Turkey’s determination to endure in Idlib: Another case of Kurdophobia?

Turkey could not endure any possibility of Kurdish self-determination or even basic human rights either at home or beyond Turkish borders.

TURKISH-BACKED fighters walk through a field of opium poppies in Idlib. (photo credit: REUTERS)
TURKISH-BACKED fighters walk through a field of opium poppies in Idlib.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On February 28, 34 Turkish soldiers were killed and at least as many wounded by Syrian shelling (with Russian consent) in an area in Idlib province controlled by radical jihadists, some of whom were backed by the Turkish army.
The region soon turned into a war zone between the Syrian and Turkish armies, and many believed that this would be the end of the Turkish army in Idlib, if not other areas such as Afrin province. However, Turkey, assisted by the Moscow accord from March 5, managed to maintain its presence in Idlib.
This was achieved at great cost, ranging from the humiliation of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with his ministers when Russian President Vladimir Putin made them wait outside the room before meeting them, through Turkey’s obligation to secure and patrol the M4 highway alongside Russian troops, to the continued commitment to Turkish soldiers facing death to ensure security in Idlib.
The questions arise: What could be so important that it leads Turkey to intervene whatever the risks involved? Why is Turkey intervening in Idlib in the first place?
In order to understand, we need to examine the historical background to Turkey’s determination to involve itself in Syria’s civil war.
Just before the Arab revolts took place in 2011, Turkey was in the process of ending its longstanding political hostility to neighboring countries such as Syria, intending to have “zero” problems in its relationships. However, when Syria sank into civil war and radical jihadist groups there began to turn the country into chaos, and, most significantly, when Kurds in northern Syria began to establish their autonomy, Turkey abandoned its “zero” problems policy and began its intervention in Syria under the pretext of countering terrorism and under the guise of Syrian territorial unification, but not with the Syrian regime, instead with Syrian rebels with a jihadist background.
Sequentially, having been given the green light by the US and Russia, Turkey took Jarablus city in Syria, followed by the occupation of Afrin and, more recently, attacked some parts of the Kurdish-controlled area in northern Syria.
Turkey also managed to convince Russia to build 12 observation posts or small military bases in Idlib as part of a deal to secure the region from jihadist groups. However, when Russia took the view that Turkey hadn’t done its job of securing the region from the radical jihadist groups, some of whom were Turkish allies, it this time gave the green light to the Syrian army, which shocked Turkey by killing the 34 soldiers, something that Turkey had never experienced since World War I.
However, despite the precariousness of the situation, Turkey has announced a so-called “Spring Shield Operation,” determining not only to stay and engage in the region but also to push the Syrian army back from Idlib.
TWO INTERRELATED FACTORS make the Turkish government’s determination to attack and occupy Idlib province more comprehensible.
First, when the modern Turkish republic was established (1923) in the wake of the demise of the Ottoman Empire, state and bureaucratic elites in Turkey differentiated between Turkey and the Middle Eastern Muslim countries, demolishing the socio-religious elite, changing the written script to the Roman alphabet and banning traditional Eastern dress. Instead the new Turkish state elite introduced Westernizing reforms in government and society.
This state of affairs has never been accepted by many conservatives of Sunni background, such as President Erdogan. When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 under his leadership, its intention was to establish “neo-Ottomanism’” by reestablishing traditional values and reinforcing relations with Middle Eastern countries, beginning with the “zero” problems program.
In 2011, when Sunni jihadist groups rose up against the Syrian regime, plunging the country into civil war, most of them were supported by the Sunni Turkish government, which was encouraged and motivated by the notion that “neo-Ottomanism” could be established when the Damascus regime collapsed. In fact, Erdogan and his party believed so strongly in this that they prayed in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus with their Sunni brothers there.
However, when Kurds in northern Syria (Rojava) defeated radical jihadist groups such as Islamic State, and the Syrian government backed by Russia retook its territory from the jihadist groups, except (so far) Idlib, which is where the Turkish government has focused its efforts, the situation on the ground meant that Erdogan’s government had no option but to withdraw from Idlib and consequently betray its jihadist brothers.
The fact that Erdogan and his government have failed reaching their target of “neo-Ottomanism” and have not been able to protect their jihadist brothers also damages Turkey’s prestige. This is one reason why the Turkish government has undertaken its incursion into Idlib.
Second, the most crucial reason of all why Turkey wants to be in Idlib and other parts of Syria is Kurdophobia; Turkey could not endure any possibility of Kurdish self-determination or even basic human rights either at home or beyond Turkish borders, which is why Turkey has attacked and assaulted Kurdish areas in Syria whenever an opportunity arose. Turkey under Erdogan’s leadership, supported by the Sunni-based, nationalist and jihadist Syrian terrorist groups, openly breached international human rights laws in the Afrin occupation, and in Tal Abad, a Kurdish-controlled area in northern Syria.
Obviously, the question arises, why is Turkey so offensive toward Kurds, when historically there has been a close friendship between Turks and Kurds, manifesting itself across many centuries, from the Battle of Manzikert (1071) to World War I?
What the studies indicate is that Turkish statesmen have a toxic conviction that Kurds could one day destroy the unity of the Turkish republic. Consequently, the Turkish state has pursued an oppressive campaign of Kurdish assimilation, which has led to much suffering and many deaths. Turkey’s Kurdophobia began right back at the creation of the republic, which is based on the notion of “one state, one flag and one people,” which means “one ethnicity” (i.e. Turk).
In short, Turkey’s persistent interference in Idlib despite all costs matches its continuing Kurdophobia at home and elsewhere. Such a mentality not only leads to chaos in the region but also seriously undermines the interests of the Turkish state itself.
Only when the state changes its mindset and starts to show willingness to take on its historical responsibility and seek a perpetual peace and accommodation with the Kurds will Turkey be able to move forward in its own long-term interest not only as a respectable actor in Middle East politics but also with increased prestige in the world.

The writer has a doctorate in hydropolitics in the Middle East from the University of Exeter, UK.