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HomeIn-Depth AnalysisAlly or Menace: Turkey’s Role in Syria and Europe’s Strategic Options

Ally or Menace: Turkey’s Role in Syria and Europe’s Strategic Options

By Francesco Belcastro

The Syrian conflict has seen the direct intervention of several regional and global powers. One of these states, Turkey, seems to have now entrenched its control over a portion of the Syrian territory. This de facto annexation has significant relevance for NATO and European powers, particularly within the context of Ankara’s regional policy. Turkey’s trajectory under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is pushing it away from its NATO and European partners, requiring a rebooted European approach that takes seriously the new reality on the ground.  

Almost four years have passed since Operation Olive Branch, Turkey’s military invasion of the Syrian region of Afrin. Since that time, Ankara appears to have strengthened its hold over the area, which it controls largely through its Syrian proxies. Together with the central corridor in the north of the country, Turkey now controls a significant portion of Syrian territory. Recently, damning reports of widespread violations of human rights by the Syrian National Army (the force comprised of most pro-Turkish militias in Syria) have emerged, as well as accusations of population transfers aimed at reshaping the ethnic make-up of the region. The establishment of a Turkish-controlled zone in Northern Syria has been largely ignored by international observers, who are more concerned perhaps with the immediate repercussions of the Syrian crisis. It has, however, significant implications for the region and for Europe’s approach to the Eastern Mediterranean. 

Is Turkey aiming to annex the Syrian territory it now controls? Undoubtedly, several signs indicate that Ankara is not planning to leave any time soon. Turkish officials (including former deputy prime minister Recep Akdag) have stated repeatedly that, while Turkey has no ambitions over the Afrin region, it will nevertheless not return it to the Syrian regime but would rather “give it back to the local population”—a byword for keeping it under the control of pro-Turkish militias. Officially aimed at “fighting terrorism” by reversing the growth of Kurdish YPG-controlled territory, the occupation is also part of Turkey’s aggressive strategy in the region. Preventing the establishment of a Kurdish-controlled semi-autonomous region arguably remains the main goal of Turkish foreign policy in Syria, but Ankara does not appear to be inclined to return the territory to the Syrian regime, nor to give any real autonomy to the local population. 

A restitution to the Al-Assad regime would most likely happen under two circumstances. Most probably, within the context of a grand bargain with Syria’s patron, Russia, where Moscow would guarantee against the re-establishment of Kurdish presence in the area and Ankara would obtain something in exchange. Alternatively, Ankara could be forced into returning the occupied territories through a combination of internal and external pressure. For the Syrian regime, recovering this territory is arguably not the top priority at the moment. Time is not necessarily on Damascus’ side however, particularly as the regime’s ability to exercise any sort of pressure on Ankara depends almost entirely on its ally Russia. For now, the only real lever that the regime has—other than official condemnation of Turkish occupation and promises to take all of the country back—is working with Kurdish militias to make the Turkish occupation as costly as possible. At the same time, Damascus has attempted to rebuild ties with Arab states (chief among them the UAE) that are themselves increasingly concerned by Turkey’s growing regional influence as a way to strengthen its diplomatic position.  

Turkey’s aggressions in Northern Syria present problems for its Western allies too. The dilemma for European capitals is clear. Condoning Ankara’s Syrian adventure is bad for several reasons, from the blatant violations of human rights to the risk that President Erdogan might perceive this as a green light for further military ventures in the future. On the other hand, NATO powers have no appetite for making life easier for the Syrian regime and its allies—the parties most likely to benefit from a potential Turkish retreat. Still, Europe’s strategic approach to Turkey must be contextualized within broader discussions of Turkey’s value as an ally, a hot topic on both sides of the Atlantic. On the European side, the relation with Turkey has often driven a wedge between different capitals, while in the U.S. the topic has often caused disagreements between Congress and the State Department (the latter considered to be particularly invested in the relation with Ankara). The crux of the argument is rather simple: while Turkey is a significant geopolitical asset, it frequently adds a degree of instability to the region (especially under President Erdogan). Consequently, some believe that a more assertive approach towards Ankara is warranted, while others disagree. 

For his part, Erdogan has not shied away from acts that could be perceived as provocatory. The latest incident was the announcement of the reopening of the Cypriot town of Varosha, located in the demilitarized area between the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish-occupied northern part of the island. While the Turkish president went so far as to visit the town at the end of July, the move has attracted strong condemnations from both the EU and the U.S. and has outraged Greek Cypriots.

