No Exit: Turkey’s unexpected empire in Syria

In the first years of the Syrian civil war, the possibility of a Turkish military intervention was a frequent subject of speculation. Despite sabre-rattling by Ankara, early rebel advances were largely assisted through programmes to train and equip specific militias in cooperation with the United States and Qatar.

The fall of the city of Idlib in May 2015 seemed to vindicate an approach based on opaque ties with Islamist and even jihadist militia networks to pressure the President Bashar Assad. Yet by the end of 2015 this strategy swiftly fell apart under the combined pressure of Russian intervention, Islamic State (ISIS) offensives and the subsequent seizure of territory along the Turkish border by the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia aligned with PKK networks waging a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.

By August 2016, Turkey’s government felt impelled to order military operations that have led to Turkish control over large parts of northern Syria. Culminating with the recent assault on the Afrin region, the primary focus of these operations has been to prevent the YPG from seizing more territory along the Turkish border. Yet increasingly direct control of these territories also provides a protective zone for refugees fleeing from other regions still experiencing intense combat.

Structured through a set of agreements with Moscow dividing northern Syria into respective spheres of influence, the Turkish military now has a chain of bases along agree demarcation lines that act as a deterrent against any further advances by the Assad regime.

In the first weeks of this intervention many analysts tried to establish whether the Turkish military had an exit strategy that would enable it to leave Idlib, Afrin and north Aleppo province once it fulfilled its goals. Yet 18 months after the first Turkish tanks entered the Syrian city of Jarabulus as part of Operation Euphrates Shield it is increasingly clear that a swift exit from Syria is impossible.

The continuing resilience of Kurdish nationalist groups in northern Syria means that withdrawal would risk allowing the YPG to infiltrate territory abandoned by the Turkish army.

Handing these regions back to the Assad regime provides no guarantee that it will not allow PKK groups to re-emerge if Damascus decides it needs further leverage. Moreover, the social disruption caused by such a retreat from northern Syria would trigger another surge of refugees attempting to cross over into Turkish regions struggling to integrate more than two million Syrians who have fled over the previous years. As the presence of the Turkish state becomes intertwined with the social structures of northern Syria the consequences of a swift exit become ever more fraught with risk.

There are signs the Turkish government understands that it has saddled itself with responsibility for the more than 2.5 million inhabitants of Idlib, Afrin and northern Aleppo.

After initially chaotic efforts, by early 2017 education, healthcare and religious institutions in northern Aleppo had largely come under the control of Diyanet, the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs, and a network of NGOs under its influence. Despite the persistence of militia infighting, the Turkish military has developed a structure through which to pay and discipline its proxy militias. In Idlib, the establishment of a network of Turkish military bases

in January 2018 has led to a concerted attempt by militias backed by Ankara to expel Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and other jihadist groups from major towns. As this attempt to reduce HTS’s power unfolds, Diyanet has also ramped up efforts to take control of welfare and governance across the province.

In northern Syria a partnership is therefore emerging between Diyanet officials and Turkish army officers who have become accustomed to governing large populations as part of a semi-colonial venture. With Turkey’s strategic dilemmas making a withdrawal unlikely any time soon, this network of Syria hands within Diyanet and the military is developing a vested interest in maintaining long-term control over Turkey’s unexpected empire in Syria.

The emergence of such a civil-military network with deep connections within Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), as well as Syrian refugee communities in Turkey, is likely to have a significant impact on politics within Turkey itself. Over time, successive Turkish governments dependent on such Syria hands to manage these territories will need to take their demands into account.

The open-ended nature of Turkey’s intervention in Syria is not just a problem for the AKP. If it lasts for many years, those who will eventually replace President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will face a difficult legacy. For the curse of any opposition movement that takes power after the fall of an autocrat is that it inherits the strategic commitments of the government it has toppled. However frustrating those opposed to Erdoğan might find his Syrian gambit, it is still imperative that some thought goes into what an alternative approach to governing northern Syria might be to the structures now being put in place by his AKP government.

Clarifying basic questions now over what the conditions for reintegration of these territories into the Syrian state should be, or alternately how they should be governed if they remain under Ankara’s control, will make it easier for any successor to the AKP to get a grip on one of Turkey’s biggest challenges. And perhaps for once, Syrians in Idlib, Afrin and northern Aleppo could even get a say in determining their own fate.