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. What’s Turkey after? Simple, it has an army of salafist rebels with no place in Turkey, an army of Kurds in front and a piece of land which he thinks that he could displace it’s people to create a new Israel-like state in area to support it’s ambitions in the area and the free access to the tomb of great Ottoman Sultan grave which It needs for later propaganda campaigns in future? Do you think that they’re unrealistic? Or against the international law? They don’t think so!

  2. Thanks to the great premier of Iran’s 19th century “ the great Amir “ “AmirKabir” Iran and ottomans, or today’ Turkey, have no land dispute, and no intention for expansion of their territories. Both countries are rich in resources, and of a naturally compatible geo strategic importance to each other. This is the reason why their policies and world views are completing each others regardless of who is in power or who are they allied with in each country.

    IMO Turkey like Russia has began to understand that to be a nation state, she must protect her own national interests first therefore she needs to brake out of the limitation imposed by her alliances to the west.

    IMO that is good thing to happen, as Turkey once again becomes the inspirer and the leader of the Sunnis, directing them to modernity, while Iran continue to leads and inspire the Shia and other minorities to a unity of resistance for common security.

    To me the new Turkey no longer accepts to be a post WWl country formed and tasked to secure west/ Europe security interests in greater Middle East.

  3. @ Vidbeldav: “… the U.S. led anti-ISIS coalition operated in Syria strictly to defeat ISIS.”

    That’s the public line from the U.S. government, because its (false) legal excuse for invading Syria was to fight ISIS. But did you notice that the U.S. did not withdraw after ISIS was defeated? Another major reason was to block ground transportation from Iran to Syria and Lebanon by occupying the then-only border crossing with Iraq at al Tanf. President Trump’s order to withdraw from northern Syria did not encompass our troops at al Tanf. But a couple of weeks ago, Iraq and Syria opened a new border crossing at al Qaim, which as the roads to it are improved, should eliminate the strategic value of the al Tanf position to the U.S.

    @ “Rules of engagement for U.S. forces were to avoid hitting Syrian government positions.”

    References please? The U.S. forces have attack Syrian government forces many times. ]

    @ “There is no verifiable evidence of U.S. supplying ISIS.”

    What about the tens of thousands of U.S. arms captured from ISIS? What about the series of $0.5 billion appropriations from Congress to provide arms to the Syrian opposition? And there have been literally dozens of eyewitness accounts of transfers being made. What do you mean by “verifiable” in context? Who has to do that verifying?

    @ “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 present situation in Syria could be addressed by putting the Kurdish zone in Syria under UN protection with a peacekeeping force … Turkey is invading the sovereign territory of Syria with no justification in international law.”

    So is the U.S. The U.S. justification was: [i] Iraq asked the U.S. to assist in defeating ISIS; [ii] part of ISIS was located in Syria; [iii] the Syrian government was “unwilling or unable” [1] to put down ISIS in Syria; therefore, [iv] the U.S. was justified in invading Syria to put down ISIS. But at the same time, the U.S. was supplying the Syrian opposition with training, weapons, and supplies. One may not lawfully claim that the Syrian government was “unwilling or unable” to put down ISIS whilst simultaneously hampering the Syrian government’s ability to do so. The equitable doctrine of unclean hands — which applies in international law — prevents that.

    Turkey’s justification for invading Syria is very similar to the U.S. excuse: [i] the SDF poses a threat to Turkey; [ii] Syria was unwilling or unable to put down the SDF; [iii] therefore Turkey is justified to invade Syria to push back the SDF from the Turkish border.

    One really can’t take the Turkish situation to the Security Council without bringing along the near identical U.S. invasion of Syria. And for that reason, neither will happen.

    [1] It is only an emerging legal theory that a nation may invade another to attack a non-state force that is attacking the invading nation if the invaded nation is “unwilling or unable” to deal with the problem. It is not customary international law. Whether it becomes so is unpredictable.

  4. Iran will jeopardize every Turkish effort to regain influence in the region, even at the cost of allying with Israel-USA and Europe, who are all against Erdogan’s Turkey.

    President Erdogan has certainly the ambition of restoring a new version of the Old Ottoman Empire, and perhaps Turkey’s direct involvement in Syria is just a beginning of his expansionist approach to the middle east.

    But, just like the old days of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s rivals aren’t few; first of all; “Israel” who represents the interests of the United States of America; in the old days of Ottoman Empire there was no “Israel”, hence no America in the region. Secondly, the old Ottoman’s rivals are still around; British, French, Russians, Greeks, Persians, along with the rest of the Europe and the newly found Arab Nationalism; Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, the UAE, and the North African countries, all of which would oppose Turkey’s new ambition.

    For Iranians government however, Turkey’s incursion into the Kurdish territory in Syria is a sort of blessing and perfectly inline with Iran’s own position against its own Kurds – their aspiration for an independent Kurdistan – which partly include the iranian territories.

    So far, Iran is 100% in agreement with Erdogan’s effort to disperse the Syrian Kurds — Iranians would have probably done the same to their own Kurds. The fact is no government; Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, would want an independent Kurdistan in the neighbourhood, they are all against the Kurds, but just like the old days, Iran is certainly against Turkey’s greater aspiration to establishing a new version of the old Ottoman Empire,

    As such, Iran will certainly jeopardize every Turkish effort to regain influence in the region, even at the cost of allying with the Israel-USA and Europe – who are all against Erdogan’s ambition — Iran will not allow restoration of a new version of the old Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, but so far, Erdogan is doing what Iranians themselves would have done to their own Kurds – i.e. denying Kurds an independent state !!!

  5. Last year in Afrin Mr. Erdogan managed to grab a chunk of Syrian territory, more this year with Trump’s blessing, and most likely, even more next year, so the land grab strategy is very clear and so is the neo-Ottoman ambition already reflected in their official maps!

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