The popular political consciousness of the west during the 2010s has been dominated by events in Near Eastern Anatolia and the Mashriq. From 2011 onward, the Syrian Civil War has fueled conflict throughout the entire Mashriq, and groups like the Islamic State dominated the headlines.
For leftists in the west, the militant Kurdish movement in Northern Syria has captured their imagination. The chaos of the Syrian conflict has allowed a US-led coalition backed libertarian socialist state to arise. Previously known as Rojava (Western Kurdistan), the de facto government of the area has expanded beyond Kurdish separatism into a broad federation known as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS). Westerners were so inspired by the original Rojavan Revolution, that they flew to Syria to fight with them in the International Freedom Battalion (IFB) of the Rojavan People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Seemingly in the background, Turkey, a major player in these events, has gotten little attention in the popular discourse. A serious regional power like Iran or Saudi Arabia, Turkey borders both Syria and Iraq. As every country has a hand in Syria in one way or another, it is no surprise that Turkey takes a strong interest in the events unfolding just over its border. The country is too often overlooked. For the average westerner, particularly an American, it is easy to pass over Turkey. It is not one of the major imperial powers that dominate the popular political consciousness, like France or the UK.
The Republic of Turkey is a unitary parliamentary constitutional republic that is located mostly on the Anatolian Peninsula, also called Asia Minor, with 97% of its land being in Asia, and 3% of its land being located in Thrace. Being roughly 780,000 square km, and hosting a population of nearly 83 million, Turkey is a sizable country. A regional economic and military power, Turkey boasts a nominal GDP of 904 billion dollars USD and has the second largest army in NATO. The Turkish military, with over 380,000 active, and 360,000 reserve, personnel, over 400 combat aircraft, and over 2400 combat tanks, is comparable to that of Iran, but better equipped. The Turkish Armed Forces have far more soldiers than those of Germany or France.
Without an understanding of modern Turkish politics, a pivotal piece of the puzzle is missing. The Rojavan Revolution cannot be discussed without addressing its alleged affiliations with the insurgent Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) that has fought the Turkish government since the 1980s. As the power of the Islamic State is continually eroded by substantial military defeats, the vacuum left behind is being rapidly filled by Turkey. A sizable armed Turkmen minority in Syria provides the necessary proxy to administer the region through the Syrian Turkmen Assembly (STM), and the STM now controls the formerly DFNS Afrin canton. The machinations of Turkish President Erdoğan are more relevant than ever and will grow increasingly pertinent for those interested in the geopolitics surrounding the Syrian conflict.
Fundamentally, there are two main questions that need to be asked. The first question is: “What is the political situation and climate of Turkey?” The second question is: “Why has Turkey invaded Northern Syria?”
To answer the first question there needs to be a brief historical backdrop to the country. The political climate of a country is inseparable from its past, as it informs how the People think and view the world. The historical context is even more crucial for Turkey, as the current ruling party’s ideology is based on restoring former glory.
Turkey, as we know it today, has a long and eventful history that extends back to pre-history. Despite what the notorious Turkish Fascist, Nihal Atsız, may contend, modern Turks are far from being ethnically homogeneous. Anatolia has been changing hands since the time of the ancient prophets (PBUT). As such, the mixture of ancestral blood is fairly diverse, but aside from this, the modern Turkish language and people can be traced back to the Turkic steppe tribes of Central Asia. Like many other steppe people of the early to middle 2nd millennium of the Common Era, they swept westwards until they decided to settle permanently in their conquered lands.
The story of Turkey begins in the 13th century C.E. with the declining dominance of the Seljuk Empire in Anatolia. The decline of the Seljuks, an empire ruled by the originally Caucasian Oghuz Turks, resulted in small principalities, called Beyliks, declaring sovereignty for themselves. One particular Beylik, the Ottoman Beylik, ruled by Osman I, made extensive territorial gains in the early 14th century C.E., and his success resulted in the founding of the Ottoman dynasty. The Ottoman Beylik would continue to grow in strength and power until it became the well-known super-power of the Near East, that frightened the Austrians to their cores, and became the Caliphate that led the Muslim world until its abolishment in 1924. It is of particular importance that the Ottoman Beylik was not structured around loyalties to blood, but necessity, and to some degree, merit. This is important as nationalism based around civic duty, and not ethnicity was integral to the Republican ideology of the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
The long-standing Ottoman Empire began its long decline from its powerful peak, of controlling almost the entirety of North Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans, during the rise of Europe as the prominent military and economic powerhouse. The Ottomans began stagnating in their ability to fully embrace new technologies and the new, and revolutionary, capitalist mode of production. The Ottomans, despite major attempts at reform that allowed it to survive as long as it did, did not have the resources, or ability, to maintain their massive and diverse empire. As ethno-nationalist movements swept Europe, they eventually spread into Ottoman holdings as well. Armed independence movements, and a declining ability to defend against foreign European threats, eventually took its final toll with the defeat of the Ottomans in World War I.
