Like the rest of Syria's neighbors, Turkey has found itself dealing with severe problems and worries resulting from the bloody conflict next door. From taking in a massive number of refugees to figuring out how to deal with the violent spillover from the Syrian conflict, Ankara faces a series of difficult policy choices.
A year ago, the International Crisis Group took a look at the challenges the crisis in Syria posed for Turkey, suggesting:
Turkey must stop betting its reputation on a quick resolution of the Syria crisis, and make some long-term changes of emphasis. In order to talk to all parties from a position of greater moral authority, it should avoid projecting the image of being a Sunni Muslim hegemon. It should also re-secure its border and ask Syrian opposition fighters to move to Syria. Publicly adopting a profile of a balanced regional power, rather than a Sunni Muslim one, would likewise do much to reduce any possibility that the sectarian polarisation that is crippling Syria will jump the border to Turkey, in particular to Hatay province.
This week, ICG released a followup report, one that find Ankara still dangerously vulnerable to what's happening in Syria. From the report:
The conflict was not of its making, but Ankara has in effect become a party. Unable to make a real difference by itself, it should focus on protecting its border and citizens, invigorate recent efforts to move back from the ruling party’s Sunni Muslim-oriented foreign policy to one of sectarian neutrality and publicly promote a compromise political solution in Syria.
Of particular interest in the new report is the question of how Ankara should deal with the massive flow of jihadi fighters who have made their way to Syria and who are operating along Turkey's border. A year ago, ICG wrote that in Turkey's border regions, especially Hatay, the "new mix of jihadi fighters, refugees, Syrian regime agents and ethno-sectarian fault lines will not get easier to keep under control the longer the Syria conflict continues."
A year later, that statement clearly remains true, but the problem the jihadi fighters in Syria pose to Turkey is much more pronounced, so much so that the ICG's new report devotes a whole section to the issue. "Turkey should adopt a zero tolerance policy for radical militant breaches of its border, even though this may cause backlash on its territory. The longer it delays, the more difficult its eventual disentanglement will be," the report says.
As the ICG points out, some of that jihadi backlash has already taken place inside Turkey. On March 20, three men linked by Turkish officials to jihadi groups in Syria, came across the border and killed a soldier and a police officer in a firefight in the central Anatolian district of Nigde. A few days later, three police were injured in a raid on an Istanbul location suspected of being used as a safehouse for one of the jihadi groups working in Syria.
"While spared the worst of the sectarian and military spillover, Turkey faces deadly car bombs and armed incidents on its territory, especially as northern Syria remains an unpredictable no-man’s-land”, Hugh Pope, ICG's Europe and Central Asia Deputy Program Director, said in a release. “Ankara should do more to control its border, show zero tolerance of jihadi abuses and promote a compromise political solution in Syria."
It's advice not that dissimilar to what ICG gave Ankara a year ago.