How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
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.
Beyond the risks, though, Turkey could gain a great deal from its new tactics. The policy could, for instance, help to stabilize Ankara’s relations with Washington after a recent cooling. Ties between Turkey and the West have been strained since Erdogan violently suppressed antigovernment protests last June; six months later, high-ranking officials (including Erdogan’s own son) became embroiled in a corruption scandal. As a result, the West, and the United States in particular, have come to see Turkey “as both sliding into authoritarianism in its domestic policies and dealing with rampant corruption,” Gökhan Bacik, an associate professor of international relations at Ankara's Ipek University, told me. “There is a growing perception that Turkey should do something to change its worsening image, and that it should be something to do with Syria." Erdogan’s positioning himself as a conduit to a democratic transformation in Syria -- and one who shares Washington’s concerns over a growing extremist threat -- would bolster his slipping image both abroad and at home.
The changed classification of al Nusra may have been a key symbolic step toward improving ties with the United States, but Erdogan must now prove that his support for the group -- namely, through his open-border policy for the group’s fighters and their shipments of arms and supplies -- has indeed come to an end. Without further evidence of a true policy change, Washington will be hard to convince.
The new strategy could also be geared toward appeasing the domestic audience. The Syrian conflict has cost Turkey more than $3 billion since 2011, with less than ten percent of this amount contributed by foreign donors. Most of the funds have been spent on humanitarian causes -- namely, on housing and support for the over 720,000 registered refugees who have flooded Turkish border cities and the nearly one million additional unregistered refugees who are thought to live outside the official camps. The United Nations estimates that the total refugee outflow from Syria could exceed 4.5 million by the end of this year, with a quarter of them living in Turkey.
The financial drain has raised the ire of most Turks, who have maintained staunch opposition to their country’s involvement in the conflict next door. Their anger is a recurring theme ahead of the August presidential elections, in which Erdogan is a leading candidate. The Syrian spillover has become a major domestic flashpoint because top government officials have invested substantial prestige in it over time, says Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. But with many neighboring states in turmoil, the ideas of isolationism and a peaceful home front are vitally important to the Turks -- a sentiment that was vastly underestimated by Ankara when it first enmeshed itself in Syria’s strife.
By turning their backs on al-Nusra, Turkish officials could be trying to curry favor with Washington and drum up financial aid. Yet their eagerness to expand the international community’s share of the costs calls into question the sincerity of their change of heart vis-à-vis the militant group. “When al-Nusra was declared a terrorist organization by the United States and accepted as such by the UN, the Turks tried to defend it tooth and nail,” Soli Özel, a professor at Istanbul's Bilgi University, told me. “If you read government-supported daily newspapers then, they were all singing the praises of al-Nusra and saying it wasn't that radical … They thought al-Nusra and other groups would be good militants and overthrow [Assad], but once that was done, they’d be easy to contain.” This miscalculation has left Turkey with a credibility problem, dimming its hope for mustering much international sympathy for its humanitarian burden -- especially in light of similar refugee crises faced by Jordan and Lebanon.
IN FOR THE LONG HAUL
There is yet one more reason to abandon al-Nusra: it has not credibly challenged Assad. The Syrian leader’s reelection on June 3 made it apparent that, after a string of small but important battlefield victories, he intends to remain in office -- and that the pressure of Syrian migrants within Turkey will mount further. Erdogan now needs to be on the Obama administration's side, both to bolster financial assistance and to ensure that he has allies in the international arena.
As he proceeds to recalibrate his strategy, Erdogan’s first order of business is to scale back Syria-related expenses, Osman Bahadir Dinçer, an expert on Syria at the Ankara-based nonpartisan think tank USAK, told me. "Turkey underestimated the size of the Syria problem and it tried to punch above its weight. Because of polarized domestic politics, it will take a long time to hear from politicians that they made a mistake or miscalculated."
The government will also have to rethink its internal policies toward refugees. On June 5, officials from the ruling Development and Justice Party said that they were considering issuing work permits to Syrian refugees in the border region. The move is a step forward from the largely ad hoc refugee policy pursued to date, which offered few legal means to obtain a long-term residency status. It also signals that the government is looking to integrate Syrians into society and the workforce, turning them into taxpayers -- a strategy advocated by Western officials and humanitarian groups.
Several other shifts may be in the works when it comes to verbal and material support for the militant opposition. At the end of May, the Arabic newspaper al-Akhbar reported that the Turkish government had shut off the flow of water into Syria from the Euphrates River. The move has not been confirmed by the Turkish government, but such a shutoff could lead to severe water shortages in the northern part of Syria, which is largely controlled by rebel factions including al-Nusra and ISIS.
On the whole, Turkey’s policy shift should assuage the concerns of Western powers (namely the United States, Britain, and France) that Syria’s extremists will branch out to strike outside the Middle East. It should also reassure Turks worried that a fear of retaliation has led Erdogan to be soft on the terrorists running amok in southern Turkey. But abandoning al-Nusra so late in the war will likely not be enough to hinder the growing power of Syria’s extremist groups, now commanding the upper hand in large swaths of the country -- including areas near the Turkish border. Ankara’s belated change of face, while serving to strengthen Erdogan’s image in the West, may in the end have little concrete impact in his own backyard.