From the perspective of European capitals, the issue of Turkish control of northern Syria might not seem as urgent as the frequent crises with Greece and Cyprus, punctuated by ominous Turkish threats, nor as far-reaching as Turkey’s rivalry with the UAE, but it is certainly part of the same foreign policy trajectory. What is taking place in Afrin is not something Europe (or the U.S., for that matter) should accept from an ally for both moral and political reasons. Tolerating widespread human rights violations, including forcible displacement of population, is exactly the kind of ‘double standard’ that has constantly undermined Western stance and credibility in the Eastern Mediterranean region. As such, this would represent an excellent starting point for a restructuring of European policy towards Ankara. 

The new approach should aim at containing Turkey’s expansionist drive as well as adopt a tougher, more critical tack towards human rights violations in Northern Syria. More generally, European capitals need to acknowledge that the Erdogan presidency is gradually turning Turkey from an asset into a liability. Setting aside the problems outlined so far, Ankara’s buddying relation with Russia and its own sense of geopolitical grandeur cultivated by the current leadership make even Turkey’s value as a Western ally vis-à-vis Moscow rather questionable. Accordingly, a European policy towards Ankara should have two clear lynchpins: 1) encourage Turkey to revert towards a more moderate line; and 2) be more assertive if/when Ankara refuses to reconsider its approach.   

The EU has significant leverage over Ankara but has so far been unable or unwilling to capitalize on it. Turkey is currently undergoing a serious economic crisis, which makes dealing with the country especially challenging. While European capitals would certainly welcome a (highly unlikely) departure of President Erdogan, the possibility of the country spiralling into an unpredictable crisis due to the ensuing vacuum is undesirable. The one silver lining to the current situation is that it provides the EU with significant economic leverage. The Customs Union is vital for Ankara and could therefore be wisely leveraged to secure compromises from Turkey. While calls to disband the Customs Union altogether should be resisted (at least for the time being), Turkey should be made aware that the option is not off the table. Europe has so far allowed the Turkish president to weaponize migrants by flaunting the threat of “flooding Europe with refugees”. With the EU reportedly planning to spend 5 billion euros in assistance towards managing Syrian refugees, and considering Turkey’s economic woes, the EU should be binding its aid money to an improvement in the human rights situation in the Turkish-controlled Syrian region. 

Exercising additional diplomatic pressure could also prove prudent. European officials have already condemned Ankara’s presence in Afrin. More can be done to signal that Turkey’s expansionism will face serious backlash, starting from heightened strategic cooperation and coordination among regional actors toward balancing and containing Ankara. Crucially, European powers need to be canny in how they exploit Erdogan’s domestic vulnerabilities. Many observers attribute Erdogan’s aggressive foreign policy to his attempt to maintain domestic consensus. The economic crisis that has hit the country has dented the president’s reputation, and Erdogan cannot afford any diplomatic setbacks that could undermine the image of Turkey as a powerful and assertive global actor. 

Combatting Turkish aggression is made even more complex owing to clashing interests of main European powers in the Eastern Mediterranean. This is probably most evident in the French-Italian divide over Libya. On the Libyan front, Paris has so far sided with the UAE, Egypt, and Russia in supporting strongman Khalifa Haftar. Italy, on the other hand, has quietly sided with Ankara in supporting the Syrian Government of National Accord (GNA). Despite these differences, European powers must acknowledge that current developments such as the Eastern Mediterranean energy and maritime borders disputes demand a joint European approach that would also expand to managing their relationship with Ankara. The new American administration could also represent an important partner in implementing this new policy. President Biden has already shown that, while he does not want to create unnecessary tension with Turkey, he will not shy away from firm criticism of his Turkish ally.

Turkey remains a NATO member and a nominal partner for European countries, however, under President Erdogan, it has adopted confrontational policies that have significantly diminished its value as an ally for the West. Ankara is on collision course that could result in a collapse of its partnership with the EU. A passive and soft approach by European leaders will not help revert this, but rather encourage the Turkish president to pursue policies that will worsen an already precarious situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as distancing Turkey further from his Western allies. A clearer and firmer European approach, on the other hand, could help contain Turkish expansionism and (crucially) would represent a solid basis for the development of a more successful European strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean.


Dr Francesco Belcastro is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Derby in the UK and a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies, University of St Andrews.  His main areas of research are conflict and security, foreign policy and politics of the Levant (particularly Israel/Palestine and Syria). His current research looks at external actors’ involvement in civil wars. He is also interested in the politics of Israel and Palestine and is currently working on a project that deals with sport and politics in the region. In the past he has also worked on foreign policy and particularly on alliances. His first monograph, recently published by Routledge, analyses the foreign policy of Syria during the years 1963-1989. His policy analysis have been published by outlets such as National Interest and Muftah.

Follow him on Twitter: @DrFrancescoBelc

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  

Panelists:

Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security

 

Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.

Panelists:

Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.

 

Panelists:

Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 

Panelists:

Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 

 

Panelists:

Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.

 

Panelists:

Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor