Erdogan Is Playing for Keeps in Northern Syria

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in August 2016.

America can continue to insist on its commitment to the Kurds, but that will not stop Turkey from taking what shots it can.

Erdoğan’s seizure of enhanced powers through the recent constitutional referendum elicited justified concern from observers—but the vote only makes official Turkey’s reality for the last decade. The vote undermines, if not destroys, democracy in Turkey. Yet the real change will occur in Turkish foreign policy. We have watched Erdoğan lay the groundwork for this change in his growing relationship with Vladimir Putin, most recently in Astana. The increased control his referendum bought him is, crucially, control over Turkey’s arguably most important institution—the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). Its operations in northern Syria ostensibly target Kurdish fighters linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a separatist insurgency in southeastern Turkey. In Erdoğan’s newly fortified hands, these operations are becoming the vehicle to achieve his personal ambitions to outdo Mustafa Kemal’s legacy and establish himself as the lord of a resurgent Ottoman state. The international community, especially NATO, needs to handle Erdoğan carefully to avoid this outcome—certainly more carefully than placing heavy weaponry in his backyard.

Since the referendum result, Turkey has undertaken several actions to improve its position in Syria. Major airstrikes in Derik and Sinjar targeted Kurdish fighters and strayed dangerously close to American personnel embedded there, sparking ground skirmishes with YPG forces around Tel Abyad. On the diplomatic front, the Astana agreement establishing safe zones in Syria names Turkey as the guarantor of Idlib Governate’s integrity. Flare-ups are frequent in Idlib Province because sections are in the hands of rebel groups, Free Syrian Army fighters and regime troops. Escalation would provide an excuse for the TSK to deploy en masse in Idlib, allowing them to extend their current foothold in Syria and close the gap with Turkmen fighters concentrated around regime-held Latakia. It would also allow Turkish forces to close off the western Kurdish front, boxing YPG territory between Turkish troops and the regime line.

With his new powers, Erdoğan is eager to distract from the circumstances of his victory. Annexing northern Syria would do just that, but it would also satisfy a number of Erdoğan’s ambitions and those of the TSK to boot. The Turkish military seeks to encompass Kurdish militia territory, which they see as key sanctuaries for PKK affiliates; enveloping that territory would allow them to combat this perceived threat with impunity. Erdoğan’s goals are more personal. Capturing the swath of land stretching from Aleppo to Raqqa would finally allow him to claim an achievement Mustafa Kemal could not. Indeed, Ataturk wisely cut his losses in Syria and Iraq through the Treaty of Lausanne to secure what borders he did have without overextending. Erdoğan has built his political career both implicitly and overtly on the claim to Ataturk’s mantle. Incorporating northern Syria would represent a victory of Erdoğan over Ataturk, and it would support the neo-Ottoman narrative he has espoused throughout his time on the national stage. It is also important to note that seizing this land could support his efforts to court Turkey’s growing Syrian Arab demographic, well on its way to becoming a powerful voting bloc. Having already styled himself the guardian of Syrian Sunnis through carefully timed photo shoots with prominent migrants and promises of post-referendum voting rights, Erdoğan could spin northern Syria’s absorption into a gift to his new Syrian voters.