Ankara’s late-August military intervention into northern Syria, officially dubbed Operation Euphrates Shield, was a moment of revelry for many in the Turkish press. A great majority of editors, columnists, and television presenters saw the Turkish army’s advance as a decisive statement of the nation’s resolve. The invasion and creation of a security buffer in Syria fulfilled two objectives vital to the country’s security. First, they forced the Islamic State (ISIS) to retreat after years of occupying towns and villages along Turkey’s southern border. Second, and perhaps most important, they were an effort to contain Syria’s most powerful Kurdish faction, the Party of Democratic Union (PYD), to areas east of the Euphrates river. From Ankara’s perspective, such moves would not only improve Turkish security, but were a natural extension of Ankara’s ongoing campaign against the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist organization based in Turkey. Although the PKK and PYD identify themselves as different organizations, the Turkish government and most Turkish commentators consider them a single terrorist group. The establishment of a Syrian front, in the words of one Turkish analyst, thus opened a new phase in the country’s war on terrorism, one that equally condemns the “racist projects” of ISIS, the PKK, and the PYD to “the trash bin of history.”

Yet despite having the support of the United States and Russia, Operation Euphrates Shield has been beset by political and practical doubts. The invasion, some argue, has directed attention away from the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The operation came amid Ankara’s ongoing effort to purge the government of backers of Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based cleric whom Erdogan blames for an attempted coup in July. These purges have also called the military’s strength into question—in in the last two months, as many as half of the army’s general officers have been arrested or relieved of duty. The mass cleansing of the officer corps has led to reported shortages of trained pilots, gendarmes, and other security officials throughout the country.

In casting these doubts aside, both government and civilian proponents of the invasion have repeatedly appealed to national pride. Among the more potent nationalist tropes has been that of Turkey’s historic relationship with Syria, which it ruled as the Ottoman Empire for nearly four centuries. The Ottoman past has provided a modicum of justification for Ankara’s current policy in Syria, seen by many Turks less as an invasion than a benevolent act of liberation. But the mythology and romanticism of these historical allusions obscure more than they reveal. Where Turks see potential support in their former territories and a revival of the glorious imperial past, Kurds and others in northern Syria embrace a decidedly negative view of the Ottoman period. The tendency of Turkish opinion-makers to underestimate or misconstrue local perceptions of the invasion may thus have dangerous consequences, increasing the likelihood of overreach and the perpetuation of violence and instability for the region as whole. 

THE SWORD OF MARJ DABIK

Ankara has not always been inclined to interpret regional politics through the lens of their country’s imperial past. For much of the twentieth century, Turkish policymakers believed that the Ottoman Empire was a corrosive and regressive force in defining Turkey’s relationship with its neighbors. Ardent proponents of this worldview tended to interpret the past in terms of their own secular nationalist ideology, depicting Arabs, Turks, and other peoples in the empire as fractious and competitive, each desiring their own nation-state at the expense of the sultan’s government in Istanbul. Especially during the Cold War, Turkish foreign policy analysis was grounded in presentist terms. The cold logic of collective interests and priorities—foremost among them trade and security—provided the basis for Ankara’s engagement with the peoples and lands of its near abroad.

Since the ascendency of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, however, analysts have greatly modified their framing of Turkish foreign policy. The writings of Erdogan’s first foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, have been particularly influential in rehabilitating the Ottoman Empire as a model for Turkey’s conduct in regional affairs. The old imperial order, Davutoglu argued, represented a golden age of cooperation and interconnectedness in Turkey’s immediate neighborhood. Moreover, the empire’s tolerant legal culture and status as the world’s most powerful Muslim state helped peacefully unify the region’s many cultures and faiths. Davutoglu’s sentiments have been echoed in the press, and interest in Ottoman history has surged in the larger society. New books, films, and television series have led many Turks to see the Ottoman Empire—and by extension, and the Turkish Republic—as a source of inspiration and leadership among the peoples of the Middle East.

Domestic commentators have thus made great use of the Ottoman past in legitimizing Ankara’s recent intervention. More than a few observers noted that the day the operation commenced, August 24, was the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Marj Dabik, the Ottoman victory that transformed Syria into an imperial province. Among those who joined the chorus was popular historian Ilber Ortayli, who asserted that the original battle of Marj Dabik had resulted in four hundred years of peace in Syria, wherein “people speaking every kind of language lived in harmony.” Erdogan has insisted that the goal of the invasion is not to alter the border or to pursue neo-Ottoman territorial revisions. Nevertheless, in arguing that Turkish troops would help bring hope and peace to Syria, Erdogan president could not help but remind one audience that the modern state of Syria, like many in the region, had descended from the Ottoman provincial administration. “Yes,” he boasted, “our state, our understanding of administration is so old, it is so mighty.”

