During a phone call last month with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, United States President Donald Trump abruptly decided to withdraw American forces from Syria, tasking his counterpart with finishing off the Islamic State in the country. This highly unexpected announcement, which caught even the US president’s national security team off guard, came in the aftermath of Erdoğan’s repeated threats of carrying out a cross-border operation against Kurdish groups in Syria allied with the US. While it seems withdrawal plans have slightly changed, the decision was widely regarded as a victory for the Turkish president. It is, however, necessary to decipher Turkey’s Syria strategy to properly assess what the government hopes to achieve there.
At the outset of the Syrian civil war, President Erdoğan’s priority was to topple Bashar al-Assad, even if it meant providing support for jihadists through Turkey’s porous border with Syria. The lack of a quick victory left Turkey with almost four million Syrian refugees and jihadist attacks targeting Turkish cities. Meanwhile, Ankara’s initial reluctance to work with Washington in the fight against the Islamic State led to the US developing a partnership with the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
An emboldened YPG expanded its territorial control as part of an attempt to unite its disparate cantons, a move Ankara has consistently viewed as an “existential threat.” This has not only derailed Turkey’s Kurdish peace process at home, but also prompted Erdoğan to abandon his regime change agenda in Syria, as he prioritized the blocking of Kurdish self-rule there. This complex chain of events led to Erdoğan’s recent bid to take over the task of fighting the Islamic State and to establish a 20-mile safe zone—an offer that primarily aims to push the YPG out of the territory it controls near the Turkish border.
Erdoğan has portrayed Turkey’s goals in Syria as benevolent and altruistic. He has claimed that he would not only be able to defeat the Islamic State, but also “eliminate the root causes of radicalization” in Syria. He has further stated that Turkey is “the only country with the power and commitment” to “protect the interests of the United States, the international community and the Syrian people.”
This framing, however, stands in contrast to statements made by both the president’s ultranationalist ally Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), and his communications director. Strong and boastful public pronouncements on their part—both on Turkey’s strategy in Syria and the Kurds—have drawn negative reactions, prompting Erdoğan to underscore that Turkey is a country for all. Although these differences in tone will likely continue to be a part of the rhetoric around Turkey’s Syria policy, the country’s ruling coalition is on the same page in its view that developments in Syria pose an “existential threat.” In this context, the term existential threat refers to the emergence of enclaves in Syria controlled by the YPG.
Ankara’s concern that these YPG-controlled cantons might join to form a contiguous Kurdish-dominated entity on Turkey’s southern border prompted two cross-border operations into Syria in 2016 and 2018. With these operations, Turkey and its Syrian proxies among the Free Syrian Army have taken control of territory to the west of the Euphrates river.
It would be wrong, however, to assume that Turkey’s strategy in Syria is solely about denying territorial control to the YPG and strategic depth to the PKK. The greater threat is the idea of Kurdish autonomy or self-rule. Hence, after taking over Afrin, Turkish forces tore down a statue linked to Kurdish culture, renamed streets and public places to replace Kurdish words, and suppressed Kurdish language and identity. Ankara’s forced displacement of Kurds and resettlement of Syrian Arabs from other regions aims at preventing a viable Kurdish entity across its borders.
Turkey’s fear of Kurdish self-rule is not limited to anxiety about a PKK-affiliated group’s growing footprint in Syria, but extends to Iraq and even to Iraqi Kurds who oppose the PKK. This was evident in MHP leader Bahçeli’s recent statement that the Syrian safe zone could be a “new step toward Kurdistan,” and hence should not resemble the Iraqi no-fly zones, which paved the way for an Iraqi Kurdistan. Such an aversion was also evident after Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum in September 2017, when Ankara rushed to cooperate with Baghdad and Tehran to put pressure on Erbil and kill the initiative.
The Turkish government’s approach in Syria is also impacted by domestic politics. As the March 31 local elections draw closer, analysts have predicted that the economy will contract in 2019 and there is growing evidence of “rough recessionary conditions.” For the Turkish president, a cross-border operation remains the most effective strategy to divert the electorate’s attention from the economic crisis at home. He has twice used a rally-around-the-flag approach for cross-border campaigns into Syria. The Euphrates Shield Operation started 40 days after Turkey’s coup attempt and ended 23 days before the April 2017 referendum, which granted Erdoğan executive presidency. And the Olive Branch Operation ended 89 days before the general elections in June 2018, which renewed Erdoğan’s mandate for another five years.
Erdoğan also has to balance domestic reaction to Syrian refugees, which has been further exacerbated by the country’s economic crisis. Since the start of the civil war, the Turkish government has spent over $30 billion to provide for almost 4 million displaced Syrians, and such expenditures have increasingly drawn the ire of voters. Erdoğan’s plans to resettle Syrian refugees in regions taken from the YPG mobilizes anti-Kurdish sentiments on the one hand and appeases anti-immigrant supporters on the other.
A final domestic consideration is connected to Erdoğan’s bid to rebuild destroyed Syrian towns through Turkey’s Housing Development Agency (TOKİ) with financing from “coalition partners.” Turkey’s construction sector in general, and TOKİ in particular, have been Erdoğan’s key instrument in boosting economic growth and appeasing supporters. The prospect of massive construction projects funded by the West presents a potential windfall in the run up to a challenging election in March.
Overall, the Turkish government’s foreign and security policy priorities have indeed been primarily focused on northern Syrian territories controlled by the YPG. This prioritization is unlikely to change as long as Erdoğan’s partnership with Bahçeli continues, preventing a return to the Kurdish peace process and policies more accommodating of Kurds at home and abroad. There are, however, important domestic considerations that interlocutors in the US and the European Union should keep in mind, especially if there is to be viable arrangement to bring the conflict in Syria to an end.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.