By Jim Carey
About two months ago now, it seemed as if NATO allies Turkey and the United States had finally reached some kind of agreement over the situation in northern Syria with a rough plan to establish a safe zone to be administered by both nations. This came after years of disputes over Washington’s support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, which had captured and occupied swathes of territory with the help of US bombers.
There had been previous negotiations between the US and Turkey over what should be done about the dispute over the YPG and the elements of the national liberation organization Kurdistan Workers Party embedded within the YPG, and which is labelled a “terrorist” organization by U.S. imperialism and the Erdogan regime. Shortly after the US agreed to the safe zone in Syria, YPG spokesman Mustafa Bali even announced that Kurdish forces would be withdrawing to create a 14-kilometer buffer zone on Syria’s northern border.
However, in recent weeks, things have not been working out the way the Turkish government had thought they would. Instead of working to develop a safe zone, Washington has stalled for the last two months as figures like Turkish President Erdogan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu expressing outrage at the inactivity. Just as recently as last week Cavusoglu told reporters, Turkey felt that “this ongoing process with the United States will not take us to the point we desire,” and signaled Turkey had other plans. [ Related: US and Turkey Agree to Establish “Safe Zone” in Northern Syria ]
These other plans have become very obvious over the past few days as the Turks are now moving military reinforcements to the border with Syria. Turkey is desperate to establish this safe zone by any means necessary, even if that means another full-scale military operation, now signed off on by the US to appease Ankara.
A Turkish operation means occupation
So why exactly is this safe zone so important to Erdogan and the Turkish government?
There is currently a lot going on inside Turkey that has a larger effect on Turkish foreign policy. Between the effects on the Turkish economy from hosting over a million Syrian refugees, tensions with the west, and the cracks beginning to show in Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman project, the President is trying to put out multiple political fires.
The establishment of more Turkish controlled areas in Syria is a victory Erdogan could use right now as it would give him a chance to show action on a few of these issues.
When it comes to the Syrian refugees, their presence has started to become unwanted by certain sectors of Turkish society including members of other political parties. Syrian refugees are even unpopular with supporters of Erdogan’s main opposition, the secular-nationalist Republican People’s Party (CHP), which often takes a harder line on migrants than the AKP. [ Related: Erdogan & AKP Keep Putting up Victory Posters in İstanbul…Where They Lost ]
One objective of Erdogan’s plan to establish a safe zone is to relocate a lot of these refugees back across the border. The only problem is that this “humanitarian” action to return Syrians to their country will, no doubt, result in further Turkish colonization of northern Syria.
In areas where Turkey has conducted previous operations, such as Afrin in Syria’s northwest, the policy of invading Turkish forces (with support from their local ‘rebel’ allies) has been to Turkify the region. This expansion long-term of Turkish influence comes in many forms but includes Turkish civil authorities moving in to handle everything from mail delivery to importing the Turkish education system. Just last week, Erdogan signed an executive decree opening three more of these Turkish schools. The schools, extensions of Gaziantep University, will be established in Azaz, Afrin, and al-Bab and are a sign that Ankara intends to maintain a long-term influence in northern Syria.
Another tool of colonization in recent Turkish operations has been the aforementioned local jihadist forces which often move in and act as local authorities at the behest of Ankara. The fighters with the Turkish backed remnants of the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) have already promised to aid with this latest Turkish operation saying it is the FSA’s “duty to fight” and “stand in full force in support of our Turkish brothers in fighting all forms of terrorism represented by the PKK gangs.”
These Turkish-backed fighters in Syria are a mixture of Salafists who somehow managed to mesh their fanaticism with that of the AKP as well as fighters who likely saw that Turkey was one of the few long-term sources of funding remaining to fund their crimes in Syria. Together, these failures of the “revolution” have worked to enforce the Turkish occupation in northern Syria and assist in making traditionally Kurdish (and other ethnic minority) territory, more Turkish. [ Related: The Turkish Plot to Swallow Syria Behind the Scenes of Negotiations ]
This all plays back into Erdogan’s bigger designs of restoring the lost glory of Turkey’s precious status as head of an Islamic empire. This has been a long project of the AKP, which inside of Turkey, has worked to erase inconvenient portions of the country’s history as a secular republic (although this fluctuates depending on which sector of the vote Erdogan is courting from week to week).
Erdogan has a lot to prove inside of Turkey and a new operation to both relocate Syrian refugees as well as essentially colonize more of northern Syria could help him at home. Turkish nationalism and anti-Kurdish sentiments are basically a given in most of the country’s major parties and a victory abroad against YPG/PKK forces would play to both back home.
To ease tension, US approves operation
Another hurdle Erdogan has been attempting to clear over the last several years is to shake the idea that Turkey is some kind of junior partner to the US and European Union. The United States and NATO are also incredibly unpopular among Turks in general.
Over the last several years, Erdogan and the AKP have made moves to craft a more nationalistic foreign policy. Following high profile incidents like the downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey over the Syrian border or a coup against Erdogan in July of 2016, relations between the US and Turkey began to backslide and have yet to fully recover.
