Civil War in Syria: Perspectives from Turkey

22 Mar

Two years has been completed for Syria’s rebel against Basher al-Assad regime. When a peaceful protest was cracked down violently by Assad’s regime forces, the rebellion spread to rest of the country, became a nationwide protest and subsequently a civil war. Recent UN data on the region states that, so far, the conflict caused death of around 70,000 people; including civilians, protesters and pro-government soldiers. The conflict displaced some one million people who moved to the neighbouring countries as refugees; 2.5 million people were internally displaced and thousands were imprisoned and most of the villages and cities were damaged [1]. These numbers are increasing day by day, and more importantly no one has a clue what will happen next. This human tragedy in Syria has revealed interests and ideologies of major powers, and existing international order. It also showed how UN and Arab League failed to stop the civil war. This has happened though in the UN World Summit in 2005 member states made an international commitment to protect, when the state concerned is itself unable to do so, population from experiencing “crimes against humanity” [2]. A resolution by UN Security Council to end the bloodshed in Syria was vetoed by China and Russia, as they were unwilling to lose their economic and political dominance to Western powers. For most of the neighbouring countries, the Syrian issue became not just international policy but also internal policy.


(Syria before and after war)

This paper will analyze Turkish response to the Syrian issue. Being neighboring country and supporting the rebellions, Turkey is hosting around 230,000 refugees from Syria. The numbers of refugees are increasing every day. Moreover, any new formation in Syria after civil will definitely affect Turkey and other neighbouring countries. In order to have better understanding about Turkish reaction against Syrian protest I will briefly touch upon political and demographic composition of Syria.

When protests resulted in the removal of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt everyone hoped the same will happen to Assad’s regime. But, the present situation in the region destroyed the hopes of many people to establish a just and democratic governmental system. Assad, it seems will stay as a head of government until his last breath. Let me clarify certain points about Assad, his regime, and demographic composition of country. This will help us to identify Turkish response to the unrest in Syria.

Current president Basher al-Assad was nominated and confirmed as president, following the death of his father Hafez al-Assad in 2000. He has continued his father’s authoritarian, military-dominated regime [4]. Syria is dominated by Baath (Arab Socialist Resurrection) Party. As for the demographic composition of the population is concerned, there are different ethnic and religious groups. Who are the supporters of the regime and who are the protesters?

1. The Alawites (12 per cent of the population) are Shiite Muslims, but it is mixed with other religions [5]. The Assad family, the army and internal security apparatus, the units most responsible and loyal for enforcing regime are from the Alawites [4]. 2. The Sunni Muslims (60 per cent) are the main opposition group in Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood is the major group among Sunni Muslims that are active in other Arab countries [5]. 3. The Kurds (9 per cent), who are Sunni Muslims, are the other major group that poses threat to the regime. Being non-Arabs, the Kurds have been systematically suppressed by the regime and deprived of citizenship [4]. 4. Greek Orthodox Christians and Armenian Christians (13 per cent of population) were groups that initially supported Assad’s regime. The regime has fully protected the ethnic rights of these groups. The reason why they support Assad is that they fear the government that might come. Recent news says that some of these groups have started shifting to the protesters’ side. These are the major groups that are playing major role in Syria.

How did Turkey respond to the unrest in Syria? And historically, how was the relationship between Turkey and Syria? These are the questions to which I am going to search for the answers in the following paragraphs. While doing so, I have to consider responses of other actors (like Iran, Russia and western powers) as these affect Turkish motives towards Syria. Currently, Turkey has opened its borders to refugees coming from Syria, and is providing them shelter and food. Although the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan was a good friend of Basher, he openly protested against Assad’s brutal response to its own nation from the beginning.

Before Erdogan and Assad’s government, two countries had quarrelsome relations: suspected and confronted each other because of various issues. For example, during the Cold War period two countries sided opposite ideological groups: Turkey was member of NATO and Syria was close ally of the Soviet Union. During 1990s, Turkey blamed Syria for supporting the PKK (separatist terrorist group that is fighting for liberation of Kurds from Turkish rule) [6]. Due to these issues the countries were close to war. But things had changed during the first decade of 2000.Turkish new government ruled by Erdogan and his party Justice and Development Party (AKP) started foreign policy called as “zero problems with neighbors”. This policy allowed Turkey to establish good relations with all its neighbors. Turkey had played a major role in establishing a dialogue between Syria and Israel, and Syria other western countries. Military cooperation and trade between two countries has increased [6]. Erdogan and Assad became family friends.

