How Syrian ‘annexations’ will come back to haunt Erdogan

How Syrian ‘annexations’ will come back to haunt Erdogan

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During Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s tenure as president, Turkey has lurched from prioritizing good relations with all neighbors to rivaling Russia in its expansionist, imperialist ambitions. Neo-Ottoman Ankara waded into the Libyan conflict, dominates territories throughout northern Syria, consolidated ties with Doha and Tehran, and last week staged yet another offensive against Iraqi Kurds.

Turkey has no intention of relinquishing its Syrian conquests. By keeping these territories out of the news, Erdogan hopes the world will turn a blind eye as he progressively renders Turkish control irreversible.

A Turkish lira zone is being instituted throughout these areas, facilitated by the collapse in value of Syria’s currency. Civil servants, security forces and some private sector employees receive wages in Turkish lira, further reinforcing economic ties. Goods and fuel display Turkish prices. In Idlib, 95percent of goods originate in Turkey. Economists note that this incorporation within Turkey’s economic orbit amounts to de facto separation from the Syrian regime. Syria expert Charles Lister argues: “The departure of nearly a third of Syrians from their national currency may prove to be the nail in the coffin for Syria’s economy.”

Towns such as Tel Abyad and Jarablus are now under direct Turkish rule, with Ankara providing essential services and overseeing local governance in line with its policy of ensuring that these areas are dominated by a pro-Turkey demographic. Ankara appoints Turkish governors, bolstered by over 10,000 troops in the occupied region. Branches of the Turkish postal service act as banks, and the electricity grid is enmeshed with that of Turkey. Turkish and Arabic are taught jointly in Turkish-run schools. Erdogan talks of inaugurating entirely new cities, making little attempt to mask his regional aspirations.

Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs manages religious education and oversees Syrian imams. Observers worry about the consequences of the combustible confluence of Turkey’s Muslim Brotherhood model with the militant world view of entities such as Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham. Turkey has meanwhile been criticized for the damaging impact of its military operations on Yazidis, Christian communities and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, while Daesh has exploited the chaos to resume its own persecution of these groups. Ethnic cleansing of Kurdish communities, efforts to resettle two million Turkey-based Syrian refugees, and the imposition of a Turkic ruling class amount to a brutal program of demographic engineering in Ankara’s zone of control.

Instead of northern Syria becoming a profitable Turkish colony and a buffer against regional threats, experts warn of the risks of its “Gazafication”; a perennially poverty-stricken and unstable territory that becomes a financial, security and moral drain on the Turkish state.

Baria Alamuddin

Ankara and Moscow being on opposite sides in Syria and Libya, and both having a finger in so many regional pies, has necessitated an elaborate but tense dance routine. They may soon come to blows again over Idlib, although in March Erdogan proposed to President  Putin joint management of the Deir Ezzor oilfields. 

When Turkey embarked last year on its occupation of northeastern Syria, a European diplomat warned me that it would be used as a staging point for incursions against Kurds in Iraq — as we have indeed been seeing. Shelling of adjoining regions is an indicator that Erdogan plans further expansion. Just as Putin’s occupation of Crimea and Georgian provinces becomes increasingly permanent with each passing year, Erdogan appears to assume that occupation ultimately is equivalent to ownership.

In a world in which, according to former aide John Bolton, the US president told his Chinese counterpart that locking up a million Uighur Muslims in concentration camps was “exactly the right thing to do,” the international rule of law is in serious trouble. Bolton also says Trump told Erdogan that investigations into the laundering of billions of dollars by Turkish state banks on behalf of Iran could be made to disappear.

As well as the inevitable “national security” justifications, Turkey and Russia portray their adventures in Syria and Libya as ultimately a profit-making exercise, hoping to emerge as the principal beneficiaries from massive reconstruction contracts. However, given their role in causing so much of the damage, this would be like awarding Al-Qaeda the contract for rebuilding New York’s twin towers. Attempts to monopolize these states’ oil reserves only partly offset the massive cost of military engagement.

Facing a multitude of domestic crises, Erdogan has been able to counterbalance his increasingly chilly reception overseas through his lucrative alliance with Qatar which last month pledged to bolster Ankara’s foreign currency reserves by about $10 billion.

A cluster of states — notably Turkey, Russia, Israel and Iran — have profited from the willful sabotage of international law mechanisms to follow one another’s example in embarking on conquest and annexation. But these increasingly overstretched states find they cannot reap any kind of peace dividend, precisely because the multilateral institutions mandated with putting failed states back together have been rendered impotent.

Europe’s default response has been appeasement and feeble guestures of concern, but these aggressors are increasingly pushing up against vulnerable states on the southern and eastern borders of Europe. The fate of eastern Syria may not keep world leaders awake at night; but what about when the sovereignty of Latvia, Finland or Malta is threatened? Or when Turkish frigates embark upon aggressive maneuvers against the French Navy in the Mediterranean, as occurred last week? The post-Second World War, UN-centered international framework is all we have to prevent bully states from devouring their smaller neighbors; to abandon this is to condemn the planet to a permanent state of globalized conflict.

