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[OPINION] Turkey has no plans to leave Syria

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Türkmen Terzi 

Syria has lost its territorial integrity since the civil war erupted in 2011. At present, major European countries together with the United States back Kurdish forces in Syria, while Russia and Iran directly support the Bashar al-Assad regime. As a majority Sunni Muslim country, Turkey’s main aim is to maintain historical and religious ties with Syrian Muslims.

Turkey lost its land connection with Iraqi Arabs when the Kurds established their autonomy in a part of northern Iraq that borders Turkey. Syria’s Kurds also formed the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, also known as “Rojava,” along the Turkish border. Thus Turkey’s 1,300-kilometer border with the Arab states of Iraq and Syria are currently controlled by Kurdish armed groups. Turkey built relatively strong ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which rules the autonomous Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq. However, Turkey’s Syrian border is controlled by the People’s Defense Units (YPG) and its political arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish group that has waged an armed struggle against Turkey since 1984. Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s main motivation behind carrying out a military operation in Syria is to maintain ties with Syrian Sunni Muslims.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which lasted over 600 years and  controlled land spanning Europe, Asia and Africa, Turkey emerged as a Turkish nation-state in Anatolia and a small area in Europe. Although Turkey has a strategic location and is still a large country with a population of more than 80 million and almost 800,000 square kilometers of surface area, it has lost its connection with the nations that were once Ottoman on the three continents over many centuries. Turkey’s neighbors in Europe, Bulgaria and Greece, have prevented relations between Ankara and the Balkan Muslims. The new Republic of Turkey also lost its ties with the Central Asian Muslim-Turkic nations after the establishment of the Soviet Union a century ago. Turkey lost its land connection with Central Asian Turkic countries since Armenia was established in the middle of the Turkic states in 1990.

Turkey lost its connections with the Iraqi Arabs, and now the Kurdish cantons in Syria along the Turkish border have largely prevented Turkey’s association with Syrian Sunni Arabs. On the other hand, Turkey and Turkish-backed opposition forces have managed to take control of the Syrian towns of Afrin, al-Bab, Azaz, Jarabulus, Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, while Ankara successfully prevented the unity of Kurdish cantons in Syria. While Turkey does not directly control Idlib province, which is home to more than 3 million people, it protects the rebels controlling the city from Russia and Assad’s attacks. Former US President Donald Trump’s abrupt move in October 2019 to remove US troops from northern Syria encouraged Erdoğan’s attack on Kurds in Syria. The US and Canada as well as a few other European countries sanctioned or suspended arms sales to Turkey, while almost all Arab countries condemned Turkey’s military onslaught on Kurdish towns in Syria. Russia and Iran also oppose Turkey’s military operation to create a 30-kilometer (20-mile) safe zone along the border with Syria, allowing Syrian refugees in Turkey to return home.

The US administration supports the YPG, which evolved into the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes other native ethnic peoples in the region such as Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians, Yazidis, Circassians and Turkmen who have fought against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) radical group in recent years.

Turkey currently hosts around 3.5 million Syrian refugees, and the Erdoğan government plans to send around 1 million of them, especially those in populous cities such as Istanbul, Ankara and Gaziantep, to towns in northwestern and northeastern Syria where Turkey and the Turkish-backed opposition have authority. The Erdoğan government plans to establish commercial and industrial zones and construct buildings in order to improve the economic condition of refugees in these areas. Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said on May 5 that Turkey aims to construct 250,000 cinder block houses measuring between 40 and 80 square meters and that some 100,000 of the residences are to be handed over to their recipients by the end of the year. Turkey’s controversial NGO, the Humanitarian Aid Foundation (IHH), has also built more than 25,000 residences in Idlib province and the area where a Turkish military operation called Euphrates Shield was carried out between August 2016 and March 2017 as well as the northern Aleppo countryside, Syria Direct reported.

The Postal and Telecommunications General Directorate (PTT) provides services in the Turkish-controlled Syrian towns of Azaz, Marea, al-Bab, Jarabulus, Afrin and Ra’i for Turkish employees and Syrian citizens. The Turkish government has opened hospitals in Jarabulus, Azaz, al-Bab, Marea and Ra’i and erected cell towers owned by Türk Telekom in Aleppo and the Idlib countryside. Turkish electricity giant Akenerji built a power plant in Azaz and set up another electricity grid in Jarabulus and al-Bab. The Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) renovated hundreds of mosques in the region, and more than 200 Turkish religious schools now operate in the Turkish-controlled zones. Turkey’s Gaziantep University opened education faculties in Afrin, the faculty of economics and administrative sciences in al- Bab, and the faculty of sharia sciences in Azaz, while Harran University, headquartered in Şanlıurfa, opened a branch in al-Bab in June 2018 to provide education in six departments based on a Turkish curriculum, according to the Middle East Forum, which detailed Turkish rule in the region.

The Balkans were home to Ottoman Muslim Turks for five centuries. However, following the founding of the first two Balkan nation-states, Greece and Serbia, in the 1830s and because of the Greco-Turkish War in the early 20th century and later the Soviet rule in Yugoslavia and conflict with Serbs, millions of Balkan Muslims migrated to today’s Turkey. As a result of all these conflicts, the Islamic history of the Ottomans has largely been erased from the Balkans. The Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) does not want to lose its connection with Syrian Arabs the way Turkey lost connections with Balkan Muslims for many decades; instead, it hopes to be the guardian of Syria’s Sunni Arabs. The Ottomans ruled Iraq for almost 300 years and Syria for 400 years. Conservative and nationalist Turkish leaders still claim sovereignty over some Iraqi cities such as Mosul and Kirkuk as they assert that the British unlawfully took over these cities from Atatürk’s new republic, while Sunni Turkey does not get along with Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime in Syria. It appears that the Erdoğan regime will continue to fight to maintain its influence in Syria.

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