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HomeGeopolitical CompassWest & Centeral AsiaThe Analysis of Turkish Foreign Policy in Syria: A Neoclassical Realist Perspective

The Analysis of Turkish Foreign Policy in Syria: A Neoclassical Realist Perspective

Authors: Bilal Bahadır Karaca & Berk Köksal

Affiliation: Prague University of Economics and Business, Independent Researcher 

Organization/Publisher:  Przegląd Strategiczny

Date/place: Issue 15, 2022 / Poland 

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 16


Keywords: Turkish Foreign Policy, Syria, Domestic and Foreign Factors, Neoclassical Realism 


This article examines the question: “How do Turkish external and internal dynamics explain its foreign policy in Syria?” It aims to utilize domestic and foreign factors clarified by neoclassical realism in the following sections.


The main topics covered in this article are the key aspects and stages of the Syrian civil war, the interpretation of Turkish foreign policy, and the demonstration of the impact of Turkish existence in Syria based on neoclassical realism. The analysis focuses on four factors: leader image, strategic culture, state-society relations, and domestic institutions.


The analysis is conducted within three distinct periods: early stages, direct Turkish involvement, and the post-involvement period. Initially, Turkey opposed the regime due to security concerns, then became more proactive, including a close relationship with Russia, and finally aimed to consolidate its gains, particularly in Idlib. In the last stage, Turkey aimed to balance its relationships with both Russia and the US.


Initially, Turkey’s Syria policies were influenced by the West, which advocated for a regime change in Syria. Turkey’s main goal was to establish connections and exert influence without deploying its military. Turkey sought to overthrow the Ba’ath regime by supporting opposition groups and aligning with the West.

One of the internal factors shaping Turkey’s foreign policies in the Syrian context is the leader’s image. The leaders’ approaches to world politics, their perception of enemies and power, play a crucial role in creating foreign policy. The characters and world politics approaches of Ahmet Davutoğlu and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are important to consider for the period after 2011.

Davutoğlu, as the former prime minister, minister of foreign affairs, and senior advisor to Erdoğan, constructed Turkish foreign policy based on the strategic depth doctrine, which he developed. This doctrine emphasized cultural and religious bonds as a legacy of the Ottoman Empire, rather than focusing solely on territorial boundaries. It led Turkey to pursue a “zero problems with neighbors” policy.


According to Davutoğlu, Turkey needed to support the rise of Islamic movements in Syria and eliminate leaders like Bashar al-Assad, who deepened polarization within Muslim society. Turkey aimed to become a regional power without depending on others, and the Islamic identity in Syria, opposition to the Assad regime by the West, and the Syrian people’s revolt against the regime provided opportunities to apply this strategy. Erdoğan, with his assertiveness and confidence, played a prominent role in shaping Turkish foreign policy.

Erdoğan’s inclination to change tactics when he perceives a loss of interest in foreign policy makes him more likely to succeed. The failed coup attempt in 2016 triggered changes in Turkey’s Syria policies. The YPG’s capture of a significant portion of the Turkish-Syrian border following the coup attempt led to a major reaction in Turkey, influencing the Turkish army’s involvement in Syria.


Strategic culture, including the beliefs and expectations of decision-makers and society, shapes a state’s grand strategies in the international arena. In Turkey, the strategic culture built on Kemalism, based on “Turkness,” has transformed into a focus on Islam, presenting it as a core and unifying element for all ethnic identities within Turkey’s borders. This new strategic culture of Turkey influences its Syria policies.


State-society relations are another element discussed in the article. A government that lacks the support of its people is considered “weak” and may change its foreign policy preferences to avoid weakness. Turkish public support for the government’s foreign policy declined significantly after Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian war and the subsequent failures. The dissatisfaction stemmed from uncontrolled migration from Syria to Turkey and the resulting economic and social problems. To regain public support, the government shifted its foreign policy in Syria to fight terrorist organizations in northern Syria and facilitate the return of Syrian refugees. These changes improved support for the government.


Lastly, the article highlights the role of domestic institutions, including the parliament, in shaping foreign and security policies in democratic states. In Turkey, both the Turkish Grand National Assembly and the Turkish Army have been influential. After the 2016 coup attempt, the AKP government gained full authority over the army, removing obstacles for its active involvement in Syria.


When examining Davutoğlu’s foreign policy during his tenure as prime minister through the lens of neoclassical realism, it becomes clear that he pursued a cooperative approach with Western actors. Turkey’s policies toward Syria lacked a comprehensive strategy and were pragmatic and short-lived. The Astana process involving Russia, Turkey, and Iran significantly influenced the conflict through bilateral and trilateral agreements. One of the main differences between Davutoğlu and Erdoğan’s foreign policies is that Erdoğan is more willing to make sharp political changes to protect the state’s interests, while Davutoğlu takes a collaborative and pragmatic approach.


Erdoğan’s rhetoric justifying Turkish military operations and the resettlement of refugees in Syria not only garnered public support but also consolidated his political authority. Although opposition parties criticize Erdoğan’s interventionist foreign policy, they fall short at the legislative level. The MHP supports Erdoğan’s government to form a parliamentary majority, which is crucial for Turkey’s lasting influence in Syria.


In conclusion, Turkish foreign policy in Syria has undergone significant changes influenced by external events and internal conditions shaped by leader image, strategic culture, state-society relations, and domestic institutions. The interrelationship between local and international factors, as explained by neoclassical realism, provides a more comprehensive understanding of these events beyond one-sided analysis.


Critiques of this article may raise questions about the long-term consequences of Turkey’s policy towards Syria for its domestic politics and security, as well as how these policies have affected Turkey’s relationships with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other regional actors.


The authors argue that Erdogan’s dominance, influenced by his character and ideology, has significantly affected Turkey’s foreign policy in Syria. However, they emphasize that neoclassical realism played a crucial role in shaping Turkish decision-makers’ perceptions of the Syrian situation. They contend that a neoclassical realist approach offers a useful framework for understanding Turkey’s policies regarding Syria, which contributes to the existing literature. The authors suggest that state-society relations, leader image, strategic culture, and domestic institutions are interconnected and mutually influential.


By: Dilara Özdemir, CIGA Research Intern



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