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In a stunning announcement on Sunday, the Trump administration gave the nod to a Turkish military incursion into northeastern Syria, an operation that would entail clashes with Washington’s Kurdish allies in the area. The U.S. military, which has around 1,000 troops in Syria, would not “support or be involved in the operation.” But the White House said it would pull back U.S. forces stationed near the Syrian-Turkish border to clear the way for Ankara’s troops.
Facing an intense backlash even among Republicans, Trump seemed to backpedal on Monday. But Turkish army units stand ready at the Syrian border, and Washington’s exhortations are unlikely to keep Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from giving them the green light. This is because Turkey’s strategy is more than an exercise in geopolitics—for Erdogan, the war touches on his very political survival.
In fact, Turkey’s Syria policy has for years turned on Erdogan’s ambition to consolidate his one-man rule at home. Turkey supported Islamist insurgents against Damascus when doing so strengthened Erdogan’s religious credentials at home. After flagging electoral support forced Erdogan to partner with an anti-Kurdish opposition party, his attention shifted to fighting the Kurdish forces operating in Syria. That goal remains today, but it is slowly being overshadowed by an even more pressing concern: getting rid of the millions of Syrian refugees who have made their way to Turkey over the years, where they have now become a burden on Erdogan. That a major military incursion will solve these problems is far from guaranteed. But Erdogan is determined to try.
Turkey’s playbook in Syria has changed dramatically since civil war broke out in 2011. Erdogan was flying high at home that spring, when people first took to the streets of Damascus to protest the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The secularist opposition was in a slump, and Erdogan was set to embark on a program to Islamize the country’s education system. The conflict across the border in Syria offered Erdogan an opportunity to extend his agenda outward. Within months, the Turkish government abandoned Assad, formerly a close partner, and began to arm the Islamist insurgents doing battle against Damascus. Turkey soon became a hub for Syria’s exiled opposition and a conduit for the steady stream of foreign jihadi fighters making their way into Syria. Eventually, Ankara turned a blind eye even to members of the Islamic State (or ISIS), who slipped in and out of the country and sometimes sought medical treatment there. All the while, Turkey opened its borders to millions of refugees fleeing the fighting and built vast camps to hold the new arrivals. The gesture was expensive but morally just, Erdogan argued—an act of Sunni compassion and solidarity in the face of the Assad regime’s atrocities. That narrative struck a chord with the public, and opposition to the refugee influx remained relatively muted. All told, Turkey hosted 3.6 million Syrian refugees.
Turkey’s Syria policy has for years turned on Erdogan’s ambition to consolidate his one-man rule at home.
Fighting in Syria, however, were not just Islamist insurgents but several Kurdish militias. For Erdogan, this was bad news. In 2015, his Justice and Development Party had lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in over a decade, owing in part to the unexpected success of a party representing Turkey’s Kurdish minority, parts of which had for decades fought their own low-level insurgency in the country’s southeast. To hold on to power, Erdogan struck an alliance with a far-right opposition party known for its strong opposition to Kurdish nationalism. The government’s years-long peace process with Kurdish militants in the southeast came to an abrupt end.
Erdogan’s priorities in Syria shifted accordingly. Ankara was now determined to discourage Kurdish efforts to establish autonomy in the region spanning southeast Turkey and northern Syria. Attempts to unseat Assad through Islamist proxies took a back seat to the more pressing concern of denying the Syrian Kurds a contiguous autonomous region along the border with Turkey. In Aleppo, the Syrian rebels’ last stronghold, Turkey now enlisted insurgents who had been fighting Assad to attack Kurdish forces instead, sapping the rebellion of its manpower and facilitating the advance of the Syrian army, which retook the city in 2016. That year, Turkey sent its own military into northern Syria in an effort to contain the Kurdish militias operating there.
By 2017, Erdogan’s about-face was complete, and Ankara was working with the Assad regime and its allies. To the dismay of the Syrian opposition, Turkey, Russia, and Iran agreed to create several so-called de-escalation zones. In theory, regime and opposition in these areas would have to honor limited cease-fires, but in practice, the regime made military gains by frequently violating the truces, often with Russian support. In return, Damascus and its allies looked the other way when Turkey launched a second military intervention into the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in January 2018.
Just as Erdogan’s domestic concerns about Kurds occasioned a shift in his objectives in Syria, so too have domestic concerns about refugees. The Turkish president senses that his open-door policy has become a domestic liability. His party lost control of almost all major cities in the 2019 municipal elections—an immense blow to the city-level patronage system upon which Erdogan built his power over the last 25 years. The rout owed something to the deepening economic crisis, but it also reflected growing public discontent with the 3.6 million Syrian refugees still in the country.
Once the self-proclaimed magnanimous patron of all Sunnis, Erdogan now wants the refugees to go home. Turkish authorities have stepped up house searches and arrests of Syrian refugees. The state has tried to move refugees out of the major cities, and the police have set up a hotline to collect information on those who enter the country illegally. Some have reportedly been deported to the Syrian city of Idlib, even as the fighting there intensifies.
Once the self-proclaimed magnanimous patron of all Sunnis, Erdogan now wants the refugees to go home.
Forcing hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of Syrian refugees out of the country and back into a war zone is nearly impossible, but Erdogan thinks otherwise. His solution, recently laid out in a speech at the UN General Assembly, is to carve out a large buffer zone along Syria’s border with Turkey. The area would be 300 miles long and 20 miles deep, under Turkish control, and off-limits to Kurdish forces. According to Erdogan, this “safe zone” would host two million to three million refugees, thus ridding Ankara of a major domestic headache. It would boast 200,000 homes, along with hospitals, football pitches, mosques, and schools, Turkish-built but financed internationally—a setup that would provide much-needed revenue for Turkey’s struggling construction sector at a time of economic downturn. Securing funding for this idea is a tall order, but Erdogan is willing to push the envelope. In September, he threatened that he would “open the gates” and set off another European refugee crisis if he did not get his way.
Erdogan’s proposal might be the perfect solution for his domestic woes, but it is sure to create a host of new problems for everyone else. His plan would send millions of Arab Syrian refugees into Kurdish-majority areas inside Syria—not incidentally, from Erdogan’s point of view, as changing the ethnic makeup of the region would further undermine the Kurds. But doing so would increase Arab-Kurdish tensions, fuel conflict in a region that has been relatively stable, and cause mass displacement in those areas. Under international law, Erdogan cannot force the Syrian refugees to move back, and most would almost certainly not move voluntarily, even into a purported safe zone. U.S. strategy in Syria, which has relied heavily on the Kurds to prevent ISIS from making a comeback, would take a massive hit. And the plan is a godsend to the United States’ adversaries in Syria—Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime—who believe they can stand by while the Turkish incursion prompts a complete U.S. withdrawal, only to recapture the area and kick out Turkey later on.
Many U.S. lawmakers are aware of this, and Trump has rightly come under fire from Democrats and Republicans alike for his seeming acquiescence of the Turkish operation—an operation that the United States should be working hard to prevent. Even Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, usually one of Trump’s staunchest defenders, has threatened to sanction the Turkish government if it sets foot in Syria. Erdogan, however, is likely prepared to take that risk. His rule is at stake, and that is all that matters to him—even if it means economic penalties for his country and yet more chaos and suffering for Syria.
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