By Lionel Beehner
GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Gaziantep is surprisingly quiet, despite the ruckus of metal workers plying their trade in the town's souk. Not thirty miles south of this Anatolian city sits the Syrian border, beyond which massacres and military air strikes have become an almost daily routine. The violence has pushed over 100,000 Syrians to seek refuge along Turkey's border in camps and cities like Gaziantep (I'm told vendors at the local mall and souk have been brushing up on their Arabic). Cross-border shelling by the Syrian military in recent weeks has killed five Turkish civilians. Syrian defenses also shot down a Turkish fighter jet. Yet none of these violations of Turkish sovereignty has provoked a mass retaliation or convinced most Turks of the need for escalating the war with Syria.
Turkey has responded in a restrained fashion, with limited tit-for-tat artillery strikes against Syrian targets across the border. Ankara grounded a Russian commercial plane bound for Damascus on suspicions of spiriting radar equipment to the Assad regime, while its parliament green-lighted a motion for military intervention. But Turkey has mostly put pressure on the Assad regime through indirect means: By providing safe haven to Syrian opposition parties and rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army and allowing the free flow of arms and other aid across its 500-mile border.
All of the above might be cause for alarm among Gaziantep residents, whose backyard could become the next flashpoint of Mideast violence. But Turks, whether in "Antep" or Ankara, do not believe that war with Syria is imminent. Moreover, most of the population remains at odds with the government over the Syria issue. Despite repeated provocations, large majorities do not favor military retaliation or escalation, according to recent polls, for fear of being sucked into what some here call "Turkey's Vietnam.” But it would be incorrect to chalk this gun-shyness up to pacifism among the Turkish public. After all, in response to a surge of cross-border attacks by the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, holed up in the hills of Iraqi Kurdistan, polls indicate that two-thirds of the population favor responding with greater military force. Even while conceding more social and cultural rights to its 14 million Kurds, Turkey has preferred using sticks over carrots against the PKK. So what explains this yin and yang stance among Turks toward war?
The Syria question bedevils Turkish policy-makers, namely because their government has led the charge in favor of Syrian regime change, even at the costly imposition of some kind of no-fly zone in the north to tip the balance of power in the rebels' favor. While this approach has won it admiration among humanitarian interventionists abroad (myself included), it goes against the wishes of Turkey’s public and vocal business community. The government got too far ahead of itself in its belligerent rhetoric, their thinking goes, perhaps assuming Assad would have fallen by now or that NATO would have rallied behind it, and now finds itself in the awkward position of calling for regime change but lacking sufficient leverage to do anything about it.
The AKP leadership has been motivated by mixed impulses. On one hand, it found itself on the wrong side of history by not supporting NATO’s intervention into Libya more forcefully. On the other, the government is motivated by genuine humanitarian concerns as well as the presence of a bloodbath on its doorstep, to say nothing of the refugee crisis such a one-sided war would cause. Yet without NATO’s backing, Turkey will not unilaterally intervene in Syria. It will continue to respond in kind to any cross-border attacks, but it cannot impose a meaningful no-fly zone, much less depose the Assad regime. That is partly because of Turkey’s divisive domestic politics – the country has enough on its hands trying to rewrite a new constitution – but also because Turkish forces are mostly defensive in nature, not offensive, according to a recent report published by IHS Jane's. Hence, Ankara must rely on its soft power to cajole allies and assist the Syrian opposition.
Yet, what we sometimes fail to appreciate in the West is that the main war on most Turks’ minds is the ongoing conflict against the PKK, not the one next door in Syria. The PKK issue receives scant attention abroad, but it continues to galvanize the Turkish public after three decades of violence. The conflict for many Turks presents an existential crisis that threatens the nation’s social and cultural fabric, whereas the Syrian issue is viewed as a passing threat, serious in scope but something to be managed like countless others in the region.
Of course the two wars are intertwined. The escalation of PKK violence in recent months has coincided with spikes in attacks from Syria. Ankara accuses the Assad regime of providing Syrian Kurds safe haven and material support in hopes that they take their fight across the border into Turkey. Damascus’s logic is “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and ostensibly Assad wants to punish Turkey for assisting Syrian rebel organizations and drive a wedge between its Kurdish communities and the Free Syrian Army. There could be blowback to this strategy of course if Kurds throughout the region become more organized and raise greater demands for an independent state, which could end up carving up parts of northern Syria and Iraq as well as Iran.
