Of Military Coups, Purges and Interventions: Turkey’s Syria Dilemma

Crowds gather in Taksim Square after failed coup attempt.

by Marwa Daoudy

This article is from the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies’ Newsmagazine, Fall/Winter 2017, available here.

On the evening of July 15, 2016, I landed in Istanbul and crossed the buzzing capital to board a ferry that took me a few miles away to the beautiful island of Buyukada to participate in a two-day workshop organized by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars and the Global Political Trends Center of Kultur University in Istanbul. The topic of discussion was Iran’s relations with its neighbors one year after the nuclear agreement. Cruising the Bosphorus with a spectacular sunset view, little did I know that a military coup was in the making… let alone that the workshop’s participants would be accused of staging it. That same evening, I tuned in to the few channels available in the hotel and watched as President Erdogan issued an appeal over FaceTime for people to take to the streets and oppose the putschists. During the night, muezzins in the mosques relayed the call for public mobilization. Police cars and the navy gathered on the island.

After the failed attempt, I spent a few days in Istanbul. On the street, the feeling of national unity was overwhelming. I tweeted about the impressive mobilization at Taksim Square, where thousands of pro-Justice and Development Party (AKP) crowds mingled with secularists and far-right nationalists. Syrian refugees waved the flag of the Syrian revolution to celebrate the failure to topple the government that had offered them asylum.

Marwa Daoudy with Syrian refugees in Turkey who were celebrating the failure of the attempt to topple the government that had offered them asylum.

A few weeks later, a pro-Erdogan newspaper published an article on how “US-sponsored conspirators” had gathered on Buyukada to plot the coup. They were talking about our policy workshop! They had it all figured out. After all, Buyukada was the island where the British government conspired in 1919, and now, they claimed, the US government was doing what the British had done nearly a century ago. Actually, workshop participants were not even predominantly from the United States but rather from Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and consisted of scholars and a few former diplomats. Being accused of both plotting a military coup and being an agent of foreign powers was, of course, very serious for me. Although the allegations were sufficiently outlandish for them to gain any real traction, I was unable to get the Turkish press to retract the allegations or publish my statement.1

On a broader level, the attempted coup initiated a dual-front-reaction on the part of the Turkish government. Domestically, Erdogan launched a massive campaign against alleged Gulenists, targeting any individual suspected of dissent. It made no difference that many of our Turkish colleagues present at the workshop were Erdogan sympathizers; one even wrote a weekly column for Karar, a renowned pro-AKP newspaper. They were interrogated and publicly shamed; and until this day, several of them remain suspended from their positions. On the international front, Erdogan sent his own army, along with fighters from the Free Syrian Army, into Syrian territory. This military intervention came after five years of troubled relations between Turkey and its southern neighbor. The two countries used to boast about their “common destiny, history and future,” but since their relationship turned to one of enmity in the 1990s it has seen several tumultuous ups and downs, especially during the rise of the AKP and since the start of the Syrian uprising. In the process, Syria and Turkey’s “special” relationship collapsed. After March 2011, the Syrian crisis morphed into full-blown violence, with a climbing civilian casualty and injury count, massive human displacement inside and outside the country, and unprecedented levels of physical and cultural destruction. The Syrian regime has since lost control of wide swathes of its territory to Kurds, Islamist opposition fighters, and, after 2013, to Jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). During this time, Turkey has experienced increased turbulence within its own borders. The conflict has led to an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees, an emboldened Kurdish militant movement—which has spread from its remote mountains to the heart of south-eastern cities such as Diyarbakir and Cizre, and which was re-empowered by the November 2013 proclamation of autonomy of Western Kurdistan (Rojava) in northern Syria—as well as cross-border operations perpetrated by ISIS.

According to Turkish scholars I met at the workshop, Erdogan’s new foreign policy was motivated by the twin domestic threats of ISIS and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In previous months, Turkey had pursued a parallel military and diplomatic strategy: to increase military support of Syrian opposition groups in northern Aleppo to counter the Kurdish-led (PYD/YPG) and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and to seek new international partners by mending relations with Russia.

Internationally, the coup prompted the activation of meetings between Erdogan and Putin. This rapprochement with Russia, Assad’s main ally, initiated a change in Turkey’s official language and approach to the Syrian regime. For the first time since 2011, an official statement called for the participation of Syrian leadership in future negotiations. It is too early to assess whether these recent foreign policy re-alignments, combined with strategic developments linked to the recapture of Aleppo by the Syrian government (thanks to support from Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Hizbullah) will initiate a new chapter in Turkey-Syria relations, and what consequences lie ahead for Syrian opposition groups and refugees in Turkey. But the consequences will be far-reaching. And while Erdogan continues to face an insoluble dilemma on the south-eastern front, he has also written the beginning of a disturbing new chapter on the domestic front.

Marwa Daoudy is Assistant Professor of International Relations at CCAS. A version of this article is forthcoming on Cambridge Review of International Affairs’ blog.


  1. See Daoudy, Marwa (2016) “The Structure-Identity Nexus: Syria and Turkey’s Collapse (2011),” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 29(3), pp. 1074-1096.