Tourists visit the Ottoman-era Blue Mosque in Istanbul, July 2016.
Tourists visit the Ottoman-era Blue Mosque in Istanbul, July 2016.
Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters

Critics of the invasion have recommended caution in wielding what one columnist called “the sword of Marj Dabik.” The self-congratulatory mood of much the Turkish press has left little room for discussion of the incursion’s practical risks. Even less attention has been paid to the opinions of those living in northern Syria, particularly Kurds. With the government conflating the activities of Syrian Kurds and the terrorist PKK, most commentators are content to dismiss Kurdish opposition to the invasion as illegitimate. The United States’ open support for the PYD has even led some in the Turkish press to draw parallels between Washington’s current policy and the fall of Ottoman Empire. Ibrahim Karagul, the outspoken editor of the pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak, has repeatedly accused the United States of fomenting the July coup as a part of a wider plan to bring about Turkey’s dissolution. He has recently argued that the United States was utilizing the PYD in order to execute “the largest invasion plan and partition scenario since the end of the Ottomans.” Washington’s support for the PYD, in other words, is simply one step in a much grander campaign to break up Syria and Turkey.

SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET

What is often lost in contemporary analysis of Ankara’s Syria policy—especially among its cheerleaders—is an understanding of the PYD’s own reading of history. As an organization that grew out the PKK’s cross-border activities during the 1980s and 1990s, the PYD solemnly embraces its identity as a radical socialist and nationalist movement bent upon securing the interests of Kurds living in the northeastern corner of Syria. A key element of this self-image is that region’s history of insurrection, and the role many of its inhabitants have played in developing modern Kurdish nationalism.

The territory claimed by the PYD as Rojava, or Syrian Kurdistan, particularly Ras al-Ayn (Kobani), Qamlishli, and Hasakah, once formed the heartland of a powerful Kurdish principality that endured for much of the nineteenth century. After the Ottomans conquered the territory in the mid-1800s, Rojava’s most prominent ruling family, the Bedir Khan, went into exile and led multiple rebellions meant to restore their position within the region. The lingering threat of the Bedir Khan, as well as the suspected sedition of the local Armenian population, convinced the Ottoman state to carry out a terrible program of vengeance on Rojava during the First World War. Tens of thousands of Kurds and Armenians from the region were killed or internally exiled by government forces between 1915 and 1918, leaving a lasting legacy of bitterness that persists to this day.

Nor did the formation of the modern Turkish and Syrian states extinguish the Rojava Kurds’ aspirations for self-determination. Resistance in the northeast to rule from Damascus, whether Arab or French, reared its head on multiple occasions in the aftermath of the First World War. More recently, the outbreak of the Syrian civil war has ushered in an unprecedented wave of nationalist memorialization in Rojava. The PYD has avowedly embraced the legacy of resistance associated with the Bedirxan family, in spite of the “feudal” nature of their rule, which runs counter to the PYD’s socialist sensibilities. Since the Turkish invasion in August, the PYD has drawn their own parallels between the calamities of the First World War and Ankara’s current policy. After the Turkish army seized lands across the Syrian border, one PYD spokesman accused Ankara of “massacring people, committing genocide, and forcibly removing people from their homes.”

Although these specific accusations were baseless, they underlie the gravity of events in northern Syria. For most Syrian Kurds, Turkey poses a threat equal to or greater than the one posed by ISIS—an impression reinforced by Ankara’s intransigence in the face of ISIS’ 2014 assault against Kobani. Conversely, one cannot underestimate the emotional and political investment many Turkish policymakers are willing to make in northern Syria. For many leading opinion makers in Turkey, besting ISIS and confronting the PYD are challenges that will decide the future of the country. But such jaundiced invocations of the Ottoman past indicate that many in Ankara may be blind to the degree to which locals in northern Syria may be willing to resist Turkey’s occupation of the region. If one is to believe the PYD’s own reading history, it is clear that many Kurds equally see the Turkish invasion as matter of life and death. Currently there is no sign that Ankara possesses a defined exit strategy for its troops now stationed in Syria. As the Operation Euphrates Shield continues to creep forward, the potential for direct fighting between the PYD and the Turkish military grows. The outcome of such a struggle will undoubtedly be bloody and costly for the peoples of northern Syria. Worse still, it is bound to enflame Kurdish sentiments with Turkey, leading to greater instability and violence in the country.

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  • RYAN GINGERAS is an associate professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He is the author of Fall of the Sultanate: The Great War and the End of the Ottoman Empire.
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