Balancing hard and soft power: Turkey’s approach to Syria
According to Joseph Nye, the political scientist who coined the term “soft power” in the early 1990s — meaning a persuasive, noncoercive approach to international relations — there are various ways of using it, not only by the state but also in other ways, including educational and cultural.
What we see regarding Turkey’s current policy on Syria is a new strategy that relies on policies at a university level. In this context, experts at Turkish universities have rolled up their sleeves to join the rebuilding efforts in parts of Syria under the control of the Turkish military and its Syrian allies. Gaziantep University, located in the Turkish city of the same name on the Syrian border, will establish a department in Jarablus, while Harran University, in Sanliurfa, will set up a faculty in Al-Bab.
Jarablus and Al-Bab are among the towns liberated from terrorist groups during Operation Euphrates Shield, which was launched by Ankara in 2016 and completed within two months. Through this operation, Turkey cleared an area of 4,000 square kilometers of terrorists. The second phase of the operation, called Olive Branch, took place in Afrin, another city in northern Syria, to remove the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization and a threat to its national security.
Turkey pursues a security policy that intends to secure the inside of the country by securing the outside. Both of the operations provided Turkey with “hard power” elements that increased Ankara’s capability to engage in regional and international military maneuvers.
One of Turkey’s main goals in Syria has been the elimination of PKK from northern Syria.
Turkey’s military involvement in Syria has also paved the way for a deepening of Ankara’s role there and an increase in its sphere of influence in the country. It is now attempting to consolidate this influence through soft power means, by creating strong connections and reliable governments near its border. In other words, Turkey’s soft power draws its strength from its influence on the ground, coupled with its political, cultural and educational capabilities.
The universities, which will provide education in Turkish, Arabic and English, are a part of Turkey’s soft-power efforts in the war-torn country that aim to inspire hope among the youth. A decision to set up a college in Al-Bab affiliated with Turkish universities was announced on June 5 in the Official Gazette of the Republic of Turkey, the country’s official journal that publishes new legislation and other announcements, though it is not yet clear when it will open.
Turkey’s Higher Education Council organized an exam in the liberated towns of northern Syria last month, and about 800 students took the test for admission to Turkish universities.
Meanwhile, it was also announced in the Official Gazette on June 5 that the Turkish Parliament had approved the launch of a vocational high school in Jarablus, affiliated with Gaziantep University.
Soon after the liberation of Jarablus, Al-Bab and other towns, Turkey became involved in several projects, including the restoration of schools, the training of police, the building of hospitals and infrastructure, and the opening of post offices. Those who fled the cities when they was under the control of Daesh were able to return and resume their normal daily lives.
Turkey’s main goals in Syria have been the preservation of the country’s territorial integrity; the elimination of PKK from northern Syria; the creation of a workable local system of governance in liberated areas; the reconstruction of infrastructure; and the promotion of an influential policy on Syria at regional and international levels.
Turkish officials have also underlined the significance of using soft power to enhance Turkey’s standing in Syria and the region. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in early May said that Turkey has been trying its best to use soft power through state-run agencies such as the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, one of its tools for employing such an approach.
As Nye said, there is no difference between hard power and soft power in terms of their aims. But although the objectives are the same, the means are very different. Aware of this fact, Turkey has therefore been applying a combination of soft and hard power to expand its role in Syria and widen its sphere of influence.
There are several scholarly debates about which of hard or soft power is the more effective tool in foreign policy. In my opinion, sustainable power, to protect the gains achieved through hard and soft power, is the most significant tool. Sustainable power in Syria is what Turkey has to seek now.
One day the war in Syria will end and what those involved in the crisis have built during the conflict will be returned to them. Or in other words, what they have sown is what they shall reap.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.