On 7 August 2011, the then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared the Syrian issue to be a ‘domestic affair’ for Turkey and that his country could not stay idle in the face of the political crisis in Syria. Almost eight years later, the Syrian crisis has indeed become an issue of Turkish domestic politics, albeit not in the way President Erdogan envisaged. At the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, Turkey was seeking to project its power throughout the Middle East, seeing its immediate neighbourhood as Ankara’s hinterland. Today, the Syrian crisis determines the configuration of the ruling power bloc in Ankara and defines the way the country sees its domestic Kurdish issue. Moreover, over 3 and a half million refugees from Syria are faced with a backlash of racial discrimination against the immigrant communities, with some opposition candidates in the local election openly running on an anti-Syrian, racist discourse.
President Erdogan and his senior ministers keep referring to the Turkish military operations in Syria to tap into the emotions of nationalist voters. Speaking at a local election rally in the resort town of Bodrum, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu asked his audience rhetorically, “Did we enter into Afrin, despite the US calling us to ask us not to do that? Yes, we did.” President Erdogan also famously linked the rise of food prices in Turkey to the ongoing operations against Kurdish militants within Turkey and in Syria, saying “Are you aware how much a bullet costs?”
Turkey’s Syria policy was once driven by a desire to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and replace him with a pro-Turkish administration. Ankara was determined to achieve that goal at all costs, including engaging in a proxy war against Iran, shooting down a Russian fighter jet and turning a blind eye to the radicalisation of the Syrian opposition in the form of the Islamic State (ISIS) or Al-Nusra (the former Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda). From 2015 onwards, the country’s policy started to be driven primarily by the objective of preventing the Syrian Kurds from gaining political power. This shift was in response to the rise of the Kurds politically and militarily in northern Syria.
The first large-scale Turkish incursion into Syria, code-named Euphrates Shield, in 2016 ostensibly targeted the Islamic State-controlled towns of Jarablus, Azaz and Al-Bab. A more important objective was to prevent the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from joining the north-western Kurdish enclave of Afrin with the rest of Kurdish-led territories of northern Syria. The second large-scale operation in early 2018 targeted the Kurdish administration of Afrin directly and thereby put an end to Kurdish efforts to form a continuous stretch of land in northern Syria. The demographic engineering that followed the Turkish operation, code-named Olive Branch, is reversing the majority-Kurdish status of the town.
Today, Turkey is trying to carry out a very complicated and delicate balancing act to keep Russia happy, Iran neutral and the Assad regime pacified while at the same time not alienating the US administration too much. As part of his recalibration of Turkey’s Syria policy, President Erdogan publicly endorsed reviving a long-dead agreement between Turkey and the Syrian regime. Named the Adana Agreement, and signed between the two countries in October 1998, the accord foresees Turkey and Syria cooperating against groups they regard as terrorists.
Keeping Russia happy, on the other hand, among other things requires Ankara to keep armed radicals and opposition groups in Idlib and other areas of north- western Syria under control. Indeed, the Turkish-controlled Syrian opposition groups, numbering over 25 thousand in areas excluding Idlib, had posed no significant threat to the Syrian regime since the beginning of Turkish military incursions in Syria from 2015 onwards. Instead, the groups were asked to direct their military efforts against the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the backbone of which is composed of the YPG.
Turkey’s preferred modus operandi with its proxies leaves no room for the proxy groups to have an independent political strategy. The majority of the various militant proxy groups operating in Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch areas did not originate from the localities they operate in and therefore have limited backing from the local populations. The members of the groups receive their salaries from Turkey and the regions they operate in are ultimately governed by the Turkish administrations in nearby towns across the Turkish border. For example, while the administration in the Afrin region operates under the Turkish governorate of Hatay, the nearby town of Azaz operates under the Turkish province of Kilis. While Turkey’s Arab proxies are not allowed to have independent policies, Ankara has almost no significant Kurdish proxy groups even in majority-Kurdish regions.
The Idlib region, by contrast, is controlled mostly by the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), the backbone of which is composed of members of the former al-Qaeda branch. The HTS still maintains a degree of independence from Turkey in spite of operating political bureaus in Turkish towns such as Gaziantep. Idlib is one of the important cards Turkey can play in its negotiations with Syria’s other Astana guarantor countries. In the last couple of months, however, Moscow increased its pressure on Ankara to help Russia, Iran and the Assad regime eliminate the HTS from Idlib. A defeat of the militant groups in Idlib could deprive Ankara of a strong negotiating position vis-à-vis Moscow and could jeopardize Turkey’s role and presence in Syria.
After campaigning for the US to stop its support for the Kurdish-led administrations of northern and eastern Syria, Turkey found itself in an awkward position when the US president announced in December 2018 that the US would withdraw from Syria within a few months. Following the announcement, President Erdogan had to go back on his promise to start a large-scale operation in Syria against the Kurdish-led administrations. Ankara realized that in the absence of the US, the attitudes of the Assad regime and Moscow towards the Turkish presence in Syria could change significantly. Currently, the issue of the US presence in Syria became unclear again, with President Donald Trump coming under sustained criticism from within the US to reverse his decision to abandon the US’ military partners on the ground in Syria.
Significant geopolitical shifts on Syria prevented President Erdogan and his nationalist allies from staging an attack on northern Syria and leveraging it in the upcoming elections. The result of the elections will be an essential test for the informal nationalist coalition of the ruling AK Party, Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and hard-line members of the security bureaucracy. Any changes in the configuration of the Turkish administration will be reflected in changes in Turkish policy towards Syria. Likewise, any significant change in the balance of forces in Syria would also cause shifts within the administration in Ankara.