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The Syrian crisis and Turkey as a regional power

Introduction

The Syrian War, which has begun in 2011, is now approaching its ninth year. The ongoing armed conflict in Syria is fought between Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Republic, along with his allies particularly Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah and various domestic and foreign forces. During the war, there have always been rapid and dramatic developments on the field and Turkey, with its 900km long border with Syria, became a critical actor while its interventions in Syria have dramatically shaped both region and the country’s contemporary political situation.

Hence, the purpose of this paper is to examine Turkey’s ambitions and aims in Syria while examining several complex issues such as Turkey’s national security concerns over PKK affiliated YPG and the situation of Idlib province and fate of refugees as well as its relation to Turkey’s domestic politics.

National security matters

After suffering some of the worst terrorist attacks in its history between 2013 and 2016, the national security has become one of the top priorities in Turkey’s policy towards Syria as well as its domestic politics. In 2016, Turkey witnessed a series of systematic terrorist attacks (suicide or car bombings) organized by several groups including Islamic State (ISIS) and a breakaway group of outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) named the Kurdish Freedom Hawks (TAK) (Bayraktar, 2018).

These attacks were wide-spread all across the country from southern border cities to the major cities such as Ankara and Istanbul.

On February 17, 2016, the TAK bombed buses carrying military and civilian personnel from army headquarters in Ankara and it was followed on March 13 by the TAK’s bombing of civilian buses on Ataturk Boulevard in nearby Kızılay, Ankara. Terror attacks by ISIS include the suicide bombing of a tourist group in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district in January 2016. The attack killed 13 people, all of them were foreigners (New York Times, 2016).

The same year in March, another suicide bomber killed five people in Beyoğlu district, one of the most important touristic places of Istanbul. In June, a group of Islamic State attackers killed 45 people on the international terminal at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport (Salt, 2018). According to a media report, just alone in 2016, 484 people died in these attacks, putting 2016 to Turkey’s deadliest year in this century (Kuek Ser, 2017).

Following these developments, Turkey has launched a large-scale military operation called “Euphrates Shield” (Fırat Kalkanı Harekâtı) in 2016 in the name of border security and driving the Islamic State and the Kurdish militia (PKK affiliated the People’s Protection Units, YPG) out of the border region while aiming Turkish-aligned rebels to gain and maintain as much territory as possible (Salt, 2018). Turkey’s military operation was codified under the UN Charter Article 51 as officials stated that Turkey was exercising its right to self-defence. The operational targets were captured quickly and an area of 1,100 square kilometres was cleared within the first 50 days of military operation. At the end of the operation, Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) and TAF supported Free Syrian Army (FSA) militants were able to clear the strategic towns of Jarablus, al-Rai, and al-Bab from ISIS (Ulgen, 2017).

On January 20, 2018, TAF launched another military operation in cooperation with FSA. The military operation dubbed Operation Olive Branch (Zeytin Dalı Harekâtı) and it was launched just after the U.S announced that it is going to create a 30,000-member border force with the YPG’s umbrella group Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to secure northern part of Syria. This has increased tensions between Turkey and the U.S as Turkey has claimed that U.S arms provided to Kurdish groups would be used against them (Cavusoglu, 2018).

In addition to that, it was crucial for President Erdoğan to launch military operations in order to consolidate its power over Turkey’s Sunni community that is also bedrock of his electoral success as peace process came to an end in 2014 and a new alliance has been established between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) (Robins, 2017).

The offensive was successful to prevent the YPG to merge Afrin and Kobane regions, therefore, establishing a “Kurdish corridor” which Turkey strongly opposes and sees a threat to its national security (Ulgen, 2017). One year on, Turkey also economically ‘benefits’ from Afrin as Turkish-Kurdish media outlet Yeni Ozgur Politika claimed that Turkey is taking region’s 80$ million worth of olive harvest (BBC News, 2019).

Post-War Syria and refugees

Since the beginning of the Civil War in 2011, Turkey opened its doors to more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees, that makes Turkey a country that hosts world’s largest refugee population (Human Rights Watch, 2018). According to government officials, Turkey has already spent more than 33$ billion on the expenses of refugees in general (Hacaoglu, 2018). However, as the war in Syria is now approaching it’s ninth-year, things are different now. Turkey is experiencing a severe economic decline which forces employers to lay off Turkish locals and hire Syrian refugees for a cheaper workforce. This makes strains between Turkish and Syrian workers to come ahead (Cunningham, 2018). Additionally, some border cities of Turkey experiences demographical changes due to the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees since 2011. Official figures indicate that about 1.5 million Syrian refugees live in Hatay, Gaziantep, Kilis, Şanlıurfa and Mardin, which are neighbouring cities of Syria. Istanbul, Turkey’s most populated city hosts approximately 540,000 refugees (DailySabah, 2018).

