Turkey keeps an eye on Assad’s fate with no intention to leave

How much Turkey has invested in Syria is difficult to calculate because it has been something like a “whole of government” approach between the military, ministries and NGOs.
Sunday 10/03/2019
Turkish soldiers in the Kurdish-majority city of Afrin in north-western Syria, last March. (AFP)
Lingering suspicions. Turkish soldiers in the Kurdish-majority city of Afrin in north-western Syria, last March. (AFP)

LONDON - Eight years ago, peaceful protests began against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Since then, outside powers — the Iran-Russia axis, the United States and Turkey — have become dominant in Syria.

The Iranians and Russians keeping Assad’s regime alive are clearly going nowhere. The Americans’ indecision on the point is apparently final. So, what of Turkey, which is the custodian of the remnants of the armed opposition?

Turkey has carved out two areas of direct control in north-western Syria, first with Operation Euphrates Shield (OES) and later in Afrin, plus establishing command posts in Idlib, where its proxies, the remaining Free Syrian Army (FSA)-type rebels, co-exist in an environment dominated by al-Qaeda derivative Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

Will Turkey stay?

Omer Ozkizilcik, an analyst at the SETA Foundation, a think-tank in Ankara, said: “Until the creation of a legitimate government in Syria, Turkey will not hand over these areas,” not least because this would be “against the will of… Turkey’s partners on the ground.”

In contrast to the view of some analysts that Turkey is indifferent to Assad’s fate, caring only about the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and perhaps willing to cut a deal over its areas in exchange for guarantees on that front, Ozkizilcik said: “In Turkey’s eyes, stability in Syria with Assad is impossible,” even in the narrowest sense since none of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey would return to live under Assad’s rule and with good reason.

A similar answer was given by a senior Turkish official in one of the departments dealing with OES and Afrin, who asked to remain anonymous so he could speak candidly.

While stressing that the incursions were “counterterrorism operations” designed solely to deal with security threats Assad wouldn’t — Assad was notified beforehand in both cases — the official strongly stated that Turkey’s presence in Syria, which he described as “temporary but indefinite,” would not be ceded to Assad.

Turkey is wary of Iran’s expansionism and dominance in Damascus. As Ozkizilcik pointed out, Turkey tacitly acts as a bulwark against Iran; only its areas are free of Iranian influence, for the simple structural reason that Turkey works through the FSA, which — unlike the People’s Protection Units — regards Iran as a dire foe.

Still, as the official acknowledged, the policy is complicated, one of “rivalry and cooperation,” driven by Turkey’s geopolitical reality.

The Astana process has seen Ankara work with Iran — and Russia — to meet some of its needs in Syria but “many” disagreements remain, said the official, who noted that Turkey was strongly opposed to the course some Gulf states are taking in investing in Assad, ostensibly to reduce Iranian power.

This is “highly problematic and not the way to contain Iran,” said the official. “It sends the wrong signal… and enables regime intransigence politically.”

Turkey has been criticised both for having colonial designs in Syria — such as importing its school system and language — and for not investing enough in OES and Afrin, particularly in law and order.

The Turkish official dismissed the idea of colonialism. Turkey has sent in technical teams and has used financial tools from state agencies to fill the vacuum after the removal of terrorist groups, he said, but whether it’s the local councils, education, hospitals, justice or the security sector, the officials will be withdrawn once the Syrians are capable of administering their own affairs.

How much Turkey has invested is difficult to calculate because it has been something like a “whole of government” approach between the military, ministries and NGOs — albeit one with gaps in coordination, such as calculating expenditures. An oft-cited figure by Turkish officials is $37 billion spent on Syrian refugees inside Turkey. The seepage of Turkish goods into even the regime areas would seem to buttress claims about their quantity and quality.

There is also the private sector. There has been controversy here, with accusations of political favouritism. Ozkizilcik said this was unfounded: Turkey has taken “a liberal policy indifferent to the political preferences of any company.”

Preventing the return of 100,000 Kurds displaced during Operation Olive Branch and the looting of their properties are crimes for which there may never be restitution. The suffering of those in Afrin — Arabs and Kurds alike — at the hands of predatory militias was the most immediate crisis for Turkey to solve.

Ozkizilcik suggested that conditions are improving. He pointed to the resettlement of people from other areas who opted for Afrin. The official, too, said the trendline was moving in the right direction.

“There are fewer complaints these days,” he said, though acknowledging that it was “unimaginable everybody would be happy.”