Turkey's Bleeding Border

Why Ankara Is Recalibrating Its Syria Policy

A Syrian man jumps over barbed wire as he tries to cross the border from Syria to the southern Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, December 2012. (Laszlo Balogh / Courtesy Reuters)

Since its emergence in Syria in January 2012, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian arm of al Qaeda, has relied on Syria’s border with southern Turkey to bring foreign fighters into the battle to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey has thus become a principal channel for the flow of people, arms, and logistical assistance to the rebels. Now, after years of fighting, the Turkish government is looking to put an end to all that. On June 3, it designated al-Nusra as a terrorist organization and announced that it had frozen all of the group’s assets. Although it remains unclear what exactly those assets are, it is unquestionable that the move represents a turning point in Turkey's policy toward Syria -- if not in the conflict itself.

Since protests against Assad first morphed into a civil war, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government have supported the full spectrum of groups fighting for Assad’s overthrow -- from the moderate opposition to extremist factions such as al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which is now marching through Iraq. Erdogan has been one of Assad’s most ardent opponents since the start of hostilities -- even at the cost of alienating Western powers that increasingly favored a negotiated solution.

By allowing his country to become a highway for rebels of all stripes crossing into Syria, Erdogan failed to distinguish between moderate forces and jihadists. This was the price Turkey was willing to pay to avoid terrorist attacks on its own soil by any group singled out for exclusion, Didem Akyel Collinsworth, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, told me. That fear has been holding Turkey back from adding al-Nusra to the blacklist until now. But it had to bite the bullet as it became apparent that extremism in Syria would continue to flourish, and that Ankara must be prepared to face the consequences, including the overflow of violence across its borders. “We may in fact see some backlash from this classification,” Collinsworth said.

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