Light rain peppered the cracked cement nearby. A sudden breeze unfurled a limp Turkish flag, gently swaying it with the wind. Jarablus, like many other towns in northwestern Syria, has been under Turkish administration since 2016. One hundred years ago, Jarablus was another town that dotted the vast Ottoman Empire. Is Turkey’s current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan flirting with irredentism and the region’s Ottoman past?
For most of its existence, the Republic of Turkey’s state ideology has been characterized by Kemalism, a doctrine founded by Mustafa Kemal, or Atatürk. Kemalism emphasized widespread cultural, political, and social reforms that distanced Turkey from its Ottoman past. This mass reorganization of society and institutions sought to westernize Turkey and push it closer to Europe. Such reforms included secularism, democracy, and Turkish nationalism, which influenced the behaviour of Turkey for decades.
The transformation from an Ottoman to a Turkish identity has been firmly ingrained within the Turkish national psyche. Now, Erdogan is challenging this historical narrative.
The Ottoman Empire at its height controlled the Balkans, most of the Arab Middle East and most of coastal North Africa, either directly or through vassalage. Rather than pushing Turkey towards closer ties with Europe, Erdogan has opted to pivot towards friendlier relations with countries of former Ottoman territory. In several speeches, he emphasized that “Turkey is a continuation of the Ottomans…the borders have changed, but the essence is the same, the soul is the same.” This rhetoric directly contradicts one of the main ideological foundations of Kemalism: a post-Ottoman Turkey. It comes in conjunction with both political and military ambitions in the Middle East, including several military bases in Iraq and Syria.
Turkey has had a turbulent history with Syria, underscored by their Ottoman past. Ahmet Djemal was one of the Three Pashas that ruled the empire during World War I. As governor of Greater Syria, he was responsible for the executions of many accused of treason, hanging them in Beirut and Damascus. He also directed a blockade on Mount Lebanon, causing years of starvation and destitution in many areas of Greater Syria. His acts of violence earned him the nickname Al Saffah – the Blood Shedder.
Syrian animosity towards the Turks was further exacerbated with the Turkish annexation of Hatay in 1939 and the subsequent expulsion of most of its Syrian and Armenian inhabitants. On its part, Syria has offered funds and training to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant and political group seeking autonomy and equal rights for Kurds in Turkey. After being heavily suppressed by the Turkish government, the Kurds have waged an armed conflict since 1984, with a temporary ceasefire from 2013-15. Ironically, before the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, Erdogan and Syria’s Bashar al Assad enjoyed friendly relations. Assad was the first Syrian head of state to visit Turkey in 2004, and Erdogan claimed Syrians are his brothers.
Turkey under Erdogan intended to frame itself as the düzen kurucu (“order setter”) in the region, following successful economic growth since 2002. Much of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is based on conservative, Muslim-Brotherhood style ideology. Within this context, Erdogan attempted to usher in a new era of cultivating economic and political influence in the Middle East, most notably by trying to create what he called a “regional Schengen.” This involved lifting visa restrictions on several Arab countries, including Syria, and encouraging Turkish companies to participate in their economies.
However, following the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, this brotherly camaraderie between Assad and Erdogan came to an abrupt halt. Turkey has become heavily involved in the Syrian war, with Turkish troops occupying military positions throughout Northwestern Syria. Turkey has also undertaken two military operations in Syria, dubbed Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch. These operations were conducted with the intention of preventing the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who are mainly made up of ethnic Kurds and led by the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units), from unifying all the territory they seized.
Turkey is particularly concerned with a powerful and autonomous Kurdish entity arising along its southern border in Syria, because it would only serve to strengthen the PKK within its own borders. Turkey has designated both the PKK and the YPG as terrorist organizations. Consequently, Ankara has resorted to overrunning Syrian towns in order to push back the YPG.
Turkey is strengthening its influence in Northern Syria. It has brought in Turkish administrators and military personnel, as well as financial and security institutions to govern the seized territories. Additionally, it has constructed several military outposts, in agreement with Russia, throughout Idlib. In Al Bab, the Turkish lira has become an accepted currency, Syrian schoolchildren are taught Turkish, and Ottoman history is a critical component of their education. Turkey has also trained local Syrian security forces, reconstructed schools and hospitals, and maintains military garrisons throughout the territories it occupies in Northern Syria.
Although appearing humanitarian, the nature of these actions hides Ankara’s true intentions of assimilating the occupied territories into a Turkish sphere of influence. In conjunction with military and administrative developments, Turkish media is espousing irredentist claims to former Ottoman territory. Maps have been published that depict Northern Syria and Iraq as part of Turkey, hauntingly similar to claims for Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia that led to years of bloodshed in the Balkans. Furthermore, the regime in Damascus has maintained that the Turkish presence in Northern Syria is an illegal occupation, and for peace to prevail, Turkey must return the territory to the government.
However, this is highly unlikely. Ankara will continue its operations in Northern Syria until it has subdued the YPG. In December of 2018, United States President Donald Trump abruptly announced a withdrawal of all US forces in Syria. This shocked US allies throughout the world, who saw this decision as abandoning the fight against Daesh (also known as ISIL) in Syria. However, after increasing confusion surrounding the decision, plans for a withdrawal are appearing to stall. Erdogan argued that the US must coordinate their withdrawal with Turkey because it has NATO’s second-largest standing army. He also claimed that the US should hand over all their military bases to the Turkish army.
In anticipation of the US withdrawal, Erdogan threatened to launch a full military operation against Manbij, the last remaining SDF pocket west of the Euphrates. Turkish troops and Syrian rebels massed on the border to begin an offensive campaign against the Syrian Kurds.
Feeling betrayed when President Trump announced a full withdrawal from Syria, the YPG sought the support of the Syrian government. Ultimately, this resulted in Syrian government troops and their allies forming a buffer zone between Manbij and the Turkish-occupied areas. Unintentionally, Erdogan managed to unite the SDF and the Syrian government to cooperate against another Turkish incursion.
Turkey has placed itself in a precarious position regarding the future of its presence in Syria. Will it annex what it controls, satisfying an irredentist ambition but potentially sparking an international outcry? Will it maintain its occupation indefinitely? It remains unclear what will unfold.
The US has set conditions on its withdrawal, asserting that Turkey must ensure the safety of its Kurdish allies before its forces depart. This has angered Erdogan, who stated that the US is “seriously mistaken” for setting this condition. Ankara has claimed if there is a delay in the US withdrawal, they will launch the attack regardless of a US presence in Syria or not. Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told NTV channel, “if the withdrawal is put off with ridiculous excuses like Turks massacring Kurds, which do not reflect reality, we will implement this decision.”
A US withdrawal, which US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured remains inevitable, will force the YPG to seek an alliance with the Syrian government, which made explicitly clear that it is determined to recapture “every inch” of Syria. The Kurds will have to sideline their demands for autonomy in order to ally with the government and face the Turks.
As Turkish military convoys arrive inside Syrian territory, the different sides look on to see what will come of the vague information surrounding the American withdrawal. If Turkey captures more of Northern Syria, it seems unlikely Erdogan will stop Turkish culturalization of the occupied territories. The longer Turkey holds on to the territories, the more likely annexation becomes a reality, not unlike the seizure of Syria’s Hatay decades ago.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.