Turkey has thought long and hard about intervention in neighbouring countries. Throughout the first five years of the conflict on its southern border in Syria, for example, it was cautious about direct intervention, and it was right to be so. In a conflict tainted by the involvement of the proxies of several countries, it risked incurring the wrath of all the powers involved; it was also in the interests of the then Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to keep Turkey from having its own peace disrupted. Getting its hands dirty in a war that did not yet directly compromise its territorial integrity would have given ammunition to its critics and have the potential to cause the very instability it wanted to prevent.
From the start of the conflict in 2011, therefore, Turkey limited its role to funding and training opposition groups such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and calling for Bashar Al-Assad to step down. Fast forward five years to when Kurdish militias had formed an increasingly formidable military force along the Turkish-Syrian border, and Turkey itself was reeling from an attempted military coup in 2016, and the game had changed. The country faced a territorial threat and a potential Kurdish state was being set out before its very eyes. The government in Ankara realised that it could no longer sit back and wait for events to unravel while simply relying on its proxies.
Turkey then showed its hand in Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 which cleared its border of Daesh militants, and more recently in January’s Operation Olive Branch, which removed the Kurdish YPG (Peoples’ Protection Units) from Afrin province of northern Syria and prevented the Kurds from building a land corridor to the Mediterranean. With its primary objectives achieved and both operations a relative success, Turkey now currently controls a considerable portion of territory in northern Syria and, as a result, has become a major stakeholder in Syria’s future. However, is it becoming a benevolent force for good in the region or a symbol of tyranny in an already-tyrannised land?
Turkey’s positive role in helping Syrian refugees is indisputable; the authorities have provided them with basic needs, albeit limited, and have gone further by providing education programmes for refugee children, many of whom had never been in school since the conflict began. From the promotion of education to the provision of work permits and resettlement in places other than monolithic camps, Turkey seems to be doing its utmost to provide a long-term solution for the four million Syrian refugees it is hosting. The intention is to set them on a path towards integration within Turkish society, and Syrian society when the conflict settles, by equipping them with the skills for self-reliance.
This can also be seen in Harran University’s planned unveiling of a campus in the Turkish-controlled city of Al-Bab in northern Syria, one of four Turkish university campuses in the north of the country so far. “We want to fill the massive vacuum in the field of education,” explains Ramazan Tasaltin, the rector of the university on its website. “The US sent Syria 5,000 truckloads of weapons… Turkey, for its part, sent 10,000 trucks of humanitarian assistance. As a university, we want to contribute to the humanitarian efforts of our country.”
Turkey has also been heavily involved in the negotiations for the establishment of de-escalation zones within Syria, where those fleeing the conflict can resettle and be safe without having to leave their country. After years of negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan, along with other players in the conflict, such as Russia and Iran, Turkey’s efforts finally bore fruit in the creation of four such zones. One of the most prominent of these is in the province of Idlib, which is controlled by Turkey and is home to around 2.5 million Syrians.
It is from these very areas liberated by Turkish forces, though, that the most recent criticism seems to be originating. In northern Syrian cities and towns now under the control of Turkey and the rebel groups it backs, particularly Afrin and Al-Bab, there have been reports of lawlessness, looting, property seizures, endless clashes between the various rebel groups, and even the suppression of any criticism of the Turkish presence.
For many Syrian residents, a large number of whom returned to the region recently at the behest of the Turkish government following its occupation of the area, this has left them unsure of Turkey’s continued military role and ability to keep the peace.
One doctor in the city of Al-Bab, Dr Mamdouh Matlab, told Middle East Eye: “The situation is no different from how it used to be under the regime… When a robbery took place, we would go to the police station and sign a report about what was stolen and expect nothing to be done. Now we can still go to the same police station. Only this time, the officers we have are trained and backed by the Turks. It’s useless but better than nothing.”
The Turkish government, for its part, has acknowledged the reports of lawlessness in the territory it controls, with Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu saying that Turkey is “seriously” looking into the claims of looting and property theft taking place in Afrin. “We – the Turkish nation, state and government – are against everything inhumane,” Çavuşoğlu insisted. “When there are complaints about such an issue, we have to take them seriously.”
There is no doubt that Turkey plans to hold onto its territory within Syria, at least as long as the conflict lasts. Deputy Prime Minister Recep Akdağ said in May that Turkey will not hand over the captured cities to the Assad regime. Whether it intends to keep the territory for itself or save it for a newly democratic Syria once the conflict settles down is not yet known, though critics of Turkey – some might say alarmists – fear it is simply expanding territory to form a new “empire”.
After President Erdoğan was re-elected on Sunday, he announced that Turkey will be pushing even deeper into Syrian territory and possibly into Iraq, with plans to implement the model that it is already using within Syria. As it expands its operations and its presence in Syria, Turkey needs to be careful that its beneficial works such as infrastructure projects, education programmes and humanitarian presence in the north of the country are not overshadowed by a failure to restrain the rebel groups that it backs.
It cannot be denied that Turkey is doing more than any other player in the conflict to work on a long-term solution; it is, after all, preparing Syrian refugees to lay the foundation of a new Syria while liberating the territory in which they can return to their homeland. It must tread lightly, though, and mete out justice while ensuring that crimes are not committed by its armed forces or any force associated with them. If it fails to do so, its image as a benevolent saviour could easily turn into that of a tyrant resembling the brutal dying days of the Ottoman Empire of the early twentieth century.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.