What is Turkey doing in Syria?
In 2016, Turkey was added to the list of countries that occupy areas of Syria. What is Turkey doing there and what are its long-term goals for the region?
When we think about the sides who have high stakes in the Syrian Civil War we think about Assad, Russia, Iran, ISIS, the US, and the Free Syrian Army.
However, one side that has emerged with increasing ambitions from the war, is Turkey.
In fact, since 2016, Turkey has intervened militarily in Syria three times and now controls an area of roughly 3,460 km2 of Syrian land.
“Turkish military operations in Syria took place under the guise of fighting ISIS but to understand the Turkish intervention we have to look at its relationship with the Kurds,” says Dr. Zenonas Tziarras, who teaches International Relations at the University of Cyprus.
The Kurds have historically been a people without a nation. The majority (36 million) lives in an area which is called Greater Kurdistan. This area contains part of South-East Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.
The number of Kurds living in Turkey is estimated at 14-20 million, which is about a quarter of Turkey’s total population. They are the second biggest ethnic group in Turkey after the Turks.
“Kurdish people always had irredentist claims. They want to break away from Turkey to build their own nation. Imagine, if all these people are allowed to secede, Turkey will lose a huge part of its economic resources and population,” says Dr. Tziarras.
In Syria, the US-led coalition has been using the Kurds, specifically the YPG, as proxies to fight ISIS. The Kurds have been instrumental in the pushing back of the Islamic state.
The Turkish government sees the YPG as an extension to Kurdistan’s Worker’s Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist group and is in an open conflict with Turkey.
The Kurds now exert de facto control over what is now considered a ‘grey area’ in Northern Syria; the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) which is very close to the Turkish border.
After Assad retreated his forces from the north, the Kurds took the opportunity to create autonomous state structures and will demand international recognition after the war ends, says Dr. Tziarras.
Turkey does not want to see that happening. “The ethnic composition of South-East Turkey creates the possibility of secession from the Turkish state. So, it is a matter of national sovereignty for Turkey.”
This way of thinking is not exclusive to Erdogan’s government, says Dr. Ohannes Kılıçdağı of Harvard’s Centre for Middle Eastern Studies. “Turkey has always seen Kurdish movements as an existential threat. The Kurds have been resistant to assimilation into Turkishness and therefore, stood as the biggest obstacle to the creation of a Turkish Republic as a nation state. Any Kurdish political entity is perceived as a threat of secession.”
Operation Euphrates Shield
The first Turkish military intervention in northern Syria was named ‘Euphrates Shield’ and took place in August 2016 – March 2017. It was an operation by the Turkish army and its proxies in the region (The Free Syrian Army, Arab Sunni and Turkmen groups) between the Euphrates river to the east and the rebel-held area around Azaz to the west, against ISIS and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic forces.
“Turkey managed to force ISIS out of that area but the main reason they intervened was to cut off Kurdish expansion to the west. Turkey told the Kurds that the Euphrates was the red line for them. If they passed it, they would intervene,” says John Ioannou, analyst at the Diplomatic Academy of Nicosia.
After the operation, Turkey relocated Syrian Turkmen and Sunni refugees to the areas it now controls and re-trained and built bases for local FSA forces.
In addition, it installed its own governors in the cities of Azaz and al-Bap, where is now building an industrial zone which will create more than 6000 jobs.
“Turkey is changing the ethnic composition of these areas. It is installing populations which are ethnically or religiously close to Turkey and it is building schools, post offices and hospitals for them. It wants to create a culture of dependency to Turkey and a political consciousness in the that will be friendly to Turkish interests in the local people,” says Mr. Ioannou.
Operation Olive Branch
Olive Branch was the latest and most successful Turkish intervention in Syria. It took place in the SDF-controlled district of Afrin from January-March 2018.
Once again, the motive was to stop Kurdish expansionism.
“The Kurds wanted to unify the cantons of Jazira and Kobani to create a big unified land at the border of Syria and Turkey. With the invasion of Afrin, Turkey cut off the Kurd’s exit route to the Mediterranean Sea. They also cut off routes that Assad or other Kurdish groups could use to supply Afrin with supplies. The Kurds now control only a small part of North Syria,” says Mr. Ioannou.
In Afrin, Mr. Ioannou speculates, Turkey will follow the same process as in Euphrates Shield. They will create their own state structures and change the ethnic composition of the area.
Turkey’s actions in Northern Syria, reveal that it is not intending to leave anytime soon. Last April, Erdogan rejected Sergey Lavrov's call to hand back Afrin to Assad.
“We will personally hand over Afrin to its people when the time is right. But the timing is up to us,” he said.
“Whether that will be in three days or ten years, it remains to be seen,” says Dr. Tziarras.
By occupying these areas, Turkey has gained a seat at the negotiating table for Syria’s future.
“Erdogan is trying to acquire as much leverage as he can to be able to negotiate with Russia, the US and the other countries in Syria. Just like after every war, a country becomes a carcass, which bigger countries and multinationals devour. Turkey and Turkish interests will try to eat from Syria’s carcass.”
Revived Ottoman imperialism
Restraining Kurdish expansion and benefiting from Syria’s post-conflict development are not the only reasons that made Turkey intervene in the country, says Dr. Kılıçdağı.
Erdogan’s administration has been following a revisionist foreign policy. One that is more outward-looking and aggressive than those of previous Turkish governments.
“After the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the Kemalist, secular governments which ruled the country until 2003 followed a prudent, moderate policy. One of minimal intervention in the conflicts of the Middle-East.”
This policy was grounded in the fear that if Turkey expanded too much it would break down, which was what happened to the Ottoman Empire after WWI. A German ally, the empire which covered lands from the Balkans, to Caucasus, the Middle-East and North Africa was partitioned and shared by the Allies after the war.
