The Syrian Revolution and the Role of Turkey - Statehood & Participation

By Bakr Sidki

Turkey is one of the states that is most affected by the Arab revolutions of 2011. Thrown into confusion by the Libyan revolution, the Turkish government then found itself confronted by a popular uprising in Syria. First adopting the role of advisor to its neighbor, its failure to make the Syrian regime enact political reforms conducive to gradual democratic change, soon saw Turkey declare its open support for the Syrian people and their demands.

Events in August, which happened to coincide with Ramadan in 2011, were a watershed moment for the Assad regime. Early that month Western powers raced to declare the regime illegitimate and openly demand that it step down. At the same time, the start of the holy month witnessed an escalation in the frequency and intensity of the popular demonstrations, which were now being held daily instead of once a week. Finally, the regime itself had decided to enter the army and its tanks into the conflict, a move that saw horrendous massacres committed in Hama, Homs, Rastan, Talbeesa, Jisr al-Shughour and Boukamal. A key consequence of the army’s involvement was a rise in the number of desertions and the creation of what came to be known as the Free Syrian Army, which became a key player in the conflict.

Taken together these developments brought an end to friendly relations between Ankara and Damascus. Multi-dimensional ties, nurtured at great cost by both sides over many years, were now broken. Following the intervention of the Syrian army, the sharp criticisms voiced by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, in the early months of the uprising turned into outright condemnation and calls for Bashar Assad to step down.

Syrian protestors in many areas of the country, faced with the brutality of Assad’s forces and the paramilitary gangs of the shabiha, rested their hopes on Turkey’s ability to find a solution. At one point, Turkish officials spoke of the possibility of creating a demilitarized zone on the border to protect civilians and army deserters. Nothing came of it, and demonstrators vented their frustration in posters and chants. Effective Turkish support for the popular revolution was confined to hosting a number of conferences for the opposition and sheltering activists and deserters fleeing Syrian territory, as well as tens of thousands of civilian refugees currently housed in tents on the Turkish side of the border.
So what changed in the months that followed? In this article we will examine the interrelated internal and external factors behind Turkey’s hesitancy over the crisis in Syria.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)

According to leaked reports - mostly by the Turkish government itself - a number of direct meetings between leaders of the PKK and Turkish officials were held in Oslo in the first half of 2010 to explore the possibility of a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem in Turkey. Following the last meeting in May 2010, the secret talks between the two parties came to an abrupt end and the Kurds aligned themselves with the rejectionist stance of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is held in an isolated island prison off the coast of Istanbul. The months that followed saw an escalation of military operations by the PKK against the Turkish army and an equal upswing in Turkish reprisals against Kurdish fighters, not to mention a huge wave of arrests directed against civil society organizations associated with the PKK. Lawyers and intellectuals were among those arrested and charged with abetting terrorist activities.
The military operations mounted by the PKK took a more serious turn following the start of the revolution in Syria. Kurdish fighters managed to kill a number of Turkish soldiers in a wave of well-planned assaults that whipped up ultra-nationalist sentiments in Turkey. The far right started to bang the drums of war.

At the same time, the Iranian branch of the PKK (or the PJAK) announced that it was suspending all military operations against Iran’s armed forces.

The head of the PKK in Syria, Saleh Muslim, returned to Damascus. Long pursued by the Syrian security agencies, he had lived for years in the Qandil Mountains in the far north of Iraq. It was said that a deal had been struck between the Kurdish party and the Syrian regime, marking a resumption of relations that had been suspended for thirteen years, since Ocalan’s expulsion from Damascus in the autumn of 1998, following threats of reprisal against Syria from the Turkish army. In this new deal, the Syrians would allow the Democratic Union Party (the PKK’s Syrian organization) to operate freely in the Kurdish regions (Jazira, Ain al-Arab and Afrin as well as the large urban communities of Aleppo and Damascus) and to recruit new fighters for their training camps in the Qandil Mountains. In return, the PKK would dissuade Syrian Kurds from participating in the revolutionary movement that sought to bring down the regime.

