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To better understand Turkey’s Syria policy, particularly toward Syrian Kurds, we must look at historic events. And to better understand Turkey’s current regime, we must look at changes in Ankara’s Kurdish policy.
Since the Ottoman Empire’s nationalist policies of the early 20th century, constructing a unified and homogeneous Turkish state has been a priority of Turkish governments. The Ottoman Empire lost its territories almost entirely due to the nationalist irredentism policy of Enver, Cemal and Talat pashas during the war and eventually collapsed. This legacy of Turkish nationalists was inherited by the new republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who made Turkish nationalism one of the six principles of his ideology, which is called Kemalism. This ideological principle considers the Turkish nation as the only entity of the republic – unifying a monolithic and homogeneous people. Accordingly, all other ethnic identities were rejected and advocating the minority rights of other nationalities was criminalized. The existence of ethnic groups other than Turks was forbidden. In political practice, both the genocide of 1915 and the subsequent extermination of Armenians in Anatolia and deportation of the Greeks according to the Population Exchange Convention of 1923 contributed to the design of a more homogeneous Turkey. The concept of the unitary state and assimilation policies based on Kemalist Turkish nationalism were a continuation of this social engineering that aimed to diminish all ethnic identities other than Turkish. The central domestic security concerns of the Turkish state have been 1) preventing non-Turkish ethnic groups from influencing politics and the public sphere; and 2) denying any kind of cultural minority rights. On the basis of these nationalist policies, the existence of Kurds, Arabs or other ethnic groups was denied, and their language, culture, folklore, music, literature and history were prohibited in the public sphere.
TURKISH NATIONALISM has been very influential not only in the domestic politics but also in the foreign and security policy of Turkey, particularly after the beginning of the armed insurgency of the illegal Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the 1980s that declared the goal of a separate statehood of Kurds. Because of this conflict, ten of thousands of people lost their lives. Turkey’s security agenda during the 1980s and 1990s identified Kurdish separatism as the most dangerous major threat to the country. This led to the more radical and sophisticated securitization of the Kurdish issue. It also strengthened the position of the military and civilian bureaucracy in political decision-making processes in all security policy-related policy fields. A core element of this military-civilian-bureaucracy called the “deep state” obtained excessive power and controlled all security-related policy areas. The deep state used the instruments of the veto-regime designed by the Turkish Constitution such as the National Security Council and other ways (de facto power exercises) to subordinate civilians in security-related policy areas – especially in domestic and foreign Kurdish politics. More importantly, the deep state legitimized its existence, representing an anomaly for a democracy and rule of law on the basis of the “grave danger” of the separation of Turkey’s territory. The deep state was able to stop all attempts at political reform on the Kurdish issue, criminalize Kurdish political movements including political parties and their elected representatives, and control mainstream perceptions in the Turkish public. Most of the Turkish governments and the overwhelming majority of Turkish society accepted the deep state’s role as well as its hawkish position on the Kurdish issue – a position that accepted only a “military solution.”
In the 1990s Turkish foreign policymakers held Syria responsible for giving external support to Kurdish separatists. Damascus supported the illegal separatist PKK during the 1990s. Apart from sheltering Abdullah Ocalan, the now-imprisoned leader of the PKK, Syria also allowed PKK militants to use neighboring Syrian territory for its training camps, primarily in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, from where the separatist terrorist group entered Turkish territory to carry out attacks. Back then, approximately a third of PKK militants were of Syrian origin. For Turkey’s “military solution” strategy, terminating the existence of the PKK in Syria was essential. PKK leadership, particularly Ocalan, lived between 1984 and 1999 in Syria. In 1999 Turkey increased pressure on the Syrian government to extradite him, threatening military action. Ocalan was expelled by Damascus under this massive pressure from Ankara. He began a multi-nation odyssey until he was captured in Nairobi, Kenya, and brought to Turkey. The most important result of Ocalan’s extradition from Syria was the normalization of Turkish-Syrian relations. After Hafez Assad’s death in 2000, Ankara welcomed the presidency of his son, Bashar Assad, specifically his interest in developing political and economic relations with Ankara. Under Bashar Assad’s presidency, Damascus prevented border infiltrations of PKK militants and turned over PKK-affiliated Turkish citizens to Turkey.
TURKEY-SYRIA RELATIONS improved after the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. The AKP prioritized a regionally oriented foreign policy that focused on Turkey’s historical and cultural roots in its immediate neighborhood. There was a remarkable moderation in Turkey’s foreign policy toward Syria until the Arab Spring uprisings destabilized the country in 2011. During the first 10 years of the AKP era, Turkey experienced a significant democratization and de-securitization that created a new perception of constructive and cooperation-oriented foreign policy which paved the way for diminishing the range of enemies and gained Turkey more allies in the region. At the same time Turkey initiated the normalization of civil-military relations in the framework of Turkey’s EU-accession process, which required that the military be subordinate to elected political decision makers. In this way the deep state gradually lost its influence. For many years, Ankara had externalized the problems of Kurdish separatism onto Syria. The AKP government changed this and opened the door for more cooperation. Among other things, this progress was the result of the EU accession process and the associated democratization, system transformation and appropriation of EU norms and principles in regional politics. It was during AKP rule that Ankara and Damascus elevated visa requirements within the framework of the High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council in 2009. Relations reached such a level that joint cabinet meetings were organized. For the first time in its history, Turkey had adopted a discourse aimed at economic integration with a neighboring country.
