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Syria: what is Turkey’s grand plan?

As evening draws in across Turkey’s frontier with Syria, the trickle of traffic passing through the Öncüpınar border checkpoint turns into a stream. Through one channel, dusty trucks, their loads long emptied, rumble northwards back into Turkey. Through another, Turkish civil servants and aid workers head home after a day’s labour in the war-devastated neighbouring country.

SUVs ferry weary traffic police and hardy looking bomb disposal experts. Minibuses deliver health workers and teachers who disembark to show their identity documents to immigration officials. Yet more vehicles carry customs and religious affairs officials. Virtually every arm of the Turkish state appears to be present during the commute back from northern Syria into Turkey’s Kilis province — even sports ministry staff.

“Any institution you can think of here [in Turkey], it’s over there,” says one Turkish official. He estimates that every day 300 Turkish workers and some 200 trucks and their drivers pass in and out of the Öncüpınar crossing — one of eight along the 900km border.

It’s a scene that reflects Turkey’s deepening role in shaping northern Syria’s future after launching military incursions to push back Kurdish militants of the YPG, which Ankara considers to be a terrorist organisation, from the border region. Since Turkish tanks first rumbled into Syria six years ago, the military operation has, over time, become a mission that touches virtually all spheres of security and civilian life in three enclaves, which, combined, are home to some 2mn Syrians.

It represents the largest Turkish footprint in an Arab state since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 — and it could be about to get bigger as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warns that he wants to extend Ankara’s control with a new offensive. If he follows through on his threats, it will heap more scrutiny on Turkey’s long-term strategy and the role of foreign actors in Syria, after more than a decade of conflict in the Arab nation.

Over the past two years, the fragmentation of the country has become an uneasy status quo after Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s ruthless campaign to crush the 2011 popular uprising and the internationalisation of the civil war divided the nation between competing Syrian factions dependent on foreign support.

Backed by Russia, Iran and Iranian-aligned militias, Assad has regained control of much of the country but presides over a shattered nation. The remnants of the opposition have been driven to the north, where they rely on Turkey’s military muscle and financial aid. In the north-east, Kurdish-led militias control more than a fifth of the country, with US support and the effective protection of about 800 American troops.

Kurdish fighters from the YPG in Raqqa, Syria, in July 2017. Turkey has launched military incursions to push back the YPG from the border region © Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

The conflict is frozen, with international efforts to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis moribund and the west’s attention diminished. The grim reality for Syrians is that the de facto partition will last as long as Assad refuses to countenance any political compromises and foreign forces remain in the country.

“No one likes to say it out loud because it’s so politically controversial and the Americans don’t want to feel they are contributing to that, and the Turks don’t want anybody to say it,” says Dareen Khalifa, Syria analyst at Crisis Group, the think-tank. “But in reality the dynamics and stakes of the conflict incentivise foreign powers to remain in Syria. And as long as they do, the current stalemate is likely to continue and resemble a de facto partition [of the country].”

Turkish takeover

In the three areas under Ankara’s watch, Syrian schoolchildren learn Turkish as a second language. The sick are treated in Turkish-built hospitals and the lights are kept on by Turkish-generated electricity. The Turkish lira is the dominant currency and Turkey’s state-owned postal service, PTT, is used to transfer salaries to Syrian workers and host the bank accounts of local councils. The governors’ offices of Turkish border provinces oversee hiring and firing in adjacent Syrian regions.

On the security front, Turkey trains and pays the salary of more than 50,000 Syrian rebel fighters, has deployed its own troops inside Syria, built hulking military bases on the frontier and an 873km-long border wall.

Ankara’s prime military objective in the area is weakening the Kurdish militias, which exploited the chaos of conflict, and their critical role in the battle against Isis to carve out their own patchwork of territory. They have established their own civil administrations in a region rich with many of Syria’s natural resources, including oil, gas and agricultural land.

Syrian refugee women push strollers through the Kahramanmaras refugee camp in Turkey in September 2019. Without Turkish investment in schools, clinics and job opportunities, there is no hope of Syrian refugees returning home © Burak Kara/Getty Images

But Turkey considers the YPG an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), a militia with Marxist-Leninist roots that has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state. Like Turkey, the US and the EU designate the PKK a terrorist organisation and American officials acknowledge its links with the YPG. But to Ankara’s chagrin, Washington has stood by the Kurdish forces, viewing them as vital to combating Isis.

