Turkey’s Geopolitical Aims in Syria

Syrian refugee centre on the Turkish border (Wikimedia Commons)

by Robert Olson

Turkey hopes to use the 2.7 million Syrian refugees now in Turkey as vehicles to develop and consolidate it geopolitical and geo-economic position. This is a vastly different policy from the one Ankara pursued toward Kurdish refugees fleeing Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign in the late 1980s. At that time, Turkey was reluctant to allow in refugees.

Turkey’s attitude regarding refugees fleeing Syria changed because by late 2012 it was clear that Syria’s state institutions could collapse under the pressure of the intensifying war. By 2014 they had collapsed, which Ankara realized even if the U.S.-led “War on Terror” coalition hadn’t. To be the dominant power in northern Syria, Ankara decided to project its power into northern Syria to control the growing strength of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its army, the People’s Protective Units (YPG). The PYD had consolidated its power after it declared the autonomy of the three cantons of Jazira, Kobane, and Afrin in 2012.

After the PYD’s successful defense of Kobane in late 2014, the U.S. concluded that it would be a useful ally against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). The U.S. alliance with the PYD, closely tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, jeopardized Ankara’s plan to assume geopolitical dominance of northern Syria. The policies of Washington and Ankara were diverging, with the United States emphasizing its war on terrorism and Turkey focusing on the expansion of its geopolitical influence.

During this period, the AKP decided to consolidate further its future geopolitical position in Syria in order to fend off competitors, including those affiliated with the Russians and Iranians such as the Alawites, Druze, Christians, and Ismailis along the coastline of the Mediterranean. Whatever entities emerge in central Syria or central Iraq will be dependent on Turkey to rebuilt their cities, especially Aleppo and Mosul and especially if they are largely destroyed in upcoming battles in these Sunni areas.

The decentralization of both Iraq and Syria will further help Turkey project and consolidate its geopolitical power. Turkey and Iran will share a condominium of power in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and will also share influence with Iran in the rest of Iraq. In this way, Turkey can assert its geopolitical and geo-economic interests along both side of the borders with Iraq and Syria.

War with Kurds

By July 2015, Turkey had accelerated its war on the PKK—and its political arm, the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK). So far, the war has resulted in thousands of deaths, mostly PKK and civilians as well as the widespread destruction of buildings and properties. Ankara intended to destroy the PKK/KCK, expropriate Kurdish property and ethnically cleanse areas along the border so as to build proposed gas and oil pipelines emanating from the KRG. The state also hoped to create conflict between Syrian refugees and the Kurds, especially in regions where Kurds (Alevis) and Turks overlap.

After the June election, the AKP organized a coalition of ultranationalists, Salafists, die-hard AKP loyalists, religious officials, Village Guards, sheikhs and tribes. The state also began to support more strongly conservatively religious Kurds. Ankara never lost sight of the fact that an estimated 5,000 Kurds from Turkey have fought with IS and other jihadist groups. The AKP-organized coalition brought tens of thousands of anti-PKK demonstrators onto the streets in Diyarbakir on April 30.

Along with the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and National Action Party (MHP), the AKP is also attempting to lift the immunity of deputies from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a political force in the Kurdish community. The removal of only a small number of deputies would push the the party under the 10 percent threshold necessary to sit in parliament, which would allow the AKP to ask for a referendum to establish a full presidential system. With power concentrated in the president’s office—and in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hands—the AKP could not only emasculate the PKK/KCK and other Kurdish nationalist organizations but also severely weaken the PYD and YPG.

To accomplish the first step in this process, the AKP has insisted that parliament comply with the constitution in lifting the legislative immunity of deputies. Justice Minister Bozdag Bekir stated:

The proposal itself actually doesn’t make any claims about the guilt or innocence of lawmakers. We consider our proposal to be one that lifts the constitutional barrier to try lawmakers for one time only, and which allows them to be tried by additional provisions added to the constitution.

The AKP introduced the proposal after Erdogan accused the HDP of being an arm of the PKK and called for prosecution of its members. The HDP sees the proposal as an attempt to remove it from parliament: the PKK/KCK called it a “civilian coup d’état.” When HDP deputies in turn accused AKP deputies of complicity in the massacres of Kurds carried out by Turkish armed forces, a fight broke out in parliament between the two factions.

As the debate regarding immunities was taking place, deputies were also debating the EU’s unwillingness to allow visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in EU countries that adhere to the Schengen Agreement. Visa-free travel was to be granted as one of the conditions for the March refugee agreement between Turkey and the EU but has not been fully implemented. EU fulfillment of the agreement would mean that 1.9 million citizens of Kurdish ethnicity could also travel visa-free in Schengen countries. EU fulfillment of the agreement could encourage dissatisfied Kurds, especially in the southeast, to seek opportunities in the EU.

Strengthening Ties with the Military

On April 21, the High Court of Appeals overturned the convictions against military officers and scores of others who had participated in an alleged conspiracy to overthrow the government because of insubstantial evidence and procedural flaws. The Ergenekon case, as it is called, had been one of the longest running political and legal battles in Turkey’s history.