In response, Turkey’s routine raids against PKK strongholds in Northern Iraq could extend into Syria on a more regular basis. These violations of sovereignty raise thorny issues for international legal scholars, but not among Turks. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned Syria that his government would “not stand idle” in the face of cross-border incursions, and “is capable of exercising its right to pursue Kurdish rebels inside Syria, if necessary.” That script sounds vaguely similar to what a retired Turkish general told the BBC back in 2007, regarding incursions into northern Iraq: “I believe operations will continue on this scale–pin-point operations, hot-pursuit raids and carefully controlled air strikes.” Turkey has also lashed out at foreign forces – even its nominal allies – for abetting the Kurdish insurgents. Ankara even went so far earlier this year as to accuse Israel of using its surveillance drones to assist the PKK.
The surge in PKK violence has killed some 700 people over the past 15 months, according to the International Crisis Group, including a car bomb that killed nine in Gaziantep last August blamed on Kurdish rebels. Turkey finds itself in the awkward spot of aiding rebels whose ranks include untold numbers of Syrian Kurds that could take up arms against Ankara after the Assad regime falls (Syria’s Kurds have struck deals with the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian government as a way to both hedge its bets and remain autonomous). In this way, the buffer zone Ankara is calling for along the Syrian border, not unlike the one imposed on Northern Iraq in 1991 to halt flows of Iraqi Kurdish refugees, might actually provide Kurdish militants with greater cover to carry out cross-border attacks in Turkey.
That may explain why the public mood in places like Gaziantep, which is 30 percent Kurdish, remains reflexively antiwar when it comes to Syria. Despite impressive growth in recent years, businessmen here are also worried about their bottom line, which has suffered as relations with Russia and Iran, two of Turkey's most important energy partners that are both aligned with the Syrian regime, spiral downward. Turks also suspect the opposition in Syria is too Salafist and fear that an Islamist government unfavorable to Turkish interests will succeed Assad. Better the secular devil you know than the Islamist devil you don't know, this theory goes. A final oft-heard view holds that Turkey, as a rising regional power striving to fill the perceived security void left by the United States as it redeploys forces out of Iraq and "pivots" toward Asia, should be deploying its “soft power” abroad and in the region, not its hard power. The phrase gets invoked so much among experts here, I half-expected to see a statue of Joseph Nye next to Ataturk. These analysts see Turkey’s role in the region as an honest broker of disputes arising out of the Arab Spring and a middleman between the Muslim world and Western powers.
But a state’s ability to project soft power is incumbent on the strength of its own values and perception abroad. On the PKK issue, soft power has taken a backseat to hard power. This heavy-handed approach is partly rooted in public opinion – after peace talks with the PKK stalled two years ago, many Turks lost hope that political dialogue could resolve the crisis and turned increasingly hawkish — but it is also partly rooted in Turkey's Kemalist past, which has traditionally favored blunt force to quash domestic uprisings of any kind. As a retired army colonel told me, "Turkey has a long history of exaggerating internal threats." Under Ankara’s draconian anti-terror laws, thousands of pro-Kurdish activists, lawyers, and journalists have been imprisoned by the AKP government. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey jails more journalists than any other country, including even Iran and China. Over the past six months, its military has staged around 1,000 counterinsurgency sorties against PKK targets.
Standing in the gleaming conference room of one of 90 new universities Ankara has erected over the past decade, a Turkish political science professor gazed out the window eastward. A vast panorama of construction projects punctuated an otherwise barren landscape of twisted olive groves. “If you look out that window,” he said, “the only democracies you see are Japan and India.” He was correct, but his point was to situate Turkey’s important place not just in the region but in the whole Eurasian landmass. Westerners fret that Turkey is reorienting itself eastward and away from Europe. At the same time, given the creeping authoritarianism of the current government in power, the professor claimed that Turkish exceptionalism was weakening. Moreover, Ankara's foreign policy of “zero problems” on its borders appears to be in tatters. Its relationship with Iraq was imperiled after Ankara gave shelter to Tariq al-Hashimi, the Sunni vice president accused by the al-Maliki regime of being involved in death squads. Turkey’s relations with Israel, though reportedly on the mend, remain strained after the infamous 2010 Marmara flotilla raid.
After making great strides to open up its border with Syria to ease cross-border trade, Turkey now finds itself on the precipice of not one but two wars. So far its military has acted with surprising restraint in response to Syrian attacks. Yet on the PKK front, Turkey has gone on the offensive and doubled-down on the military option. The trouble is that it is next to impossible to favor a peaceful and diplomatic solution to Turkey’s interstate conflict with one hand while applying hard power to its intrastate crisis with the other. Expect Turkish soft power to suffer as a result.
Lionel Beehner is a fellow with the Truman National Security Project, a doctoral student at Yale University, and a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he is a former senior writer.