Thursday, November 15, 2018

Turkey's Near Abroad Expansion

By Elizabeth Teoman

Key Takeaway: Turkey has effectively annexed large portions of Northern Syria. This land grab is similar to its occupation of Northern Cyprus and demonstrates that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is applying a strategy of expeditionary imperialism across the former Ottoman Empire. Erdogan’s adventurism - coupled with Turkey’s complicated instability - risks undermining U.S. and NATO interests. The U.S. must hold Turkey accountable for its disruptive actions and encourage it to engage productively in its near abroad in line with the shared strategic objectives held by the U.S. and NATO.

Turkey has effectively annexed large parts of Northern Syria since 2016. Turkey seized control of a wide swath of terrain along the Syrian-Turkish Border in two separate operations against ISIS and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkey has installed local proxies to manage the region - but these proxies remain subordinate to state institutions in Turkey. Gaziantep and Kilis Provincial governors in Southern Turkey exercise direct oversight of governance in Northern Syria. The Turkish Police Academy is training a force of Free Syrian Police while the Turkish Armed Forces is organizing opposition groups into a parallel Syrian National Army. These institutions could ultimately expand to other parts of Northern Syria including Idlib Province.

Turkey is enforcing economic integration upon its territories in Northern Syria. Turkey has funneled all economic activity in the area - including the payment of salaries and cross-border trade - through the Turkish Lira. It is investing in a new highway network to expedite trade between Southern Turkey and Northern Syria as well as a new industrial center in Al-Bab in Syria. Turkey is using these economic ties to bolster its own struggling economy and entrench the influence of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For example, Erdogan authorized agricultural imports from Northern Syria to stabilize rising food prices ahead of the 2018 Turkish General Elections.

Turkey is also conducting a parallel campaign of cultural integration in Northern Syria. Turkey has institutionalized the use of Turkish as the formal language of governance in Northern Syria. It has rebuilt local infrastructure across the area based on its own models including hospitals, universities, post offices, and cell towers. Turkey is also engineering demographic shifts that favor its long-term agenda in Northern Syria. It is resettling internally displaced persons including former opposition fighters in areas under its control at the expense of local Syrian Kurds. It is also attempting to alleviate its own domestic burden by encouraging the return of refugees from Turkey to Northern Syria. These returns may not always be voluntary.

Turkey’s actions in Northern Syria reflect lessons from its occupation of Northern Cyprus. Turkey invaded Northern Cyprus in 1974 to block a perceived threat from nationalist Greeks and preserve its own strategic interests in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. It quickly acted to implement a program of political, economic, and cultural integration with Turkey. Turkey built and provided military protection for the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It cultivated economic dependence through an entrenched network of telecommunications and postal services, investments in manufacturing centers, and exclusive export partnerships reliant upon the Turkish Lira. It also systematically relocated ethnic Turks to Northern Cyprus in order to dilute the influence of Greek Cypriots. Turkey is visibly pursuing the same lines of effort in Northern Syria.

Turkey likely plans to maintain a long-term strategic presence in Northern Syria. Turkey maintains its occupation of Northern Cyprus in order to exert influence across the Mediterranean Sea. Erdogan likely perceives similar geopolitical value in Northern Syria. Northern Syria provides a sustained source of leverage over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Russo-Iranian Coalition. Erdogan - a major backer of the armed opposition - is unwilling to permit the full recapture of Syria by Assad. He has repeatedly applied military and diplomatic pressure to block pro-regime offensives against opposition-held Idlib Province in Northern Syria. He has also linked any potential military withdrawal to the need for free and fair elections in Syria - a condition unlikely to be met given the intransigence of Assad. Northern Syria also provides a base for Turkey to challenge the YPG in Eastern Syria. Erdogan is attempting to exploit seams between local Arabs and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – the primary partner of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in Syria. His ongoing efforts to undermine these governance structures and stir ethnic tensions in the region is facilitated by access to opposition and tribal networks in Northern Syria

Erdogan will likely undertake similar interventions under his vision of Neo-Ottomanism. Erdogan views the former Ottoman Empire as a model for a more assertive and quasi-imperial Turkey that exerts military, economic, social, and cultural influence across the Middle East. He champions Turkey as the only legitimate defender of Sunni Muslims. He is expanding a regional military footprint with bases in Northern Cyprus, Syria, Iraq, Qatar, and Somalia. He has also expressed interest in gaining a naval port on the Red Sea. These efforts are likely to accelerate in the coming months. Erdogan stated that Turkey will increase the number of troops deployed to Northern Cyprus as recently as September 16. He could order a similar boost to counterinsurgency operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Northern Iraq. He may also intensify efforts to reestablish a socio-cultural foothold in the Balkans amidst rising interference by Russia.

Turkey may not be able to sustain its current level of regional involvement under Erdogan. Turkey is suffering from rising inflation that threatens to collapse its economy. This instability is already spreading to its de facto statelets in Northern Cyprus and Northern Syria. Locals in Northern Syria held protests and launched general strikes in October 2018 to condemn low wages and the economic hardship caused by the increasingly volatile Turkish Lira. Turkish Cypriots held similar protests expressing frustration towards their prolonged economic dependence on Turkey in September 2018. Erdogan is attempting - thus far unsuccessfully - to alleviate these concerns by securing reconstruction aid from Europe. Germany and France have thus far been reluctant to promise explicit economic packages in support of Turkey. Even if granted, international aid will likely remain insufficient to backstop the foreign interventions undertaken by Erdogan.

The U.S. must nonetheless adapt to a quasi-imperial Turkey. Erdogan continues to accelerate his interventionism in his near abroad. He is leveraging his expeditionary foreign policy in order to assert a role as a regional and international powerbroker. His adventurism - coupled with his own domestic instability - risks undermining regional security at the expense of the U.S. and NATO. At minimum, Erdogan’s inability to maintain security in Northern Syria presents an opportunity for renewed expansion by Al-Qaeda or ISIS. Turkey’s persistent interference with its neighbors also fosters instability that could be exploited by Iran and Russia. The U.S. must hold Turkey accountable for its disruptive actions and encourage it to engage productively in its near abroad in line with the shared strategic objectives held by the U.S. and NATO.