Will Turkey and Syria be another Pakistan-Afghanistan?

Published: January 15, 2016

Russia’s long-time partner Iran also had crucial strategic interests in the survival of the Assad regime.

When we were younger and played with matchsticks, our parents used to say ‘don’t play with fire, or your hands will get burned’. The January 12, 2016, suicide bombing in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district has certainly highlighted this predicament. The attack took the lives of 10 people, all of them German citizens and was swiftly, or rather conveniently, blamed on the Islamic State.

As if Tuesday’s incident wasn’t enough, a car bomb went off outside a police headquarters in the predominantly Kurdish Cinar district, Diyarbakir province, killing six people and wounding at least 39. This attack has been blamed on the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) militants, who are active in the province. Turkey has suffered numerous similar bombings over the past few years, more increasingly so after its involvement in the Syrian quagmire that the West and its allies find themselves in.

The Syrian War

In the post Moamer Qaddafi period, the west especially the US became increasingly confident that it’s covert indigenous uprising model – the usage of local proxies to create a revolutionary environment and overthrow the government – was a resounding success and thus could be implemented in other countries as well. Therefore, as soon as Qaddafi was unceremoniously overthrown, plans for another indigenous intervention were underway in Syria. Bashar al-Assad was facing a moderate sized opposition when people rose against him in 2011’s Arab Spring. This was a controllable problem for him, which was being dealt with an iron fist in sync with other dictatorial rulers in the region such as Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi and Hosni Mubarak.

Real problems for the regime arose when a concerted western effort actively funded, trained and armed both ultra-religious and secular militias to fight in Syria. The influx of foreign fighters was an immediate need to aid and abet the home-grown ‘jihadis’, and thus a base of operations or an outstation was required to provide all this logistical support. Since Turkey, a long time NATO member shared a large winding border with Syria, and the Erdogan regime was more than willing to appease its western allies, its borderlands became the cultivating ground for the opposition forces fighting in Syria. According to journalists, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was formed and trained on Turkish soil.

Becoming a conduit for the world’s most vicious fighters imported from all over the world, Turkey went all-in to secure what it deemed to be its strategic interest in a post-Assad scenario.

With military and logistical assistance from Turkey and religious endorsement from the Salafi/Wahhabi clergy based in Saudi Arabia, the ‘jihadis’ tore through Syrian towns and made vast gains. The western media pundits somehow managed to sell this ‘greater evil’, once championed by the world’s No 1 ‘terrorist’, Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda, to their public; painting Assad to be the greatest evil plaguing the Middle East and a direct threat to Israel. Of course, it is an easily forgettable historical fact that Osama was once ‘Tim Osman’– CIA’s go-to-guy in the war against Communist Russia in Afghanistan.

The Russia-Iran-Syria-Iraq Nexus

The one thing that the US and NATO were not counting on was the influence and strategic interest that a rejuvenated Russia – under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, had in Syria.

Russia’s long-time partner Iran also had crucial strategic interests in the survival of the Assad regime, since all its logistical support for Hezbollah passes through Syria. The removal of Assad would beckon harder times for Hezbollah, whose continuous conflict with Israel is the corner stone of Iran’s foreign policy.

Russia on its part was not about to lose its only military base at NATO’s doorstep. Soon Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) added able-bodied and battle hardened warriors in the mix, fighting alongside the Syrian Army and their volunteers.

With the tide turning against the Syrian opposition, the ultra-extremists were unleashed onto Syria and Iraq namely ISIS (also called ISIL/Daesh). This ultra-extreme terrorist group was formed from the remnants of the dying FSA and its partners. The group’s brutality and hostility to all things foreign made it a household name, but not until it had executed western nationals on camera; evoking a condemnatory response from the US and NATO.

After Putin’s diplomatic manoeuvring killed any chance of openly bombing Syria in the UN, Turkey was left standing alone, fighting a losing fight.

As soon as Russia started using cruise missiles and carpet bombing against rebel positions in Syria at Assad’s request, Syrian opposition including, Daesh, suffered mass casualties. The turning tide of the war has forced the once willing quasi-religious mercenary (read jihadi), to rethink fighting the war in Syria. With nowhere else to go these ‘defected’ terrorists are now finding other fights.

Turkey – In need of fireproof pants

Turkey’s voluntary participation in the Syrian conflict at the behest of the US and NATO, has led it to become a safe haven for terrorists and terrorist activity.

The training camps that Turkey created and provided for in the fight against Assad, are now churning out terrorists who are going north instead of south across the border. Its open financial support for Daesh – by engaging in an illicit oil trade with the terrorist group – has now become a point of contention against it.

This has been exacerbated by its recent conflict with Russia after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet late last year. In whose airspace this plane was shot down, is of course a matter of great contention.

Nevertheless the resulting altercation between Turkey and Russia has created an ugly situation for Ankara. NATO’s spearhead is now bleeding itself.

Historically speaking, Turkey has committed the worst blunder it could after achieving a secular society under Kemalist policies (this statement is of course bound by the premise that a secular society is a panacea for all social ills, which it definitely is not).

Turkey has done a ‘full Pakistan’

By that I mean it has committed to an era of violence, mass murder and high military spending by joining in on a war in its neighbouring country, which if avoided would have been far less disastrous in the long run.

