Turkey has played a major role in the Syrian conflict that started in 2011. It has armed and financed various Sunni Islamist and jihadi groups, with the Al Qaeda affiliate Ahrar al-Sham being the most significant Turkish proxy army fighting against the Syrian government forces. A new phase began in August 2016 with a direct military operation called ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’. At the start of the operation, Turkey had approximately 350 men stationed in Syria. With regard to international law, Turkey is now an occupying force in a sovereign neighbor country. Together with various groups under the Free Syrian Army banner, Turkey currently occupies around 2000 square kilometers of land in Syria.
Turkey and Syria conducted pragmatic and even friendly relations before 2011, but once Turkish leaders failed to convince the Syrian government of the need for political reforms, Turkey quickly embarked on a regime-change policy. Within this, all groups declaring that they would fight against the Syrian government forces were seen as worthy of Turkey’s support. This meant that Turkey started to arm and finance not only Sunni militants loosely gathered under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, but also various jihadi factions that soon took the leading role in anti-Assad armed insurgency.
From 2011 to August 2016, Turkey had three main priorities in Syria: 1) ousting the Syrian government by arming the Islamist and jihadist insurgency; 2) helping the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to power; and 3) preventing the formation of the PKK-affiliated (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, designated as a terror organization by Turkey, the USA and the EU) autonomous Kurdish state in northern Syria. In addition to these three aims, a fourth aspect has emerged since June 2015 when Turkey finally, after protracted US pressure, allowed the international coalition bombing the Islamic State (Isis) to use İncirlik air base in its operations. This changed the relationship between Isis and Turkey rather dramatically, since from then on Isis declared Turkey to be one of its main targets. Turkey was subsequently forced to take the terrorist group seriously.
This situation has now escalated and led to Turkey’s military invasion of Syria in August 2016. ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ has three main goals: firstly, ridding the border areas of Isis militants; secondly, ensuring that the areas cleared of Isis will not end up in the hands of Syrian PKK-affiliated groups – the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, YPG; thirdly, and especially, maintaining a Turkey-dependent Syrian Sunni Islamist force capable of future operations. One can argue that the first phase of the military operation, accomplished within five months, has been more or less successful in that the areas in question have been cleared of Isis, and the formation of a continuous Kurdish enclave along the Turkish southern border is now blocked for the time being. However, the second phase, the attempt to conquer the strategically important town of Al-Bab, is yet to be accomplished due to heavy Isis resistance. At the time of writing, Turkey’s leadership seemed to be on the verge of abandoning the Al-Bab operation and concentrating instead on building pro-Turkish Syrian forces in the areas already under control.
While the situation emerging in Syria is increasingly complex, at least one thing is certain: Turkey is going to do everything it can in order to prevent the formation of an autonomous Kurdish state in northern Syria. The PKK, with its four decade-long campaign to destroy the Turkish state by armed insurgency, is perceived as an existential threat by the Turkish authorities. What is currently developing in northern Syria is therefore fundamentally linked to Turkey’s own Kurdish issue, which after some positive developments a few years back, is now again on a trajectory of Turkey-PKK warfare with no end in sight. As long as the PKK-affiliated PYD/YPG are the dominant Kurdish forces in northern Syria, the Turkish government will perceive these areas as an extension of the terrorist PKK on the Syrian side of the border, and thus claim they are a legitimate target of Turkish counter-terrorism operations.
However, Turkey’s changed stance on Syria has recently turned out to be a possible game changer. In other words, if Turkey completely abandons its previous regime-change agenda and thus abandons its Islamist proxies, it is very likely that other regional supporters of the Sunni insurgency, like Saudi Arabia, will gradually refrain from making new and extensive investments in Syria. Further, for a long time now, Turkey has had severe problems in justifying its anti-Kurd actions to its main nominal ally, the USA, which for its part perceives the PYD/YPG as its main ally against Isis jihadis. Whereas the new US administration’s Syrian policy is still unclear, Turkey’s government representatives have now publicly stated that their Syrian policy was a failure from the start, and that Turkey can no longer realistically demand Assad’s departure.
There is considerable disagreement over what the Syrian Kurdish enclave (Rojava) represents. For Turkey, the answer has always been clear: it is the PKK state being erected on the Syrian side of the border, with considerable foreign (American) help. Now it seems that Turkey has mainly abandoned its regime-change policy, is trying to keep some of the Syrian Sunni forces under its influence for possible future circumstances, but most of all is concentrating on blocking the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish state. All of this results in a foreign policy that is unpredictable and in which Turkey’s alliances may change almost overnight. With some over-simplification, it would not be amiss to conclude that from now on Turkey’s Syrian policy is all about the Kurds, and that this will determine which settlement Turkey comes to support.
• From 2011 to August 2016, Turkey aimed for a regime change in Syria by arming various Islamist and jihadi factions, without direct military intervention.
Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Edited by Dan Anderson
The full report can be read here