Erdogan-Assad family

[Erdogan-Assad family]

However, the “honeymoon” ended when Assad resisted stopping protesters with military power. Initially, the Turkish government tried to convince and stop Assad through dialogues. When Turkey realized that Assad will continue using power against its citizens, Ankara declared that they are with opposition groups and opened their borders to Syrian refugees. Turkey established close alliance with the US, NATO and other Arab countries for the solution of conflict. There are several reasons for why Ankara is against Assad’s regime; humanitarian issue being one of them. Firstly, Turkey wanted to continue its “model image”, that is, of a stable, democratic and fast developing modern state ruled by moderate Islamist government, in the region. For that matter, Ankara had to follow other Arab countries that have condemned Assad’s brutality [6].Secondly, Turkey wants to see Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) in power, because if Syria is governed by Sunni Muslims which has the same philosophy, it may allow Turkey to be influential in the Middle East and North Africa [7]. Third reason could be the Shiite and Sunni conflict between Sunni Arab countries and Iran and its allies like Lebanon based Hezbollah. Turkey, like other Sunni Arabs, does not want expansion of Iran. Being a Shiite Iran is one of major supporter of Assad regime.


[Refugee camp in Turkey]

 In addition to that, Syria’s civil war became an internal issue of Turkey. Besides the increasing number of refugees, there are two other factors: one is future of the Kurds living in both the countries and the other is Syria’s cross border operation. One major group in Syria who are against the regime is the Kurds. If these Kurds want to form any kind of separate state, it will threaten all countries where Kurds are a minority group (like Turkey, Iraq and Iran). Therefore, Turkey will probably participate actively in the formation of new government after Assad. Turkey has already such neighbor: autonomous Kurds formed after Saddam and ruled by Massoud Barzani, in northern Iraq. If the same entity will be created in northeast part of Syria, dealing with PKK for Turkey will be extremely difficult. Hence, Turkey will try its best to establish a “Republic of Syria” (a state with recognized minority rights) instead of division of Syria [8].

Secondly, Syria acted several times in a manner that tested Turkey’s power and patience in the region. For instance, Turkish warplane with two crew members was shot down by Syrian forces on the Mediterranean.  Additionally, continues cross border shelling of Syria caused death of many Turkish civilians [9] [10]. As a response to these incidents, Turkey was about to start war against Syria. But, pressure from other powers (especially Iran) did not allow Turkey to enter into war with Syria. It was clear that if the war happens, then it will not be war just between Turkey and Syria. It will include (directly or indirectly) Iran, Russia and the US etc.

To sum up, civil war in Syria has been going for the last two years. All peace talks, economic boycotts/sanctions and external threats seem to be not enough to stop Assad’s brutality. Furthermore, military intervention of the NATO or any other countries is blocked by opposite powers that are supporting the Assad regime. Turkey is one of the countries that has suffered because the conflict. Yet, Turkey cannot intervene in issue because of power relations in the international arena. As a result, the UN member states commitment (2005) to protect population from experiencing “crimes against humanity” is being violated and millions of people are being suffering in Syria.

By Otgonbayar Ajykyei


  1. “Protests in Syria”,, Accessed on 16.03.2013
  2. Joseph Lester, 2011, “With UN’s Failure to Curb Syria Crack-Down, Has the Security Council Become a Relic of the Past?”,, Accessed on 16.03.2013
  3. “Syria Regional Refugee Response”,, Accessed on 16.03.2013
  4. “Syria Government and Politics”,, Accessed on 16.03.2013
  5. Olga Khazan, “Who’s fighting whom in Syria?”,, Accessed on 16.03.2013
  6. Primoz Manfreda, “Turkish-Syrian Relations: Overview”,, Accessed on 16.03.2013
  7. Damla Aras , “Turkish-Syrian Relations Go Downhill: The Syrian Uprising”,, Accessed on 16.03.2013
  8. Pelin Turgut, “How the Kurds Have Changed Turkey’s Calculations on Syria”,, Accessed on 18.03.2013
  9.  Whitney Eulich, “Turkey vows tougher response if Syrian shelling continues”,, Accessed on 18.03.2013
  10. Dalal Mawad and Rick Gladstone, “Syria Shoots Down Turkish Warplane, Fraying Ties Further”,, Accessed on 18.03.2013

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