Erdogan slams Israel’s policies while adopting similar ones for Syria

Turkey’s UN speech signals far-right nationalist shift, regional ambitions.

The United Nations General Assembly votes to adopt a draft resolution to deplore the use of excessive force by Israeli troops against Palestinian civilians at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., June 13, 2018  (photo credit: REUTERS/MIKE SEGAR)
The United Nations General Assembly votes to adopt a draft resolution to deplore the use of excessive force by Israeli troops against Palestinian civilians at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., June 13, 2018
(photo credit: REUTERS/MIKE SEGAR)
In a UN speech that blended Israel bashing and threats to settle Syrian refugees in mostly Kurdish areas of Syria, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan laid out an increasingly nationalist agenda centered on a regional policy that is underpinned by obsession with Israel and increasing interest in occupying much of northern Syria.
Holding up a series of four maps, the Turkish leader sought to argue that Israel lacks borders and has been gobbling up Palestinian land. He then produced a second map of Syria where Turkey proposes to take over part of northern Syria and send mostly Syrian-Arab refugees into an area that is historically Kurdish.
In comments designed to inflame, Ankara’s ruler asserted that the territory of Israel belongs to Palestinians and linked suffering in Gaza to the Holocaust. He attacked Israel for its policies in the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Without any sense of irony, the Turkish leader then produced a map of northern Syria, where Turkey is engaging in a military occupation of Kurdish areas such as Afrin, and suggested that Turkey should now take over part of northern Syria the way Israel has taken over the Golan, to create a “safe zone.”
Turkey has claimed in the past that it wants to forcibly re-settle millions of Syrians in various parts of northern Syria without regard to where those Syrians are from, and ignoring the rights of the local Kurdish people to have a say. Anadolu News in Turkey reported that Erdogan wants to take over a “corridor” in northern Syria that “will enable the resettlement of 3 million Syrians from Turkey, Europe and other countries if it is extended to the Deir ez-Zor/Raqqa line.”
In short, Turkey proposes to take over the areas that the US and the Syrian Democratic Forces are operating in. The SDF defeated ISIS in this area, sacrificing thousands of lives alongside American troops. Now Ankara would like to move in. Turkey also asserted that it cares about the “territorial unity of Syria,” even as it appears to be turning northern Syria into another northern Cyprus – a separate area. According to Turkish media, Ankara and the US agreed on August 7 to set up a safe zone in northern Syria, which Turkey calls by the Orwellian term “peace corridor” to “facilitate the movement of displaced Syrians who want to return home.” Most Syrian refugees in Turkey are not from this area– they’re often from Aleppo and other areas run by the Syrian regime.
The Turkish leader also used an image of a dead Kurdish child, Alan Kurdi, which he refused to name, as a symbol of the perilous journey refugees had made to Europe. The decision not to use the boy’s name appeared deliberate to hide the child’s Kurdish identity. Turkey has become increasingly nationalist in recent years in a shift to the far Right as politicians seek to outflank each other with incitement against Syrian refugees and minorities, while also boasting that Turkey has hosted the refugees. Turkish media has also fanned the flames of military displays, frequently reporting and threats that Turkey will launch a new military operation in Syria, after having taken over an area near Jarabulus in 2016 and then taken over Afrin in 2018.
To distract from problems at home, Turkey used its UN speech to slam Israel, claiming Israel heinously murdered a Palestinian woman recently. Turkey also sought to highlight nuclear weapons in the Middle East, claiming that they should either be banned or permissible for everyone.
Having vowed to take over more of northern Syria, Turkey then turned its attention to nationalist concerns in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey’s President excoriated Greek Cypriots, calling them “uncompromising” and then claimed Turkey will “protect the legitimate rights and interests of both Turkish and Turkish Cypriot people.”
Having moved through the anti-Greek, anti-Kurdish, anti-Israel parts of the speech, the leader then turned to burnishing pan-Islamic credentials. This included trying to make the Kashmir dispute one that is central to Turkey’s foreign policy and talking about “Islamophobia.” Claiming to honor victims of a massacre in New Zealand, the Turkish UN speech perhaps forgot that politicians had cynically used the deaths and video for political campaigns not so long ago.
The entire UN speech by Turkey signals its regional objectives and attempt to anchor its foreign policy in a series of clear goals. First, Turkey wants to be the leader in condemning Israel – taking on the mantle of previous regional powers who have obsessed over Israel. Turkey also wants to justify a continued military occupation of northern Syria through use of terms such as “safe zone” when in fact, its objective is to push Syrian refugees into the Kurdish parts of northeast Syria without asking local residents for input. The broader strategic picture is a Turkey that increasingly looks to militarism, nationalism and threats to deal with issues from Cyprus to Kashmir. This is part of a 20-year turn to the Right and attempts to adopt pan-Islamic causes.
The speech doesn’t hide its ethno-nationalist overtones – complete with reference to “Greek Cypriots,” as opposed to Cyprus – and attacks on Israel that are always framed through the lens of the Holocaust. It does not appear to be a coincidence that the Alan Kurdi’s name was changed in the speech to drop his obviously Kurdish last name.
The speech also has ramifications for US-Syria policy. Washington has ignored Turkey’s frequent threats to launch an operation in northern Syria, preferring to turn a blind eye to what is an emerging and clear Ankara plan for Syria that envisions Turkish control of a wide swath of Syria. Instead, the US is working on a “security mechanism,” conducting joint patrols with Turkish forces in a part of northern Syria, demolishing fortifications built by the Kurdish forces and conducting overflights with Turkey.
It is unclear if the US is knowingly paving the way for Turkey to take over parts of northern Syria, or if Washington has merely fallen into a difficult position by painting itself into a corner. If the US walks away from the security mechanism, Turkey will claim a right to take over northern Syria. If the US continues down the path, it will eventually have to allow Turkey to place millions of refugees in an area of Syria without allowing local residents any say in the matter, likely severing the bond between the US and the SDF, which is Ankara’s long-term goal.
With US politics in a tailspin and unfocused on foreign policy, the laser-like focus of Ankara will likely succeed. Regional countries, already embroiled in Iran tensions, will wonder if Turkey is positioning itself as the top player in the region, hand-in-hand with Iran and Russia. The only question is when that Iran-Turkey-Russia relationship will fray. So far, united by a loathing of US foreign policy, the alliance has worked quite well and helped fuel Turkish nationalism and military ambitions.