Osman Sert, Ankara Institute
With a state-centric approach and risk-averse foreign policy for the most part of its republican period, Turkey has had limited knowledge, desire and capacity for effectively engaging the unconventional means and methods through which proxy contestations are carried out. Turkey is evidently a late-comer to the proxy conflict arena. Iran, for example, has provided the Bashar al-Assad regime with military advice and support from the outset of the conflict, despite its previous support for the Arab Spring, which it had conceptualized as an Islamic awakening inspired by the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979. By the end of 2013, Iran had thousands of operational militants who were combatting their enemies in Syria, along with several IRGC military commanders and generals.
Ankara has not historically developed the institutional capacity to support proxies, and the infrastructure to deploy and manage them. It has not perceive of proxies as being efficient, game-changing actors on the battlefield. This impaired its ability to support the Syrian opposition. Turkey’s support was not enough to unite the opposition and consolidate their gains on the ground, efforts that were also complicated by the ineffective role played by the Gulf countries who supported their own rival proxies and partners.
A number of factors changed the calculus in Ankara and paved the way for a more effective and increased Turkish role in proxy warfare. Firstly, the opposition was not able to stop both regime forces and ISIS on the ground. The opposition was losing cities they had taken control of and failed to unify their ranks in the midst of competing external sponsors who backed their own separate rebel groups. Second, the instability in Syria had reached Turkey’s borders, with direct implications for Turkey’s national security. Terrorists infiltrated the Turkish-Syrian border and conducted terrorist attacks in the country, including the systematic terrorist campaign launched by ISIS between 2015 and 2016. Turkey faced the threat of losing its stake in the future of Syria and its ability to shape the outcome of the conflict, as well as increased threats to its own domestic security.
Third, one of the more critical motivations for increased Turkish military involvement was the consolidation by the PKK of its control over Syria’s north-east through its sister organizations the PYD and YPG. The YPG emerged from the war on ISIS as a major actor, in large part as a result of the support it received from the US, and it took control of large swathes of territory alongside the Turkish border. Finally, Turkey was concerned about the influx of refugees into Turkey and has aimed to slow this influx down, if not stop it entirely.
This combination of factors added a sense of urgency in Ankara for the need to establish a buffer zone alongside the Syrian-Turkish border, one that required the expanded and active support of local rebel groups in Syria. It was also driven by both geopolitical and domestic factors and has since resulted in a more systematic approach to proxy conflict. The crisis within the international system, NATO’s inability to fill the void that has been left by Western powers in conflict zones like Syria and US retrenchment from Syria and the region. There was deep frustration and concern in Ankara that America’s priority was the withdrawal of its troops, which would leave a huge power vacuum in the region that has far-reaching implications for Turkey’s short and long-term security interests. America's retrenchment from the region has necessitated the need for Turkey to re-calibrate its policy in Syria. Ankara is now embarked on a potentially irreversible course that sees it fully embrace proxy warfare.
Proxy conflict has not been without its costs for Turkey, both political and military. However, it has also served its purpose and has helped Ankara secure a number of important objectives. The north-west of Syria is now effectively Turkish controlled, in spite of Turkey’s previous best efforts to secure a range of ceasefires and concessions in the area during its negotiations with Russia and the Assad regime. Where diplomacy failed Turkey in the past, proxy conflict has enabled pathways for dramatically increased influence and leverage. It is striking that Turkey’s proxy ties and engagements are overtly undergirded by official Turkish government and military oversight, which stands in stark contrast to other regional actors who work hard to downplay the scale and scope of their proxy engagements. In some parts of Turkish-influenced or dominated Syria, Turkish national flags stand in full and open view, underscoring the strategic partnership between Ankara and its proxies but also local Syrian support for the Turkish presence.
Despite the time it took and the cost that Turkey has incurred, decision makers in Ankara have grown increasingly amenable to the use of proxies, prompting a change in psychology and perception that represents a significant departure from Turkey’s historic policy of relying on conventional forces. This was particularly exemplified by Turkey’s recent deployment of its Syrian proxies in Libya, where Syrian rebel groups have played an important role in supporting the internationally recognized government in Tripoli in its conflict with General Khalifa Hafter. Proxies are now perceived as being a critical component of Turkey’s regional security interests, and no longer simply a measure that could be indirectly operationalized through other proxy sponsors in the region.
Turkey’s proxy engagements will likely increase in the foreseeable future. That said, domestic challenges will constrain Turkey’s proxy deployments, not for lack of will or capacity but because domestic crises will be prioritized over foreign policy issues. The interplay between proxy conflict and local civil-society infrastructure also warrants closer appreciation. Turkish-backed or based NGOs operating in Syria have seen their operations curtailed by the pandemic. These NGOs have been crucial mechanisms for supporting local actors and authorities in Syria. Their operational capacity provides the conditions that enable effective and viable Turkish proxy engagements.