How should Turkey's military presence in Syria be assessed?

How should Turkey's military presence in northern Syria be assessed?
9 min read
16 February, 2021
Analysis: Has Ankara's role in northern Syria made any positive impact, or will it ultimately be counterproductive?
Turkey has retained a military presence across significant swathes of northern Syria since 2016. [Getty]
Turkey has retained a military presence across significant swathes of northern Syria since it launched its first cross-border operation into the region in 2016. 

Has Ankara's presence made any positive impact, or will it ultimately amount to another counterproductive and destructive occupation?  

In August 2016, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield into northwestern Syria. The operation's main aims were removing the Islamic State (IS) group from Turkey's border and preventing the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from advancing further westward in that group's US-backed campaign against IS. 

The main component of the SDF is the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) group, essentially the Syrian offshoot or wing of Turkey's arch-enemy, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)

Turkey completed Euphrates Shield after capturing the city of Al-Bab from IS in March 2017. Turkish troops and Turkish-backed Syrian militiamen retain control over the regions captured from IS to the present day. Ankara has since invested in and overseen reconstruction and new infrastructure projects in the Euphrates Shield Zone.

In 2017, under the framework of the Astana Agreement with Russia and Iran, Turkey began establishing its troop presence in Syria's Idlib province via the establishment of 12 observation posts manned by the Turkish army. The official goal of that deployment was the prevention of clashes between Assad regime forces and the armed opposition groups that control Idlib, the most powerful being the Al-Qaeda offshoot Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. 

Many Arab Syrians in the areas Turkey holds are content with the situation: they see it as the least-worst option, given that Turkey's presence means a defence against the regime

Turkey's subsequent incursions into northern Syria were much more controversial. In early 2018, it invaded and occupied the northwestern Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin, previously controlled by the YPG. That operation saw the large-scale displacement of Kurds along with looting, kidnappings and other abuses perpetrated by Turkey's proxies against Afrin's civilian population. 

In October 2019 Turkey invaded a large swath of northeastern Syria previously controlled by the SDF, displacing tens-of-thousands of people and destabilising that hitherto largely stable and secure region. Its Syrian proxies once again looted civilian homes and businesses. Many of those displaced from their homes have yet to return. Perceptions and views of Turkey's actions and continued armed presence in northern Syria vary, sometimes quite significantly, among locals there.  

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"Turkey's occupation of North Syria is assessed very differently by different groups in the region," Professor Joshua Landis, a noted Syria expert and head of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told The New Arab

"For Kurds, Turkey's incursions and rule have been a disaster," he said. "The expulsion of Kurds in places like Afrin and Ras al-Ayn and the settlement of Arab refugees in homes where Kurds once lived is viewed as ethnic cleansing."  

On the other hand, Landis described Turkey's military presence in northern Syria as "a godsend" for many Syrian Turkmen since they have been "mobilized to serve as local administrators and agents for the Turkish occupation forces."  

Also, many Sunni Arab Syrians view Turkey's presence on their territory as a lesser evil to the return of the Assad regime to these areas. "This is the case in much of North Aleppo and Idlib provinces, which are heavily populated with refugees and rebel fighters who have fled in front of the Syrian Army," Landis said.

"Many rebel militias have now joined the Turkish-constituted, Syrian National Army. This is an expression of their loyalty and wish to preserve Turkish authority over the region so long as they are not able to overthrow the government in Damascus and take control of Syria," he added. 

For Kurds, Turkey's incursions and rule have been a disaster. The expulsion of Kurds in places like Afrin and Ras al-Ayn and the settlement of Arab refugees in homes where Kurds once lived is viewed as ethnic cleansing

For minorities such as the Assyrians and Armenians of northern Syria, who have historically fled Turkish rule and oppression, there is "little love lost" for Turkey's presence in Syria, with many insisting that Ankara "aided and protected jihadist groups such as Nusra and ISIS."  

Kyle Orton, an independent Middle East analyst, identified several "positives" and "negatives" to Turkey's military presence in northern Syria. 

On the positive side, he argued that it is "quite difficult to find fault with Turkey's protection of the population in Idlib from the pro-Assad coalition." However, he went on to point out that "the Turks needlessly ceded ground after their victory in the drone war last year, leaving the pocket in a much less secure predicament than it otherwise would have been."  

"Many Arab Syrians in the areas Turkey holds are content with the situation: they see it as the least-worst option, given that Turkey's presence means a defence against the regime coalition and there is a certain amount of investment creating some kind of economic life in areas long deprived of it," Orton told The New Arab

"Only the more ideological Arab nationalists decry 'occupation' and 'colonialism'," he added. "For older Syrians, the non-existence of that border and Turkish rule is within living memory, so the de facto restoration of that situation is not a serious affront." On the negative side, he identified Turkey's invasion and occupation of Afrin as "a notorious case" in light of the fact that 100,000 Kurds were expelled by Turkey's actions there. 