Ankara produced rebel forces which went across the border and fought in Syria, only to become more lawless and return to create havoc in Turkish denominations, such as Daesh did in Kurdish dominated areas.

Similar to the Pakistan-Afghanistan terrorism crisis, the Turkey-Syria terrorism crisis will now make great study material for students and analysts for years to come.

Taking a page from our history, terrorist attacks spiked in Turkey once its involvement began in Syria starting in 2011. According to the American National Counterterrorism Centre (NCTC) Report on Terrorism (2011), Turkey experienced a spike in terrorist attacks, rising from 40 in 2010 to 91 in 2011.

These terrorist attacks have become deadlier and more frequent, and with the influx of rebel fighters from Syria it is bound to get worse.

The Ankara bombings of October 10, 2015, which killed over a 100 people were the worst terrorist attacks suffered by Turkey in its modern history. However, some international media outlets stated that such attacks were only a matter of time and similar ones are bound to happen in the future.

With rising pressure from the Kurds and the blowback from the Syrian front – both from the terrorists and the Russians – Ankara needs to ditch its current western leaning position and get tough with the terrorists.

Perhaps a ‘Zarb-e-Azb’ style all-encompassing military operation is on the cards.

If Ankara does not abandon its current policies, it should get ready to read deeply into the post 9/11 Pakistan-Afghan history, and buy a set of really good fireproof pants.



The author holds an MPhil in Public Administration and has taught Politics and Public Policy at the University of Karachi.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • nassee

    Problem is that author has written this piece wholly based upon his stand on the two sects….for him Shia is never bad and Sunni is always wrong. He must understand that nothing is perfect..both have their shortcomings and interests. While Turkey may have done wrong it is also true that Iran has also been pursuing its own agenda.Recommend

  • SRR

    Excellent article. Bang on!Recommend

  • Feroz

    When Erdogan came to power I had told my friends that by the time he leaves Turkey will resemble Pakistan, if not Saudi Arabia. What a shame converting a beautiful secular country into a NATO pariah.Recommend

  • Brutus

    “Will Turkey and Syria be another Pakistan-Afghanistan?”
    They already are, just busy competing to outdo both Af-Pak. Syria seems to have achieved the target, Turkey is just behind.
    What Mustafa Kamal Ataturk did to the obscurantist Ottoman Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is doing the exact opposite to the today’s secular Turkey.

    Like Pakistan, Turkey too is a gone case now.Recommend

  • 1facenot2timer

    your appellation says it allRecommend

  • Mr.President

    What a nice comparison. What differentiates Pakistan from Turkey is that the population in Pakistan is becoming and has become radicalized post Afghan war with USSR and war on terror in Afghanistan. This makes it harder to fight against terrorists because anybody can be a terrorist. If Turkey plays its cards right, it can still come out of this mess. Pakistan, not so much. Recommend

  • sterry

    Turkey made a big mistake in letting in millions of unchecked Syrian refugees who are now destroying the country. Pakistan made the same mistake in allowing in millions of Afghan refugees and allowing them to roam free bringing the culture of drugs, gun violence, smuggling and prostitution. Turkey had the chance to step in and create a buffer zone for Syrian refugees in Northern Syria long before the refugees started smuggling themselves in large numbers into Europe. This window is now lost with all the players on the ground in Syria. It’s clear that Asad’s days are numbered but he will continue to drag the region down with him. Turkey’s tourism industry will now take a hit. Turkey and Pakistan are among the few functioning Muslim democracies but both are resilient enough to fight off cowardly terrorist attacks since the majority of people in both countries are not given to religious extremism.Recommend

  • Bairooni Haath

    Usually it is Pakistan which looks to Turkey for inspiration. Pakistan should be proud that it is Turkey which is copying Pakistan!Recommend

  • Mohammed Rahim

    This is one of the best articles I have ever read. So thoughtful and inciteful. There is a lot of strategic value in the lessons learned here. Recommend

  • Rafidi

    The people may admit or not but the current crisis in syria and Iraq is sectarian with Iran and Hezbollah supporting Assad a ruthless dictator only because he is an Alawite Shia. On the other hand Sunni countries ( Turkey , Saudi Arabia) want him out not because he has committed crimes against his own people but because he is Shia. USA and Russia have their oil interests ans support their long term allies. the only solution to problem stop Sectarianism.Recommend

  • Time Is Up

    “Turkey Banega Pakistan” I hope not. It will mean more trouble in the sub-continent.Recommend

  • Maria

    What strategic article. The author doesn’t know that Turkey has been grappling with its own war with Kurdish PKK insurgents for decades or that people have been dying in bombs and violence for over 20 years in Turkey. Typical Pakistani mind set that knows how little unrest there is outside your own home.Recommend

  • Jayman

    Violence in Islamic nations is hardly surprising. The ideology has always promoted violence and that paid dividends in the past through conquests and colonization. But times have changed and the ideology hasn’t.Recommend

  • SHAR

    Dear Ms Maria,
    This blog had a word limit of 800 words and I had already crossed 1300. Including every angle would have required me to write a thesis. Not possible on the blogs page.Recommend

  • Stealthy

    Do you realize Turkey has been busy buying oil from the ISIS for the past few years?Recommend

  • sterry

    Pakistan and Turkey are both defeating terrorism unlike other Muslim nations which are out of control.Recommend