Turkey’s Syrian occupation may be self-defeating
In the northern Syrian city of Jarablus, Syrian police are training. New forces — not answerable to the Syrian regime in Damascus — parade in a courtyard. They chant in unison, “Long Live Syria.” But there is a sting in the tail, “Long Live Turkey,” followed by “Long Live Erdogan.” The recruits salute the new foreign overlord of much of northern Syria.
Elsewhere, the Turkish flag can be seen flying over the health ministry, a branch of Turkey’s own health service. The Turkish postal service has set up a post office. In schools, Syrian children are learning a new language; yes, Turkish. Are they meant to grow up as hybrid Syrian-Turks?
Turkey is engaging in a major rebuilding program in northern Syria that also includes a 200-bed hospital at Al-Bab, as well as schools and an industrial zone. The needs are obviously huge. Yet is the agenda merely humanitarian?
So just how ambitious is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in northern Syria? Turkey claims that its actions in Operation Euphrates Shield, which saw it capture 2,225 square kilometers of territory northeast of the city of Aleppo stretching to the western bank of the Euphrates, and in Operation Olive Branch in Afrin were designed solely to push back and defeat both the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) and Daesh.
Turkey is also increasingly exerting control in Idlib, one of the de-escalation zones under the Astana process. Erdogan claims that: “We don’t have a wish to occupy these lands but we want the rightful owners to go back there.” Nevertheless, Turkey has built military bases in these areas and no timetable to withdraw forces has even been hinted at.
Yet the duration of the Turkish presence and the increasing intensity of its actions on the ground to shift the demographics and identity of these areas hint at a longer term goal. Around 140,000 people have been displaced by the Turkish invasion of Afrin, but Turkey has also brought in Syrian Arabs to replace the fleeing Syrian Kurds.
Perhaps Ankara hopes to settle some of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees it hosts in these areas. The Syrian regime accuses Turkey of leading a Turkification of the area, although any accusations from this direction take rank hypocrisy to dizzying heights.
All hopes of linking the two Kurdish zones of northern Syria are now but a pipe dream, which will please both Ankara and Damascus.
Certainly Turkey has dealt a huge blow to Syrian Kurdish ambitions. All hopes of linking the two Kurdish zones of northern Syria are now but a pipe dream, which will please both Ankara and Damascus. Yet Turkish encroachment could still grow as Erdogan has indicated a desire to increase the size of its zone by capturing Manbij, and even go as far south as Raqqa.
For the remains of the Syrian Arab opposition, the Turkish-controlled areas remain their last vestige of hope and refuge. The Syrian Interim Government in theory exercises a degree of municipal control over the Euphrates Shield areas, but real power lies with the armed groups.
Turkey’s ambitions will be determined in large part by how it juggles its tense relationship with the two superpowers, the United States and Russia.
The US has been critical of Turkey’s role in Afrin, calling for those displaced to be allowed back to their homes. The new US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, would appear not to be in thrall to Erdogan’s Turkey on the basis of a 2016 tweet labelling it “a totalitarian Islamist dictatorship.” Moves are also afoot in Congress to pause sales of advanced weaponry to Turkey.
Erdogan is furious that the US continues to back the Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes the YPG that Turkey sees as a terrorist group with links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). YPG forces certainly appear to venerate the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan.
Russia is less publicly critical but tensions are rarely far from the surface. Moscow did not interfere in the Turkish invasion of Afrin, leading many to suspect another under-the-table deal between the two countries. Still, the official Russian position is that Afrin should be returned to the control of the Syrian regime, which withdrew in 2012.
Regional and international powers have shown little concern for the ethnic and sectarian divisions their actions are sowing. Turkey used its Syrian Arab proxies in Afrin to fight the Kurds. Syrian Arab fighters of the Syrian National Army then engaged in a looting spree in the city of Afrin — actions that will long be remembered by the Kurdish citizens.
The costs of the Turkish involvement in Syria will only escalate, and they are not merely financial. The ethnic and sectarian disputes Ankara stirs up in the unstable regions it occupies will be mirrored in Turkey.
The pursuit of narrow self-interests risk coming at the expense of the broader need to end the war in Syria, which would be by far the greatest advance for genuine Turkish security needs. The alternative may see Syrians in these areas losing faith with their occupier, and chanting markedly different slogans about Turkey and Erdogan than those heard in Jarablus.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Twitter: @Doylech