Turkey’s Strategy for Syria and Iraq

by Robert Olson

Turkey is in a strong position to achieve its geopolitical objectives in the both Syria and Iraq. In Iraq, for instance, Turkey’s objective after the U.S. invasion in 2003 was to ensure that the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG), led by Massoud Barzani, would become economically dependent on Turkey. This was successful. Turkey today is by far the most important economic and political partner of the KRG with trade exceeding $12 billion. As of 2016 over 2,000 Turkish companies operated in the KRG, many of which have built the KRG’s infrastructure.

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1991 and again in 2003, it was clear to Ankara that in order to manage Kurdish nationalist movements in Turkey it would need the help of the KRG. Turkey desired to isolate the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) —and its political arm, the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK). The uneasy relations between Erbil and Baghdad after 2003, especially over the distribution of oil revenues, consolidated the relationship between Turkey and the KRG. Nouri al-Maliki’s tenure as prime minister from 2005-20014 and his strong Shi’a bias drew Erbil even closer to Ankara.

By the first decade of the 21st century, Ankara doubted that Iraq would remain unified Iraq as the US hoped. By this time Turkey had already tightened its grip on the KRG economy. It was also in a good position to contribute to the management of relations between the KRG and Sunnis of central Iraq. This was the case after 2007-8 with the insurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq and then the Islamic State (ISIS or IS).

The fragmentation resulting from IS’s onslaught on Shi’a as well as Kurds and Sunnis—in addition to the possibility of IS conquering Baghdad—strengthened the Ankara-Erbil axis. The completion in 2013 of an oil pipeline from the KRG to Turkey’s port of Ceyhan, bypassing the Baghdad-controlled Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, further tied the two economies.

The completion of the pipeline made the KRG more dependent on Turkey for its survival. It ensured that the KRG would be a dependable ally in Turkey’s war against the PKK/KCK. Although Turkey negotiated intermittently with the PKK, including its imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan, the discussions never reached a meaningful conclusion. For one, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) thought that by 2013, with the KRG firmly in its pocket, it could draw out negotiations until the PKK/KCK accepted the conditions proffered.

The consolidation of relations between Ankara and Erbil from 2003 onward gave a free hand to Turkey to adopt an even more unaccommodating position toward the PKK.

Turkey’s close relationship with the Kurds of northern Iraq is of long standing. Turkey did not relinquish the province of Mosul under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. It abandoned its claim to the province of Mosul only in 1926 when it became part of Iraq. Turkey was compelled to accept its loss as result of the Sheikh Said rebellion, which threatened to evolve into a larger war against Kurds. Another irony is that Great Britain agreed to pay Turkey 500,000 pounds sterling. Only in 1970 did Saddam Hussein forfeit the remainder of the payment when Turkey granted Iraq the right for the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline to traverse Turkey on its way to the Mediterranean.

Less than a month after the signing of the treaty there were British reports that Turkey was planning to settle Muslim Albanians from the Kosovo region in the areas where the rebellion had taken place. There were also reports that Turkey planned to settle 40,000 to 50,000 Circassians in Kurdish areas. The deportations reminded British intelligence officers of the deportations of Armenians in 1915. This history makes Kurds particularly sensitive to the recent expropriations of Kurdish property in southeast Turkey. Similar displacements are occurring along the Turkish-Kurdish/Alevi fault line of Maras, Malatya, Elazig, and Dersim regions where deportations of Kurds took place in the late 1920 and 1930s.

Turks are well aware that they lost the province of Mosul to the British Empire and that the rebellion of Sheikh Said was a major reason. Ironically, Turkey has regained its strong position in the KRG as a result of the U.S. war against Iraq.

Turkey’s Geo-economic Interests in Syria

Turkey’s ties to the Kurds of Syria, like those of Iraq, have also been in place for some time. Ankara’s concerns increased after the Sheikh Said and subsequent rebellions were crushed in 1938. The rebellions compelled thousands of Kurds to flee to Syria. Some of the progeny of those Kurds are now leaders of the Kurdish nationalist movements in Turkey, including the PKK/KCK.

Kurds who participated in the creation of the PKK and who then fled to Syria in 1978 to escape an impending military coup found fertile ground to expand their fight against Turkey. They commenced armed conflict in 1984. Over the last 35 years, thousands of Syrian Kurds have fought in the ranks of the PKK, some as top commanders. Turkey has always been concerned withthe potential of Syrian Kurds uniting effectively with Kurds in Turkey.

