Turkey consolidates presence in northern Syria

Turkey consolidates presence in northern Syria
4 min read
19 September, 2018
Analysis: Ankara's investments south of its border indicate it plans to maintain influence there so some time to come, writes Paul Iddon.
Turkey beefed up its military presence on the Syrian border as Idlib assault loomed [Anadolu]

In recent months Turkey has stepped up its role in helping to administer northern Syrian border territories it conquered from the Islamic State group and Syrian Kurds to a degree which demonstrates that it has no intention of withdrawing anytime soon.  

This summer, Turkey spearheaded some very ambitious projects in the territories it conquered in Operation Euphrates Shield - which began on August 24, 2016 and ended on March 29 the following year - particularly in the city of Al-Bab, large parts of which were destroyed in the three-month urban battle between Turkish-backed Syrian militiamen and IS.

Turkey has also built a new paved road between Al-Bab and the Turkish town of Elbeyli, and funded the construction of a hospital. It is establishing a new university campus in Al-Bab and planning to link the Syrian city to Turkey's power grid.

"At least five branches of the Turkish post office have opened in the area," noted Reuters. These serve as banks that distribute salaries to many workers in the region in Turkish Lira, along with a new department of motor vehicles to register civilian vehicles in the area, "even vehicles previously registered with the regime".

Turkey's Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) also announced in a recent report that it had spent 10 million Lira ($1.6 million) repairing and renovating mosques in these Turkish-controlled areas.

These most recent developments follow the establishment of a new industrial city Turkey is helping build in Al-Bab, the groundwork for which was laid last February. That development will provide employment for thousands of Syrians there, enabling them to eke out an existence in their own country.

Turkey is currently hosting more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees. 

Ankara has also trained local police and security forces, many of which have pledged their allegiance to Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a clear indication of who's running the show in northern Syria today.

These Turkish efforts indicate Ankara plans to retain a significant presence and influence over the region indefinitely.

"Turkey is growing long-term roots in its northern Syrian enclave, nearly two years after its troops moved in, modelling the zone on its own towns and bringing in its own administrators and military, financial and security institutions," noted an AP report from Al-Bab.

Al-Bab is the largest Turkish-controlled city in the Euphrates Shield zone, which also includes the border cities of Jarablus and Azaz.

While the Turkish presence has brought tangible stability to the region and even some hope among its inhabitants for the future it's not all rosy. Locals have complained about abuses carried out by the Turkish-backed militiamen who act with impunity in the region.

One local doctor cited by Middle East Eye even went so far as to say the current situation "is no different from how it used to be under the regime". He elaborated that when they reported crimes to the police during that time they didn't expect anything to be done. Now it's the same - aside from the fact that the police are now "trained and backed by Turks".

"It's useless but better than nothing."

In the other Syrian territory Turkey conquered earlier this year, the isolated north-western Afrin canton, things are very different.

Having fought a bloody insurgency by Kurdish separatists for decades, Ankara had become concerned by the Kurdish militias controlling Syria's north-east and north-western border regions.

President Erdogan has since been overseeing the resettlement of displaced Syrian Arabs from across the country in the conquered enclave.

This has sparked accusations that Turkey is orchestrating an "Arabization policy" to permanently alter the demographic make-up rather than simply providing shelter to displaced Syrian civilians. But many destitute Syrian Arabs have refused free houses, vacated by their Kurdish owners who were displaced by the Turkish invasion.

Russian-Turkey talks about establishing a buffer zone in neighbouring Idlib province could lessen the likelihood of a major regime assault on the province, which humanitarian agencies warn could send millions of Syrians fleeing into Turkey. Either way, given the fact that one primary motivation for invading the Euphrates Shield zone was to prevent Kurdish-majority north-east Syria from linking-up with Afrin, Ankara is unlikely to leave the north-western regions without a fight.

Afrin and Idlib are immediately south of the Turkish province of Hatay. When the French had their mandate in Syria they sought to win Turkey's support to join the Allies against Nazi Germany by allowing the creation of the autonomous Republic of Hatay. Ankara promptly annexed the region in 1939, seven years before Syria became an independent country, through a referendum of contested legitimacy which the local Arabs boycotted.

Turkey then implemented a policy of "Turkification" to consolidate its control over the province by resettling Turks there and making the Turkish language mandatory.

Ankara may ultimately be hoping to use that period as a template in today's Afrin - though annexation is not thought to be desired by any party - through support for an Arabization policy aimed at undermining Kurdish control and support in the tiny canton.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon