BACKGROUND: The outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in early 2011 came at a time when, finally confident of their grip on domestic power, Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) were increasingly looking to extend their influence beyond the country’s borders. For the most prominent members of the government, such as Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Erdoğan himself, the driving force was a self-aggrandizing meld of Muslim and Turkish supremacism, a vision redolent with nostalgia for an imagined Ottoman past in which the world’s Muslims would be united the AKP’s leadership.
Initially, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu had tried to advance their ambitions through the deployment of soft power and the cultivation of personal ties with other Muslim leaders in former Ottoman territories. When the region was shaken by what became known as the “Arab Spring”, they changed tack and portrayed the uprisings as following in their own party’s wake – in the apparent conviction that, if successful, the leaders of the uprisings would look to Ankara for leadership. Similarly, when the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was overthrown in the July 2013 coup, the AKP provided many of its members with a safe haven in Istanbul and attempted to subsume the organization’s cause into its own – in the hope that, if they came to power in the region, the Brotherhood’s affiliates would become nodes in a network of Turkish influence.
But it was only in Syria that the AKP became actively involved in an armed insurrection against an incumbent regime – arming, equipping, training and financing the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). It was thus also Syria which became the main testing ground for the AKP’s claims to have transformed Turkey into the ultimate arbiter of what happened in the region.
Nevertheless, when the Syrian uprising began to falter, Erdoğan failed to deploy Turkish troops on the ground inside Syria in support of the rebels. One of the main reasons was widespread opposition inside Turkey amongst both the general public and the Turkish General Staff (TGS). Even though the TGS could no longer dictate to the civilian authorities, nor could Erdoğan yet completely bend the generals to his will. Privately, military officials were confident of being able to defeat the forces of President Bashar al-Assad but feared likely high casualties in doing so. They also described going into Syria as the easy part. The problem would be getting out again.
When the fighting in Syria escalated, the AKP had opened Turkey’s borders to those fleeing the conflict – in the expectation that al-Assad would swiftly be overthrown, the refugees would return home and a new government in Damascus would gratefully look to Ankara for leadership. However, by 2014, the main impetus of the rebellion had shifted away from the now weak and divided FSA to more extreme Islamist groups, particularly the Islamic State (IS). In its desperation to topple al-Assad, and despite warnings about the risk of blowback, Ankara effectively nurtured the growth of the IS, allowing it to establish a presence in border areas inside Turkey and initially making no effort to prevent foreign recruits from transiting the country to join the organization’s self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Despite extensive overtures from Washington, Ankara also declined to assume a leading role in the U.S.-led coalition to eradicate the IS. When the modus vivendi between Ankara and the IS eventually broke down, hundreds were killed inside Turkey in IS-inspired terrorist attacks.
A former university professor, Davutoğlu had risen to prominence within the AKP through his writings and his ability to couch his expressions of religious and nationalistic supremacism in meretricious academese, which many in the party saw as providing scientific confirmation of their own and their country’s self-worth. In August 2014, when Erdoğan was elected to the presidency, he appointed Davutoğlu as his successor as prime minister – only to remove him less than two years later when Davutoğlu sought to create a political powerbase of his own. However, although Davutoğlu had helped shape the vision which inspired the AKP’s ambitions in Syria, he played only a minor role in its implementation, which was mainly handled by the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) and overseen by Erdoğan. Consequently, Davutoğlu’s dismissal in May 2016 was not followed by any policy change in Syria.
More important was the concentration of power in Erdoğan’s hands following the still largely unexplained coup attempt of July 2016. In August 2016, Erdoğan used his increased control over the apparatus of state to launch Operation Euphrates Shield, sending Turkish troops across the border to occupy a large swathe of northern Syria, ostensibly to combat what was described as the terrorist threat to Turkish security. Although Turkish forces did clash with the IS, their principal target was the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – to whom, after its rebuff by Ankara, Washington had turned as its partner on the ground against the IS.
IMPLICATIONS: Over the next four years, there were three more major Turkish deployments into Syria – two against the SDF and one into the last rebel-held enclave of Idlib to prevent it from being overrun by al-Assad and his allies. So far, these military operations have cost the lives of 250-300 Turkish soldiers, around one third of whom have been killed by Damascus and its allies and the remainder in clashes with the SDF.
Today, Turkey occupies over 8,000 square kilometers of northwest Syria, while its proxies and allies control around 3,000 square kilometers in Idlib. But, although some of the Turkish-occupied areas have acquired a neo-colonial character, Erdoğan’s policy towards Syria has now become driven less by expansionist dreams and more by fears about his dwindling popularity inside Turkey.
