by Robert Olson
On March 29, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu caused quite a stir during a visit to Jordan where he stated, “Turkey’s security zone starts from Latakia and passes through Aleppo, Mosul and Sulaimani (Sulaymaniya).” This confirmed that Turkey intends to expand its regional geopolitical and geo-economic projected into northern Syria.
Davutoglu gave several reasons for expanding the Turkey’s security periphery. He explained that Syria and Iraq are no longer capable of securing their border:
The PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] has its headquarters and training camps in northern Iraq, while the offshoot, the Democratic Union Party (PDY), is settled in northern Syria. ISIS controls a good size of territory in both Iraq and Syria. If Aleppo would fall into the hands of either Daesh or the Assad regime, then it would mean the end of hopes of Syria. Likewise, if Daesh continues to control Mosul, Iraq will not be a peaceful country. But if [the Islamic State] would be replaced by extreme Shiite groups, then it would mean that civil war will never end. We are in a ring of fire. I will not even mention the number of terrorists we have foiled.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was not so shy. Speaking to the War Colleges Command in Istanbul on March 28, just one day prior to his departure for the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington and his brief meeting with President Obama, Erdogan noted that since the commencement of operations against the PKK in July, Turkish forces had suffered 355 casualties: 215 soldiers, 133 police, and seven village guards (Kurds). He claimed that 5,359 terrorists were killed, wounded, or captured. These figures are considerably higher than PKK estimates.
In his speech Erdogan also noted, “Article 117 of our constitution stipulates that the commander in chief cannot be distinguished from the overriding moral existence of the National Assembly and is represented by the President.” Metin Gurcan, writing in Al-Monitor, reported that Erdogan used the term “executive commander in chief” implying that the Turkish president intends to be a hands-on commander and the “real boss.” It remains to be seen how the armed forces and Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar, who was in the audience, will interpret Erdogan’s intentions.
Davutloglu’s perception of Turkey’s emerging periphery already includes the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Turkey’s de facto border with Iraq is no longer the international border but rather its border with the KRG, which is economically and geopolitically tied to Turkey. Turkey maintains troops in several camps in territory controlled by Massoud Barzani’s KDP. This territory is already included in Davutoglu’s envisioned periphery.
Syrian Refugees and Syria
Now Turkey has extended its periphery into Syria. It claims it has around 2.5 million Syrian refugees. It has allowed and encouraged the setting up some 2,000 economic and trading partnerships between Turks and Syrians. These economic partnerships are beginning to pay off. In 2012 Turkey exported around $500 million in goods and services to Syria. By 2015 it exported $1.3 billion. Turkey is grateful to these Syrian entrepreneurs because they reduce the amount of government spending on shelter, food, and education for the refugees. Turkey estimates it has allocated $8.5 billion in aid to refugees, mostly Syrian.
Ankara plans to use the trading connections of Syrians to expand its influence in other Arab countries. “The most important contribution will be their network in the Arab world because the owners of these firms are merchants in Syria,” said economist Harun Ozturkler. Tarik Celenk, who is head of Ekopolitik, an independent think tank founded in 2007 to do research on the Kurdish question has proposed that Turkey
should integrate Rojava economically, culturally and politically and security-wise, adding Ankara needed to develop trade cooperation with this region just like it did with the KRG in northern Iraq and also support Rojava’s reconstruction militarily and logistically. Turkish banks need to be set up there. The Turkish army should train the YPG (Peoples Protective Units). There should be Turkish air bases in the region instead of American ones. We should even pioneer the formation of their parliament; in other words, a democratic canton model.
Turkey has begun a program to allow as many as 2.5 million Syrian refugees to apply for work permits. Human Rights Watch reported in November 2015 that 400,000 Syrian children were not attending school. Still, Turkey is trying to expand their opportunities. Students will be taught in Arabic and Turkish as a secondary language. There will continue to be a demand for more schools. According to the Turkish government, more than 150,000 babies have been born to Syrian refugees since 2011.
Turkey’s expansion of its periphery, especially into northern Syria, depends on its ability to nurture strong relations between the refugees and the state. Turkish influence does not extend to the provinces that Damascus will continue to hold for the foreseeable future. And Turkey could also face opposition from Sunni Arabs, both in Syria and Iraq, supported by Sunni Gulf Arab states.
The biggest opposition to the periphery strategy will come from Kurds in Turkey. The bitter war that has raged with the PKK/KCK for 32 years will not likely abate. The recrudescence of the war in July 2015 and the substantial losses, mentioned above, portends a bitter future between the Kurdish nationalist movements and the state.
Nor will the $9.5 billion proffered by Davutoglu on February 5 for the rebuilding of cities of the southeast likely assuage the bitterness of ordinary Kurds whose houses were destroyed. It will not please Kurds who cannot return to homes that have been nationalized. It is unclear how much the state will compensate dispossessed Kurds. Many Kurdish intellectuals compare what has happened in Diyarbakir, Silopi, Cizre, and Nusaybin to the dispossession of Greeks from 1912 to 1923 and Armenians both before and after the genocide of 1915.
Kurds, not just in Turkey but also in Iraq, Syria, and Iran, think the Turkish assault on the southeast was not just to crush the PKK/KCK and Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and to pave the way for a presidential system headed by Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), but to emasculate the PYD and YPG. Kurds think Ankara also wants to destroy the PKK and the PYD in order to facilitate the transfer of oil from the KRG to Turkey.
Both of these objectives could be facilitated by weakening Kurdish nationalist movements and Kurdish civil organizations in the southeast as well as in Syria by Turkey’s using Syrian refugees to lessen the power and influence of Kurdish nationalist movements.
Ankara envisions Syrian refugees as a means to strengthen its geopolitical projection into northern Syria and its geo-economic posture into other Arab countries in order to weaken and ultimately squash the Kurdish nationalist movements in Turkey and Syria.
Photo: Turkish refugee camp near Syrian border.