Turkey in order to create rebel safe havens within Syria have been repeatedly mooted, though not approved. Erdoğan’s holidays with Assad are now a distant memory.

Why did Turkey turn so suddenly on Syria? Publically, officials make the moral case: they could not stand by while Assad butchered his own people. Perhaps – but Erdoğan’s slowness to condemn similar actions by Gaddafi in 2011 or by Iran in 2009 suggests a willingness to deploy realpolitik when necessary. Ankara’s actions are instead based on an array of internal, regional and global calculations. Contrary to some suggestions, Turkey is not simply following US directions to use the Syria crisis to push Assad’s key ally, Iran, out of the region. Erdoğan has his own agenda, which happens to overlap in places with US interests. Primarily, Turkey fears a protracted civil war and the collapse of Syria’s territorial integrity, aware that it could embolden Kurdish separatists, provide a safe haven for Islamist terrorists and lure in regional competitors.

Regionally, there is a desire to be on the right side in the Arab spring. Turkey, which had made no previous attempt to promote Arab democracy within its ‘zero problems’strategy, was thrown by the events of 2011. After slow reactions to developments in both Libya and Syria, Ankara has sought to retain its high standing on the Arab street by replacing ‘zero problems’ with what Davutoğlu calls a ‘values-based’ foreign policy, backing democratic forces. Related to this is a further aim: to retain influence over Syria and the wider region after the Assad regime falls. By backing the Syrian opposition – promoting its allies the Muslim Brotherhood within the SNC and providing bases and support to the FSA – Turkey hopes to win favour with whoever succeeds Assad. This process can also work to contain the influence of other regional powers – not just of Iran, but also of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have boosted their own influence by sending arms and money to the FSA and particularly to the growing Salafist Islamist contingent within those forces. Turkey’s recent decision to cooperate with the Gulf states on the FSA – reportedly establishing a secret shared command centre in Adana in southern Turkey to coordinate rebel attacks –appears partly designed to contain the influence of others and control which groups get arms.

Erdoğan’s hubris ?

Yet Erdoğan – who, though elected, effectively controls all foreign policy, aided by Davutoğlu –has made several missteps and miscalculations. Firstly, Assad’s regime is stronger than he thought. On breaking with Syria in August 2011, Ankara assumed that Assad, like the regimes of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, would soon collapse under popular pressure. However, despite a year and a half of demonstrations, sanctions and armed resistance, the core of the regime remains intact. Although many individual soldiers have switched sides, no whole units have defected, as happened in Libya, leaving Assad with a monopoly on heavy weaponry and air power. Although few expect him to survive indefinitely, dislodging him may require the kind of very long, destabilising civil war that Turkey sought to avoid.

Turkey also overestimated the unity and power of the Syrian opposition in exile that it backed. Rather than being seen as a government-in-waiting as was hoped, Syrian demonstrators saw them instead as being out of touch. Indeed, by promoting their allies the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey helped to dissuade several key groups from backing the SNC, including Syria’s Kurds, Christians and secular Sunnis.

Within Turkey, critics complain that Erdoğan’s arrogance led to these mistakes. He believed that he and his advisors ‘understood’ Syria and its population, despite the Turkish foreign ministry boasting surprisingly few Arabic speakers or experts on Syria. The main opposition party, the CHP, argues that Erdoğan was wrong firstly to be so close to Assad before 2011 but then that he went too far the other way by cutting all ties so abruptly in August and demanding regime change, thereby removing any remaining leverage. Several columnists complain that, for the first time since the creation of the republic in 1923, the Turkish government is openly calling for regime change in a neighbouring state. Moreover, Turkey is hosting, funding and – allegedly – arming an opposition group, a practice it has long abhorred, such as when neighbours supported militant Kurdish separatists.

Whether it was unavoidable or partly Erdoğan’s fault, Syria’s descent into civil war now not only threatens Turkey’s regional ambitions but could also cause instability at home. Well over 50,000 Syrian refugees have crossed into Turkey to flee the violence. Although this situation is containable for now, history provides countless examples of waves of refugees – whether Palestinian, Afghani or Congolese – sparking major strife in their new host countries. Ethnic tensions have already been awoken. Turkey’s 500,000 Alawis – of the same sect as Bashar al-Assad – fear that the influx of (mostly Sunni) Syrian refugees, many of whom blame Syria’s Alawis as a whole for Assad’s butchery, could turn Turkish Sunnis against them. Turkey’s Alevis, a larger group of 15–20 million people who share their origins with the Alawis, have expressed similar concerns. Turkey’s strong nationalist identity has traditionally spared it sectarian tension, yet some fear the AKP’s Syria policy could lead down that route.

Even among Turkey’s Sunni majority, the AKP is facing popular opposition to its increased involvement in Syria. While most Turks oppose Assad, a poll in the Zaman newspaper in July 2012 found that only 28 per cent supported Turkish military action against him, and barely 33 per cent agreed with Erdoğan’s current policy. This opposition is not just from secularists, who fear an Islamist government next door if Assad falls, but exists among many of the 50 per cent who voted for AKP in 2011. Despite holding a commanding political position, Erdoğan must be wary of letting the Syrian crisis erode his base, especially given his ambitions to become president in 2014.

The Anatolian Tigers and the Kurds

Two major fallouts from Syria could prove particularly damaging to Erdoğan and his government. Economically, much of the AKP’s popularity rests on the boom they oversaw since 2002. Significant new AKP support comes from the manufacturing cities of central Turkey – the so-called ‘Anatolian tigers’ – that rely on Middle Eastern markets. Although Syrian trade was relatively modest and only a few regions, notably Hatay, have been damaged by the border closure, there are fears the conflict may destabilise its neighbours – notably the vital market of northern Iraq – and so hit Turkey’s economy in the AKP heartland.

The second major fallout is the implications for Turkey’s Kurdish problem. The Syria crisis has exacerbated the decades-long armed struggle between the government and the PKK. The Syrian regime has largely withdrawn from its own Kurdish territories, allowing the PKK’s Syrian arm, the PYD, to fill the vacuum and provide their Turkish comrades with additional support. Moreover, the Syrian regime itself is accused of reviving its direct ties to the PKK from the 1990s as a means to punish Turkey for backing the FSA, encouraging domestic terror attacks such as a bomb in Gaziantep in August that killed eight. Finally, with north-eastern Syria now effectively an autonomous Kurdish enclave, rather like northern Iraq before it, the pressure on Turkey to permit something similar in its own eastern Kurdish territory will only grow.

Turkey’s Syria problem shows no sign of going away. Even if the regime is eventually toppled, the opposition has not shown the unity needed to hold the country together, and so it is feared that a civil war may erupt in post-Assad Syria regardless. Turkey faces a dilemma. The longer the conflict rages, the more likely it is that the instability it dreads will follow. Erdoğan seems reluctant to directly intervene, however, knowing it may make matters worse, creating a power vacuum that is likely to be filled by Turkey’s enemies. Having invested a lot of regional and domestic capital in toppling Assad, however, he can’t really step back from his current policy of backing the armed rebels in the hope they’ll make the breakthrough alone. Nevertheless, his does seem to be a strategy based on hope more than anything else. Through a combination of poor judgment and bad luck, Erdoğan now finds himself heavily invested in Syria’s future but with little control over how things are developing. While he and his AKP party may yet emerge in the elevated regional position they sought as the Arab spring broke out, the Syrian quagmire may yet undermine and submerge much that they have built in the last decade.