Turkey at crossroads in Syrian war

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After the brutal bomb attack on March of 13 in the heart of Ankara that killed more than 30 people, president Erdogan blamed Kurdish militants and PKK/PYD linked organisations in violence against Turkey and vowed to bring terror to “its knees”. While the latest deadly terrorist attacks both in Ankara and Istanbul raised questions about the Turkish government’s ability to protect its citizens, the situation in the country shifted; as a consequence, Turkey’s conflict with the PKK intensified. Even though no one has claimed responsibility for this attack it could be a signal for a deeply troubling era in Turkey’s Middle Eastern policy.

The “Syrian” symptoms

The long–term civil war in Syria had terrible repercussions not only for its citizens but for the whole region including Turkey. Being at a critical stage, the Syrian conflict became a main factor that empowered the role of Kurdish guerrilla groups in Iraqi and Turkish borders. YPG have taken over half of Syria’s frontier with Turkey. The developments in 2015 still fail to determine who the long – term winners or losers are in the Middle East. Indeed the war has had an undeniable impact on Turkey’s economy and caused several foreign investments to be declined, as well as causing inflation. A part of the Kurdish problem, the deterioration of Turkey – Russia relations over the downing of the Russian fighter jet became another challenge for the Turkish government. Russia’s military operations in Syria became a source of concern for the anti – Assad coalition, as well as, for Turkey. Moreover, officials in Ankara are much worried about the rapid advance of U.S backed Kurdish militants in northern Syria, who largely benefited from Russian air strikes launched not only against radical terrorist organizations but also against opposition forces such as Free Syrian Army. Obviously, officials in Ankara see the PYD militants as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and claim that the fighters are coordinating with the Kremlin. The PYD and its military wing YPG have taken advantage of Russian airstrikes, expanding their reach in Syria to the detriment of other Syrian rebel groups backed by Turkey. This has angered Ankara to the extent that it has started to shell PYD-held territory in Syria, which could be seen as a motive for the recent Ankara attack. Turkey is fighting the PKK and shelling PKK’s sister PYD in Syria, therefore the PYD decides to escalate the tension in Turkey, by effectively opening a “second front” against Ankara. [1]

Following the sanctioned withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria, Turkey is expected to launch the biggest military operations in order to topple the PKK linked militant groups. Moreover, in this regard, the ruling party could rely on public support with its enveloped anti – terrorist rhetoric. Being sandwiched between Syria, Turkey, and radical Islamists, Kurdish militants in Iraq and Syria largely agitate the idea of guerrilla war, and political terror in order to gain full independency as under the Damascus regime, Kurds were forbidden from learning their own language, frequently evicted from their land and even denied full citizenship. Their region is home to a chunk of Syria’s estimated 2.5 billion barrels of crude oil reserves, but Kurds enjoyed little benefit. [2] The West and the U.S has considered the PYD as a potent force against radical Islamic state as Kurdish militants has shown a huge effort to “liberate” several towns from ISIS.

The U.S chose to rely on Kurds as the most effective and the only secular force in the Middle East, able to counter the radical Islamic State and save Kobanî from falling. The already mentioned factors will certainly hurt the U.S – Turkey relations, which would be another advantage for the PYD since such a radical development is the main objective in this stage. For now Ankara should provide the world community with convincing evidence that the PYD backed militants were behind the brutal bomb attack in Ankara. While taking into account the role of the U.S in the PYD’s work, it is necessary to highlight the Russian role which had intensified in the aftermath of its military intervention in Syria. Therefore Turkey portrays the PYD as a pawn of Russia but the Kremlin in its turn accuses Turkey of covertly supporting radical terrorist organizations such as the Jabhat – ul – Nusra and ISIS. Putin, who is concerned more to maintain the Russian influence in the region, feels that he has an axe to grind with Turkey. Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the downing of the fighter jet not as an isolated incident, but as Turkey`s attempt to shoot down his lofty ambitions to cast Russia as a superpower in the Middle East. [3]

It is not clear when Kurds in Turkey began to openly express their discontent against Erdogan’s government. Once the relations between both of them had been shifted in a better way, in several regions Kurds voted in favour of the ruling party. But in the case of Syrian Kurds in the first stage of the conflict Turkey was willing to support the local Kurds against Assad’s regime if they meet several conditions such as avoiding violent methods against Turkey itself and remain opposed to Bashar Assad. Recently the Syrian YPG’s string successes and advance towards the “non-Kurdish” town Azaz that was held by the ISIS became a red – line and evoked a severe criticism of Washington by its Turkish counterparts. However, the YPG has managed to re-seize the control of some towns in Syria, and this caused a headache for Washington and forcibly pushed it to navigate between strategic partner Turkey and the PYD. Another point that needs to be clarified is the link between the Ankara blast and Geneva talks over the Syrian war.

Yet it is still unclear whether the Ankara blasts were organized as a response to Geneva talks over the resolution of Syrian civil war, as Kurdish militants are intended to widely promote the idea of large autonomy in the Northern part of Syria. Apparently certain false or even radical points in foreign policy of Turkey led to the emergence of radical foes both internal and external which seek to cut off Turkish influence. Conclusion The escalation of the Syrian civil war alongside with the activity of Kurdish militant groups is going to change the balance of powers in the Middle East. Yet it is not clear whether it would be in favour of Turkish interests or not. Turkey wishes to prevent PYD/YPG and other militant groups from becoming a ‘tool’ of external powers that may pose a serious threat to its national security. Therefore it requires from Turkey not to be aggressive towards its neighbours and to take diplomatic steps in order to thwart back all possible threats.

This article has been published by London based think tank Turkey Institute



  1. Daren Butler, Kurds` advance in Syria divides U.S. and Turkey as Russia bombs, 17 February, 2016. [Accessed on 18.03.2016]. Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-kurds-idUSKCN0VQ1FR
  2. Soner Cagaptay, Terror attack in Ankara: A new era of Kurdish politics for Turkey?, February 18, 2016. [Acessed 18.03.2016]. Available at: http://edition.cnn.com/2016/02/18/opinions/turkey-bomb-attack-analysis/
  3. Serkan Demirtas, Turkey warns US, Russia over arms supply to Syrian Kurds, [Accessed on 18.03.2016]. Available at: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-warns-us-russia-over-arms-supply-to-syrian-kurds.aspx?PageID=238&NID=89820&NewsCatID=510



Fuad is a researcher and political reviewer from Azerbaijan. His area of expertise includes military and foreign policy issues. Fuad is the author of numerous articles published by the well-known “Today`s Zaman”, “Aljazeera Turkey”, “Strategic Outlook”, “TASAM”, “SDE Institute”, “Newtimes.az”, “Hufftingon Post”, “The Global World Post”, “BBC” and etc. He is author of books titled “Syria 1946-2012” (2012) and “Tunisian model of Democracy in Arab world” (2015).