Nature abhors a vacuum, and this is never truer than on the Syrian killing fields.
With the Islamic State’s surviving fighters relegated to small pockets of the most austere bastions of the Syrian desert, the Turkish army likely sees an opportunity to capture Syria’s northern border, in order to project power, consolidate territory and expand its own sphere of influence throughout the near abroad.
Turkey’s latest Syrian military incursion, dubbed “Operation Olive Branch,” was launched in mid-January against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the border city of Afrin, one of Syria’s autonomous cantons. Turkey’s objective was to deny the YPG a continuous corridor in the hilly northern Syrian border, where terrorist cadres have traveled back and forth unmolested since the onset of the Syrian Civil War. While the Turkish military and the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army have advanced considerably to surround Afrin, and entered the city center on March 18, the fifty-eighth day of the operation, many lives have been lost, including several dozen Turkish soldiers , over a hundred Free Syrian Army members and some three thousand YPG fighters, according to official Turkish statements.
Media observers of Turkey’s incursions argue that the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, aims to mobilize his base at home with a “glorious little war” and to boost his cachet among surviving jihadist groups in the Middle East by directly countering the YPG, while indirectly challenging the United States by portraying himself as a leader willing to stand up to Washington.
For years, Erdoğan and Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) have expressed tacit support for Sunni groups, including some of their more extreme elements, in an attempt to isolate the Marxist-friendly YPG in Syria. The logic is simple: Turkey seeks to dominate northern Syria by using its local Syrian Sunni populations, even radical ones, as proxies.
Is such a plan viable? It is for Erdoğan.
There are 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Most of the refugees are Syrian Sunni Arabs who are beholden to Erdoğan for granting them refuge. For example, on February 9, more than sixty representatives of Syrian Arab tribes carried out a demonstration to support the Afrin operation by chanting slogans such as “Turkey will save Syria” in Mersin, Turkey. Many of them also see the YPG as an enemy of their faith.
Although the YPG administration insists it has evolved beyond the Marxist ideology of its founder, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan, many in the region note the markers of Marxist-Leninist teachings in the YPG’s current ideology. Neither can the Syrian Arab asylees return to homes and land controlled today by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), currently the chief ally of the U.S. military. Further complicating the relationship is the longtime problem of forced military conscription of Arab teens into the ranks of the SDF, and lingering mistrust between the YPG Kurds and the Arabs.
Many Arabs also have recently started to voice their true feelings about the YPG-controlled SDF, For instance, an Arab schoolteacher in Manbij, Syria, recently claimed that “most Arabs in the town were unhappy with what they see as a Kurdish government, but were afraid to speak out for fear of arrest,” according to a New York Times report .
Turkey has built a network of influence over the Salafi-jihadi groups in Syria including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham , an Al Qaeda spin-off that controls the jihadi stronghold of Idlib, a territory with over two million inhabitants. The Erdoğan administration has been providing logistic support to jihadist groups since 2011, which Ahmet Yayla observed firsthand as a counterterrorism police chief on the border of Sanliurfa.
The Syrian campaign empowers Erdoğan’s supporters, many of whom have been trying to portray him as the leader of the Islamic world—an idea taken seriously by certain Sunni constituencies in Syria and the broader region. They warmed to him when he supported the Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt after the so-called Arab Spring . Demonstrators in front of the White House shouted, “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, true leader of Ummah ,” while protesting President Trump’s December announcement that the U.S. embassy in Israel would move to Jerusalem.
Turkish proxies, including Turkish aid agencies and Turkish intelligence agents in Syria, have been invoking the historical concept of the caliphate among Sunni populations with the help of hard-line jihadists, local imams and sheikhs, while suggesting that Erdoğan is akin to a modern-day caliph, a leader over the entire Islamic world. For example, it was recently reported that “by early 2017 education, healthcare and religious institutions in northern Aleppo had largely come under the control of Diyanet, the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs, and a network of NGOs under its influence.”
Given the atrocities visited upon Syrian Sunni Arabs by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, they may very well prefer Turkey’s intervention, especially as Erdoğan has made overtures to protect Sunnis by fighting their enemies. There is understandable concern that without an American buffer in parts of northern Syria, there could be further bloodletting between Arabs and Kurds, despite existing partnerships between the two groups throughout other parts of the country. Accordingly, Erdoğan is attempting to cement his political legitimacy among Syrian Sunnis by portraying himself as their savior, even while his primary motivation is to counter Kurdish gains. But even as Turkey solidifies a foothold in further swaths of Syria, extricating its troops and its proxies may not be so easy.