The Ottoman defeat at the hands of the Allied Powers was the final nail in the coffin, and the humiliation and loss of the Ottoman Empire scarred the popular Turkish consciousness. The crushing defeat saw European imperial powers lunging at Ottoman territory like dogs tearing at a carcass. The proposed Treaty of Sèvres, like other Allied treaties, carved up Ottoman lands and gave huge swaths of land to the Greeks, Armenians, Italians, British, French, and most notably, the Kurds. Only a small enclave of central Anatolia would remain under Ottoman control, albeit as a protectorate. The proposed Kurdish state highlights the international community’s acknowledgment of the Kurdish identity as separate from Turkish, and more importantly, that foreign actors are willing to weaponize the Kurds to weaken a predominantly Turkish state.
Far more important than the proposed Treaty of Sèvres is the Turkish War of Independence (1919–1923), led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938). It is easy to view the Republic of Turkey as a liberalized Ottoman Empire, however, it is the Turkish War of Independence and not the Turkish Revolution. 1919 saw the start of a nationalist republican movement to create a, as Atatürk put it, “modern and western state”. The War of Independence was for a Turkish state, separate from the Ottoman government, as Kemal viewed the Ottomans as not of, or for, the Turkish people. Like the liberal ethno-nationalist movements in Europe that strove for a unified Italy or Germany, and the ethno-nationalist movements that tore Macedonia, the homeland of Mustafa Kemal, and Bulgaria, from Ottoman control, the Turks needed one of their own. Kemal understood the Republican movement as a war for self-determination against both foreign Allied powers, and the, albeit Turkish run, occupying Ottoman Sultanate.
It is the independence of Turkey in 1923 that shapes the country’s modern political climate and culture. What resulted from the war for independence was a Turkish state that went to extreme ends to distance itself from its Ottoman past despite the lack of popular support for these anti-Ottoman reforms. While Kemal’s Republicans (Kemalists) during the Turkish War of Independence had a significant degree of popular support, their rank-and-file soldiers were fighting to free themselves from foreign occupation (particularly the Greeks), not for the radical ideas of Kemal’s republicanism.
Kemal’s republican ideology (Kemalism) is described by the Six Arrows of Kemalism. Each “arrow” is a central tenet of Kemalist ideology. They are republicanism, populism, French secularism, reformism, nationalism, and statism. Republicanism being self-explanatory, populism refers to the transfer of political power to the people as opposed to a certain class or group. French secularism is an extreme form of secularism where all displays of religion are banned from the public sphere. Kemal’s reformism refers to the replacement of traditional institutions with modern ones. The fifth arrow, nationalism, deals with the creation of a nation-state for the Turkish people. Of particular importance is the Turkish nationality is different from Turkish ethnicity. For the sake of Kemalist nationalism, to be Turkish does not refer to being descended from the ancient Oghuz Turks, but those who live for the nation of Turkey. Finally, statism is the belief that the state has an obligation to intervene in the economy if doing so will benefit the people. Especially in the early history of Turkey, this has meant direct state control over industry in the style of Soviet industry.
After the Kemalist victory, Mustafa Kemal became the head of state. While holding no official power, his Kemalists ruled the country as a one-party state. While it might seem odd that a man who believed so strongly in the western system of Liberal Democracy, particularly the traditions of the United Kingdom, would rule in such a way, Kemal, later receiving the surname Atatürk (Father of the Turks), feared the reactionary and conservative beliefs of the masses. So, Kemal became what can only be described as the quintessential paternal autocrat. While desperate to enact the reforms he believed would save, and propel the Turkish people, he knew that the masses would never accept it willingly. His only option was to force his own brand of progressive reforms on the country by any means necessary. The dubbed Father of all Turks believed he knew what was best for the people, whether the people knew it or not. Even though Kemal worked tirelessly during the independence war to ensure that the new country would be a republic, as opposed to a constitutional monarchy, he believed that the reactionary and conservative beliefs of the people would result in the democratic restoration of the Ottoman Empire.
