Ankara Embraces Regime Change: Zero Problems and the Syrian Crisis

Turkey's recent foreign policy goal of being at peace with her neighbours is now in tatters as it lobbies for full-scale military intervention in Syria. Unlike the United States, Turkey's strategy now involves regime change, not just punitive military strikes.

After the ruling and Justice and Development Party's (AKP) election in 2002, Turkish foreign makers sought to deepen the country's influence in the Middle East. Thus, in a departure from the Kemalist favoured 'peace at home, peace abroad', foreign policy mantra, the AKP began to actively engage with countries in the region.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu described Turkey as a 'centre state' intent on acting independently when making foreign policy decisions. Thus, in order for Turkey to move beyond the Cold War era mind-set that dominated and limited previous decision-making, Ankara must first embrace its own identity via democratic reforms at home, and then act independently when making foreign policy decisions abroad.

Hence, as the conflict in Syria escalated, Ankara had initially sought to act independently from the United States. In turn, the US, which has been eager to decrease its regional footprint, embraced Turkey's role and sought to outsource the handling of the Syrian conflict to Ankara and its other regional allies.

Yet, as the conflict escalated, the limits of Ankara's foreign policy forced Turkey to turn to its most powerful ally to help resolve its troubles in Syria. The two allies, however, have vastly different policy prescriptions for the Syrian civil war. Thus, as the United States debates whether or not to take military action in Syria, Ankara, regardless of the outcome of the vote, is likely to be left wanting more.

Moreover, there is a sense that Turkey's trouble in Syria, combined with the recent events in Egypt, will, at some point in the future, prompt Ankara to adopt a radically different foreign policy. However, rather than undermine the central tenets of the AKP's 'Zero Problems' foreign policy, Turkey's inability to act independently in Syria will likely prompt Ankara to continue with its efforts to play a larger role at international institutions, so as to ensure Ankara's preferred policies will factor more heavily on international decision-making.

From Soft Power to Hard Power

At the outset of violence in Syria, Turkey's initial instinct was to negotiate with Bashar al-Assad, in order to convince the Syrian dictator to make cosmetic democratic reforms designed to appease his citizenry. Yet, after these efforts failed, and the conflict began to morph into a civil war, Turkey turned away from 'soft-power,' in favour of 'hard power'.

Nevertheless, Ankara continued to shun external intervention. Turkey therefore [SM1] sought to organise a cohesive opposition, which would quickly assume power once Assad was toppled. Turkish officials reasoned that an organised opposition could overthrow Assad in relatively short order, without any large-scale military assistance from the West. Thus, in parallel to their political efforts, Turkish policy makers began to take an active role in the arming of the Syrian rebels. Policymakers believed that once Assad was toppled via Turkish allied proxies, the political opposition could swiftly move into Damascus, and begin to administer vital state services without much delay. Turkey was eager for a quick transition, so as to ensure the maintenance of a strong centralised Syrian state.

The policy was intended to prevent Syria's Kurds from carving out an autonomous statelet on Turkey's longest land border and to avoid the sectarian violence that engulfed Iraq after the United States opted to pursue its de-Baathifcation policy. These efforts have failed. And, as a result, Ankara has become increasingly desperate to expedite the downfall of the Syrian dictator.

Turkey's desperation is a reflection of its own security interests, rather than a belief in the efficacy of preventive military action to implement democracy in third countries. In fact, Turkey's 'Zero Problems' foreign policy has never embraced democracy promotion, but has rather been focused on using Turkish diplomacy to create a 'Basin of Peace', i.e., the lessening of ethnic, sectarian, and religious conflicts in the region.

In Syria, Turkey's embrace of military action began shortly after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ceded control of strategic border areas to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) - a Kurdish group with links to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Despite fears that the PKK had gained strategic depth - and thereby opened up a second front apart from Iraqi Kurdistan - Ankara continued to insist that external intervention be sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) or framed under the still controversial legal framework of Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

Ankara's embrace of R2P is not all that surprising, considering Turkey's participation in the NATO operations in the Balkans. In fact, Davutoglu, in his book Strategic Depth, lamented the fact that Turkey played such a limited role in the air campaign over Bosnia and argued that in future situations, Ankara should, in conjunction with an international coalition, play a larger military role in protecting civilians.

