In light of the recent gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun, a rebel-held town in Syria, it is important to consider the Turkish involvement in the Syrian conflict. At first blush, Turkey’s relationship with the Syrian conflict is much more neutral than that of both Russia and the United States, but its relative lack of politicization potentially belies its investment and self-interest in the conflict.
According to the BBC, in an article entitled, “Syria chemical attack ‘fabricated’ – Assad,” it is reported that President Assad has said that he would only permit an “impartial” investigation, which would rely on “unbiased countries.” So, how does this relate to Turkey? Some of the victims of the gas attack in Khan Sheikoun were taken to Turkey to undergo forensic analysis to determine their cause of death. It was determined that victims were exposed to a chemical substance, with the odds being in favour of the nerve agent, sarin, been used. While Turkey was used to make a purportedly non-biased examination of some of the victims of the gas attacks, in addition to having some of the civilians being evacuated to Turkey for treatment, it remains necessary to assess Turkey’s political investment in the Syrian civil war, particularly in terms of what it stands to gain from Assad’s regime collapsing.
For starters, Turkey shares borders with Syria, so in terms of maintaining territorial integrity, as well as avoiding a spillover of conflict, Turkey does have a sincere vested interest in ending the Syrian conflict. However, this becomes particularly poignant in consideration of the fact that Turkey has its own ethnically-based, domestic conflict with Kurds in Turkey, such as the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which is a conflict that runs parallel to what occurs in Syria.
Turkey has a somewhat permeable border between itself and Syria, mostly permeable as Turkey allows aid to Syrian rebels in order to fight against the Assad regime. However, this assistance also runs the risk of indirectly aiding the PKK in Turkey, as well as the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in Syria. Turkey is vitally interested in limiting the Kurd’s ability to establish a state because the PKK and the YPG, as from the Turkish government’s perspective, are a threat to its territorial integrity. This is due to the PKK’s and YPG’s ardent desire to create a discernable territory for Kurds and, according to Steven Cook, from the Council on Foreign Relations, the PKK has “already declared Western Kurdistan, but the Turks want to… [inhibit a] functioning, contiguous territory.” The US’s support, and use, of Syrian Kurds against the ISIS has been particularly helpful in enabling Kurds to create an enclave – read as potentially defined territory – for a Kurdish state. This has substantially soured relations between the US and Turkey.
While the conflict in Syria can, in some ways, still be called a civil war, it is also very much an ethnically based conflict from a Turkish standpoint. This is important to consider because, recently, Turkey has been sidelined in terms of the Western media’s narrative about the Syrian war, which tends to frame Syria as a proxy war between former Cold War counterparts: the US and the Russian Federation. Turkey’s relationship with Kurds in Turkey has been long and brutal. Since 1990, violence between the Turkish government and the PKK has amounted to over 27,000 deaths, according to the Uppsala Conflict Database. A recent example of violence can be seen in 2016, where the Turkish military bombarded the district of Cizre, and approximately 290 people were killed.
As the horrors of war in Syria are captured on a daily basis and President Erdogan’s prior affronts to human rights linger, such as the arrest of his political opponents and the muzzling of Turkish press, it is easy to ignore how Turkey’s involvement in Syria is not merely to ensure stability in its neighbouring countries. Rather, Turkey also seeks to end the conflict in Syria on its own terms and this necessarily involves quashing the possibility of a Kurdish national state and likely by any means necessary.