Several conflicts happening in various capacities over the region of North Syria has been practicing since the mid-Arab Spring. The issue has become supraterritorial case and Turkish political environment is also being affected from the contemporary developments.
How are the domestic status quo and strategic maneuvers of Turkish foreign policy towards Northern Syria changed? By two diverse developments in external and internal agenda. On one hand, soft power politics have failed and could not meet Turkish national interests anymore. On the other, dominant politicians in the conservative right are beating the drum of national security; they have exceeded country’s threat level in order to overshadow disappointing results of last election and regain their political popularity once again.
The decision matrix of foreign policy moves provides many options to states in order to implement in different environments and centuries. Variables of international conjuncture and geographical status quos have been playing crucial roles in accordance with these developments. For instance, although dreadnought diplomacy or Bismarck-oriented “realpolitik” was perceived as an operative solution until early 20th century world affairs, late 20th century politics have validated that soft power ideology and cultural diplomacy could also occupy a prominent position within the modern foreign policy statecrafts. Nevertheless, compact geographical hostilities generating large scale imbalances may “force” states to switch their insights towards the sphere of influence that they decided to apply soft power politics. Against this theoretical backdrop, the Arab Spring could provide a case for assessing possible changes in Turkish foreign policy calculations and behaviours. It can be put forward that until, Muhammad Boazizi’s, an average street vendor, self-immolation in 2010, Turkey’s external relations with its close neighbours in the upper Saharan region were following principles of reciprocal understanding and tolerated politics which chiefly based on pragmatic soft power implications such as “cultural proximity” and “role modeling figure” under neo-liberal Islamism doctrine.
As Arab Spring phenomenon has been extended its impacts within defined geography and proved its continuance in the region, driving forces of Turkish foreign policy have altered in parallel to changing equilibrium within Middle East. In this sense, the level of gradual shifts in Turkish foreign decisions over Middle East has been composing of many diverse ways. To exemplify the notable shift it can be argued that while Turkey’s insightful politics on Assad regime were depending on regional cooperation principle and even strategic partnership, present-day’s “zero tolerance” tendency was out of the question. At the beginning of the Arab Spring, the international community observed that Turkey, under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) established close bonds with Syria and trying to persuade the Assad regime to solve social unrest by implementing smoother and inclusionary internal politics rather than exacerbating the crisis.
On the basis of the dialog platform, Turkey has comprehended that soft power diplomacy with Syria could serve to establish collective interests of both countries since the idea has proved its effectiveness in terms of improving twofold commerce or cultural interaction between countries for many years. Throughout this dialog process, Turkey’s foreign trade with Syria surpassed 400 million dollar per year1 and tourism between two countries rose by an average of 3% per year2 until 2011. Although soft power politics can contribute enhancing trade activities and enlargement of cultural ties, it may fail to launch critical dialogues on delicate topics which may pave the way to question countries’ sovereignty and lawfulness such as massive killings or religious clashes. Therefore, it should have been premeditated by Turkish policy makers that overlooking the main reasons of civil unrest and offering democratic solutions to such a complex internal anxiety would not be internalized by Baath hardliners who came to power by 1963 Syrian coup d’état. A soft power oriented “Zero Problem” doctrine was satisfactory for Turkish government in order to enhance regional trade partnership in Middle East and the ideology was supported by the AKP. After threatening cases were crossed over as the increasing tensions around Turkish Embassy of Damascus in 2011 regional leadership politics, state sovereignty issues were started to be concentrated around Assad’s legitimacy.
Turkey’s “practical advice” policy which was developed to ease tensions between the Assad regime and rebels fractionally gave its way to “sovereignty” dialogues discussing Syria’s legitimacy to use national army against insurrectionists. The case attested that economic benefit and role modeling figure objectives, under soft power ideology as a foreign policy, could not achieve Turkey’s regional balance of power role per se because uncontrolled internal violence in Syria was signaling further armed confrontation between opposition groups which have been clashing since “The Damascus Spring” in 2001. In parallel to this process, considering the longest border with Syria, the Turkish attitude has modified neorealist “self-help” strategy which mainly based upon martial coercion against the Assad regime as a dissident player. This movement was supported by implementing security discourses to national agenda on Syria which has been driven by the recent issues such as Pro-Assad groups’ attacks to Turkish Embassy in Damascus in 20113, following to that Turkish F-4 plane crash in 20124 and the huge influx of Syrian refugees5 apart from the past practices of water sources crises6, Hatay province case7 and father Assad’s support to PKK extensions in Syria8. By virtue of decline in soft power politics and recent disputes, the new parameter has become as the new and most effective variable: the Turkish parliamentary elections of June 2015.
