As Syria’s proxies converge on Idlib, what’s next for Turkey’s northern state-within-a-state?

In Syria’s rural northern Aleppo province, children raised speaking Arabic and Kurdish are set to begin studying Turkish this fall. Meanwhile, local council offices display signs in both Arabic and Turkish, and Turkey’s flag features prominently—alongside the triple-starred Syrian rebel banner—when local photographers cover official meetings.

In this corner of northern Syria, there are yet more signs of growing Turkish influence. One photo posted to Facebook last month shows construction vehicles laying asphalt in the northern Aleppo town of Bazaa with the caption: “Paving ‘Olive Branch’ Street,” ostensibly named after a Turkish-led military campaign in northern Syria earlier this year. In the background, a mural depicting a Turkish soldier watches over the freshly paved street.

Operation Olive Branch, which began in January, saw Turkish and Ankara-backed Syrian rebel brigades seize a roughly 40-kilometer stretch of borderland from majority-Kurdish forces. This year’s campaign came after Turkish and rebel forces seized adjacent, formerly Islamic State-held territory in 2016.

The result: a zone of Turkish control in rural Aleppo province stretching from the majority-Kurdish Afrin region in Syria’s far northwest, to the once Islamic State-held town of Jarablus some 130 kilometers east.

Turkey’s occupation of the region has not been without harm. London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International decried Turkish-backed rebels’ treatment of Afrin citizens in a damning report last week, while displaced Syrians complain of a lack of even the most basic services in a series of Turkish-administered camps that dot the border region. Meanwhile, residents of al-Bab and other northern Aleppo cities are still rebuilding after years of Islamic State rule.

Nevertheless, Ankara is digging deep into northern Aleppo’s nominally rebel-held towns and villages—and it doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon, says Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies.

“Turkey is prepared to, in a sense, quasi-annex this region,” Landis tells Syria Direct’s Madeline Edwards.

But behind what some local residents refer to as “Turkification” are a slew of complexseemingly contradictorydiplomatic ties that could collapse as Syria’s warring parties converge on yet another, imminent, military campaign: the battle for Idlib province.

Q: In recent months, we’ve seen Turkish authorities entrenching in northern Syria: school administrators are adding Turkish language school curriculums, local councils are displaying Turkish flags and Turkish propaganda is increasingly visible in public spaces. There’s even a word some residents are using to describe the phenomenon: “Turkification.” What do you see as Turkey’s long-term priorities in maintaining this presence in northern Aleppo?

I think Turkey is prepared to, in a sense, quasi-annex this region. It’s the only thing that makes sense, because if they don’t, they’re going to be re-conquered by the Assad regime and they’ll be brought back into Syria.

The long-term problem for Turkey is whether they can do this kind of thing and have it accepted by the international community. And so far, it’s working for them.

I would compare it to İskenderun, [also known as] Alexandretta, which was a separate administrative unit of Syria under the French Mandate until Turkey annexed it in 1939. There were somewhere over 40,000 or 50,000 refugees who fled the region into Syria at that time. The Sunnis stayed and became Turks. The lines between a Turk and an Arab could be fungible.

Q: But do you see that dynamic—of pro-Turkish sentiment among Syrians in the north—playing out now?

Yes, I do. I think many Sunnis believe that they’d be better off with Turkey. And that’s really demonstrated in the fact that most of the rebel militias who use Turkey as a refuge also see Turkey as, in a sense, a mothership that supplies them with diplomatic support, political support, military support, economic support, everything. And they see the Turks as champions of their Islamic identity.

In a sense, by being Turks, by being under the umbrella of Turkish rule, in some ways they are more authentically Muslim. It underlines the ambiguities, just like it did in the 1930s, between Islamic and ethnic identity, which we see in today’s civil war and in the uprising against Assad.

Q: But what does Ankara stand to benefit from potentially annexing northern Aleppo, or at least maintaining a heavy presence there?

Turkey has a number of things. First, on the most practical level, Turkey gains leverage to affect future negotiations with Assad.

Second, Turkey is very fearful that Assad will drive all the rebels and their families [who are currently present in northern Aleppo and Idlib] into Turkey, scattering them across Anatolia. And that’s tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people. 

Jarablus education officials meet in May. Photo courtesy of Jarablus and Countryside Education Office.

So Turkey has a great interest in not allowing Assad to drive all of these tens of thousands of rebels [out]. They don’t want refugees. They have enough, with two million-point-something.

[Ed.: As of July 2018, the UN counts more than 3,500,000 registered Syrian refugees living in Turkey.]

Assad would love to just drive all of those rebel groups that are in Idlib and in northern Syria into Turkey and say, ‘These are your people, you get to have them. You financed them, you can choke on them.’

So it’s in Turkey’s interest to make sure that this doesn’t happen.

Q: What kind of leverage does Turkey’s presence in northern Aleppo actually hold over the Syrian government?

Well, the [potential] trade that’s sitting there, and waiting to be done, is that if the Syrian government controls the Kurds, Turkey will withdraw from territory in [northern] Syria.

[Ed.: US-backed, majority-Kurdish authorities in a de facto autonomous region of northeastern Syria are pushing forward with plans to negotiate with Damascus for a “decentralized, democratic system” in areas under their control, Syria Direct reported late last month. The Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, announced in July it had entered into talks with the Syrian government for a “roadmap leading to a “democratic and decentralized Syria.”]