Yet, beginning in May 2013, Turkey's policy shifted again. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, before a meeting with President Obama in Washington, announced that Syria had used chemical weapons and therefore had crossed President Barack Obama's 'red line'. In turn, Erdogan prodded the United States to take a far greater military role in the conflict and announced his country's support for an American led no fly zone.

Erdogan's stark assertion lacked Turkey's usual caveats about the need for UN authorisation. Turkey, however, failed to convince the US to take action and instead had to alter its policy to support the American and Russian efforts to convince the opposition and the Syrian regime to attend a peace conference in Geneva. At the time, Ankara was skeptical of any solution to the Syrian crisis that envisioned a role for Ba'ath party elites in a post-Assad government. Nevertheless, at the United States' behest, Turkish officials lobbied members of the Syrian opposition to support the peace process.

However, as these efforts stalled, Ankara has once again called on the US to intervene. This effort has taken on a new urgency after the 21 August Sarin attack that the United States claimed some 1400 Syrian civilians. Turkey is one of the few countries that have overtly stated its support for American military action. And, in sharp departure from the fundamental underpinnings of Turkey's 'Strategic Depth/Zero Problems' foreign policy, Ankara has overtly embraced US led regime change, as it preferred policy to resolve the Syrian crisis.

Divergent US and Turkish Positions

Turkey's policy, however, is not in line with the United States' approach to the conflict. These differences have become more pronounced after the Russian Federation put forward a proposal calling on the Syrian regime to turn over its chemical weapons to the international community. Syria in turn has welcomed  the proposal.

President Obama has said that the proposal 'could potentially be a significant breakthrough', but has suggested that the 'international community should take it with a grain of salt'. France, which has steadfastly backed the American calls to strike Syria, has indicated that it will put forward a resolution at the UNSC calling on Syria to immediately turn over its chemical weapons to the international community.  

Foreign Minister Davutoglu welcomed the Russian initiative, but made clear that the proposal 'shouldn't dilute international determination to make the regime pay for its role in the chemical attack'. In addition, the Turkish Foreign Minister suggested that if Obama were to back away from enforcing the United States' redline, it would 'likely embolden [Assad] and other dictators on the use of such [chemical] weapons'.


This divergence in opinion about the appropriate response to the Russian proposal is representative of the United States and Turkey's fundamental disagreements about the way forward in Syria. On the one hand, the US argues that the strikes - should they take place - should only be to 'deter' future chemical weapons use, 'degrade' Assad's capability to launch future chemical weapons attacks, and to coerce the regime to begin peace negotiations, Thus, for the United States, the use of force is thought of as a tool to reinforce a global norm and to hasten a diplomatic resolution to the civil war.  The operation, therefore, is likely to be limited to three days of cruise missile strikes with no boots on the ground.

Turkey, on the other hand, believes that the scope of strikes should be open ended and aimed at regime change. Prime Minister Erdogan, for example, has called for an operation similar in scope to the seventy-eight day bombing of Kosovo in 1999. Moreover, unlike the US, Turkish officials argue that the current Syrian opposition can be counted on to assume state responsibilities once Assad is forced from power. In turn, once allowed to administrate, the moderate opposition will bolster its legitimacy and therefore marginalise groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Turkey acknowledges that security may continue to be an issue once Assad is removed; however, officials believe that an international 'stabilisation force' could be deployed inside Syria to help provide security. 

Thus, while the US and Turkey have, for now, agreed on the need to militarily respond to Assad's chemical weapons use, the two long-time allies have radically different assessments about the best way forward. In the interim, the United States' approach is sure to win-out. Ankara lacks the capabilities to intervene in Syria without US military assistance and, for the AKP, the idea of deploying Turkish troops inside Syria is politically toxic. The AKP, therefore, has a strong incentive to 'militarily free-ride' and rely on US power to implement its preferred policy.

Yet, in the long run, the over reliance on the United States is likely to reinforce the theoretical underpinning of the 'zero problems/strategic depth' foreign policy. Davutoglu and other members of the AKP elite have long lamented Turkey's reliance on the Western powers and have argued that Turkey should be more independent. Thus, while Turkey's foreign policy has come under increasing strain as a result of recent events in the Middle East, the idea that Turkey should work to become even more independent is likely to continue to resonate with policy makers in Ankara. While Ankara is never likely to leave the NATO alliance or completely abandon its bid for EU membership, history suggests that as long as the AKP remains in power, 'zero problems' will likely continue to guide Turkish foreign policy.


Aaron Stein

View profile

Explore our related content