Foreign Policy Blogs

Turkey’s “Free Syrian Army” Troubles

September 6, 2012

by H.A. Unver

Turkey’s "Free Syrian Army" Troubles

On August 20, a car bomb went off in the southern Turkish province of Gaziantep on the Syrian border, killing nine civilians, including four children. The Turkish government blamed the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group on the U.S. Department of State’s foreign terrorist organizations list, for the attack. This certainly wasn’t the first time that the PKK attacked civilian areas and killed noncombatants; however, the intensity of the violence in Gaziantep triggered a chain reaction that led to a mounting domestic criticism of Turkish foreign policy in Syria and, more specifically, its support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

In February 2011, the PKK ended its ceasefire and stepped up its attacks on Turkish military targets, articulating a new agenda and aligning itself with the Arab Spring uprisings. To that end, the PKK announced that it is reverting back to its 1990s strategy of “revolutionary operations”; a series of high-profile attacks and kidnappings that would enable the organization to consolidate itself as a popular militant-nationalist movement, appealing to Kurdish youth and electorate of southeast Turkey. Attacks against military targets have become an almost daily occurrence and on August 12, the PKK kidnapped an ethnic Kurdish deputy from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Huseyin Aygun, leading to further public attention.

Yet the bombing in Gaziantep was an attack of a different kind, as the group has traditionally shied away from acknowledging attacks that have produced intentional or collateral civilian damage. In Gaziantep, however, the PKK was caught red handed as the police investigation led to Murat Filiz, a mid-level commanding PKK operative, together with ties to Fehman Husayn (nickname Bahoz Erdal), a high-level PKK operative in Syria, who the police declared as the main planner of the operation. The intention of this new strategy was to include “inactive” provinces (distant to the PKK’s appeal) on the Turkish-Syrian border, hoping to inspire the Kurdish youth through publicized violent attacks. This strategy is also likely to disrupt the FSA’s operational freedom in northern Syria, meanwhile distracting Turkey’s attention away from Assad.

Turkish government officials have also connected the bombings to Syria and Iran, arguing that the PKK couldn’t have carried out such an attack without the backing of and support from (or longer-term promise thereof) a neighboring country’s intelligence service. As more concrete evidence began pouring in, Iranian influence in the escalation of PKK violence became clearer. By August 10, Turkey’s Zaman newspaper had already reported that the PKK leaders were being relocated to the Shahidan camp in Iran with the intention of creating a back-up headquarters, as the main Qandil mountain network is relatively more vulnerable to aerial targeting. In addition, following the Gaziantep bombing on August 20, Iran’s Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Commission spokesman Hussein Naqawi, in a statement that angered Turks, suggested that Turkey stay out of Syria while it is unable to deal with its own internal problems. Then, more recently, an Iranian spy ring was purged by Turkish intelligence in the city of Igdir on the Iranian border, revealing that 7 of the 9 detainees were directly involved in espionage operations against Turkish military positions and assets on behalf of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and International Security (SAVAMA), while several confiscated video footages showed SAVAMA agents debriefing PKK militants.

These incidents have led the Turkish public to view the recent rise in PKK violence in a different light. While anger was previously directed at the PKK and Kurdish nationalism in isolation, recent events have led to a more cautious reading of a bigger picture: the view that Turkey is no longer dealing with just a militant nationalist organization, but it is also receiving retaliatory blows from Iran, and to some extent from Assad via the PKK, in response to its support for the FSA.

This signals a return to Turkey’s longtime foreign policy toward both Syria and Iran from 1984 to 1999, during which these countries actively supported the PKK. As the uprising in Syria intensified, Turkey adopted a dual policy of establishing refugee camps in its southern Hatay province along the Syrian border, while simultaneously organizing the armed Syrian opposition. Emerging from Turkey’s initiatives, the FSA gradually became the most prominent of the armed opposition groups, conducting cross-border attacks against Syrian military targets. It was then that Syria and Iran reverted to their pre-1998 support of the PKK.