Instead of northern Syria becoming a profitable Turkish colony and a buffer against regional threats, experts warn of the risks of its “Gazafication”; a perennially poverty-stricken and unstable territory that becomes a financial, security and moral drain on the Turkish state.

Putin will be painfully aware of how embroilment in an unwinnable Afghan conflict collapsed the Soviet Union. If Russia and Turkey want to avoid the same fate, they should sooner rather than later be beating a path to the UN Security Council and NATO and pleading for beefed up post-conflict mechanisms to put out the fires that these pyromaniac states themselves helped ignite.


Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view

With assault on Iraq, Turkey and Iran cement a partnership in crime

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Turkish soldiers and Turkey-backed Syrian fighters gather on the northern outskirts of the Syrian city of Manbij in late 2019. (AFP)
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Mourners attend a funeral, for Kurdish political leader Hevrin Khalaf and others including civilians and Kurdish fighters, in the northeastern Syrian Kurdish town of Derik, known as al-Malikiyah in Arabic, on October 13, 2019 (AFP file photo)
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A Turkish military convoy is pictured in Kilis near the Turkish-Syrian border, as Ankara launches Operation Peace Spring in northern Syria in late 2019. (Reuters file photo)
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A large Turkish military convoy moves into rebel-held areas of northwest Syria on Feb. 2, 2020. (AP Photo/APTN/file photo)
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Iranian armed forces members march during the National Army Day parade in Tehran on Sept. 22, 2019. (Iranian Presidency website/Handout via Reuters)
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Updated 22 June 2020

With assault on Iraq, Turkey and Iran cement a partnership in crime

  • Turkey and Iran condemned for violating Iraq’s sovereignty with attacks on country’s northern Kurdish areas
  • Apparently coordinated assault seen as fresh attempt to assert joint hegemony over the Middle East

MISSOURI, USA: Over the past 10 days, Turkey and Iran have launched a series of apparently coordinated air strikes and artillery barrages on Kurdish targets in northern Iraq.

The strikes included attacks on areas at the Iraqi-Turkish border, where Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants remain active; Yazidi areas near Sinjar on the Iraqi-Syrian border; and areas on the Iraqi-Iranian border, where the PKK and a number of other Iranian Kurdish opposition groups have a presence.

International law appears to be of very limited use here. Both Turkey and Iran claim they are engaged in legitimate self-defense against Kurdish parties launching incursions against them from Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkey in particular blames the PKK for a series of recent bombings in areas of predominantly Kurdish northern Syria, occupied by Turkish troops.

By contrast, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the UAE view the strikes as a clear violation of Iraqi sovereignty. From the Arab perspective, Turkey and Iran are brazenly flexing their muscles as if to remind Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s new prime minister, who the real regional powers are.

Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq remain too weak to do anything about the strikes, and the rest of the world appears silent on the issue.

Syrian Arab and Kurdish civilians flee with their belongings amid Turkish bombardment on Syria's northeastern town of Ras al-Ain on October 9, 2019. (AFP file photo)

Turkish special forces were airlifted into border areas to conduct ground operations there. For the first time, Turkey also appears to have used its air force to strike Kurdish targets on the Iraqi-Iranian border area of Haji-Omran rather than just the Turkish-Iraqi border.

While used to Iranian shelling, Haji-Omran never fell under Turkish crosshairs before this month. Iran in turn appears to have targeted its artillery at the PKK, which remains Turkey’s primary enemy, rather than just against Iranian-Kurdish parties.

In the Duhok region near the Turkish-Iraqi border, at least four civilians were reportedly killed in the strikes, while other casualty reports trickled in from the Iraqi-Iranian border.

Turkish military officials released a statement claiming to have killed a number of PKK fighters, rather than civilians, in strikes on some 150 different PKK targets.

The Erbil-based news agency Rudaw reports that of the 264 villages in Sidakan district alone, “118 have been emptied due to Turkish airstrikes and Iranian artillery targeting guerillas of the PKK and other Kurdish insurgent groups.”

Anger over the attacks erupted in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the government in Baghdad lodged protests with both Turkey and Iran over the attacks. But in this part of the Middle East, authoritarian leaders operate with impunity on the principle of “might is right.”

With regular projections of military power and occupation forces in Iraq, Syria, Cyprus and now even Libya, Turkey in particular is intent on throwing its weight around in the region.

Ankara’s message appears to be that it will act forcefully wherever and whenever it wishes, with Turkish naval ships in the Mediterranean now even engaging in brinksmanship over gas deposits there.

Ambiguities in international law notwithstanding, the strikes on Iraq seem unlikely to accomplish anything apart from harming hapless civilians in the area.

Turkey and Iran have been launching attacks on these very mountainous Iraqi-Kurdish border areas for the last 30 years, with little to show for them beyond placating Turkish and Persian nationalist sentiment at home.