Erdoğan also wants to provide so-called safe zones to encourage the return of some of the 3.7mn Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey, as their presence has become unpopular domestically. The operations have put Turkish soldiers into foreign combat zones; cost Ankara billions of dollars; strained relations with the US, Europe and Arab powers; drawn accusations of human rights violations and risked broader conflagrations with Assad and his external backers.

Erdoğan, however, told MPs in June that he was planning a “new phase” of his goal to create a 30km-deep “safe zone” from the border to drive the Kurdish militants out of Manbij, a strategic city west of the Euphrates River, and Tal Rifaat, a smaller town further to the west.

“We will clear Tal Rifaat and Manbij of terrorists,” he said, “and we will do the same to other regions step by step.”

The west is ‘missing the point’

Western diplomats say there are few signs of significant Turkish military activity to suggest an operation is imminent, and Russia, Iran and the US have warned against any incursion deeper into Syria that would risk sparking a wider bout of conflict.

But inside Syria, Turkish commanders have been telling the local opposition authorities to ready fighters of the Syrian National Army, the banner under which myriad rebel factions are grouped, says Mahmoud Alito, head of the SNA’s political office. He adds that Turkey has deployed more troops and weapons across the border. “For the last month, Turkey has been serious about the operation,” Alito says.

He insists that the Turkish-backed SNA is not simply following Ankara’s agenda and would continue to resist Assad with or without its support. But he concedes that the opposition pockets of territory are dependent on their Turkish patrons. “Turkey became the only chance for us after the international community . . . abandoned us,” he says.

Yet there is an ambivalence among Syrians when they discuss life under Turkey’s guardianship. For people who escaped the barrel bombs, chemical attacks, sieges and other abuses of the Assad regime, or the horrors of Isis, there is an appreciation that there is relative stability. But there are also complaints about insecurity and social and economic grievances.

Fires blaze after bomb blasts in Syria’s northern Jarabulus district of Aleppo in September 2021 © Mutez Muhammed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Asma fled from Aleppo in 2016 as Russian-backed Assad forces launched a devastating assault on the Syrian city, and arrived in Azaz, a border town under Turkey’s watch, two years ago.

“I cannot say we feel completely safe in Azaz, but if you compare it to other areas it feels much safer,” says the 26-year-old. She says the once small town is getting “bigger day by day”, but complains about the dearth of jobs and the scale of Turkey’s influence over local authorities. “Most people know Turkey is here for its own interests,” she says, “not Syrians.”

But if Turkey withdrew? “We would feel scared because Turkey remains the only option for us and Russia and Assad would come,” Asma adds.

A senior Turkish official insists Ankara is not, as critics claim, trying to “change the fabric of the state,” saying: “Many Arab and western friends are missing this point.”

“People question why we opened extensions of some religious faculties of some universities in Turkey there. These were the areas we secured from Daesh [Isis]; what kind of religious thinking would we prefer?” he asks. Without Turkish investment in schools, clinics and job opportunities, he adds, there is no hope of Syrian refugees returning home.

But Ankara’s prime fear is that the longer the YPG consolidates its hold over territory, the greater the chance it will seek to establish some form of Kurdish homeland — an idea that is anathema to a state that has spent four decades battling separatists at home.

Analysts believe there are multiple factors behind the timing of Erdoğan’s threats of a fresh offensive, including the notion that Russia’s war in Ukraine has distracted Moscow and the west, as well as the president’s desire to rally supporters ahead of elections scheduled for June 2023 at a time of deepening economic turmoil in Turkey.

Yet at its core, Turkey “genuinely considers the YPG a national security threat and that no one else is taking it seriously,” Khalifa, the Syria analyst, says.

“Whether or not we agree is a separate issue,” she says. “[But] everybody in Ankara, whether it’s Erdoğan or another leadership, is still going to think that and could act on it.”

A Kurdish homeland

The YPG came to the fore as a fighting force during the battle of Kobani after Isis seized the predominantly Kurdish Syrian border town during the jihadis’ blitz across Iraq and Syria in 2014. It became the US partner of choice to take the battle to Isis in northeastern Syria under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of fighters dominated by the Kurdish militants that has been armed and trained by Washington.

In Ankara, Turkish officials watched with dismay as the Kurdish militias gained territory, weapons and international standing. Khalifa estimates that the SDF — which accuses Turkey of occupation — controls an army of 100,000 and runs a civil administration of a similar size.

Erdoğan first ordered troops across the border in 2016 in an offensive on the Syrian city of Jarablus, ostensibly to target Isis but also to pre-empt any advance by the Kurdish militants. That operation came weeks after Erdoğan survived a coup attempt and marked the beginning of a more assertive, interventionist foreign policy.