It was only after Kemal’s War of Independence in 1923, that Turkey acquired the borders that it has today.
However, it seems that the AKP is not satisfied with these borders.
Recently, Erdogan has been consistently criticizing the Treaty of Lausanne - which defined modern Turkey in 1923 - and has mentioned the ‘borders of our hearts’
“Our physical borders are different than the borders of our hearts. Our brothers, from Europe to Africa and, from the Mediterranean up to the endless steppes of Central Asia, are at the border of our hearts," he said, according to the Independent Balkan News Agency.
Besides its involvement in Syria, Turkey is engaged in territorial disputes with Greece,
Cyprus, maintains six overseas military bases, including one in Iraq - which Iraqi officials called a violation of national sovereignty - and is extending its influence as far as Sudan, with the leasing of the city of Suakin.
“Every country which used to be an imperial power, has a distorted and expanded view of where its national sovereignty ends”, says Dr. Kılıçdağı. “Turkish nationalists view the Balkans, parts of Caucasus, North Africa, Cyprus and the Aegean as areas they deserve to have and the Middle-East as their own backyard. The areas that Turkey is now occupying in Syria, used to be part of the Ottoman Empire.”
According to Dr. Kılıçdağı, in recent years the image of the “glorious Ottoman past” is pushed into Turkish society constantly through politics, the media and the culture industry. Erdogan’s regime is depicted as a revitalization of the Empire after a long interval by secular Kemalist regimes.
“To understand modern Turkish politics, you have to understand the personality cult around Erdogan. All the decision-making mechanisms revolve around him or people of his circle. If you look at social media, there are people who call him ‘the conqueror of Afrin’ and say that he is the new Muhammad.”
This revisionism is not new, says Dr. Tziarras. “This ideology can be traced back to the Milli Gorus party of Necmettin Erbakan, who was the ideological and political father of Erdogan and the AKP. His party contained elements of anti-Semitism, anti-Natoism, anti-Westernism aimed at the substitution of the Kemalist secular state structure with an Islamist structure based on Islamist values.”
Today, Erdogan and his party aim to replace the Kemalist order that was put in place after Lausanne with an Ottoman order. A conservative, Islamist order that seeks to win back the lands that belong to Turkey.
“One of Erbakan’s goals was to turn the country’s political system into a presidential system. Today his ideological son, achieved it,” says. Dr. Tziarras.
This brand of nationalism gives Erdogan the opportunity to tap into his electoral base. “Erdogan does not need the support of the military, the intelligentsia or the diaspora to get elected anymore. It is enough for him to get that 49-51% of the nationalist, working-class votes,” says Dr. Tziarras.
The 2016 coup d’etat and the close call in the 2017 referendum made Erdogan’s grip over the country look unstable.
The Turkish military has historically been the guardian of Kemalist values and has often served against encroachments on secularism and the constitution. Since 1923, it has staged fived successful coups against leaders who diverged from the founding father’s values.
In fact, before 2016, the last coup to take place was against Erbakan and led to his resignation as Prime Minister.
“In Turkey we have a marriage of Islam and democracy. The child of this marriage is secularism. Now this child gets sick from time to time. The Turkish Armed Forces is the doctor who saves the child,” said Cevik Bir, one of the generals who planned the 1997 coup.
After being a bystander to Erdogan’s shift to Islamism and authoritarianism, the military decided to intervene in 2016. This time though it was unsuccessful.
According to Dr. Tziarras, the operations in Syria also serve to give the army a raison d’etre and to prevent it from attempting another coup.
Erdogan has used the coup to his benefit and has, since then consolidated his power after suppressing all opposition under the pretext that they were plotters.
After the coup tens of thousands of people have been purged from the government, the army, the academia, the media and health organizations. “The intervention in Syria would not have been possible before the coup as it was meeting much resistance from every party of the opposition,” says Dr. Kılıçdağı.
What is Turkey’s end goal?
One thing that remains unanswered is how Turkey’s changing Syria strategy will impact its alliance with NATO and the US.
After all, Turkey has engaged in open conflict with US’s proxies, the Kurds.
In addition, in the past year we’ve seen Erdogan moving closer to Russia and Iran regarding the matters of Syria.
“Turkey’s foreign policy under Erdogan is much more aggressive than before but it is perfectly rational,” says Dr. Tziarras. “Turkey is pushing it as far as its abilities allow, to gain as much as it can from the West. By fighting the Kurds, Turkey restrains American influence in the region, thus making America more dependent on Turkey.”
Exactly because Turkey is going closer to Russia, the US will have to offer more things to Turkey in order to keep in its own sphere of influence.
“Turkey has a vision which I think will be difficult to achieve. Turkey wants to be a regional hegemon in the Middle-East and North Africa,” says Dr. Tziarras.
The reason that this will be difficult to achieve, according to Dr. Tziarras is that the majority of Arab countries do not have good relationships with Turkey.
“They don’t like their past under the Ottoman Empire and they are proud that they played a role in its partition. A country that is not Arabic, cannot lead Arab countries. Turkey cannot replace neither Egypt nor Saudi Arabia as leaders of the Arab world.”
Dr. Tziarras says that what Turkey is doing now in Syria, it is also doing with the Turkmens of Kirkuk and Mosul, with the Muslims of Thrace, the Turkish-Cypriots, the Crimean Tatars and with the Sunnis in the Balkans. They are using ethnic and religious groups which are affiliated to Turkey to exert influence inside other nations.
“Turkey won’t take over Syria or Iraq. Turkey is interested in creating a safe space around the Eastern Mediterranean from Greece, at its northern borders from the Kurds and in Caucasus from Russia and China. They want to secure these spaces for their own national security and to be able to regulate the geopolitical developments.”