Updated: Nov 14, 2019
After a decade of using a conciliatory foreign policy and soft power actions, Turkey began taking an active part in its neighbor's politics, particularly in Syria. The recent developments in light of the civil war in Syria, considering the Kurdish conflict and the joining of ISIS, allowed Turkey to become a critical force of in the complicated Middle East arena.
In 2011, the relations between Turkey and Syria began to deteriorate, following a relatively friendly relationship in the decade prior to the war. Turkey held a dual approach while its initial response to the escalation in Syria was still conciliatory, and at the same time, the Turkish government became the main supporter of the Syrian opposition organizations. Turkey sponsored the opposition, which was characterized mainly by the Muslim Brotherhood and other pan-Islamic factions, and it joined the international coalition calling for Assad's resignation.
Turkey volunteered to be the renewal platform of the political union of the Sunni opposition to Assad, in the form of the Syrian National Council (SNC). In July 2011, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was formed on Turkish soil, with economic and military assistance from Ankara, followed by an armed rebellion against the regime. Turkey provided the FSA with a base for operation, and together with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Turkey also financed arms and other military equipment.
In 2012, the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MIT) armed and trained several Syrian opposition members. The escalation led to a military confrontation between the Assad government with the support of Hezbollah, the Shiite militias, Iran and Russia against the Syrian opposition, affiliated with the Salafist Jihad, who oppose the hegemony of the Alawite Assad family. Among the "rebels" are the FSA and later the Sunni Salafist jihadist organization Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (the former official Syrian branch of al-Qaeda), ISIS and Kurdish defense units.
The sharp change in Turkish policy has led to a chain effect with both regional and international repercussions for Turkey. The Rojava revolution began in 2011 during the Syrian uprising, when about 5,000 members of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish party affiliated with the PKK, united a liberated area on the Syrian-Turkish border, consisting of three regions: Jazira, Kobane and Afrin. Where they established local councils and began to implement the pluralistic ideas of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. The open border policy allowed free flow of funds and fighters into Syria through Turkish soil to support opposition groups.
By the end of 2013, Turkey largely became the sole sponsor of the Islamic opposition after the United States and Great Britain suspended their support for the opposition. Western powers, in fact, suspended the help to the opposition after the Al-Nusra front became the leading group opposed to the Assad regime. Erdogan's support of Jihadism is an open secret despite government's extreme censorship. Most of the weapons sent to Syrian rebel groups fighting the Assad government go to Islamic jihadists, and not to the more secular opposition groups that the Western countries wanted to strengthen.
Turkey opened a second front in Syria in light of the Kurdish issue. There are dormant cells of ISIS in fourteen Turkish towns, which facilitated the entry of roughly 2,000 jihadists knowingly into Syria. Two months later, Turkey entered Jarabulus to replace ISIS' forces with FSA's jihadist forces, which attacked the Syrian Kurds, and in August, Turkey began bombing YPG-YPJ headquarters in Afrin. The rebels in Syria had foreign backing and assistance, namely from Turkey, in order to succeed in determining the arena in Latakia in the northwest or in Damascus.
At the time point of 2014, it seemed that the efforts were successful and the Alawite forces are losing control over the return of territories. Turkey treats the Kurdish in the north of Iraq differently and complements with its actual autonomy, while at the same time it tries to prevent, by all means, the formation of a similar identity in northern Syria. A change in the Turkish policy against ISIS took place during 2015, due to increased supervision of the border crossings and the expansion of arrests of its activists in its territory, and later Turkey allowed U.S. fighter planes to operate against ISIS from Incirlik Air Base within its borders.
The U.S., which considered the Kurds as their only hope for a trusted ally in Syria, decided to recruit them to build a new army to fight ISIS, a union between YPG-YPJ and Arab militias. In 2015, Turkish forces shot down a Russian fighter jet, an operation suspected of protecting ISIS's oil routes after Russian fighter jets fired hundreds of ISIS trucks earlier that year. In addition, Turkey issued passports, credit cards, driving licenses and granted residence permits to foreign fighters.
One of the main reasons for the large Turkish support is its participation ISIS's oil trade. Turkey coordinated the smuggling of oil between ISIS and KRG by effectively using Kurdish oil as camouflage. Turkey, apart from its membership in NATO, has no crucial interest in the struggle against ISIS, in fact Turkey indirectly assists it. Turkey sees ISIS as a means of combatting the Assad regime in Syria, and under the sponsorship of the war with ISIS, Turkey runs a private war against the PKK and the Kurdish militias in northern Iraq and northern Syria.
Every year, 2.5 million tons of smuggled oil are transported to Turkey, about one-fifth of the total oil consumed in the country. An important escalation in relations between Turkey and the United States occurred when the U.S. began to assisting the PYD forces with air strikes and ammunition as part of their struggle against ISIS, a direct undermining of Turkey's security interests as well as the establishment of the SDF. Although it's declared aspirations, Turkey's real goal is actually the Kurds and not ISIS. The Turks, together with the Syrian militias fighting alongside them, captured over 10 villages from the SDF, killing 35 civilians and an unknown number of fighters.
At the same time, Turkey launched artillery bombardments against the Kurds in Rojava and dug a defensive tunnel along the Syrian border. On the Kurdish front, Turkey has succeeded in using the wave of violence by the PKK and its affiliates to turn the spotlight from Kurdish aspirations for their rights as an ethnic minority to perceiving them as a threat to the state. On the contrary, due to American pressures, Turkey joined the coalition against ISIS. Although Assad has managed to return most of the country, the Turkish presence complicates its influence in the northwest part of the state.
The Turkish presence was formed in the region due to "Operation Euphrates Shield" in 2016, accompanied by the Syrian opposition in order to occupy the Turkish border area up to the Euphrates River. Turkey took over Afrin from the YPG in "Operation Olive Branch" in 2018, which held a Turkish uprising for the past three decades. Turkey also established 12 military posts in the Idlib region and south-west of Afrin, in cooperation with Russia and Iran. The wand as the dominant international force in the region in the context of the crisis in Syria has transferred to Russia, forcing Turkey to abandon its neo-Ottoman goals from the beginning of the decade.
Turkey that aspired to be a model of Islamism and democracy in the Middle East has reached a crossroads that limits its maneuvering space. The two most important principles of intervention in the Syrian disaster were a regime change and the prevention of the creation of a Kurdish entity in northern Syria.
One can witness a certain duality in Turkish policy, which on the one hand cooperates with the Western international community in the struggle against the Assad regime in Syria and the fight against ISIS, but on the other hand tries to advance its political interests and does not hesitate to act against its international position. Nowadays, in collaboration with Salafi-jihadist forces, Turkey is trying to advance its interests in Syria and establish its status as a superpower in the Middle East.
© De Angelis & Associates 2019