In recent months, Turkey has made significant investments in areas under its control in northern Syria, launching local employment projects, opening Turkish post offices and even building a new highway linking the Syrian city of Al-Bab to Turkey. These commitments indicate that Ankara seeks a significant role in shaping the future of northern Syria, an area of great strategic importance.
Turkey currently controls a large swathe of territory in northwestern Syria consisting of Al-Bab and the border cities of Jarablus and Azaz, captured from Islamic State (ISIS) in the Euphrates Shield operation it launched in August 2016. It also occupies the enclave of Afrin, situated a little further westward of the Euphrates Shield zone, which it captured from Syrian Kurdish forces in its Olive Branch operation early this year.
Earlier this month, Turkish media highlighted several new projects launched by Ankara. It began training 6,500 more of the proxy militiamen who fight on Turkey’s behalf under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Azaz. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced that 260,000 Syrian refugees had successfully resettled there. Turkey also supplied 3.6 million textbooks to Syrian schools and drilled 69 wells to provide water for 432,000 people. A business association head also announced that 4,000 Turkish firms were operating in both the Euphrates Shield zone and Afrin.
State-run Turkish news outlets have a clear motive in extolling Turkey’s more humanitarian endeavours. Nevertheless, such reports demonstrate a clear intention on Ankara’s part to consolidate its sizeable foothold in northern Syria.
“The head is Turkish, the body Syrian,” quipped one Syrian man when describing all the various institutions, ranging from the security and police forces to the local councils that Turkey has established in the areas it controls. ‘Brotherhood has no borders’ is also a slogan inscribed on those Turkish-built institutions in both Turkish and Arabic. While such anecdotal examples may indicate that Turkey seeks to gradually annex these territories, Ankara invariably stresses that it supports preserving Syria’s territorial integrity.
Turkey’s two operations into Syria did fulfil some of its security needs. ISIS no longer has a foothold on Turkey’s border thanks to Euphrates Shield, and Olive Branch fulfilled Ankara’s goal of preventing the Syrian Kurds from taking over all of Syria’s northern border. Remaining in Syria, or at least retaining a sizeable proxy FSA presence there, will help ensure these battlefield victories are not undone.
“Turkish actions in northern Syria are driven by security concerns,” Timur Akhmetov, a Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, told Ahval News.
“To enhance its chances there, Turkey supports a military presence by providing limited humanitarian assistance. It is not, however, feasible at the moment to see if such investments will be guaranteed by the main actors in Syria, such as Damascus, or whether they will result in pro-Turkish sentiments in the long-run.”
The Syrian regime, which has retaken most of the country, has staunchly opposed Turkey’s cross-border incursions since the start of Euphrates Shield. Russia has proven more tolerant of the Turkish military presence, but is unlikely to recognise or acquiesce to any potential Turkish annexation of Syrian territory.
“Turkey is trying to convert its presence into political influence, but Russia so far has clearly signalled to Turkey that the Turkish presence in northern Syria is tolerated due to Turkish security concerns, meaning that no political claims are recognised as legitimate by the Astana agreements,” Akhmetov said.
Akhmetov compared Turkey’s presence in Syria to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon to remove the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) from the south of the country next to its border. For much of the next 18 years, it controlled a swathe of southern Lebanon alongside a proxy army called the South Lebanon Army (SLA) that, much like the Turkish-backed FSA forces today, it armed and trained to help enforce a buffer zone in that area, before finally withdrawing in 2000.
As with most analogies, there are some important distinctions between this ongoing case and that historic case.
“I’m not sure if the best way to look at it is in terms of legal annexation,” said Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank. “These areas have been a direct Turkish sphere of influence, and have been getting more and more integrated into Turkish administration. In many ways, for historical, political and cultural reasons, that goes well beyond what Israel had in southern Lebanon.”
Badran, like Akhmetov, sees Russia as the primary player in determining how long this situation lasts.
“For as long as the status quo between Turkey and Russia persists, and the limitations on the Assad regime’s manpower and capabilities continue to be an obstacle to its territorial ambitions, then I suspect this arrangement is likely to remain in its current, de facto, form,” Badran said.
While the Euphrates Shield zone has proven relatively stable and secure under Turkish control, the same cannot be said about Turkish-occupied Afrin.
“When you look at Afrin today there is no stability or security, it is just chaos,” Mutlu Çiviroğlu, a Kurdish and Syria affairs analyst, told Ahval News.
“Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the U.N. Human Rights Commission all state that human rights violations, torture, kidnapping and looting are common in today’s Afrin. This was a region which had exemplary stability and was a refuge for many thousands of displaced people. A place where Kurds and Arabs, Muslims and Yezidis and so on coexisted.”
Çiviroğlu said most of Afrin’s residents had been displaced by Turkey’s invasion while Ankara has facilitated the resettlement of many Syrians from across the country there, sparking accusations that it is working to alter Afrin’s Kurdish-majority demographics.
This month, clashes in Afrin between Turkish-backed factions have left at least 25 dead and bode ill for Ankara’s claims to have brought stability to the tiny enclave. “The clashes provoked terror among civilians,” said the head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Rami Abdul Rahman, who summed them up as “unprecedented since the rebels seized Afrin”.
Çiviroğlu said that since Turkey is the “occupying power” in Afrin it had the responsibility to maintain stability and security, both of which Afrin has been chronically lacking.
“Turkey’s argument of removing terrorists from that region and bringing stability and security rings hollow,” he said, adding that Turkey’s occupation of Afrin is an attempt to “expand the territories under its control to use as a bargaining chip for negotiations so it can have more of a say over Syria’s future.”