Last year on September 27th, in Şanlıurfa, two Turkish youth were killed as a result of an argument between Turkish and Syrian families. In the following days, mobs attacked Syrians and their shops in the neighbourhood. This violent event and the anti-immigrant tendency among locals are part of a growing trend. According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), there has been a dramatic increase in violent incidents involving locals and Syrian refugees. The ICG also added that anti-refugee violence is originated from competition for low-wage jobs and because of host communities’ perception of Syrian refugees as culturally different (Crisis Group, 2018).

Opposition parties are trying to tap into this issue and try to convert it to an electoral victory. Umit Ozdag, deputy chairman of the nationalist and right-wing Iyi Party, a split group of MHP, says that demographical changes caused by Syrian refugees are a threat to Turkey’s “ethnic and cultural structure (Hacaoglu, 2018). All of these might sound too much of domestic politics of Turkey, but Turkey’s domestic politics have significant effects on Turkey’s policy of Syria. Government officials and even Erdoğan himself seems aware of this situation, therefore, he foresees the return of refugees to Syria in order to prevent a backlash in the elections. He said in a speech in February, 2018, “We want our refugee brothers and sisters to return to their country,” clarifying that this open door policy is soon to change and TAF’s military victories in northern Syria have created a possibility to realize this policy-shift and host refugees in the Turkish controlled areas of Syria (Cunningham, 2018).

On November 2018, Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar stated that around 260,000 Syrian nationals have returned to Euphrates Shield operation area. By doing that, Turkey is establishing ‘organic’ ties as well as direct influence over the residents of the TAF controlled areas. Harran University, located in the southeastern province of Şanlıurfa, has opened a faculty in Al-Bab area. A vocational high school affiliated with Gaziantep University has opened in Jarablus. The so-called Civil Police Force, an organization that works under Turkish supervision, runs the local councils in the area. Furthermore, the communities living under the control of the Turkish military have identity cards just like Turkish citizens has and it is directly registered to the Turkish Civil Register (Baladi, 2018).

The situation of Idlib

The situation of Idlib province, the last militant-held stronghold located in north-west Syria and shares a 100km border with Turkey, is rather a complex one with a showdown of geopolitical powers including Turkey, Iran, Russia and the United States. Last year, Syrian Arab Army (SAA) have enclaved the city and were to advance towards the last rebel-held stronghold of the Syrian militants. However, last year in September, Turkey’s Erdoğan and Russian’s Putin brokered an agreement on Idlib. As a part of the agreement, Russia forced SAA to halt the planned assault and Turkey projected a demilitarized zone in Idlib which would withdraw all heavy weapons and rebel groups. According to the agreement, TAF would operate in the demilitarized zone while Russian forces would patrol the outskirts of the rebel-held city (Foy et al., 2019).

However, there have been problems on implementing the September agreement as Turkey has not been able to clear the jihadist groups and their heavy weapons from the area between Idlib and government-held territories as promised. On the contrary, a Sunni extremist and al-Qaeda-linked rebel group called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) pushed an offensive against Turkish backed other groups in the area and became dominant (Foy et al., 2019).

Turkey has long feared that a military offensive against Idlib province could trigger a new refugee flow which is the complete opposite thing that the Turkish government needs now. According to Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, there are approximately 3,5 million civilians living in the city. Akar said that in a military escalation, these people are going to flood Europe too. Furthermore, an offensive from Syrian forces could trigger HTS to set back towards the Turkish border that would put Turkey at great risk. Therefore, Turkey has been hesitant about a military offensive on Idlib (Aljazeera, 2019).

However, as Syrian forces claim that they would have ‘every inch of the country back’, Russia is getting impatient and forcing Turkey to realize a military operation. At the time of writing, Turkish and Russian forces just started their joint patrols in the area and according to Akar, Turkey’s use of Afrin and Idlib airspaces have been lifted from March 8 and onwards. Although Turkey has been long-delayed the implications of the September agreement, Russia’s permission to use of airspaces is vital for Turkey’s military operations over the area and means a significant step towards a military operation which might be the only option for Turkey to protect its alliance with Russians over Syria (Hürriyet Daily News, 2019).   

Conclusion

The Syrian War has clearly been costly to Turkey in every sense and its aims in Syria and domestic politics are highly intertwined. The war at Turkey’s doorstep caused horrific terror attacks led by IS and PKK affiliated TAK that led to national security issues and military interventions. It has brought more than 3 million refugees to Turkey, causing many complex issues in the long run.

In the long term, Ankara wants to ensure that Turkey maintains effective influence over Syria’s future and shape what is coming next as well as economically benefiting from the war-torn Syria. The only way to do this is to remain among stakeholders in the field. As it is clearly examined above, as a result of both Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch, Turkey became a major player in northern part of Syria which would allow it to be an actor in shaping Syria`s future. By military operations and establishment of Turkish-led rebel governments in the captured areas and settlement of refugees gives this ability to Turkey and improves its influence.

Moreover, while Turkey is trying to reverse the refugee situation, it is also trying to prevent a new inflow from the Idlib area. However, given the complex situation of the city, Turkey has been hesitant to organize a new military operation. But following recent developments, this might have to change soon and a new military operation is possible.

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