The Turkish political scene must be understood in this context. The struggle between Kemalists and the still prevalent right-wing attitudes of the people continues to this day. The Turkish political scene is one of instability, resurging reactionary political movements, and Kemalist military coups that overthrow the government when these resurging reactionary political movements gain control.
Turkey is a country of contradictions, and just as the Anatolian peninsula sits as a land caught between Europe and Asia, the Turkish political scene is similarly divided between the European inspired Kemalist ideology and the Middle Eastern-inspired ideologies of Neo-Ottomanism and Islamism. Turkey has always been this way. Atatürk’s fears were not unfounded. Rebellions broke out due to Kemal’s westernization campaign, notably the Hat Riots over the banning of the Fez, and the Kurds, led by Sheikh Said, who rebelled to try and reinstate the Caliphate.
The conservatism that characterized the Ottomans cannot be defeated overnight. The material conditions that gave rise to these beliefs did not change with the initial Kemalist victory. Much of the rural areas of Turkey retain characteristics of the feudal mode of production, and since ideology arises from the mode of production, reactionary attitudes continue to prevail. Despite massive efforts by the Turkish government to develop the rural regions, many rural areas in the east of the country remain isolated from the modernization of the urban areas. Many still live a fairly traditional way of life that dates back to the Ottoman Empire, and this throwback to the pre-capitalist mode of production creates a fertile ground that allows conservative beliefs to continue to grow. Even in the urban areas, there is a strong presence of conservatism as people from the rural areas move, or commute daily, to Istanbul.
Conservative beliefs were strongly suppressed by the Kemalist Turkish government, and discontentment among, otherwise tame, conservative elements provided a strong base of support for, otherwise fringe, reactionary movements. These reactionary attitudes take the form of Islamism, Economic Liberalism and a longing to return to Ottoman, or Ottoman-esque, rule.
These forces are counteracted by the Turkish military. Atatürk once said, “I do not call upon the youth to serve the republic, but to save it.” To many, this has meant the military. After the death of Kemal, the military took it upon themselves to protect the legacy of Kemal by any means necessary, and so coups are a frequent occurrence when the military deems the current government to have strewn too far from the designated path by violating principles of the Kemalist constitution. After a coup, the military inevitably restores the civilian government with the Kemalists in power. The military is an independent institution to the civilian government and is ideologically required to overthrow the government if it is deemed necessary to protect the Kemalist nature of the Turkish republic.
Time and time again, this can be seen in the recent history of the republic. The first coup occurred in 1960 against the Democrat Party (DP) government led by Adnan Menderes. Before this point, Turkey had been run staunchly by the Kemalists of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) until their electoral defeat in 1950. The DP favored the loosening of the extreme secularism of the CHP that rivaled only that of France, or the Soviet Union, in its opposition to public displays of faith. Menderes even made comments regarding the democratic reinstatement of the Caliphate. In addition, the DP favored the liberalization of the Turkish economy. Before 1945, the Turkish state-owned almost all industrial enterprises through the, virtually socialist, economic policies of Ismet Inönü. By this time, the Kemalists had been ruling Turkey since 1923, and as a testament to the survival of conservative attitudes, in 1957, the DP won over 50% of the vote. Another coup occurred in 1980 against, Suleyman Demirel, of the Justice Party (AP), which was itself a descendant of the DP of Menderes. The AP and DP share a striking similarity in their policies towards secularism and the economy.
Currently, Turkey is being led by Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The AKP is by far the most extreme example of what political forces can be brought to power by the conservative currents of the country. The AKP, founded in 2001, is a de-facto Neo-Ottomanist political party that has been in power since winning a supermajority in the 2002 elections with less than a third of the popular vote. In addition to the other conservative parties, which gained the power to challenge Kemalist ideals, the AKP is openly calling for a return to the Ottoman past through seeking close relations with (or control over) former imperial Ottoman territories.
