What is Turkey Really After in Syria?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

by Shireen T. Hunter

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has justified his invasion of the Kurdish-inhabited areas of northeastern Syria in terms of preventing Syrian Kurdish groups linked to Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) from assisting that group’s insurgency against the Turkish government. According to Erdogan, the ultimate goal of the offensive, dubbed “Operation Peace Spring,” is to ensure Turkey’s security. The other rationale used by Erdogan has been that Turkey wants to unburden itself of the large number of Syrian refugees who have fled to Turkey since the outbreak of civil war in Syria.

Both these concerns are real. Turkey has a near phobia about the establishment of another Kurdish autonomous region in Syria similar to what has happened in Iraq. Even though Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous government has good relations and extensive economic links with Ankara, Turkey worries that a regional trend toward Kurdish autonomy could inspire its own often restive Kurdish population.

Ankara also wants to reduce the number of Syrian refugees. Their presence is causing unhappiness among many Turks, who feel that the government is spending too much money on the Syrians—money that could be used to improve the lot of the Turkish people.

However, other factors, including considerations of regional power politics and Turkey’s long term interests and goals in the region, have also been important factors in Ankara’s decision to undertake Operation Peace Spring.

Continued Hostility to Bashar al-Assad

Though Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appeared to be getting along fairly well prior to the Arab Spring, the outbreak of civil war supported by the West provided Turkey an opportunity to support efforts to oust Assad.

Erdogan also became angry at Assad for rebuffing his 2008 efforts to mediate between Damascus and Israel over the Golan. He was hoping that success in this effort would make him the great conciliator in the Middle East—in contrast to Iran, which has earned the sobriquet of the great troublemaker. Moreover, Erdogan was hoping that Assad’s removal would result in the establishment of a Sunni, and preferably Muslim Brotherhood-aligned, government in Damascus. This, he hoped, together with a similar government in Egypt, would increase Ankara’s influence in the Arab world. But Mohamed Morsi’s government in Egypt did not last long, and Assad—with help from Iran and especially Russia—has managed to survive and thus remain a thorn in Ankara’s side. Turkey was so keen to remove Assad that it even reportedly allowed Islamic State (IS or ISIS) fighters to seek refuge and medical treatment in Turkey.

Here it should be mentioned that, when ISIS first emerged in Iraq and later in Syria after the outbreak of civil war many regional and international actors saw it as a useful instrument to check Iran’s influence in Iraq and Syria, much the same way that they had looked at the Taliban as a counter to Iran in Afghanistan. It was only after ISIS began to commit atrocities against Western nationals that attitudes towards the group changed. Ankara, too, then altered its position and claimed that it was fighting the group.

Therefore, a major reason for Turkish incursions into Syria is to signal to Damascus that Ankara will not sit still if developments in Syria evolve in ways that could be detrimental to Turkish interests. This factor became more imperative when it became apparent that the United States was beginning to significantly reduce its presence in Syria and possibly even move all of its troops out of the country. In the absence of the United States, Ankara felt that it could not allow the Syrian government, backed by Russia and—worse—Iran, to fill the vacuum. In short, a main reason for the Turkish intervention is Ankara’s desire to have a say in Syria’s ultimate destiny.

Iran, Russia, and Arab Factors

Despite outward signs of friendship and cooperation, Erdogan does not have cordial feelings towards Iran. In fact, as I was told by a Turkish expert, Turkey sees Iran as its only viable rival for influence in the Middle East—and, one might also add, in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Turkey has not been happy with the change of leadership in Iraq following the U.S. ouster of Saddam Hussein, which has allowed Iraqi Shia to play a greater part in the country’s government. Although Turkey does more trade with Iraq than does Iran, it does not have the same political influence in Baghdad as does Tehran. Thus the idea that Iran could consolidate its influence in Damascus in the aftermath of the reduction in U.S. military presence was quite unpalatable to Ankara. At the very least, Turkey feels that it must establish a firm presence in Syria so as to balance Tehran’s influence.

The same is also true regarding Russia. Turkish-Russian relations in many respects are also, if not conflictual, at least competitive. Hence, Ankara feels that it cannot leave Syria entirely to Russia either.

Furthermore, Ankara would not be happy if Syria was reintegrated into the Arab fold. Turkey’s relations with such key Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE are tense. Quite clearly. Ankara would not want to face a solid Arab front standing in the way of its regional ambitions. Turkey has benefitted from intra-Arab divisions such as the Saudi-Qatari rift. Prior to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Ankara had close ties with Saudi Arabia and used Arab-Iranian tensions to its own advantage as well.

Erdogans Ambitions and His Self-Image

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Erdogan in Turkey on October 17, after which they announced that Turkey would agree to a temporary ceasefire allowing for the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters from the border area. However, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu later refused to call it a “ceasefire,” adding that a ceasefire has to be between two legitimate parties—which implies that the Turks do not view the Kurdish fighters as a legitimate entity. Turkish rhetoric, as well as these other reasons for intervening in Syria, make it unlikely that Ankara will withdraw from Syrian territory anytime soon.

Turkey’s approach towards Syria and many other Middle East issues cannot be understood without understanding Erdogan’s views, self-image, and ambitions. Erdogan believes that a historical wrong was done to Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. He sees the old Ottoman territories as the natural sphere of Turkey’s influence. These territories stretch from the Balkans all the way to North Africa, all areas in which Turkey has involved itself. Furthermore, he believes in his historic mission to restore the old Ottoman glory, albeit in an indirect way rather than through outright territorial expansion. The fact that the U.S. has now agreed to the indefinite presence of Turkish troops in northeastern Syria indicates that “Operation Peace Spring” is largely about Turkey’s long-term objectives.