But these ambitious policies were challenged by the events of the Arab Spring. Up until those events, the AKP had overlooked the undemocratic nature of the Damascus regime. When the mass protests started to spread in Syria, Ankara first tried to convince the Assad regime to carry out reforms to democratize the political system and was hopeful that Turkey’s advice would be taken into account. But when Assad insisted on maintaining his regime, the Islamist AKP started to take a tougher line that ended up with Ankara backing Sunni-Islamist rebels fighting to overthrow the Assad regime. Particularly after Erdoğan increased his power in Turkey and de facto started to govern the country with presidential decrees, Ankara intensified its support drastically. Even though Erdoğan denied arming Syria’s rebels or assisting hardline Islamists, extensive evidence indicated this support.
For instance, footage released by a Turkish newspaper in May 2015 showed Turkish gendarmerie and police officers opening crates on the back of trucks that contained weapons and ammunition to be sent to Syria by Turkish intelligence service MIT in January 2014. Erdoğan filed a personal criminal complaint against Can Dündar, the journalist who published the material, claiming that the story “included some footage and information that are not factual” while saying that Dündar “will pay a heavy price.” The MIT trucks were carrying over 80,000 rounds of ammunition of varying caliber, some 1,000 mortar shells and projectiles for grenade launchers. It was only one of the numerous trucks stopped by a routine random check. According to media reports Ankara regularly provided weapons and ammunition to Syrian jihadists, including a franchise al-Qaeda group called Al Nusra, which committed multiple crimes against humanity in the field. Dündar was subsequently accused of publishing classified state secrets and of spying, which meant that Ankara indirectly accepted the story, implying that Turkey was transporting weapons and ammunition to radical jihadist rebels in Syria. Because of the pressure and purge after the story was published, Dündar left Turkey.
Also, security officials who stopped the trucks and searched them were arrested on “spying” charges over the incident. Moreover, the Erdoğan regime tolerated jihadists using Turkish territory to join terrorist cells in Syria, provided them with health services in Turkish public hospitals and sent relevant supplies such as Turkish Red Cross tents, medications, vehicles, uniforms, etc. The reasons the Erdoğan regime supports jihadist extremist cells in Syria are: 1) they are fighting against Kurdish rebels in Syria, which Turkey considers a PKK franchise group; and 2) the jihadists the Erdoğan regime is supporting share the same Islamist ideology with Turkish Islamists. Turkey has launched two military offensives in northern Syria since 2015 that have targeted Syrian Kurds. Several jihadist groups supported by the Erdoğan regime have backed these military operations of the Turkish Armed Forces. On the other hand, Syrian Kurds have been fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other jihadist extremists in the region that are backed by the regime in Turkey. In the past Ankara also regularly shelled Syrian Kurdish positions, among which were villages and towns inhabited by civilians.
WHY HAS TURKEY CHANGED its moderate policies in the Middle East and started to support Islamist movements in Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Syria? What has happened with the reliable NATO partner and the regional island of stability? Everything started with a corruption scandal that occurred in December 2013 in which high-ranking officials from Erdoğan’s closest circle were involved. A criminal inquiry took place, and more than 50 people were arrested. The government labeled the investigation as an international conspiracy and fired the prosecutors of the investigation. Erdoğan made a deal with the deep state, intervened in the continuing legal process and violated the constitutional order, extending his power. Through this civilian coup, Erdoğan and his deep state allies seized the power of justice. According to his pact with the deep state, Erdogan ended the moderate course with the Kurds and ordered a heavy military offensive in inhabited locations. Tens of thousands of people left their homes, and numerous towns and neighborhoods in Kurdish cities were completely devastated. After the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, Erdoğan detained about half of all of Turkey’s admirals and generals and thousands of officers, most of whom were pro-Western and pro-NATO commanders. Due to the fact that the deep state-affiliated wing of the military is pro-Russian and anti-Western and that they intend to minimize Turkey’s role in NATO and generate a strategic partnership with Russia and its partners (mainly Iran), they transformed Turkey’s policy in Syria.
Turkish troops and tanks have recently been deployed to the Turkish-Syrian border and have reinforced Turkey-backed militias around Manbij, a town to the west of the Euphrates that the Syrian Kurds captured from ISIL three years ago. Meanwhile, the Erdoğan regime’s obsession with Syrian Kurds is considered a serious destabilization factor in Syria. Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu said the Turkish military would be given a green light on its planned offensive against Kurdish militias in northeastern Syria regardless of whether the US withdraws its troops from the country. He added that Turkey would decide on the timing of the offensive and would not seek permission from anyone. International observers and experts believe that if the United States withdraws its military power from Syria as President Trump has already announced, massacres would be unavoidable and ISIL and other jihadist extremist groups might regain control of the region. Turkish activities in northern Syria are a grave concern of the international community. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would prevent Turkey from “slaughtering” Kurds in Syria. Yet, the US administration seems to have understood that this regime they are dealing with is far from being predictable or reliable.
Kurdish politics is the best barometer to use to measure Turkey’s regime: the Kurdish politics of the Turkish regime illustrate unmistakably that the deep state has restored its power in Turkey. It initiated a re-securitization of Turkish politics and gave birth to the old state narrative of a unified and homogeneous Turkish state based on a hybrid ideology of Turkish-Islamic synthesis – the second version of the 1980s post-coup ideology. The new route of Turkey, both domestically and in foreign policy orientation, is full of serious perils. It will accelerate separatist trends among Kurds in Turkey and will absolutely not contribute to national or regional security. It demonstrates the danger posed by Turkey’s current regime