As the PKK’s operational reach and intensity continues to increase, the view that such intensification is a response to the AKP’s policy of supporting the FSA spreads wider in Turkey. This has led to a growing criticism from Turkish opposition parties, who see the PKK’s rise as a result of an adventurist foreign policy. Turkish public opinion is therefore growing more critical of FSA leadership presence in Turkey. A more critical trigger point was reached when the Russian Pravda newspaper published an interview with an FSA leader, Malik al-Kurdi, who claimed that the FSA was being armed and trained from within the Apaydin refugee camp in Hatay. Following the publication of the interview, several members of the opposition CHP made a highly publicized visit to  Apaydin, which they alleged to be the FSA’s military headquarters from which they are being trained and coordinated.

The CHP deputies were denied entry to the camp, igniting the issue even further and revealing several serious legal issues with the camp.  CHP further pressed the issue by indicating that a refugee camp that hosts armed commanders and soldiers is in fact a military camp of a foreign army operating from within Turkish soil, rendering Turkey a belligerent party in a de facto armed conflict without bringing the decision to enter such a conflict before the parliament as required by the constitution in article 92, which stipulates that no foreign armed element can be stationed on Turkish soil without the approval of the national assembly. The FSA became even more controversial after their main website publicly listed Antakya (capital of the Hatay province), Turkey as their base of operations, including a Turkish cell phone contact number, exposing their highly controversial relationship with the Turkish government. The FSA responded unconvincingly the next day by changing the location on the website, but the attention on Syrian refugee camps is unlikely to wane soon.

To conclude, Turkey is reaching the realization that its decision to play an active role in Syria via its gamble over the FSA yields unforeseen and potentially insurmountable costs:

1-     Ankara’s decision to arm and organize the FSA has both rendered it a de facto belligerent in a proxy war and a target of Iranian intelligence operations via the PKK. This has the potential to stretch Turkey’s military concentration along the Syrian border and affect Turkey’s protection capability of the refugee camps.

2-     Turkey’s role in arming the Syrian opposition, making it a combatant in a war that is not sanctioned by the Turkish parliament, poses a potential legal problem in Turkish domestic politics. Unable to cope with mounting criticism, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) conceded with the establishment of a parliamentary human rights fact-finding mission last week, which visited the Apaydin camp on September 4. If the legal inquiry of the government’s secret relationship with the FSA intensifies, both the FSA and other Syrian refugee camps face the danger of relocation.

Turkey played its soft power card in its Middle East policy for quite some time with some promising returns. In Syria, however, Turkey has played a hard power game with the metrics and capabilities of a soft power policy. Therefore, the Syrian episode has exposed the limits of both Turkey’s soft power capability and its hard power deficiency. Turkey might have effectively plunged itself into a highly militarized proxy war without making the calculations and preparations necessary to succeed in such conflict. As a result, Turkey faces hard power threats from the PKK, Iran, and Syria simultaneously, while struggling to reassess its relationship with the FSA as the conflict intensifies.

FSA troubles and their retaliatory consequences could force Turkey to ask for NATO involvement in the coming months, and as occurred after the 1991 Gulf War, a buffer zone for the refugees could define the general nature of Turkey’s relationship with the post-election U.S. government.



Akin Unver

Dr. Ünver is an assistant professor of international relations at Kadir Has University, Istanbul.

Previously he was the Ertegün Lecturer of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, Near Eastern Studies department - the only academic to retain this prestigious fellowship for two consecutive years. He conducted his joint post-doctoral studies at the University of Michigan’s Center for European Studies and the Center for the Middle East and North African Studies, where he authored several articles on Turkish politics, most notable of which is ”Turkey’s deep-state and the Ergenekon conundrum”, published by the Middle East Institute.

Born and raised in Ankara, Turkey, he graduated from T.E.D. Ankara College in 1999 and earned his B.A. in International Relations from Bilkent University (2003) and MSc in European Studies from the Middle East Technical University (2005). He received his PhD from the Department of Government, University of Essex, where his dissertation, ‘A comparative analysis of the discourses on the Kurdish question in the European Parliament, US Congress and Turkish National Assembly‘ has won the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) 2010 Malcolm H. Kerr Dissertation Award in Social Sciences.

Akın also assumed entry-level policy positions at the European Union Secretariat-General, Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Eurasian Center for Strategic Studies (ASAM) and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (D.C.), as well as teaching positions at the University of Essex (Theories of International Relations) and Sabancı University (Turkey and the Middle East).

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