In short, Turkey’s actions in Syria should be seen as the first steps in the unfolding of a new era of regional competition, rivalry, and possibly even conflict. This should not come as a surprise. The events of the last two decades, especially since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Western intervention in Libya, and the civil war in Syria, have collapsed four Middle Eastern governments and upset regional balances of power. They have also opened new opportunities for key regional states to try expanding the spheres of their influence. Consequently, they have set in motion new rivalries for deciding the future political and possibly even geographical map of the Middle East. Turkey is set to be a major participant in the unfolding of this regional contest for power. Its invasion of Syria, notwithstanding the recently agreed pause in military operations, could come to be remembered as the first salvo in this new game.

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Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.

SHOW 12 COMMENTS

12 Comments

  1. @ “Turkey was so keen to remove Assad that it even reportedly allowed Islamic State (IS or ISIS) fighters to seek refuge and medical treatment in Turkey.”

    Come now, Ms. Hunter. That is a gross understatement of Turkey’s role in regard to ISIS. Throughout the Syrian war, ISIS and al Qaeda have been provisioned, supplied with weapons and materiel, and sheltered in two bases, one in Jordan near Amman, the other at Incirlik in Turkey. While the weapons, materiel, and supplies have been provided by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, Turkey made sure that those items made their way unimpeded from Incirlik to the Syrian border. And the forces that Turkey is fielding in Syria today are in substantial numbers former ISIS and al Qaeda fighters.

    Those are *facts* and if they escaped your notice, your scholarship is lacking. And if you did know them but omitted them from your article, then you are deliberately misleading your readers.

  2. I totally agree with the Paul Merrell observations. U.S. with Saudi Arabia gave almost unlimited support to ‘rebels’ in Syria in 2011 and even pushed to transfer the leadership from spontaneous irregular Syrian civilians protesters to Wahhabi / Salafi warriors that changed completely the ‘Arab Spring’ opposition and manifestations in a civil war under the clear U.S. ‘regime change’ policy. Turkey has also already made the diagnosis, after Bush (W) mindless invasion and ‘regime change’ chasing the Sunni and ‘liberating’ the Shi’ite in Iraq, about the resulting indefectible growth in power by Iran.

    Today Erdogan is not only confronting the Kurds that intelligently adopted the U.S. proposition to fight ISIS incrementing their own footprint in north-east Syria, now is confronting the recovering of Syrian territory by Assad government, which is for one part ‘controlling’ the Kurds, and for the other increasing Iran’s influence.

    The last point explain the hustle with which U.S. sent Vice-President Pence and State Secretary Pompeo to Ankara to ‘explain’ to Erdogan the importance and still validity of the ‘strategic’ regime change policy in Syria. The big problem now is where from will come the necessary ‘boots on the ground’ needed for both Turkey and U.S. plans for preventing Iran growth. Both U.S. and Turkey don’t have ‘boots on the ground’. Kurds easily prefer siding with Damascus and will happily help in stopping the flood of Syrian refugees coming from Turkey under the Erdogan’s Ottoman policy. Furthermore, the question of the Syrian refugees returning from Turkey to Syria is not an easy matter and has to be settled in a Syrian-Turkey arrangement, and this will be the proposition by Russia.

    Now, about the ISIS warriors ‘liberated’ from Kurds camps and according to U.S. information being in the process of reorganization and ready to attack, if true, this will necessarily be under a policy of rearming and re-financing by U.S., Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The rout of the Caliphate was brutal, no weapons or transport facilities were left behind.

  3. ISIS is a global threat and the U.S. led anti-ISIS coalition operated in Syria strictly to defeat ISIS. Rules of engagement for U.S. forces were to avoid hitting Syrian government positions. I believe one incident occurred, which was explained by recent ISIS activity. There is no verifiable evidence of U.S. supplying ISIS. However, there were many reports of cooperation with ISIS across the Turkish border.
    ISIS seized much of Iraq and Syria. It was at the gates of Damascus in September 2015 and had the potential to seize both Syria and Iraq that was prevented by a combination of U.S. led forces with the Kurds and with Iran’s support for the Popular Mobilization Forces formed by Iraq with support from Iran.
    What I find missing in the article and in the two comments is any reference to international law and to the UN and the Security Council. The Security Council was formed to address problems where the parties in conflict could not address them. The present situation in Syria could be addressed by putting the Kurdish zone in Syria under UN protection with a peacekeeping force guaranteed by the P5+ the EU with the goal of stabilizing Syria and mediating the several conflicts with the goal of a stable Syria retaining its territorial integrity. Turkey is invading the sovereign territory of Syria with no justification in international law.
    Given UN protection reconstruction aid and investment could flow in, refugees could return, and the country would not be under Iranian domination. Given a clear proposal to the Security Council it is hard to see justification for a veto from any of the P5.

  4. Successor states to former empires almost always pine for lost glories. But Ankara’s leaders should bear in mind that Iran’s sphere of influence in the region predates Ottoman suzerenity by a thousand years.

  5. Who knows what the Ottoman III, Erdogan, wants? Please let us know when/after you find out.
    The delusion of having an Arabic buffer zone free of Kurds at the border of Turkey and Syria is not and it will never be a practical solution for Turkey.
    INMO, The central governments in Turkey, Syria and Iraq should or must come up with a collective plan to include the 24M Kurds (12M in Turkey, 6M in Syria and 6M in Iraq) in each respective society. The Kurdish population must be convinced that this is the best way for them to live side by side with the rest of their respective society and in return the Kurds must throw away their corrupt leaders and the delusions of having an autonomous Kurdistan in Levant region.

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