In 2011, hardly anyone could have predicted that a decade later violence would still be crippling Syria. In the midst of hostilities, several other countries have become embroiled in the conflict. Amongst them is Turkey, which has turned out to be one of the central actors of the civil war. Undoubtedly, this situation has marked a crucial turning point in Ankara’s traditional foreign policy with the Middle East, previously centred on a “zero problem with neighbours” approach. Whereas Turkey had foreseen the Arab uprisings as an opportunity to expand its influence in the evolving region, the situation in Syria quickly turned into an important inconvenience. Previously a close ally and sound pillar of Turkey’s economic integration strategy in the region, Damascus has become a fundamental source of instability and concern for the country.
Over the last ten years, Turkey’s strategy in the Syrian conflict has underwent different phases. Initially, President Bashar al-Assad’s refusal to adopt any sort of political and economic reforms to satisfy Syrian protestors’ requests resulted in Turkey’s strong support for a regime change in Damascus. This position was expressed through Ankara decision to back and host on its territory different Syrian opposition groups. However, since the rise of Syrian Kurds in 2015, Turkey has radically changed its priorities, replacing its primary goal of regime change with the containment of territorial advances by the Syrian Kurds. Since then, the country has actively worked to avoid the establishment along its southern border of a corridor that would be controlled by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The latter is perceived as an existential threat to both Turkish national security and its territorial integrity because of its links with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), recognized also as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union
In order to prevent the formation of the corridor and to create a safe zone, Turkey launched four military operations across its border in Northern Syria: the 2016 Euphrates Shield mission, Olive Branch in 2018, Peace Spring in 2019 and the 2020 Spring Shield operation. Nonetheless, a longer-term objective is to ensure the return of refugees from Turkey to Syria once security conditions allow it. In the short-term, Turkish troops are in Syria also trying to stop more Syrians from crossing over to Turkey. As the largest host of the Syrian community abroad, the 3.6 billion refugees Ankara has taken in has had a huge cost on Turkey, both economically and socially. The refugees’ presence has also become a highly sensitive issue in Turkish politics and a major source of concern for the public opinion. In this regard, avoiding the prospect of a new wave of Syrian refugees flooding into its territory is one of the reasons for Turkish military engagement in Idlib, where the last stronghold of Syrian opposition to the regime is located.
Over the years, Ankara’s regional policy has become more militarized to support its ambitious projection in the Middle East and North Africa. Nonetheless, the safeguarding of the country’s vital interests led Turkey to establish a permanent presence in northern Syria, while simultaneously changing the demographic balance in this part of the country. Following its military interventions, Turkey has expanded its sphere of influence and become a key player inside Syria with its own agenda. The aim of Turkish involvement has been to have a say in the resolution of the conflict and in shaping Syria’s post-war settlement. Hence, Ankara has taken big steps to reconstruct the areas under its control through governance and socio-economic interventions, moving beyond the need to clear its border of terrorist groups and steadily establishing a well-rooted presence in those parts of northern Syria. There, it increased Syrians’ dependency on Turkey economically and politically. As of today, Tell Abyad area, Euphrates Shield zone and Afrin are non-contiguous areas under direct Turkish administration, while Idlib is ruled by an autonomous administration under Ankara’s military protection. Furthermore, an estimated four million people are reported to be under direct or indirect Turkish control in Syria.
Although Turkish President Erdogan declared that his country’s goal is not to permanently occupy northern Syria, but rather simply protect its borders and improve the local humanitarian situation, Turkish military presence has been followed by political, economic, and cultural engagement. In trying to stabilise and reconstruct these areas, Ankara has also imprinted a Turkish footprint there which seemingly indicates a longer-term commitment. In the area occupied in the Operation Euphrates Shield, which includes Azaz, al-Bab, al-Rai and Jarablus, as well as in Afrin, Turkey oversaw the establishment of local councils closely linked to the Turkish provinces of Gaziantep, Kilis and Hatay. Furthermore, it has undertaken comprehensive reconstruction, including training for local police forces and providing basic services like water, electricity, highways, health and education. While Turkish rule is welcomed by Syrians who have escaped from Assad’s regime, Ankara’s forces have also faced a great number of terror attacks both in Afrin and in Idlib.
Inevitably, Turkey’s engagement in Syria has brought it closer to Russia, the conflict’s leader power broker since its military intervention in 2015. Despite different visions for Syria’s conflict resolution, compromising with Moscow revealed to be crucial for Ankara’s pursuit of its own interests. In fact, it was with Russia’s blessing that Turkey launched its military operations in northern Syria. However, the 2020 regime-led attacks against Idlib supported by Russia, intensified the complex cooperation between Ankara and Moscow. Equally, the conflict in Syria affected Turkey’s relations with the United States. U.S. logistical and financial support to the YPG, Washington’s main ally on the ground in its fight against the Islamic State since 2014, has become a major source of tension between the two NATO allies. So far, it does not seem that the new Biden administration will change America’s approach towards the Syrian Kurds, raising questions on the redefinition of the partnership between Ankara and Washington.
Turkey’s permanent presence in the northern Syria suggests that the country is determined to stay to conserve and pursue its interests. Although a new military operation in Kurdish controlled areas seems unlikely under the current circumstances, whether and how Turkey can afford to maintain the costs and risks of this sustained engagement remains an unanswered question.