Turkey’s Relations with Syria

Zwischen Selbstverwaltung, Demokratie und Angriffen des IS. Mit Ulla Jelpke (DIE LINKE) und Salih Muslim (PYD); Moderation: Murat Çakir (Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung) Berlin, 18.11.2014 http://www.rosalux.de/documentation/52165

by Robert Olson

Turkey’s relations with Syria are different from its relations with Iraq. The main difference is that Ankara has no close partners in Syria as it does in the form of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) which works with Ankara to constrain Kurdish nationalist movements on the Turkish side of the border. Moreover, the KRG has resources; in October, it earned $634 million from its export of oil via Turkey. Once the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) is removed from Mosul, those earnings could rise to as much as $1 billion in 2017.

Turkey’s policy toward Syrian Kurds at this point is little different from its policy toward Kurds in Turkey. Its nearly two-year-old war against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – designed in major part to attract ultra-nationalists to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party in advance of the 2015 parliamentary elections – has so far resulted in the death of some 5,000 PKK fighters, the destruction of towns across the southeastern region of the country, the nationalization of 9,000 properties, and the displacement of some 400,000 people.

The failed coup in July this year provided yet another opportunity for the state to press its campaign against the PKK and widen its attack on Kurdish political and civil-society organizations. Since then, the government has removed 28 mayors from southeastern municipalities, replacing them with AKP loyalists. On November 4, police detained 11 MPS of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), including co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag. Two days later, the HDP, the third largest party in parliament, said that it would no longer take part in general sessions of parliament or commission work. The response from the U.S. and the European Union (EU) was disappointingly tepid, and the party subsequently agreed to resume its work in parliament.

These policies are likely to apply to the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its army, People’s Protection Units (YPG), when developments in Syria are propitious. To Ankara, the PKK and YPG are no different—both are considered terrorist organizations. Although the U.S. and the EU also list the PKK as a terrorist organization, they have so far rejected its application to the YPG, in major part because it has proved to be the strongest fighting force against the IS in Syria. With western backing, in fact, the YPG launched its initial offensive November 6 against the caliphate’s capital and stronghold in Raqqa despite Ankara’s disapproval.

Intervention in Syria

Ankara has declared its desire to liberate Raqqa from IS with western support. But its actions to date suggest that it is more concerned about the YPG and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a multi-ethnic militia effectively led by the YPG, precisely because of its alleged relationship to the PKK and Kurdish nationalism more generally.

Indeed, it was primarily to block advances along a strategic section of the Turkish-Syrian border by the YPG and SDF that Ankara dispatched its own army, ahead of the Turkish- and CIA-trained Free Syrian Army (FSA) and jihadist forces, into the Syrian towns of Jarabulus and al-Rai in late August. Erdogan feared that, absent such an intervention, code-named Euphrates Shield, the YPG would have effectively united the largely Afrin canton in the west with the Kobane and Jazira cantons in the east, thus realizing its long-held dream of creating a contiguous and largely autonomous Kurdish-dominated “Rojava” that could serve, among other things, as a permanent strategic base for the PKK.

According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Turkish-backed forces have seized some 617 square miles of land in northern Syria as of November 13. Erdogan has said he hopes the FSA and aligned forces will expand their control to some 2,000 square miles, which would be sufficient to provide safe haven for 2-3,000 Syrian refugees.

Ankara hopes that the 4,000, or more trade and economic enterprises and partnerships established between Turkish businessmen and refugees over the past several years augurs well for the maintenance of a strong position Turkish position in northern Syria. These partnerships have been operating on both sides of the 511-mile Turkish-Syrian border. As in Iraq, Turkey is calculating that these economic ties between Turk and Syrian Sunni Arabs – as opposed to Syrian Kurds – will bolster its influence in northern Syria in particular.

Turkey’s position vis-a-vis the PYD may become stronger in the new Trump presidency. In a recent op-ed, General Michael T. Flynn, President-elect Trump’s choice for national security advisor, stressed the importance of Turkey as a strategic U.S. ally. Although Flynn has not yet directly addressed the Turkish-PYD conflict, he argued that Washington should extradite Fethullah Gulen, the alleged mastermind behind the failed July coup, which appears to be Erdogan’s top priority in his relations with Washington. Flynn described Ankara as “our strongest ally against the Islamic State,” despite the leading role played to date by the PYD and continued western backing for it.

Cengiz Candar, writing in Al-Monitor November 9, reported an interview with PYD leader Salih Muslim during which he asked whether Muslim was “worried that the Turkish army, which is fairly close to Manbij, will attack it to oust the SDF [Democratic Syrian Force], or rather the YPG force, seizing that strategically positioned town on the road to Raqqa? Muslim responded briefly and bluntly, ‘No way!’” When Candar asked him why he was so confident, he replied, “Because we are here. We [implying the Kurdish YPG] are in Manbij.”

Nonetheless, the U.S., according to Candar, has assured Ankara that it is not looking to the PYD to liberate Raqqa on its own and is relying on the Turks to help provide forces that can join the offensive.

U.S. Balancing Act

Washington faces a difficult balancing act. In its view, it needs both the PYD and the Turkish-backed forces to succeed in expelling IS from Raqqa. If a Trump administration decides to support Turkey to the extent implied by Flynn’s selection, then the PYD/YPG might not be so eager to continue its war against IS. If, on the other hand, the PYD advances quickly, Turkish-backed forces may turn their guns on them, putting at risk the top U.S. goal of defeating IS.

Turkey’s issuance of an arrest warrant this week for Muslim himself, along with 48 PKK leaders, on accusations that he was behind the February 17 bombing attack close to military headquarters in Ankara in which 29 people were killed will likely further complicate U.S. relations with Turkey and with the PYD and SDF.

Meanwhile, Ankara has made it clear in its recent rapprochement with Moscow that it will accept a Russian military presence in the areas that the Syrian government controls after the defeat of IS and other jihadist groups. This means the long-term presence of Russian bases in Tartus and Latakiya, and the 5-6,000 military forces they reportedly hold.

It is unclear to what extent, if any, Turkey and Iran have reached understandings in their recent talks about the Syria situation. There are a reported 3-4,000 Turkish-backed forces fighting against both IS and the YPG/SDF in northern Syria. Avi Dichter, a former top Israeli intelligence official who currently chairs the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, recently stated there are as many as 25,000 foreign Shi’a forces fighting in Syria, although other analysts insist the number is much smaller. Ankara and Tehran, however, are faced with determining just what the distribution of their respective proxies will be across the region to avoid coming into conflict. So long as Turkey’s primary goal is to defeat the PYD, it may acquiesce in Tehran’s and Hezbollah’s continued support for the Bashar al-Assad regime so long as Iran maintains or enhances its own efforts in fighting the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party-Iran (KDP-I ) along its border with Turkey.

Additionally, Lebanon’s new president, Michel Aoun, seeks to reconcile Hezbollah supporters with Sunnis and Christians. This indicates the strong connections between the politics of Lebanon and Syria that are vital for Iran’s ability to project its influence into the eastern Mediterranean. It also strengthens the regime’s efforts to persuade its own public of its role in protecing Shi’a worldwide. In return, Ankara expects Tehran and Moscow’s to acquiesce in its destruction of the YPG as a fighting force.

Photo: Salih Muslim

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.