Turkey’s promised Syria operation aids Erdoğan’s ambitions

When the Syrian civil war opened the way for Kurdish self-rule in northern Syria, Turkey quickly changed its priority from overthrowing President Bashar Assad to neutralising what it saw as the Kurdish threat south of the border.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan this week repeated his threat to mount a cross-border operation into northern Syria, east of the River Euphrates, to wrest control of the area from Syrian Kurdish forces who seized the region from Assad’s retreating troops, and, with the help of U.S. air power, defeated Islamic State.

Historically, there has been general agreement amongst the Turkish public on the need for force to deal with the Kurdish problem, so it is not surprising that Turkey is preparing for another big military operation in the Kurdish region of Syria. But there are also other dynamics, peculiar to present-day Turkish politics.

To begin with, Turkey has ambitions to stay in parts of northern Syria, controlling cities, and even large territories. Turkey governs towns and districts in northern Syria as if they were extensions of Turkish territory. The Turkish government runs many schools in northern Syria and the PTT, the Turkish state post and telecommunications service, has opened a number of branches in the region. 

It is hard to understand why Turkey is interested in governing Syrian territories in the long-term. Some pundits argue that Turkey, aware of the possibility that the Syrian crisis is likely to continue for years to come, sees such radical strategies as the only option to stop the consolidation of Kurdish autonomy in Syria.

Another reason could be ideological. Islamism, now the dominant ideology of Turkey, has historically been linked to territorial expansion. Unlike the secular Kemalists who controlled Turkey for much of the 20th century, Turkish Islamists hark back to what they see as the glory days of the Ottoman Empire and read modern Turkish history as a series of injustices that resulted in losses of territory. Not only Erdoğan’s brand of Islamism, but all sorts of Islamic groups in Turkey have cherished the idea of regaining lands lost as a result of what they see as Western imperialism.

The alarming state of the economy is also a major dynamic driving Turkey’s foreign policy. Erdoğan’s failure to significantly bring down inflation, unemployment and interest rates has eroded support for his party, which has been in power since 2002. 

A military operation in Syria could help Erdoğan through uniting much of the public in a wave of nationalist sentiment and forcing the opposition to back the president. Erdoğan has succeeded in neutralising the opposition by using matters of national security, such as the purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia, to shape and dominate the political agenda. The opposition is left to be content with only being active in domestic secondary issues rather than matters of high policy. This division of labour leaves Erdoğan firmly in charge and the renders opposition’s challenge ineffectual.