Overturning the convictions of the defendants indicates that the AKP needs better relations with the armed forces. In part, this is because of the increased intensity of war with the PKK. The armed forces will now be a stronger player in what strategies the state will use to squash the PKK. The military also supports the AKP’s position that the Fethullah Gulen (Hizmet) Movement is a “parallel structure” that threatens the state. The Turkish press has lately been calling the Gulenists the “Fethullah Terror Organization/State Parallel Structure.” The armed forces now have two terrorist organizations to defeat.

The Gulen Movement (Hizmet) had been aligned with the armed forces and the state since the 1970s. It cooperated with the AKP to reduce the power of the armed forces, greatly strengthening the power of the AKP. By December 2013 the alliance had worn thin. Gulenist supporters in the police and judiciary decided to move against the AKP and even supported toppling Erdogan from power. The witch hunt for Gulenist supporters in the judiciary, armed forces, and the police began in earnest.

This campaign left the AKP with reduced support from both the armed forces and the Gulenists when Erdogan decided after the June 2015 election to escalate the war against the PKK/KCK. The war is now into its ninth month with declarations from both sides that it will escalate further. Erdogan had little choice but to reconcile with the armed forces.

The strengthening relations between the AKP and the military are also necessary as Syrian institutions continue to collapse. The fall of Aleppo and Raqqa might well mean a further surge of Syrian refugees into Turkey. A further weakening of IS, resulting in even greater fragmentation of northern Syria into multitudes of militias, might well precipitate a Turkish military intervention. In this scenario, as it oversees the return of refugees to Syria and fosters economic partnerships between Turkish and Syrian companies, Turkey will only further consolidate its geopolitical reach into northern Syria.

Photo: Syrian refugee camp on the Turkish border 

Robert Olson

Robert Olson is Professor of Middle East history and politics at the University of Kentucky (Emeritus). He is the author of ten books of various aspects of Middle East history and politics. His major books are: The Siege of Mosul and Ottoman- Persian Relations: 1718-1743; The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion: 1880-1925; Turkey's Relations with Iran, 1979-2004;The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations:From World I to 2000; Blood, Beliefs and Ballots: The Management of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey, 2007-2000; The Kurdish Nationalist Movements in Turkey: 1980-2011; The Goat and the Butcher: Nationalism and State Formation in Kurdistan-Iraq since the Iraqi War War. He is the author of 75 referred research articles and 60 edited research articles. He was distinguished Professor of the University of Kentucky in 2000. He is married and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.



  1. The author makes are some very insightful points here, though I would disagree that there has been a collapse of Syrian institutions other than in the disputed areas where the Government has lost control- in fact it has been the functioning of those institutions that have kept the Syrian government unified with the great majority of the Syrian people in the defense of their country. Also, when it is all said and done, I don’t think Turkey will have nearly as great influence in Northern Syria as it does right now. Instead, if there is any regional neighbor that will benefit, it will be Iran. As for others, it will be Russia (which has been using masterful diplomacy with the various nation states of MENA both to stabilize the region by focusing on anti-terrorism efforts and on the various members’ economic development) and China (which has been positioning itself to fund the reconstruction of Syria- which would also become part of China’s Silk Road).

    The Turkish government is feared and hated, and, presently, local dealings are not only based on previously established economic and cultural relationships, but, more immediately, a matter of survival (and looting). However, when peace returns to the country, IMHO I believe the Syrian Government will again be in more or less full control of its territory- though how long that takes is still an open question- and, to the extent there is a viable alternative, Turkey will find itself shunned, unless Erdogan is overthrown and the Turkish Government reverses its current policy and adopts instead a policy of accommodation with Syria.

  2. “The military also supports the AKP’s position that the Fethullah Gulen (Hizmet) Movement is a “parallel structure” that threatens the state.”

    I disagree with this statement. I believe that the armed forces are in majority pro-Gulen, despite the crackdown. They are ready to fight the PKK and the terrorists because it is Gulen’s policy but they don’t follow Erdogan in his other ambitions

    Erdogan is in bad need of the army to fight all the enemies within Turkey. Yet he is still worried that he is gives too much importance to the generals they could stop him in his ambitions by staging a coup. The army will never confront the Russians or the Syrian army, Gulen won’t allow it.
    In addition the army is staunchly pro Ataturk and violently opposed to the Islamisation of Turkey.
    Therefore Erdogan could be in fragile situation if the military are called to take a more important role in the country policy.
    There has been many rumours that the shooting of the Russian plane was the work of Air force Gulenists in order to weaken Erdogan by antagonizing the Russians.
    The army ( and Gulen) will do all they can not to allow Erdogan to change the system to a presidential one and will violently object to removal of the secularism in the Constitution
    With the removal of Davutoglu, the internal conflicts will become violent an vicious.
    I suspect that Erdogan won’t last long as president. If there are presidential elections, Davutoglu may be the next president. Maybe this is why he resigned.

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