Well, the trade that can be made is that Turkey abandons the Syrian rebels to a certain degree and gives Syria much of Idlib province in exchange for the Syrian government retaking much of the Kurdish region, and America leaving. And that means no more arming of the Kurds, no more weapons going to the Kurds. Syrian intelligence would have to work closely with the Turkish intelligence, I presume, to make sure that the Kurds are not smuggling arms up to the PKK, and that the Turkish army gets to destroy the PKK inside of Anatolia and suppress the Kurds.

But Turkey doesn’t trust Assad. They believe that he has cooperated with the [separatist, Kurdish-nationalist group] PKK in the past. So Turkey is fearful that Syria will go back to helping the PKK divide Turkey in the same way that Turkey has helped the rebels divide Syria.

As soon as [Turkey] gives up that territory, they have no leverage whatsoever over Syria.

Q: You mentioned earlier that Ankara doesn’t want rebels in Idlib streaming into Turkey if they face a possible defeat there. Can you talk more about the stakes in Idlib from a military perspective? Do you see Ankara poised to back rebels there in an oncoming battle, to the extent that we’ve been seeing in northern Aleppo?

Turkey has 12 observation posts that it has established across Idlib, which are backed up by Turkish soldiers with heavy weapons and tanks. So, if Assad bombs them, he’s going to be bombing Turkey and this is going to be a casus belli in theory. So, Assad has to step very carefully around these observation points.

Q: You wrote earlier this year on your Syria Comment blog that the US policy of backing majority-Kurdish groups in northern Syria has “pushed Turkey into the sphere of Russian influence.” How is this dynamic playing out today with regard to preparations for a battle for Idlib? Do you see any major contradictions?

Russia is very keen on trying to make a deal between Turkey, the Kurds and Syria. They’re trying to negotiate a way to avoid war, in much the same way that they did in southern Syria, where the Syrian Arab Army was able to retake all of that region in only about a month’s time and Israel, Jordan, the United States all agreed to it [and] did not enter into the war to stop the Syrian army. And the rebels were forced to make agreements with the army or to retreat to Idlib province.

The Jarablus Local Council in January, with Turkish signage. Photo courtesy of Jarablus and Countryside Local Council.

The problem is that northern Syria is much more difficult. It’s filled with all these radical Islamist groups, it’s right on Turkey’s border and Turkey is a major power—it’s not like Jordan. And Russia has a great deal invested in Turkey. Russia does not want to go to war against Turkey.

This is going to tax Russian diplomacy to the max. Nobody knows what to do about it. In a sense, it’s the collecting point of all the problems in Syria.  

Q: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan warned his Russian counterpart Putin last month that a battle in Idlib would effectively “destroy” the Astana accord, which placed the province within one of four so-called “de-escalation zones.” Is that just an empty talking point, or is there real concern here of a diplomatic fallout?

Good question. The Astana accord represents an agreement between Russia, Turkey, Iran and other regional powers to use diplomacy and not to go to war. If that falls apart, it really means the dialogue falls apart. And that means you could fall to blows.

I think both Russia and Turkey have the idea that they are not going to war. And that they both think they can finesse the situation.

So, there’s going to be a lot of pushing and pulling, and we’re not sure how it will end. Or where exactly the lines will be drawn. But I think Assad is committed to taking back the whole [province].

Q: But there’s the argument that Astana is meaningless, that none of the de-escalation zones it established in Syria did much to stop the fighting at all, except maybe in parts of southern Daraa and Quneitra provinces for a period of time.

That wasn’t their purpose. Their actual purpose was to provide the United States with a graceful way to abandon the Syrian rebels. President Obama [decided], “I’m not going to war against Russia for Syria.” That’s been American foreign policy ever since. They conceded Syria to Russia.

That meant that they had to find a way to allow Assad and Russia to destroy the rebels. But of course, the US had committed to the rebels. So it’s very embarrassing for America to have to do that. And America kept hoping that it could get leverage, that it could force Assad to step down, that they could save face by getting a negotiated solution. None of that’s turned out to be correct.

Now it’s a question of whether Turkey will go to war with Syria for these rebel groups. And, my hunch is, Turkey won’t want to.

Q: What about Turkey’s interest in refugee returns? We’ve seen Lebanon and Jordan pushing for refugees to go back to Syria. Is that something you see happening with Turkey? Or is it a different dynamic there because it’s been a political safe haven for the Syrian opposition?

I think that Turkey is going to be much better [with retaining its Syrian refugee population] than either Jordan or Lebanon. The Jordanian and Lebanese economies are really up against a wall.

But Turkey is in a different position because it’s so much wealthier. It’s a much bigger country. I suspect a lot more of the refugees will become Turks—that their children will stay in the country and become Turks.

Yes, Syrians in Turkey have been going back to northern Syria, but they’re not staying. They’ll go back for Eid, for example, but they don’t stay. In northern Syria, even in areas where Turkey is in control, there are many gangs. Despite the growing Turkish influence there, it’s still a very lawless place. So no one with a family will want to move there. There isn’t much to go to. There’s very little security, and there’s very little economic promise.

This interview is part of Syria’s month-long coverage of former Islamic State-held territories in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston in 2016 and previously reported for The Daily Star in Beirut.