"The Turks would insist this was wartime displacement beyond their control, but it was very much within Ankara's control to allow the Kurdish refugees to come back and that has been systematically denied," he said. "Likewise, it was the Turkish government's decision to settle 200,000 Arab refugees, mostly from Ghouta, in homes and areas Kurds have been cleared from." 

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More generally, the primary problem Orton sees in the areas Turkey presently holds in Syria is one of security. "Unwilling, for political and economic reasons, to use its own troops in significant numbers, Turkey works through former rebel groups that now have no cause beyond the Turkish paycheque, which inter alia diminishes their incentives to behave well towards the populace," he said. "Since many of the Arab groups Turkey sponsors are not local to the areas they are administering, it further removes social and other restraints on their behaviour." 

The end result of this set-up is a "high degree of lawlessness," which Orton charges is "traceable to the predatory behaviour of Turkey's Arab proxies, not only against populations they're ostensibly governing but against each other, damaging the forces that are supposed to keep order and often catching civilians in the crossfire." 

However, in areas closer to the Turkish border, where there is more Turkish investment and more Turkish troops than militiamen, the situation is "in all measurable senses much better." 

"It is notable, too, that most Syrians in the areas controlled by Turkey's Arab proxies are relieved to see Turkish troops show up (their presence is often drawn to quell some factional squabble between the Arab proxies)," he said. 

"But as mentioned, relative to Ankara's interests in Syria, the AKP government does not judge the investment to be worth the political cost of more dead troops and the economic cost of paying for a more expansive occupation," he concluded.  

Ali Demirdas, a political analyst and professor of international relations, highlighted some of the positive things Turkey has done in Syria. 

Unwilling, for political and economic reasons, to use its own troops in significant numbers, Turkey works through former rebel groups that now have no cause beyond the Turkish paycheque

"It should be noted that Turkey has taken the brunt of the Syrian Civil War having to host more than four million refugees, some 300,000 of whom are Kurdish, making it the biggest refugee-hosting nation in the world," he told The New Arab. "It, in fact, puts a heavy burden on Turkey's economic and social structure."  

Despite these very significant burdens, Demirdas pointed out that Turkey has been "revitalizing the infrastructure in Turkish-controlled parts of Syria by building hospitals, schools and roads."  

"Considering the rest of Syria is economically in a dilapidated state, Turkey (the 17th largest economy in the world) provides a great deal of relief in the parts of Syria that it controls," he said. "The Turkish currency 'Lira' has already been the preferred method of exchange in north Syria." 

Furthermore, if Turkey does go ahead with resettling two million Syrians refugees presently in Turkey back in their country, a stated goal of the incumbent Turkish government, those Syrians will still need Turkey to provide them with a secure safe zone, Demirdas said. 

"If they return without Turkey providing a safe zone, most of those refugees will receive retribution from Bashar al-Assad, who sees them as traitors," he concluded. 

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At present, it remains unclear how long Turkey will ultimately retain its military presence in northern Syria

According to Nicholas Heras, Director of Government Relations at The Institute for the Study of War, Turkey has "set the foundation for a long-term presence in northern Syria similar to its presence in Cyprus."

"Large areas of northern Syria are being governed and provided utilities as if they are de facto extensions of Turkey, especially the Euphrates Shield Zone and Afrin," Heras told The New Arab. 

"Idlib is the next territory that we should expect to be incorporated as if it is a de facto part of Turkey, which would mean that a region that is dominated by an ecosystem of al-Qaeda groups would become part of a protected by Turkey," he added. 

Heras noted that millions of Syrians today, which constitute a very significant percentage of Syrians remaining inside their war-torn country, are now "dependent on Turkey's economy, infrastructure, security assistance, humanitarian assistance, and governance."  

"Some areas in Turkish-occupied northern Syria are better than others, but Afrin and the Tal Abyad Pocket are clearly chaos zones dominated by predatory former Syrian rebel groups turned into petty, often feuding warbands operating with Turkey's blessing," he said. 

Several documented human rights abuses were perpetrated against ethnic and sectarian minorities in former SDF-controlled regions of northern Syria, particularly Afrin, all done with the "tacit support of Turkey's security apparatus." 

"Turkey is also credibly linked with demographic engineering in favour of Syria's ethnic Turkmen minority in several areas of northern Syria, at the expense especially of Kurds," Heras said. 

"All-in-all, the Turkish-controlled areas of northern Syria are a patchwork of regions ranging from tightly managed, de facto extensions of Turkish provinces, to chaos zones ruled by predatory Syrian rebel warbands, to an al-Qaeda safe haven," he added.  

"In short, Turkey's territories in northern Syria are a long-term threat to regional stability and Turkey's NATO allies."

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon