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Q+A: Is Turkey Shifting Its Stance on Syria?

This week, the Turkish army shelled points held by extremist rebel groups across the Syrian border. It was a shift for the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

(once a tenuous friend of Bashar al-Assad’s), which has consistently backed the Syrian opposition and advocated for regime change in Syria. One of the catalysts of the sudden change, says Gokhan Bacik, analyst and associate professor of international relations at Ankara’s Ipek University, is a rapid consolidation of power by extremists in Syria, and fears of how it will impact Turkey.

Syria Deeply: Why did Turkey fire on Syrian rebel posts this week? Is it fair to say its position of backing the rebels has been a miscalculation?

Gokhan Bacik: There is something happening in Ankara, but for the time being I can’t see any satisfactory signs that Turkey is to change its Syria policy; it’s made a strict red line. It was time for Ankara to recognize Western policy about radical groups. It needed to give a symbolic sign that it was not cooperating with the rebels. This week’s strike is symbolic, not a military attack. It gives a message to the West that Turkey is not what they think, that it is not cooperating with these extremist rebel groups.

Most of these groups don’t care about the fate of the Assad regime. Their strategy has been to exert authority over certain areas of Syria [many of them close to the Turkish border], which is a problem for Turkey. I don’t think there’s any group that can control or fight the long-term expansion of radical groups in northern Syria, so it’s becoming a big problem. And this week Ankara is giving a message to the world about what these radical groups are doing, and that Turkey [does not agree].

SD: Is there any way it could be construed as an act of war?

GB: It’s not an act of war. These are symbolic actions. But even as a symbol, it’s a very important development in Turkish foreign policy. There’s no international community here this week: the Turkish army took these orders directly from the Turkish government. Many experts and politicians ignored the chances of this a few months ago. When we were talking about this six, seven months ago, people said we were exaggerating the al-Qaida threat in Syria and its threat to Turkey. It’s much easier to radicalize a group than to democratize it. Radical groups have a great chance to consolidate their power in Syria, and not just al-Nusra but other small groups. And they are now gaining capacity all over the region. What might lead to change in Ankara is not the threat of the Assad regime, but the threat of al-Qaida.

SD: In six months, will we see concrete change in the way Ankara handles Syria?

GB: Turkish-Syrian policy is mainly handled by Turkish intelligence services in partnership with the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. If there is no dramatic change in policy from the al-Qaida side over the next six months, there’ll be no change [in Turkey’s official policy]. But Turkey is going to show that it is more harmonized with the West now on its policy towards radical groups in Syria. When I analyze how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the prime minister and President Abdullah Gul approach Syria, I notice serious differences in each approach. Gul is closer to the U.N. and the international community, but I’m not sure how much Gul is going to increase Turkey’s imprint on foreign policy. If he’s able to, there’s a greater chance its policy will become more harmonized with U.S. policy. Beyond that, everyone in Ankara is still more focused on regime change, and they will see any kind of shift in policy as a failure.

SD: At this point, what does Turkey want to see happen in Syria?

GB: Turkey still wants regime change in Syria, but it’s beyond Turkish capacity, and Turkey has failed to find any strong partner like the U.S. to join in. The West is no longer talking about direct attacks on the Assad regime. Turkey’s only option is to support the Syrian opposition, but the opposition has no chance. If it goes on like this for another six months, [some] people who supported the opposition will instead support the Assad regime. I am receiving many reports from everywhere [in Turkey] about how bad both Assad and the opposition are.

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