Umit Bektas / Courtesy Reuters Erdogan during a meeting in Ankara, October 14, 2009.

Turkey's Evolving Syria Strategy

Why Ankara Backs Al-Nusra but Shuns ISIS

In April 2011, senior members of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) met in Ankara to discuss the unrest in Syria. The meeting focused on Syria and how the government should respond to Bashar al-Assad’s violent suppression of antigovernment demonstrations. For the AKP, the unrest posed a unique set of challenges. Since 2002, Turkey had prioritized good relations with Damascus, arguing that areas of northern Syria were part of what they called Turkey’s “natural hinterland.”

In the end, the meeting’s participants decided to cautiously support Assad, albeit while prodding him to make political concessions to allow the exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to reenter Syrian politics. Unlike during the Arab Spring protests in Egypt, when Turkey called on President Hosni Mubarak to step down after only eight days of rallies, Ankara’s initial preference in Syria was for the regime to reform and remain in power. To this end, Recep Tayyip Erdogan—then prime minister and now president—dispatched two trusted advisers to try to convince Assad to make cosmetic democratic reforms to appease the protesters. In April 2011, he sent Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan to try to convince Assad to deescalate the unfolding crisis. Thereafter, he dispatched Ahmet Davutoglu, foreign minister at the time and now prime minister, on numerous occasions. Despite these efforts, neither man was successful. In September 2011, Turkey severed ties with the regime and began to take active part in regional efforts to overthrow the Syrian dictator.

Turkey’s initial participation in the war evolved in three stages. First, Ankara allowed for the safe transit of arms and fighters, many of whom were defectors from the Syrian army, to various Syrian provinces. These defectors, who came to be known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), were given shelter by Turkey, and they were allowed to operate from a special refugee camp just inside Turkey’s border with Syria. (Later, they would be given permission to establish a presence in Turkish border towns.) Second, Ankara was eager to

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