The AKP is part of the long conservative political tradition of the Turkish republic. Erdoğan, in 2014, publicly stated that they “are realizing Menderes’s dream,” and a former adviser of Erdoğan, Etyen Mahcupyan, said the AKP’s Islamism “has roots and is part of an older political tradition.” This deep-rooted dream of Menderes has always been the rejection of Kemalism. Erdoğan has overseen a massive campaign of neoliberal privatization, greater than that of Demirel, and has pushed for the reversal of secularism in favor of Islamism. Istanbul is virtually unrecognizable to the Istanbul of the 1990s. The ban on the public consumption of alcohol is dutifully enforced (ironically as Mustafa Kemal was an alcoholic), and the culture as a whole grows increasingly similar to that of the Arab world.
As is to be expected, there have been several attempts by the military to oust Erdoğan, but unlike before, each one has failed. There have been four potential coups of note. The first three, Sarıkız, Ayışığı, Yakamoz and Eldiven, the Sledgehammer Plot, and Ergenekon were merely plots by the military that were exposed before they could carry them out. In 2016, there was an actual coup attempt. After each supposed coup, Erdoğan used the fear that the Turkish People felt as an excuse to purge the military, executive branch, and courts, of alleged Kemalists. After the 2016 coup attempt, Erdoğan used the incident to mass arrest civilian and academic critics of the government. All this has only emboldened the AKP as now the military has lost many of its hardcore Kemalists, and the potential for the AKP to lose power looks slim. Building off of this, in 2017, Turkey held a constitutional referendum to reform the government into an executive presidency, giving Erdoğan a massive boost in power, and an extension of his term limit.
It is important to note that the 2016 Facetime Coup, so called because Erdoğan Facetimed the media to prove he was alive. Turkey has developed a “coup culture,” and for a coup to be considered legitimate, it is required to go a certain established way. The Facetime coup diverged from the accepted protocol, and it is considered by some to be a false flag operation. For example, the instigating general is supposed to appear on television to address the people directly about what has happened and what is going to happen. Erdoğan officially accuses the shadowy Gülen movement, a cultish religious denomination that is notorious for entryism and pro-gülenist nepotism, for the Facetime Coup.
At this point, the second question can begin to be answered. What makes the political climate relevant to understanding the Turkish involvement in Syria is that, in contrast to the relatively tame Kemalist governments, the conservative Turkish governments are predominantly more jingoistic in their foreign policy.
It was Turkey, under Menderes, that joined NATO in 1950, drawing the country into greater military responsibilities, and it was also the DP government that cracked down on Kurdish culture that partially resulted in the formation of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). It is the AKP government that has invaded northern Iraq and northern Syria. However, as it seems the AKP is resistant to potential coups, their jingoism is allowed to go unchecked and grow.
This increased Turkish jingoism has culminated in Operation Olive Branch. On January 20th, 2018, Turkey invaded the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, at Afrin, with the explicit goal of destroying the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the YPG. Since the YPG is the leading force in the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), it is clear that Erdoğan feels increasingly confident with his control over the country if he is willing to challenge the United States’ dominance and risk inflaming the conflict with the Kurds and the Syrian government.
The answer to the second question has three parts. Turkey seeks to protect the Turkish minority in Syria, extend control over former Ottoman holdings, and finally, there is the long history of the Turkish conflict with the PKK.
As its name suggests, Turkey is the homeland of the Turks, and due to the size of the Ottoman Empire, there are Turkish minorities throughout many countries. In Iraq, for example, Iraqi Turkmen make up the third largest ethnic group. There is a historical precedent for Turkish military intervention if a Turkmen community is under attack. The best example is Northern Cyprus.
In 1974, a military irredentist coup seized power in Cyprus with the goal of unifying with Greece. The new ethno-nationalist government began to persecute the sizable Cypriot Turks, and Turkey invaded Cyprus to protect them. After the cessation of hostilities, the Turkish military continued to occupy the northern half of the island. Despite outcries by the international community and NATO, Northern Cyprus continued to remain under occupation as a de facto autonomous region within Cyrpus. Eventually, in 1983, the region declared its independence as the still-unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).
A similar situation is in store for Northern Syria with its own Turkmen minority. Operation Olive Branch saw the YPG and the Ba’athist Syrian Arab Army (SAA) pushed out of the Syrian Turkmen land of northwestern Syria. The result is the same as the STM gains de facto control as a proxy state for Turkey. Olive Branch was brought to a halt as the DFNS’s Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) could not be ousted from the rest of Northern Syria as the extensive US support involves an intermingling of independent US troops and advisers intermixed within SDF formations.