The AKP’s “open door” policy for Syrians fleeing the civil war rapidly transitioned from a miscalculation to a domestic political liability, as rising hostility to the refugees bled into anger at the government for allowing them into the country. In 2015, the AKP closed the border, although it is sometimes still possible to cross illegally. One of Erdoğan’s main motivations in launching the military invasions of Syria was the hope that some of the estimated 3.7 million Syrian refugees inside Turkey could be resettled in the occupied territory. Similarly, Erdoğan deployed troops to Idlib for fear that, if the enclave was overrun by al-Assad’s forces, Turkey could be faced with a new influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees.
The deteriorating economic situation in Turkey – itself largely the product of Erdoğan’s hubristic faith in his own idiosyncratic policy prescriptions – has both further eroded Erdoğan’s popular support and further fuelled now virulent anti-migrant sentiments. Turkey has recently stepped up its construction of homes in the occupied territories. But the lack of infrastructure, employment and security are likely to continue to ensure that only a few refugees return – while the Turkish proxies entrusted with administering the territories are riven by internal divisions and frequently rapacious and murderous.
More successful, at least in terms of his domestic popularity, have been Erdoğan’s attacks against the SDF, which is dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Despite its – and sometimes Washington’s – public protestations to the contrary, the YPG is closely affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging an often brutal insurgency in Turkey since 1984. Although it was inadvertent, the AKP was partly indirectly responsible for the US’s alliance with SDF. Washington’s provision of training, weapons and equipment helped the SDF to considerably expand the area of northern Syria under its control, including a long stretch along the Turkish border – something that Ankara repeatedly portrayed as a threat to national security.
In reality, not only has there never been any indication that the SDF has plans to attack Turkey but the flat terrain along the border mitigates against the asymmetrical warfare that would be the SDF’s only hope against the vastly superior firepower of the Turkish military. Nevertheless, opinion polls have shown that, by enabling him to portray himself as defending national security against the YPG/PKK, military offensives against the SDF boost Erdoğan’s public popularity. Around two thirds of the estimated 250-300 Turkish soldiers who have been killed in Syria since August 2016 have died in clashes with the SDF, with the remainder being killed in Idlib by Damascus and its allies.
Erdoğan’s recent outreach to al-Assad has been followed by an intensification in long-running discreet contacts between the two countries’ intelligence services. As he looks ahead to next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections, Erdoğan appears to have convinced himself that al-Assad will agree to a power-sharing arrangement with the rebels that will allow the refugees in Turkey to return to Syria – and that Damascus and its allies Russia and Iran, neither of whom wish to see the U.S. retain its presence in northern Syria, will then join with Ankara to crush the SDF. In reality, there appears little prospect of this happening.
CONCLUSIONS: The Al-Assad regime has always insisted that the complete withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syria is a precondition for any settlement. In the absence of a power-sharing agreement, this would be a humiliation for Erdoğan. Yet if al-Assad were to assent to such an agreement – which seems unlikely – it is unclear with whom he could share power.
In 2017, Ankara rebadged the remnants of the FSA as the Syrian National Army (SNA). But the SNA is more a weak and ineffectual coalition of feuding warlords than a cohesive military force – much less, despite Ankara’s protestations to the contrary, a government in waiting. The component of the SNA in Idlib, the rebel factions known collectively as the National Front for Liberation (NFL), is a junior partner in a coalition with the alleged al Qaeda affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the most influential force in the governorate.
And end to the fighting in Syria would probably encourage some refugees to return, not least because Turkey has become such a hostile environment for them. But many, perhaps most, are likely to stay in the hope of conditions improving – and, at some point, will need to be integrated into Turkish society,
If Turkey retains its military presence in Syria, not only will it be a drain on the country’s resources but it will continue to sour the country’s international relations, not least with those Arab countries who see the Turkish occupation as symptomatic of Ottoman revanchism.
But if Turkey withdraws, the rebel forces in Syria will lose their main protector. Even if the al-Assad regime provides guarantees of safety, it is difficult to see how they would be believed – leaving the rebels with the choice between staying and probably being killed and fleeing across the border into Turkey. Given the high proportion of extremist views amongst the rebels, it is also difficult to see how their influx into Turkey would be conducive to domestic security and societal stability. Yet they appear to have nowhere else to go.
Gareth Jenkins is a Non-resident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.