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How Turkey Is Facing the Challenges of a Syrian Escalation

Last week, the Turkish army attacked a convoy of al-Qaida-linked vehicles in Syria, destroying three. The escalation triggered speculation that Turkey now considers the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) a bigger enemy in Syria than the Assad regime. .

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

The Syrian conflict has presented myriad security issues for Turkey over the past three years, as hundreds of thousands of refugees have flooded the south, and taken a toll on its economy, with millions of dollars in the import and export industry lost.

We asked Soli Ozel, a professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University and columnist for the newspaper Haberturk; Didem Aykel Collinsworth, Turkey analyst at the International Crisis Group; and Gokhan Bacik, an analyst and associate professor of international relations at Ankara’s Ipek University, to weigh in on the challenges of a Syrian escalation, how the pressure is building and the effects on Turkey.

Soli Ozel:

Obviously, Turkey is unhappy that Geneva II didn’t go anywhere. But it’s also feeling the pressure of its own choices [in Syria] and things with ISIS, which are tensing up. The most significant [recent] event, in my mind, is the bombing of the ISIS convoy by Turkish artillery. Turkey is taking assistance from the jihadist element: we still don’t know the mystery of [why the ISIS] trucks [were hit], and right now I don’t think there is a Western policy [for Turkey and Syria], so I’m sure Turkey is trying to figure out how to get them to change their tune and work with the European Union.

There are also plenty of jihadist elements that have gone from Turkey to Syria to fight. Once you get on the bad side of the jihad itself, then what do you do? Do they try to challenge you? And that’s what a lot of us are concerned about right now.

My sense is that we will be seeing an escalation against ISIS from everyone, not just Turkey. It remains to be seen how strong these ISIS guys are. It also depends on whether or not Turkey will start treating the [Syrian Kurdish militant group] PYD differently, given PYD leader Barzani and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan seem to have come to an agreement, and a Kurdish conference will take place in Iraq. The relationship between the PYD and Turkey could change as well, and if it does it will be [everyone against ISIS].

It’s taken a toll on Turkey. There are more than 1 million Syrian refugees here. The long-term costs are for the moment uncalculable. We don’t know what it’s going to be.

The biggest challenge ahead for Turkey is whether Assad is going to stay. That itself is a big headache. Apart from that we’ll see how the jihadist situation unfolds. They are known to [fight back against actions like the Turkish army’s destruction of their convoy]; whether they will now remains to be seen. I don’t see why they wouldn’t if they want to and have an opportunity.

Didem Aykel Collinsworth:

[Before last week] there were one or two openly reported incidents between Turkish security forces and ISIS, but the truth of the matter is that since the start of the Syrian crisis, over 70 Turkish citizens have died either inside Turkey or very close to the border. The bulk of these, 52, were from the Reyhanli car bombs last May. These are all Turkish casualties directly caused by the spillover: shells, car bombs, fires on the border. Even smuggling incidents sometimes turn violent, where bouncing bullets end up killing Turkish villagers. These incidents are not daily, but they are not uncommon.

With ISIS, I don’t think last week’s incident by itself is an escalation. But I do think the Turkish establishment, security forces and the government are taking the extremist threat more seriously. They’re much more concerned about it now than they were last spring. Awareness and concern is at a higher level: you hear this from top Turkish officials, like the president. Overall Turkey still feels politically exposed and fears direct spillover from Syria, whether it comes from the regime  they blamed the government for Reyhanli  or extremists, who have now been added to that.

They’re worried that there are open targets. Turkey has had several car bombs go off along the border, so it’s not a stranger to car bombs coming from Syria. That’s a modus operandi that Turkey is familiar with and worries about. We’ve seen Turkey increase controls along the border  they’ve increased artillery since the first spillover in October 2012, they respond to incoming fire, war planes are frequently scrambled, it asked for NATO support and the batteries are here until at least next year now. Turkey is trying to protect itself, but it’s a 900 km border, and Turkish officials’ position is that it’s impossible to secure it completely. There is an awareness of the porousness.

Turkey still has no capacity to solve any of the problems in Syria by itself, and I still don’t think it’s considering any significant military intervention by itself. Their biggest challenge is the number of Syrians coming into Turkey. We don’t know what would happen if the situation in northern Syria deteriorates further, which you would be able to attribute partly to ISIS. I do know Turkey is worried about whether something happens in Aleppo or elsewhere that leads thousands more people to relocate en masse to neighboring countries.

Gokhan Bacik: 

The situation is not like it was three months ago. Turkey is now realizing that it’s become a very difficult situation: the main focus from Western countries is now on Assad and radical groups, so Turkey seems to realize that this is becoming a big deal. It’s not clear how exactly Turkey is linked to opposition groups. There are many rumors, but Turkey has not clarified how it’s helping which groups. When I visited [southern Turkey] I met people who claimed there was contact between the Turkish government and various fighting groups, but Turkey’s policy of supporting the Islamic opposition is not clear.

It’s becoming very costly [politically] to be linked with these extremist groups, and that could be why Turkey is giving ambiguous messages. This latest event, the Turkish army shelling the ISIS convoy, is critical because it may be a very strong sign that Turkey will change its position [and be vehemently anti-opposition]. But we have not heard strong government support for what the army has done, so we don’t know if it happened that the army carried it out quickly because it was a reaction exercise. Sometimes the army acts unilaterally, and it’s not clear if this recent shelling was a quick reaction, or if it happened after a long deliberate discussion [involving higher-ups in the government]. I haven’t seen an official declaration that this was something done deliberately after such negotiations.

A Turkish shift in Syria, or [outwardly] against ISIS, is risky for Turkey. It’s a difficult game for Turkey: there’s the cost of international [rancor over action] and the [possibly violent] reaction of extremist groups in the field.

Syria is becoming something like Iraq or Palestine in terms of its problems: after this point, there will be no radical change. The problem is three years old. The major problems for Turkey will continue to be border security, radical groups  and all of this is happening as Turkey goes into an intense electoral process.

The last thing the Turkish government wants is a reaction from fighting groups in Syria that leads to security issues. At any rate, the Syrian issue will be sidelined for a while because of elections, and that’s realized by all groups in the region, including the PKK. It’s going to create an autonomous zone for all groups in the region.

The Turkish economy has taken a hit of millions of dollars as a result of losing Syrian imports and exports, but the long-term cost is more dramatic. Syria has led to a change in Turkey’s political geography. [The region] may devolve into a different kind of setting. Economy, international idolization [of Turkey’s rapid economic ascent] and Turkey’s relations with Jordan and other neighboring countries will not be the same.

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