Turkey's geopolitical goals in Syria

Turkey's geopolitical goals in Syria
7 min read
10 May, 2016
Comment: Ankara can use the plight of refugees to discourage the emergence of Kurdish autonomous areas on its borders, while bolstering Erdogan's grip on the presidency, writes Robert Olson.
The decentralisation of Syria will further help Turkey project and consolidate its geopolitical power [Getty]

Turkey plans to exploit the 2.7 million Syrian refugees now in the country as vehicles to develop and consolidate its own geopolitical and geo-economic position.

This is a vastly different policy from that pursued by Ankara towards Kurdish refugees fleeing Saddam Hussein's Anfal campaign in the late 1980s. At that time, Turkey was reluctant to allow anyone in.

Why did Turkey's attitude change? By late 2012, it was clear that Syria's state institutions could collapse under the pressure of the intensifying war. By 2014 they had collapsed, which Ankara realised - even if the US-led "War on Terror" coalition hadn't.

To be the dominant power in northern Syria, Ankara decided to project its power into northern Syria to control the growing strength of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG). The PYD had consolidated its power after it declared autonomy for the three cantons of Jazira, Kobane, and Afrin in 2012.

After the PYD's successful defence of Kobane in late 2014, the US concluded that it would be a useful ally against the Islamic State group. The US alliance with the PYD, a group closely tied to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Turkey, jeopardised Ankara's plan to assume geopolitical dominance of northern Syria.

Washington and Ankara were diverging, with the United States prioritising its war on terrorism and Turkey focusing on the expansion of its geopolitical influence.

During this period, Ankara consolidated its future geopolitical position in Syria in a bid to fend off competitors, including those affiliated with the Russians and Iranians such as the Alawites, Druze, Christians, and Ismailis along the coastline of the Mediterranean.

Whatever entities emerge in central Syria or central Iraq will be dependent on Turkey to rebuild their cities - especially Aleppo and Mosul - and particularly if they are largely destroyed in the forthcoming battles in these Sunni areas.

The decentralisation of both Iraq and Syria will further help Turkey project and consolidate its geopolitical power. Turkey and Iran will share a condominium of power in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and will also share influence across much of the rest of Iraq.

In this way, Turkey can assert its geopolitical and geo-economic interests along both side of the borders with Iraq and Syria.

War with Kurds

By July 2015, Turkey had accelerated its war on the PKK and its political arm, the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK).

So far, the war has resulted in thousands of deaths, mostly PKK and civilians as well as the widespread destruction of buildings and properties. Ankara intended to destroy the PKK, expropriate Kurdish property and ethnically cleanse areas along its border so as to build proposed gas and oil pipelines from Kurdish areas in Iraq.

The state also hoped to create conflict between Syrian refugees and the Kurds, especially in regions where Kurds (Alevis) and Turks overlap.

After the June election, President Erdogan's AKP organised a coalition of ultranationalists, Salafists, die-hard party loyalists, religious officials, village guards, sheikhs and tribes.

The state also began to support more strongly conservative, religious Kurds. Ankara never lost sight of the fact that an estimated 5,000 Kurds from Turkey had fought with IS and other jihadist groups. The AKP-organised coalition brought tens of thousands of anti-PKK demonstrators onto the streets in Diyarbakir on April 30.

The removal of only a small number of HDP parliamentarians would push the the party below the 10 percent threshold necessary to sit in parliament

Along with the Republican People's Party (CHP) and National Action Party (MHP), the AKP is also attempting to cancel the immunity of politicians from the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), a political force in the Kurdish community.

The removal of only a small number of their parliamentarians would push the the party below the 10 percent threshold necessary to sit in parliament, which would allow the AKP to ask for a referendum to establish a full presidential system.

With power concentrated in the president's office - and in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's hands - the AKP could not only emasculate the PKK/KCK and other Kurdish nationalist organisations, but also severely weaken the PYD and YPG.

Taking the first step, the AKP has insisted that parliament comply with the constitution in cancelling the legislative immunity of Peoples' Democratic Party MPs.

Justice Minister Bozdag Bekir stated:

The proposal itself actually doesn't make any claims about the guilt or innocence of lawmakers. We consider our proposal to be one that lifts the constitutional barrier to try lawmakers for one time only, and which allows them to be tried by additional provisions added to the constitution.

The AKP introduced the proposal after Erdogan accused the HDP of being an arm of the PKK and called for the prosecution of its members.

The HDP sees the proposal as a blunt attempt to remove it from parliament; the PKK/KCK called it a civilian coup d'état. When HDP deputies in turn accused AKP deputies of complicity in the massacres of Kurds carried out by Turkish armed forces, a fistfight broke out in parliament.

As the debate regarding diplomatic and judicial immunity was taking place, MPs were also debating the EU's unwillingness to allow visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in EU countries that adhere to the Schengen Agreement.

Visa-free travel was to be granted as one of the conditions for the March refugee deal between Turkey and the EU, but has not been fully implemented. The EU's fulfillment of the agreement would mean that 1.9 million citizens of Kurdish ethnicity could also travel visa-free in, around and between Schengen countries. The EU deal could encourage dissatisfied Kurds, especially in the southeast, to seek opportunities in Europe.

Strengthening military ties

On April 21, the High Court of Appeals overturned the convictions of military officers and scores of others who had participated in an alleged conspiracy to overthrow the government. The Ergenekon case, as it is called, was riddled with insubstantial evidence and procedural flaws, and had been one of the longest running political and legal battles in Turkey's history.

The climbdown indicates that the AKP needs better relations with the armed forces. In part, this is because of the increased intensity of the war with the PKK. The armed forces will now be a stronger player in what strategies the state will use to squash the PKK.

The military also supports the AKP's position that Fethullah Gulen's Hizmet Movement is "a parallel structure" that threatens the state. The Turkish press has lately dubbed Gulenists "the Fethullah Terror Organisation/Parallel State Structure". The armed forces now have two terrorist organisations to defeat.

The Gulen Movement, Hizmet, had been aligned with the armed forces and the state since the 1970s. It previously cooperated with the AKP to reduce the power of the armed forces, greatly strengthening the power of the AKP.

The war is now into its ninth month, with declarations from both sides that it will escalate further

But by December 2013 the alliance had worn thin. Gulenist supporters in the police and judiciary decided to move against the AKP and even supported toppling Erdogan from power. The witch-hunt for Gulenist supporters in the judiciary, armed forces, and the police began in earnest.

This campaign left the AKP with reduced support from both the armed forces and the Gulenists, when Erdogan decided - after the success of the Kurdish HDP party in the June 2015 election cost Erdogan his desired constitution-changing supermajority - to escalate the war against the Kurdish PKK/KCK.

The war is now into its ninth month, with declarations from both sides that it will escalate further. Erdogan had little choice but to reconcile with the armed forces.

The strengthening relations between the AKP and the military are also necessary, as Syrian institutions continue to collapse.

The fall of Aleppo and Raqqa might well mean a further surge of Syrian refugees into Turkey. A further weakening of IS, resulting in even greater fragmentation of northern Syria into multitudes of militias, might well precipitate a Turkish military intervention.

In such a scenario, as it oversees the return of refugees to Syria and fosters economic partnerships between Turkish and Syrian companies, Turkey will only further consolidate its geopolitical reach into northern Syria.

Robert Olson is professor of Middle East history and politics at the University of Kentucky (Emeritus). He is the author of ten books of various aspects of Middle East history and politics. He was distinguished Professor of the University of Kentucky in 2000.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

A version of this article was originally published on Lobelog on May 6, 2016.