The concessions granted to the PKK limited to the recruitment of new fighters. The promise of  ‘self rule’ meant that the PKK was permitted to elect popular representative bodies in the major Kurdish cities and regions, transforming the party into a parallel regional government that took on some of the state’s responsibilities in the provinces. They even opened cultural centers to teach the Kurdish language. For a Baathist regime that has always denied the existence of non-Arab citizens in Syria, refused citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Kurds and other minorities, parceled off and isolated regions with a Kurdish majority, persecuted their political parties and outlawed their language, this was certainly an astonishing precedent. The regime was being pragmatic, though. Its priority was to keep the revolution within the Sunni-Arab areas where it would be easier to contain and suppress without fear of opposition by foreign powers preoccupied with the issue of religious and sectarian minorities in Syria.

From the Turkish point of view, specifically the escalation in PKK attacks on the Turkish army, this Syria-PKK deal only further ramped up the tension. Prior to this Turkey had enjoyed two years of peace, enough to relieve military and judicial pressure on the politicians and leave Erdogan free to pursue his dream of disarming the PKK and incorporating them into political life, which was at the heart of the secret talks in Oslo. Following his economic and diplomatic achievements Erdogan was hoping to institute a new, civil constitution that would change the nature of Turkish politics. It was what he had promised voters, but now the Syrian crisis was threatening to consign such ambitions to the distant future.

From these observations we may conclude that the Syria-PKK deal works as follows: the PKK will escalate military operations against Turkish forces while ceasing hostilities against the Assad regime’s most important ally, the Iranians, a clear implementation of the threatening statement made some months ago by Assad that “an earthquake will strike the region” in the event of his regime coming under attack. In return for services rendered, the PKK is allowed to resume its activities in Syria’s Kurdish areas—recruiting new fighters for its campaign against Turkey and undertaking a pseudo-governmental role in these areas, which includes suppressing revolutionary tendencies among young Kurds drawn to participate in the uprising against the regime.

The Alevis and the Left in Turkey

Turkey’s internal problems were not confined to its issue with the Kurds and the long-running armed conflict with the PKK. There was also the matter of some twenty million Alevis, a community divided between Turks and Kurds.

The city of Dersim in South-East Anatolia represents a convergence of these two problems, as the majority of the population is Kurdish Alevi. The massacre perpetrated by Turkish forces in this small city back in 1925 remains a dark stain on the conscience of the Turkish state, and Erdogan’s public apology in December 2011 for this horrible crime was a remarkable achievement. The apology provoked widespread debate in the country, chiefly on the grounds that it was a precedent that would force Turkey into accepting historical responsibility for other atrocities committed by the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, who ruled with an iron fist until his death in 1939.
In my view, it is the impact of the Syrian crisis on Turkish society that drove Erdogan to this surprising admission, which in one respect constituted a moral bribe to Turkish Alevis unhappy with their government’s support of the revolution against the ‘Alawite’ Bashar Assad, as he is perceived in Turkey. I would venture to say - if I might be forgiven a little overgeneralization - that the Alevi population in Turkey was broadly sympathetic to the Syrian regime in its struggle with the Syrian people, while the Sunni population sided with the revolutionaries. In this light, the Syrian revolution is interpreted as a clash between an ‘Alawite regime’ and a popular ‘Sunni revolution’.

Historically, Turkish Alevis have favored leftist regimes, including the Republican People’s Party founded by Kemal Ataturk. Marxists and those of similar ideological may not regard the Republican Party as Leftist, but that is nevertheless how it sees itself and it belongs to the international socialist movement. During the Syrian crisis, Kurdish Alevi party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who is from Dersim himself, criticized Erdogan’s pro-revolutionary stance describing it as interference in the internal affairs of a neighboring state that could cost Turkey dearly.

