The Syrian Quagmire and Erdoğan’s Coalition of the Willing: More Difficult Times Ahead for Turkey-EU relations?

The Syrian Quagmire and Erdoğan’s Coalition of the Willing:
More Difficult Times Ahead for Turkey-EU relations?

Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war two and a half years ago, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been one of the most vocal and engaged critics of Bashar Al-Assad, Syria’s president cum dictator. Unsurprisingly, and following the unprecedented deployment of chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb on August 21 – leaving an estimated 1,429 dead – Erdoğan was quick to heed the initial call for foreign intervention in the conflict by U.S. President Barack Obama.

Increasingly seeing its security compromised while currently harboring some 500,000 Syrian refugees, Turkey has advocated a thorough strike against the Al-Assad regime. With elections coming-up next year, the Erdoğan administration has expressed willingness to join a “Coalition of the Willing”, while shrugging-off a potential intervention’s backing by the a UN Security Council. On August 26th, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu declared: “We always prioritize acting together with the international community, with United Nations decisions. If such a decision doesn’t emerge from the UN Security Council, other alternatives (…) would come onto the agenda (Reuters, 2013).”

Whereas last week the war drums were beating firmly in Washington, London, Paris and Ankara, this week has so far signaled a return to the status quo. A lack of evidence indicating direct involvement by the Syrian regime in the chemical attacks, have paved the way for Russian and Chinese vetoes in the UN Security Council concerning a UN mandated intervention. In the mean-time, rising doubts about the feasibility, desirability and implications of a foreign intervention in the sectarian Syrian conflict have seen the West back-pedal as quickly as it moved forward. First, the British Parliament rejected UK’s involvement in a foreign intervention in Syria. Then, in an unprecedented – and technically unnecessary move – US President Obama, decided to await the opinion of Congress before deciding on a non-UN mandated intervention. Simultaneously, in France pressure has been building on President François Hollande: 64% of the population has spoken out against intervention, even though France has been a fervent supporter of military intervention in the Syrian conflict from the onset.

And that’s not yet it. In other European capitals support for a non-UN mandated military intervention in the Syrian quagmire has been next to none. After years of weathering the worst economic recession since the 1920s, the European Union and its 28 Member States are finally seeing signs of careful economic recovery. Obviously, endeavoring in a costly military expedition of which the consequences are unknown and risks are high, is not the positive message most of the members of the 28-state bloc are longing for (besides France and the United Kingdom, only Poland, Romania and Denmark have expressed political support for a non-mandated military intervention). As important in this regard is the relative silence by the EU’s powerhouse and lead-state, Germany. Afraid of alienating potential voters in upcoming Bundestag elections, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Administration has remained remarkably silent on the topic, with Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle recently declaring that “Our [Germany’s] participation [into a US-led intervention] has not been requested, nor are we considering it. (Deutsche Welle, 2013)”. Overall, most EU Member States have limited themselves to condemning the chemical attack and expressing support to a UN mandated intervention.

This reluctant stance by most US. allies (and at present even the United States itself) regarding a non-mandated intervention in Syria, clearly troubles the Erdoğan Administration, as it appears to face a “Coalition of the Unwilling”. An avid supporter of the Syrian rebels which shares 822 kilometers of border with Syria and increasingly suffers from cross-border violence and a refugee problem, Turkey has a lot to gain from an intervention in Syria (or lose, in case of non-intervention). Yet, at present chances are small that this intervention will actually come about, due to the UN Security Council deadlock and US allies currently wavering. And if even if it will, it would most probably be a brief military expedition, aimed at shaking Al-Assad’s regime and excluding “boots on the ground”. Such a scenario would not be at all to the liking of Erdoğan, who has strongly expressed preference for a foreign intervention aimed at toppling Al-Assad.

The Syrian civil war also has implications for another strategic, yet problematic dossier of Turkey: its longstanding EU bid. Last June’s Gezi Park protests have resulted in the EU-Turkey “positive agenda” taking a significant dent. As a rebuke for the Turkish government’s handling of these protests, the EU’s Council of Ministers postponed its decision to open a new negotiation Chapter on Regional Policy to October 2013. With Turkey advocating a robust intervention in the Syrian conflict and most EU Members preferring to abstain from action, differences in outlook could not be greater. And with local and presidential elections due in Turkey 2014, Erdoğan – who himself has been eyeing the presidential hot seat – has started to score electoral “homeruns” by criticizing the West’s lackluster approach regarding Syria, Egypt and Palestine.

Although such critique is tempting and to some extent justified (after all, EU Members have indeed showcased a weak response to the atrocities in Syria), Erdoğan should engage in a careful balancing act, simultaneously catering for his short-term domestic interests (i.e. electoral victory) while not disregarding long-term foreign policy goals (i.e. Turkey’s EU-bid). In this respect, Erdoğan should refrain from criticizing the EU too much during his election campaign. Failing to do so could namely negatively affect Turkey’s European ambitions, since the EU in response might decide not to open an new negotiation chapter during its October Council meeting.

Gerben K. Wedekind, Brussels Representative, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey)

Views expressed in this contribution are strictly the author’s only.

Please cite this publication as follows:

Wedekind, Gerben K. (September, 2013), “The Syrian Quagmire and Erdoğan’s Coalition of the Willing: More difficult times ahead for Turkey-EU relations?”, Vol. II, Issue 7, pp.29-30, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (


  • Deutsche Welle. (3 September 2013). “Germany Won’t Participate in Syria Strike”. Available at:



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One thought on “The Syrian Quagmire and Erdoğan’s Coalition of the Willing: More Difficult Times Ahead for Turkey-EU relations?

  1. A Peker

    Hi there,
    I quite like to ask the writer, Gerben K. Wedekind, about what he means with the comments like ‘Turkey has a lot to gain from an intervention in Syria (or lose, in case of non-intervention). ‘?
    Considering no country in the west is showing any interest to intervene, a huge percentage of Turkish populations is against any type of interventions, I really would like to know what the writer is thinking about Turkey’s gain from an intervention.



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