Things only got worse with the United States as Turkey went on to bigger and better things by making a sincere effort to repair relations with Russia. This all paid off when Turkey, a key player in Syria for better or worse, was included in the Astana talks with Iran and Russia to negotiate a peaceful end to the Syrian war.
During this time there were multiple disputes between the US and Turkey going on in the background. The US had plenty to complain about to Turkey like the jailed pastor, Andrew Brunson, who was accused of being a FETO member as well as human rights abuses in general following the 2016 coup. However, Turkey also had complaints for Washington, chief among them being the continued support for the YPG despite it being well known that the leadership was composed of PKK veterans.
Things got even worse than this once Turkey began shopping for new air defense systems and ended up going with the Russian S-400 simultaneously to the US, other western powers, and Turkey all finishing up the joint F-35 project. Turkish pilots had already begun training to fly the F-35s in the US but were soon sent back when it was decided that Turkey could no longer have access to a project they worked on as a consequence of buying Russian military hardware. On top of barring the delivery of the F-35 to Turkey, the US is also still weighing the option of further sanctions on Turkey for the S-400 purchase. [ Related: Turkish Officials Doubt US Will Implement S-400 Sanctions ]
More recently, US diplomacy with Greece has also been a source of anxiety for Turkey. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Athens last week, where he signed a new defense agreement with Greece, solidifying new US investments in Greece. More importantly, the new deal inked by Pompeo also opens new supply lines for NATO allowing western forces to bypass the Turkish controlled Bosphorus when supplying eastern NATO members.
This all happens against the backdrop of increased tension between Greece and Turkey directly, as well as with the government of Cyprus as Turkey has increased drilling activity in disputed waters. Greece and Cyprus have condemned the move by the Turks, saying it creates security risks. Ankara has, of course, ignored all these warnings and has recently announced that drilling has likely begun as of the publishing of this piece.
In light of all of this, and with President Donald Trump’s desire to minimize the US role in Syria before the 2020 election and the important role Turkey’s massive military and geographic position play in the NATO alliance, it seems that after a direct phone call between Presidents Trump and Erdogan, Trump has offered to give up northern Syria as a tribute.
While the fact that the US troops were in northern Syria isn’t necessarily a good thing, the introduction of Turkish troops in their place is no better. As laid out above, Turkish troops bring an occupation with no end in sight and putting local populations in danger. While the US has been protecting the Kurds of northern Syria for the last several years, the best exit for the YPG would’ve been to deal with Damascus, but the US can’t allow that.
Instead, Turkey will take on the job of dismantling Syria and trying to weaken the central government for the next wave of destabilization efforts. This is, above all, the most important takeaway as it means that Syria’s sovereignty is still being violated by NATO and will likely continue to be for the foreseeable future unless Damascus, and by extension, Moscow decide to aid the Kurdish forces in northern Syria and negotiate their integration back into Syrian political life.
As of now none of this has happened and Turkish jets are currently bombing Kurdish targets in northern Syria.
Unless the Kurds come to the bargaining table with Damascus their only hope will be forces in Washington pushing Trump away from Turkey. Already, senator Lindsey Graham has threatened bipartisan Congressional sanctions on Turkey now that they have invaded Syria. Trump, for his part now seems besieged by these forces in the US who oppose the US withdrawal and the Turkish invasion (although it’s unclear how important Kurdish safety is compared to the US military “maintaining a presence”). [ Related: Kurds, Pushing for Autonomy, Stand to Lose in Syria Negotiations ]
Trump lashed out at critics on Twitter multiple times during the writing of this piece but also seemed to walk back his blank slate approval for Turkish operations in Syria saying he would “obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if they violate some arbitrary rules that only Trump, in his “unmatched wisdom” knows.
Trump also strangely mentioned ISIS, which he previously declared defeated, saying Turkey will need to account for every IS fighter and their families. It is unclear if Trump realizes Turkey used to hold actual ledgers of supplies for and contact information of ISIS fighters but it is ironic he has asked one of IS biggest advocates to “watch over” any remaining jihadists. These fighters have long since left the Islamic State and are now fighters in the ‘brave’ Turkish-backed resistance fighters who will soon be occupying previously YPG territory.
Whether Trump means any of this or not is likely going to be unimportant to many parties involved including the Kurds and Syrians but also the Turks themselves. Although Turkey may have gotten the green light to invade Syria again, Erdogan was just calling out the US for “economic warfare” on Turkey a few months ago.
For Trump to openly say he has previously sunk the Turkish economy and that he would do it again is likely to just increase Turkish hostility towards Washington. Erdogan doesn’t like to be shamed on the international stage and, should the US try to challenge him on his operations in Syria, is likely to strike back.
Turkey may be trying to send Syrian refugees back home but they also have plenty they would be happy to weaponize against the European Union and, by extension, the entire western economy. Trump will have to walk a fine line while dealing with Erdogan, who can become just as indignant just as fast and will retaliate against the west if he feels wronged.
Erdogan has big plans for northern Syria and the future of Turkey. Trump has given him a green light (for now) but if he decides to retract it, he should be prepared to pay the price. Turkey is already considering purchasing more Russian military equipment, is moving closer to China on economic development than ever before, and could always threaten to leave NATO, depriving the western military establishment of a sometimes difficult, but crucial ally.