The Marxist Left, meanwhile was even closer to the position of the Syrian regime and some other Arab states, portraying the revolution as an ‘imperial conspiracy’ against a regime that supported the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance. The conspiracy, it claimed, sought to ‘divide Syria into sectarian and ethnic statelets’ and its impact could reach into Turkey itself.
To give the complete picture, there is also a small Islamist faction that shares the Leftists’ obsessions with Western conspiracies, using a rationale best described as deranged. This faction, which finds adherents in the ranks of the Islamist Happiness and Voice of the People parties is fixated on the idea that the Ottoman Empire was broken up at the start of the twentieth century by a Western conspiracy that is still bent on dividing modern Turkey. The ultra-nationalist right enjoy a comparable conspiracy complex, bolstered by their traditional enmity with the Islamists.

Having thus reviewed the contemporary political scene in Turkey, we find that support for active Turkish intervention in Syria is fairly limited, and furthermore, is faced by a broad opposition front made up of both the genuinely principled and opportunist alike. So what about external factors?

Turkey and Iran

Tension between the two countries peaked over their opposing attitudes to events in Syria, a tension embodied in the recent warnings issued to Turkey by one of Iran’s leading military figures, despite the fact that in the spring of 2011, Turkey voted against a Security Council resolution designed to further isolate the regime in Tehran.
Let us look at the nature of relations between the two sides over the last ten years.

While Iran has been a potent force in the regional politics of the Arab East since the revolution of 1979, Turkey’s own influence in the region only started to surge after the Justice and Development Party rose to power as part of an Islamist coalition in 2002. The Baathist regime in Damascus is both one of Iran’s most important allies and Turkey’s gateway to the Arab world, so it is hardly surprising that the Syrian revolution should be so decisive when it comes to relations between the two states.

There is a common perception, based on an essentially Orientalist worldview, that relations between Iran and Turkey are determined by a sectarian Shia-Sunni power struggle with roots in the sixteenth century conflict between the Ottoman and Safavid empires. But I believe, giving due weight to the sectarian dimension, that the roots of their relationship lie elsewhere.
On the one hand, it seems clear that its Shiism is as much a burden to Iran as a help when it comes to forging ties with its Arab neighbors. The Iranian revolution, which unleashed a strident rhetoric against the ‘arrogance’ of Western imperialism, sought to take up the mantle of leader in an Arab world which had lost Gamal Abdel Nasser and seen Anwar Sadat make peace with Israel.

The sectarian issue may have lain in abeyance during the Cold War, but it shot back to prominence in the 1990s, dividing Arab communities in Lebanon, Iraq and throughout the Arab Gulf. This divisive sectarianism reached its peak in the wake of al-Qaeda’s operations in New York and Washington in 2001. The strategy adopted by the US in its ‘War on Terror’ further fed Arab fears about Shiite Iran, with the Gulf states in particular opting to engage the Persian enemy in an arms race. The occupation of Iraq in 2003 increased Iran’s involvement in the region through Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine and led to the formation of a ‘moderate Arab front’ to hold back the threat of greater inroads.
Turkey, meanwhile, reentered the region by means of vigorous economic, cultural and diplomatic policies, reasserting its presence for the first time since the First World War. The extremist secular nationalism with which Kemal Ataturk built modern Turkey on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire had caused Turkey to turn to the West and cut its historical ties with the Arab and Islamic worlds.

Indeed, Turkey had to wait until the dawn of the new millennium to find a way back in, after its Cold War role had become redundant. The country’s Islamists, long persecuted and oppressed by the Kemalist regime, undertook a root and branch revision of their ideological position in the same decade and were swept to power in 2002 on the back of overwhelming public support. Thus began the Justice and Development Party’s long and arduous journey to consign the Kemalist regime to history and begin a new chapter in the history of modern Turkey. Their project involved revisiting the country’s Ottoman past via a reappraisal of Islam and international politics and instituting a plural democratic regime based on free market economics.