Ankara ordered similar offensives in 2018 and 2019, with Turkish forces fighting alongside their Syrian proxies.

Syrian Kurds hold defaced portraits of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and defence minister Hulusi Akar as they demonstrate in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli against the Turkish offensive on PKK areas in northern Iraq on June 10 2021 © Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

Turkey launched a fourth operation in 2020 to reverse gains made by Assad forces around Idlib in the north-west, another opposition enclave home to 4mn people. Ankara has less control over Idlib, which is run by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an Islamist movement that is designated a terrorist organisation by Ankara and Washington. But Turkey is in effect the ultimate protector of the area.

Those clashes ended with Turkey and Russia reaching a ceasefire agreement and the main front lines have been stagnant since, underscoring the foreign actors’ influence over the fate of millions of Syrians.

Today, Ankara has varying degrees of responsibility for more than 9mn Syrians, including the refugees inside Turkey, just under half the Arab state’s prewar population.

Murat Yeşiltaş, an analyst at Seta, a Turkish-think tank with close links to Erdoğan and his government, estimates the Syria intervention is costing Ankara about $2bn annually. Turkey has 4,000 to 5,000 troops inside the areas it controls and some 8,000 soldiers around Idlib, he adds.

He says Ankara is grappling with the contradiction between Turkey’s professed desire for a unified Syria — not least to prevent any form of Kurdish state — while at the same time realising that “Turkey is . . . ultimately undermining the potential territorial integrity of Syria.”

Russian and Syrian forces stand guard near posters of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, and Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, at the Abu Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Idlib province, in August 2018 © George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images

The options, he says, are direct rule, which would enable Turkey greater scope to resolve the economic and security problems on the ground but would in effect be annexation; governing “behind the line,” which would give Ankara influence without it being involved in any form of government; or exiting and putting its faith in a pro-Turkish local administration to maintain order.

At the moment, Turkey is pursuing a mix of the first two, Yeşiltaş says, adding: “If you are asking me who is the boss, of course Turkey is the boss.”

He says the “current map” does not allow for an exit strategy, while suggesting that taking Tal Rifaat and Manbij would bolster Ankara’s longer-term security and economic aims.

Any new operation would be rife with risks. There are reports that Russian-backed Assad fighters and Iranian-aligned militias have been mobilising around Manbij and Tal Rifaat. The Kurdish-dominated SDF has warned it would co-ordinate with Damascus to counter any offensive.

Despite its war in Ukraine, Turkish and western officials say there are few signs that Russia’s posture in Syria has altered. A western diplomat puts the number of Russian troops at between 2,000 and 5,000, the key being air support to the Assad regime.

“For Russia, this [Syria] is a major success . . . and I don’t think they’re going to risk it and pull out,” says James Jeffrey, a former US ambassador to Turkey and former Syria envoy.

Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015 not only tilted the war in Assad’s favour, it also bolstered Moscow’s influence in the Middle East and secured it naval and air bases in the Mediterranean.

Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Tehran last week. Russia and Iran have warned Turkey against any incursion deeper into Syria © Sergei Savostyanov /SPUTNIK/AFP/Getty Images

Jeffrey also sees little prospect of the US pulling out any time soon, particularly after the debacle of its withdrawal from Afghanistan. He believes the status quo suits all the external actors if it maintains a fragile stability with frozen front lines. “They would rather live with this messy military commitment that doesn’t achieve anything other than block the other side from winning and creating more dangerous security situations for them,” he says. “That’s the calculus.”

One thing that could change the calculus in Ankara is if the opposition capitalises on Erdoğan’s waning popularity to clinch victory in the upcoming elections. Most Turkish parties share the president’s concerns about Kurdish militias but criticise his decision to back the Syrian rebels. All the large parties have said that, if they win power, they would re-establish relations with Damascus, a move they say would be a prelude to sending Syrians home.

But experts argue that few refugees would return to a broken nation ruled by the despotic regime they fled. They add that Assad would be likely to demand the withdrawal of Turkish troops, raising the risk that border regions could again become a haven for Kurdish militias.

Either way, many Syrians believe Turkey is in for the long haul as they see no endgame to their country’s crisis.

“The situation will stay like this,” says Abdulghani Shobak, a Syrian opposition official. “The Syrians don’t have the decisions any more. The US has its say, and there is Russia, Iran and Turkey.”

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