Turkey’s changing story on Syria: From self-defense to long-term control

Turkey’s narrative is slowly changing on its expanding role in northern Syria.

 TURKEY-BACKED Syrian rebel fighter gestures to the camera at the border town of Tel Abyad, Syria, Monday.  (photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
TURKEY-BACKED Syrian rebel fighter gestures to the camera at the border town of Tel Abyad, Syria, Monday.
(photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
Turkey says it won’t leave Syria until foreign countries leave “or Syrian people demand the country leave,” according to the Turkish president. This is part of Turkey’s changing narrative on its expanding role in northern Syria. It claimed in 2016 that it had to invade northern Syria to fight ISIS, then it invaded Kurdish regions claiming it was “fighting terrorism,” and then claimed it was taking over Syrian land to re-settle refugees.
Turkey is a sophisticated country with a plethora of pro-government media and diplomats who have articulated the reasons behind Turkey’s various operations in northern Syria. But Turkey is also not consistent in its explanations, often trying to pose each operation as in line with whatever logic suits the ruling party, or messaging to the populace, that is necessary at the time.
Back in 2016 when Ankara launched its first major operation in northern Syria that laid the groundwork for Turkey to stay in Syria for the long-term, it claimed that it was conforming with “Article 51 of the UN Charter,” according to an article at the Founation for Political Economic and Social Research (SETA), a think tank. Turkey claimed it was exercising its right to self defense and told the international community that Operation Euphrates Shield was self-defense. The operation began in August 2016 and ended in 2017. It cleared ISIS from an area between Jarabulus and Kilis and helped stop the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces from advancing.
At the time Turkey said was taking “action to eliminate the threats posed against it by terrorist organizations present in Syria, particularly Daesh [ISIS].” Analysts also admitted that it was also  seeking to “block the YPG/PKK, a PKK offspring in Syria, from caring out a corridor by taking control,” of the border. The YPG is the People’s Protection Units, a part of the SDF. This was a big deal for Turkey and SETA argued that it had a crucial impact as “one of the most comprehensive cross-border operations by the Turkish Armed Forces in the history of the Republic.” Turkey became entangled in Syria, providing “stability” for the area, including humanitarian air, building institutions, courts, medical  facilities and education systems.  Not since Northern Cyprus in the 1970s had something like this been done.
When the operation was over in March 2017 then Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that Turkey would focus on its new role building capacity and stability. Having successfully occupied this area of northern Syria, and realizing that it could be leverage to co-opt the Syrian rebels in the area, Turkey described its role as “liberating northwestern territories from Daesh and preventing the YPG from establishing a de facto autonomous region in Syria.” Ankara began calling this a “terror corridor,” and accusing the US of “supporting terrorists” in northern Syria. It was a “grave threat to national security.”
Turkey then set its sights on Afrin, an area in northwest Syria that had been peaceful since the Syrian civil war began. Ankara said that it had to launch Operation Olive Branch to ‘drive the YPG and Daesh terror groups from Afrin.” On January 20 with the Free Syrian Army it launched Operation Olive Branch with the “stated aim of eliminating the PYD/PKK and Daesh terrorist presence in Syria’s Afrin district.” There was no evidence of any ISIS presence, but Turkey used this as an excuse for the operation. The reality was that the only ISIS presence was in nearby Idlib which Turkey had observers in and where its Syrian rebel allies were located. That was where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would be found by US special forces in October 2019. Turkey’s real and only concern was the YPG. For fifty-eight days of fighting Turkey said it “cleared the YPG” from Afrin.
Turkey got agreement for the operation from Russia, which supports the Syrian regime and controls part of the airspace. Turkey was buying Russia’s S-400 so this helped frame the deal. Turkey said the message to “terrorist organizations and to the whole world is clear: Turkey will continue to move forward with steady steps on the path of trust, stability and justice.” In Afrin more than 150,000 Kurds fled and widespread looting and destruction of graves and houses of minorities, such as Yazidis, took place alongside the invasion. Turkey noted that the operation in Afrin was linked to the US announcement of the “formation of a 30,000 border security force of the YPG and SDF militants on Turkey’s border in northern Syria.” A US official later admitted that the US helped put a target on the YGP in Afrin by announcing the force in January 2018 and then doing nothing to prevent the Turkish attack. The US told the SDF at the time that another Afrin-style attack wouldn’t happen in northwest Syria. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to Ankara on January 22, 2019 and said that  the US placed “importance on the protection of forces that worked with the US and the global Coalition to defeat ISIS.”
After Olive Branch Turkey began to argue that its role in northern Syria was expanding to a goal of returning the area to “its true owners just like the other  areas we have made secure in Syria.” This was mission creep from self-defense in 2016, to using Syrian rebels to “clear” Afrin, to an expanded project of providing land to some Syrians. The December 2018 policy began to sound more like a manifesto for demographic change, moving pro-Ankara Syrian rebel groups into areas along the border primarily to remove pro-YPG Kurdish communities away. This would require widespread social engineering and settlement policies.