This became a reality in 2012 when the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the leading Syrian Kurdish nationalist party, declared the autonomy of the three disconnected cantons—Jazira, Kobane, and Afrin—stretching along the 510 mile Turkish-Syrian border. In 2015, the PYD managed to connect Jazira and Kobane.

As far as Turkey is concerned there is no difference between the PKK and the PYD. Indeed, they are closely connected with interchangeable commanders and similar ideologies. The fragmentation of Syria since 2012 and the growing strength of the PYD and its armed force, People’s Protective Units (YPG), further reinforce Ankara’s belief that the two nationalist movements threaten what Ankara perceives to be its national security. U.S. support for the PYD/YPG during and after the battle of Kobane in late 2014 and early 2015, and its efforts to enlist the PYD/YPG into the war against IS enraged Ankara.

Ankara knows that in order to expand it geopolitical power into northern Syria, it has to deal a devastating blow to the PKK/KCK. This would also make it easier to manage the PYD/YPG after IS and jihadists forces are weakened or defeated. It wanted to weaken the PKK/KCK to the point that it would not be able to impede effectively the settlement of Syrian refugees in the Maras, Malatya, Elagiz, and Dersim provinces. Turkey is creating numerous new military and police installations to facilitate settlement of refugees in these provinces. It is engaged in building dams as defensive barriers between the Kurds of Turkey and Iraq. The dams also serve to destroy habitats used by the PKK. The destruction in Shirnak province seems to be intended to remove population from the border areas from a planned oil pipeline from the KRG.

Turkey’s Role in the Region

In the future, Turkey will be the major player in the economy of northern Syria and perhaps elsewhere in Syria. Other major players—Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the U.S.—simply do not have the wherewithal or ability to match Turkey’s potential. Russia will retain its bases in Latakia and with the Alawites whether Bashar al-Assad remains in power of not, but it is not in a position to contribute or to benefit economically in the rehabilitation of Syria. Facing other global challenges, Russia will largely focus on maintaining its military capabilities in the Black, Aegean, and eastern Mediterranean Seas as well as the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Iran is not able to be a major economic factor in Syria. Like Russia, it supports Alawites and Hezbollah, the latter mostly in Lebanon. Both can help Iran project its geostrategic power into the Mediterranean and play a role in containing Israel. Saudi Arabia’s interest in Syria will diminish as a result of myriad challenges. The weakening and/or destruction of the military power of IS and the rejuvenation of secularism and Sunni nationalism will lessen Saudi influence. The U.S. has declared that in the coming decades its main global interests lie in East and South Asia. The U.S. has never shown much interest in developing or nurturing the economies of the peoples of Syria and Iraq or any Middle East country.

Turkey’s geopolitical and geo-economic interests in Iraq and Syria now stretch some 729 miles from its border with Iran, across Iraq (219 miles) and Syria (510 miles). From 100 to 150 miles on each side of these borders live approximately 20-25 million people depending on where the borders are drawn. It includes the large cities of Diyarbakir, Erbil, Selamani (Sulaymaniaya) Gaziantep, Aleppo, Adana, and Iskenderun.

The collapse of state institutions in Iraq and Syria makes it clear that in the emerging vacuum only Turkey is poised to take the great advantage of its position. In Iraq, Turkey will have to share a condominium of power with Iran, especially with regard to the KRG. The two-hour discussion between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on April 15 in Istanbul reportedly dealt at length with how to deal with the challenges of terrorism, sectarianism, and Kurdish nationalism in Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq.

The 20 million Kurds of Turkey and 9 million of Iran will demand close management by Ankara and Tehran. Both countries realize this. But Iran will not be a major factor in the unfolding developments in Syria. It does not have enough people on the ground. Only Turkey is poised to benefit from the ongoing turmoil.

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.


One Comment

  1. This is purely theoretical. Turkey has got itself into a state of insecurity that is already hindering its economical development plans. The refugee crisis has helped Turkey to get compromises from Europe but the presence of 3 millions foreigner will soon create social problems.c Erdogan has created around him a huge network of enemies who will do all they can to prevent Turkey’ forced hegemony on the region. As for the Kurds, the leadership of the KRG is going through a serious legitimacy crisis in view of the growing corruption. A political crisis is looming as Barzani is illegitimately hanging in power. That will not last.
    Turkey had thousands of companies in Libya, it has none now.
    So the rosy picture described by the author may not materialize.

Comments are closed.