Davutoglu’s strategy towards Turkey’s neighbors, based on a “zero problems” foreign policy, was in essence a political response to economic necessity. The liberalizing policies instituted by former prime minister and president Turgut Ozal at the beginning of the 1980s had begun to take effect by the end of the millennium, but strained relations with its neighbors stood in the way of Turkey’s ambitions for economic expansion. Turkish diplomats worked tirelessly on all fronts, making good progress in Syria, Iraq, Iran, various formerly Soviet states and the Balkans, but coming up short in Armenia and Greece.

It was a policy aimed at stability: at maintaining the status quo. When the Arab revolutions broke out, Turkey was faced a choice: either to side with the revolutionaries, or maintain its relations with the various despotic regimes fighting to stay in power. Just weeks after the Syrian uprising began, the old policy fell by the wayside. The Turkish government failed to persuade the Syrians to adopt a moderate solution based on concessions that would usher in profound democratic change in Syria and alter the face of Bashar Assad’s regime. Relations between the sides grew strained, then snapped.

The differences between the respective roles played by Turkey and Iran in the Arab East stem from the vastly different nature of the two regimes. Since its revolution more than thirty years ago and the high price of its war with Iraq and Western economic sanctions, Iran has never once enjoyed stability. It is motivated by a desire for international recognition of its status as a regional power, befitting its glorious past and manifest potential. The war that Saddam Hussein launched against Iran for the first eight years of the Islamic republic’s existence acts as a primal trauma, an experience that has colored all its subsequent actions with a profound fear of conflict and isolation. It is this very fear that pushes Iran to strengthen itself, both by extending its influence in a number of Arab countries and seeking out a deterrent nuclear capability. The Iranian model has lost its initial glamour. Iran’s role in the region is now a source of tension and crisis in the Middle East.

By contrast, the new ‘Turkish model’ promises stability, peace and trade, not to mention the vision of secularism and democracy in harmony with Islam. In the last few years Erdogan has won himself a large public following on the Arab street, for his escalated demagogical anti-Israeli rhetoric and his advocacy for the Palestinian cause. By showing clear support for the Arab peoples against their dictatorial regimes, Turkey has made itself a player in the conflict and brought the curtain firmly down on its policy of preserving the status quo. Iran, meanwhile, has gone the other way, supporting Assad’s brutal repression of his people and supplying him with funds, weapons and - it is claimed - expertise, as well.


It is impossible for ‘reformist Turkey’ to play an openly revolutionary role in the struggle for power currently playing out in Syria. Turkey has achieved its democratic transition in its own particular fashion: a measured progression over more than two decades of conflict and uncertainty. It is for this reason that the new, reformist Turkey is not interventionist. Unlike revolutionary Iran, which has worked hard to disseminate its ‘revolutionary principles’ throughout the Arab world, Turkey does not seek to export its reform. It is equally impossible for Turkey, as a member of NATO, to militarily intervene in Syria without its Western allies. All it can do is what it has done: offer a home to the Syrian opposition and issue statements condemning Assad’s regime. In addition to all the internal and external factors mentioned above, we might add the fear of failure that haunts the Turkish army. This complex stems both from its failed assault on Cyprus in 1974 and its fruitless military operations against PKK bases in northern Iraq. Whenever it has mounted operations, the modern Turkish army has experienced failure and committed fatal errors, reflected in the diminishing respect it is accorded by public opinion in the country. This has enabled Erdogan to remove it from political life and, more recently, to bring a number of senior retired military leaders to trial, such as Ilker Basbug and Kenan Evren.

The Syrian people are on their own to continue their revolution without support, seeking to topple the regime and build a new, democratic and civil republic.

Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger. 

About the Author

Bakr Sidki is an independent Syrian activist and political analyst based in Aleppo. He studied economics and Turkish literature. Most of his articles are published in Al-Hayat newspaper and in several Lebanese newspapers, including Al-Adab magazine. He also works as translator from Turkish, and has translated several historical and political works, as well as novels of Orhan Pamuk, Aziz Nesin, and Tahsin Yucel.