Turkey pro-government media such as TRT said that the aim of a third operation would be “continuing the fight against Daesh remnants, to neutralize the threat from the Syrian branch of the PKK, also known as the YPG, and establish a safe zone for Syrians to return to their country.” Turkey portrayed its expanding role as part of its alliance with NATO and the US, claiming that the YPG was a terrorist organization that had attacked Turkey. In fact there were no attacks from Syria on Turkey from 2017-2019. Ankara also said that 300,000 Syrians had been sent to Jarabulus and Afrin, and that three million more would not return to northeastern Syria, an area the refugees were not from.
Turkey went to the UN in September 2019 with a plan to spend billions to create new villages in areas it planned to take over along the border. This “safe zone” would enable 3 million Syrians from Turkey to go mostly Kurdish areas in northeast Syria, killing two birds  with one stone from Ankara’s perspective: Removing the PKK and bringing pro-Turkish Syrian rebels in its place. Ankara invited the UN to study its re-settlement plans and told the EU not to critique its offensive or Turkey would send refugees to Europe. Turkey told NATO that the YPG and PKK were an “existential threat” to Turkey and this was why Turkey now had to take over most of northern Syria.
Turkey had now changed its language on the reason for the increased operations and permanent presence it was establishing. It had 12 observation points in Idlib, had signed a ceasefire deal over Idlib with Russia in September 2018 and taken over Afrin and Jarabulus. Turkey would not leave Syria “until the political territorial unity of the country secured.” But there was also Turkey’s agenda of returning Syrian areas to its “true owners.” This was how the policy evolved from September 2018 to October 2019. In August 2019 Turkey had said that it would “soon move to the next stage to eliminate the PKK terrorist group’s Syrian affiliate.” It was a “different phase,” according to Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan told foreign ambassadors that Ankara was determined to “provide stability and peace in the region” and that Turkey wanted its NATO allies to support it. To achieve peace, a new military operation would have to be launched. War is peace, in Ankara’s  determination.
First Turkey convinced the US to set up a “security mechanism” in northern Syria in August 2019. Turkey demanded the US get its SDF partners to remove defenses that Turkey claimed was a threat. The US believed that removing SDF positions would convince Turkey there was no threat. But Turkey called US President Donald Trump and said that its invasion was imminent. The US decided to withdraw forces rather than be in the middle of a NATO power attacking US partners in Syria. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US had fulfilled its commitments to the SDF and US anti-ISIS envoy James Jeffrey said the relationship was temporary, tactical and transactional. US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that the US never said it would defend the SDF against Turkey.
Turkey’s third operation, launched October 9, 2019, targeted areas around Tel Abyad. Turkey said it was launching “Peace Spring” to secure its borders, eliminate terror elements and to ‘ensure the safe return of Syrian refugees and Syria’s  territorial integrity.” Turkey again said it was fighting ISIS but carried out no airstrikes against ISIS, only against what it said was the “PKK/KSK/PYD-YPG terrorists.” It said that it would be “sensitive to innocent people and historical, cultural and religious structures.” Around 200,000 people were forced to flee from the attack and Christian towns like Tel Tamr came under attack. Turkey-backed Syrian National Army elements, the new name Turkey had given to its version of the Syrian rebels, committed widespread abuses, killing women, and looting towns.
Turkey claimed it was destroying a “terror corridor” even though the area it attacked was a peaceful area between 2016 and 2019 after it had been liberated  from ISIS. No terror attacks had been launched at Turkey from northern Syria during this period. Turkey’s attack got the Russians to step in and achieve an October 22 ceasefire with Ankara. The US withdrew  and Russia brokered the deal. But Turkey said in November that it would continue the operation if the area was not “cleared of terrorists.”
Turkey’s view of its expanding role in Syria, from self-defense to re-settlement and long-term goals, is emerging. On December 12 Turkey’s Fahrettin Altun, the communications director for the government said that “In this sense, Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring has just shown that despite all attempts to besiege us, we can establish our own game and overthrow geopolitical engineering projects of foreign actors similar to ones from a century ago,” he added.
Ankara increasingly sees its role in the Meditteranean, where it signed new deals for economic zones that angered Greece, and its role in Syria, is all part of the same system of pushing back against what Ankara sees as attempts to curtail its role. Unsurprisingly Ankara thinks back to the Ottoman empire when discussing this. So far Turkey’s multi-billion dollar deal to re-settle Syrians in eastern Syria is not emerging, but Ankara wants European funding for its project.
Now Turkey has shifted its policy to say it won’t leave Syria “unless foreign countries withdraw from the region or Syrian people demand the country's leave.” Increasingly this looks like a permanent Turkish presence and state-building along the border. Turkey is appointing mayors, Turkish flags have appeared, Turkish language is on buildings, and Turkey is involved more and more with local police. In Afrin the curriculum has changed as well, it has more focus on religion and the glory of Turkey and the Kurdish curriculum is gone. An article at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace even says Turkish religious institutions have hired 5,600 teachers, and is pushing “anti-Kurdish” teachings and Islamic education.
In Jarabulus in northern Syria, occupied by Turkey in 2016, the curriculum has changed. Where once French was taught, Turkish is not taught. Turkey even runs the post office, France24 says. The mayor of Jarabulus says he hopes the Turks never leave.