Neither Ankara, nor Tehran nor Iraqi Kurdish authorities can dislodge the PKK and various Iranian-Kurdish opposition groups from such mountainous terrain. The rebel groups will not suddenly surrender and end their campaigns as a result of air strikes and artillery barrages.

In the meantime, local Kurdish farmers and shepherds suffer from being caught in the crossfire of such conflict. Embattled and impoverished Kurds need more than words of support in such circumstances, but little seems forthcoming from the international community.

US President Donald Trump in particular could not care less about such attacks on Kurdish opposition groups. Although many in the Pentagon value a close relationship with the Kurds, they play a limited role in US policymaking, a fact most recently confirmed by Trump’s former National Security Adviser John Bolton in his White House memoir, “The Room Where It Happened.”


This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

During the past year, influential voices within the US Department of State even argued for closer cooperation with Turkey as a means of containing Iran. This likely formed part of President Trump’s logic when he betrayed Syrian Kurdish groups to a Turkish onslaught in October of 2019.

The whole notion of partnering with Turkey to contain Iran appears utterly ridiculous to most informed observers of the region. Turkey and Iran behave as allies more often than not. Turkish officials and business leaders helped Iran evade sanctions for years, and even now Ankara opposes renewed US sanctions on Iran.

One never hears reports of Turkish-Iranian tensions on their mutual border. Turkey and Iran also both appear increasingly beholden to Moscow. As the Arab world saw during the past week, Turkey and Iran even collaborate closely against Kurdish targets in joint military operations.

This leaves only a few differences between Ankara and Tehran, including backing different sides in the Syrian civil war and competing for influence over Iraq (a competition that Iran has largely won).

These differences are easily manageable within a relationship in which both sides share so much in common, from the increased role of religion in both regimes to their shared antipathy towards the US and the West.

An Iraqi Kurdish woman in Sulaimaniyah at a protest against the Turkish assault on northern Iraq. Below, a Kurdish female volunteer from the newly formed Community Protection Forces. (AFP)

When Turkey was under different leadership before 2002, one might have reasonably considered Ankara as a bulwark against Iranian expansionism. Today, in contrast, they look more like comrades in arms, engaged in a little friendly competition on the side.

One thing about the Iranian-Turkish relationship remains as true now as it did in the past — their common opposition to any Kurdish political gains in the region. While Turkey’s anti-Kurdish perspective appears more candid, Iran’s is probably no less strong.

Neither wants their own Kurdish populations to aspire to any sort of autonomy or political and social improvement, which in turn justifies attacks on Kurdish groups in neighboring states as well.

When in October 2017 the Iraqi Kurds held a referendum on independence, for instance, Ankara and Tehran had little trouble speaking with one voice against them.

Many in the Arab world, in contrast, appear to have an evolving perspective regarding the Kurds. Although few in the Arab world favor Kurdish secession from Iraq or Syria, the prospect of Kurdish political gains is not anathema to the Arab world as it once was.

During the recent Turkish and Iranian strikes on Iraqi Kurdistan, voices in the Arab world were among the only ones speaking out on behalf of Iraq and the Kurds.


David Romano is Thomas G. Strong professor of Middle East politics at Missouri State University


Lebanon sets out its claim in maritime border talks

Updated 29 October 2020

Lebanon sets out its claim in maritime border talks

  • A military source told Arab News: “The Lebanese side considers that Israel, through the border line it drew for itself, is eating into huge areas of Lebanese economic waters.”

BEIRUT: Lebanese negotiators laid out their claim to maritime territory on Wednesday as they began a second round of talks with Israel over their disputed sea border.
The contested zone in the Mediterranean is an estimated 860 square kilometers known as Block 9, which is rich in oil and gas. Future negotiations will also tackle the countries’ land border.
Wednesday’s meeting took place at the headquarters of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) amid tight security. An assistant of the UN special coordinator for Lebanon chaired the session, and the US Ambassador to Algeria, John Desrocher, was the mediator.
A military source told Arab News: “The Lebanese side considers that Israel, through the border line it drew for itself, is eating into huge areas of Lebanese economic waters.”
The Lebanese delegation produced maps and documents to support their claim to the disputed waters.
In indirect talks between Lebanon and Israel in 2012, US diplomat Frederick Hoff proposed “a middle line for the maritime borders, whereby Lebanon would get 58 percent of the disputed area and Israel would be given the remaining 42 percent, which translates to 500 square kilometers for Lebanon and 300 square kilometers for Israel.”
On the eve of Wednesday’s meeting, Lebanese and Israeli officials met to discuss a framework to resolve the conflict through the implementation of UN Resolution 1701.
UNIFIL Commander Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col praised the “constructive role that both parties played in calming tensions along the Blue Line” and stressed the necessity of “taking proactive measures and making a change in the prevailing dynamics regarding tension and escalation.”