During the last single party rule of AKP, Turkish external policies over Northern Syria have warned for an escalation in the severity of armed clashes-toughness in this region. Critical media organs’ assertions such as providing logistic support to radical religious groups9 and National Intelligence Service’s truck scandal which was accusing National Intelligence about carrying supplies to ISIS10 were deepened Turkey’s challenging situation over Northern Syria. Besides this politically tight shape, after thirteen years of majority in the parliament, the parliamentary election results marked a psychological turning point for the single party government. AKP lost its majority in the parliament and was required to looking into forming a coalition government. AKP élites thought that they lost their ideological endorsement coming from legitimate voting.
Consideration of “politico-military” choice which was designed to suppress opposite voices has begun to be discussed among AKP officials. To regain political support from grassroots by politico-military actions, national security dialogues and concerns about regional organizations as People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Northern Syria and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) were intensified by provisional government right after the election results were released. There are many potential reasons behind this attitude change over the Northern Syrian case. First, as it was argued, while soft power fails in foreign policy, realism appears to be a “stabilizer”11 (Burchill, 2001:70). In this direction, inadequate politics over Northern Syria triggered AKP’s national popularity to decline. In addition to this political decision, AKP decided to securitize the national agenda in order to stabilize its decreasing per cent of votes which were dispossessed by Kurdish dominated People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Similarly, AKP’s changing policy reflects their martial agenda discourse since securitization of issues can thus be seen as a more extreme version of politicization12 (Buzan, 1998:23).
On the other hand, last election results have warned AKP dominated Turkish decision-makers about the opportunity that, in theory, foreign interventions may bring consolidation of political power and may help to stabilize it which was lost in last elections. By securitization of politics justifies extraordinary actions such as cross border military operations and state of emergency law can be legalized by a government in political distress in order to occupy agendum and postpone nationwide expectations of following the elections. Secondly, national security unifies the nation against a common enemy13 (Huntington, 1997: 350-375). This step also appears as a modern statecraft of national politics to regain fallen political popularity once again. Within this framework it can be deducted that the idea of a potential intervention in Syria is much more linked to what national security “means” rather than what national security “does”. According to interpretations of the Copenhagen School which works on how security dialogues function in international system, having a security agenda could provide opportunities for political groups to overflow regular national politics and create special justifications for political actions14 (Guzzini and Jund, 2004: 1-13).
In light of these assertions it can be argued that if the Turkish government would militarily intervened in Northern Syria before the June 2015 elections, the political costs of intervention for the ruling AKP would have been extremely high. Post-elections, however, a possible intervention has become a viable solution for the AKP to recover political popularity and making the party look like a “national hero”. Equally significant, the developed anti ISIS coalition under the leadership of the US has provided Turkish policy makers with an opportunity to boost its relations with the West. Although the Western powers have been critical to Turkey’s Syrian policy, by getting support from the new strategic alliance, Turkey has started to act more flexible over non-ISIS targets like YPG positions situated in Northern Syria and Iraq until Incirlik Airbase in Malatya has started to be used by US jets. It could be claimed that military actions and tough regulations in Southeastern Turkey could shake Turkey’s “soft power leadership” and remit the political achievements of Turkey in the region where the cultural popularity and political legitimacy of actions were established to strengthen the country’s regional power.
However, circumstances have changed in accordance with the decline in soft power variables and Turkish internal political dynamics. Ongoing activities highlighted that the intervention agenda on the Northern Syria issue will continue to remain on both the internal and external agendas of Turkey as an inefficient and questionable martial involvement which appears as of AKP’s main asset even there is no definite enemy of Turkey in the region because of ever-changing domination struggles among groups. Presently, unstable internal political dynamics, security agenda headlines and de facto neighbor fears are transforming Turkey’s neo-liberal soft power image to hardliner state portrait. It may be deduced from these progresses that AKP’s “Zero Problem” paradigm progressively has evolved into a “Zero Tolerance” mentality over the Syrian conflict.