The importance of understanding modern Turkish politics becomes evident at this point as the January 2019 decision by President Trump to withdraw US troops from Syria is a concession and green light to Erdoğan to continue what was started with Olive Branch. When Trump made the announcement, the American Democratic media derided Trump for his rash move. It was claimed that Trump did not consult America’s NATO allies on this decision (France being caught off guard), but Turkey was certainly consulted. France would never have given their support for the action as they maintain an indefinite interest in Syria due to its former status as a French colony. More than that, it indicates the extent that Turkey acts independently of NATO for its own national interests. The gulf between Washington’s and Ankara’s interests is vast enough that the relevancy of other NATO powers is negligible.
As further evidence of a Washington-Ankara collusion, a few weeks before Trump made his announcement, Erdoğan made an announcement that another military intervention in Syria was imminent “any day now.” Not long after Trump’s announcement, the President clarified that the US was only withdrawing its troops from Northern Syria and would move them further south (conveniently out of Turkey’s way). Several years ago the BBC covered talks between US government officials with Turkish military officials over a “post-war governance plan” for Northern Syria after the ousting of Syrian President al-Assad that saw Turkey gain in-direct control of the region through an intermediate proxy. Turkey’s borders are constitutionally set, and they are forbidden to directly take more land.
However, the main reason for Turkish involvement in Syria is for fear of their greatest enemy, the PKK. The PKK originated as a non-armed student political group in 1978 that was based out of Diyarbakir, in the Kurdish-majority region of south-eastern Turkey. The group was Marxist-Leninist and advocated for a sovereign Communist-lead Kurdish ethnostate called Kurdistan. Kurdistan would include the south-eastern portion of Turkey, northern Syria (Rojava), northern Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan), and north-western Iran. Over time, the group developed into a highly militant group that continually engaged in violent confrontations with state security forces. Eventually, in 1984, the PKK formally announced a Kurdish uprising to achieve independence for the Kurdish nation.
The PKK was very well organized and motivated and had the personnel and material to wage a full-on war with the Turkish state. The frequent bombings and shootings took a serious toll on the government and civilians, who were both considered fair targets to the PKK. It would not have been unreasonable to assume that the PKK could win in their struggle, such was the conflict that engulfed Turkey from 1984–1999 and again from 2004–2014. After Operation Euphrates Shield, in 2015, the PKK called off the 2014 cease-fire, and both sides brace for another war.
The PKK is itself a part of the long-standing history of Kurdish militant resistance to occupation. Similar to that of the Poles in Eastern Europe, the Kurds have been continually occupied by larger neighboring powers for much of their history.
From the position of Turkish state interests, a militant Kurdish state on its southern border is unacceptable. While the PYD claims to have no ties with the PKK, the Turkish government claims the PYD to be the Syrian branch of the PKK. As such, the sudden rise of a state, that they view as synonymous with an armed militant group that is currently fighting, causes a degree of alarm. Turkey fears that if the DFNS is allowed to survive and grow, they will bolster the PKK and intensify the ability of the PKK to engage in ever greater, and more numerous, military attacks against Turkish targets. Even if Erdoğan does not believe that the PYD and PKK are one and the same, the DFNS adheres to the ideology of the PKK’s ideological leader, Abdullah Öcalan. It would not be unreasonable to expect the DFNS to assist the PKK in some capacity.
A perspective of the current political situation in the Middle East is incomplete without a perspective of the current political situation in Turkey. This puzzle requires the historical context behind the countries actions and actors. Turkey is a relatively new country that was formed as a progressive, and western styled, republic, but the underlying social currents of Turkey remain very conservative. This underlying conservative current results in reactionary political movements building off of the discontented conservative elements of Turkey, continually aggravated by state repression, to gain political power. Once in power, these far-right governments pursue an agenda of militarism, economic liberalism, and de-secularization. Frequently, these governments are then overthrown by the Turkish military when they cross the line and violate the Kemalist constitution. However, the current government in power, the AKP, has resisted all military coup attempts and is free to take greater risks. This confidence has resulted in a military invasion of Northern Syria to replace the DFNS’s PYD and replace it with a subservient party. Now more than ever, people studying the region’s conflicts cannot afford ignorance of one of its largest players.
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