Turkey and northern Syria

Recep Tayyip Erdogan's deadly serious colonial project

The neo-Ottomanism propagated by Erdogan has long been more than rhetoric and symbolic politics. This can be seen from recent developments in parts of northern Syria, where Turkey is in the process of permanently securing its sphere of influence. Joseph Croitoru reports

Since 2016 Turkey has launched a series of military operations in parts of northern Syria, wresting back control not only from IS militias, but above all from the autonomous Kurds that live there. With the help of its vassals in the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), Turkey is pursuing nothing less than a colonial project in the northern Syrian border region – a project it obviously intends to use to extend its area of influence further southwards.

The SIG was formed in Istanbul in March 2013 by the rebel alliance known as the "National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces". Founded at the end of 2012 in the Qatari capital Doha, the SIG was recognised by 130 nations as the legitimate representation of the Syrian people a short time later in Marrakesh. In the early days, the SIG was based in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep. It moved to the northern Syrian city of Azaz in 2016/17 when the Turkish Army, allied with largely Islamist Syrian militias, took control of areas to the east of the Euphrates river as part of the military operation Euphrates Shield.

This region, as with other zones that would be occupied at a later date – most recently the north-western region around Afrin – are referred to in SIG terminology and generally too by Turkish state media as "liberated territories". According to its own official statements and documents, the SIG rules over its own state, namely the "Arab Syrian Republic" that it proclaimed.

"Brotherhood knows no bounds" - local authority meeting in Azaz, northern Syria, with Turkish and SIG flags clearly on display (source: Azaz.c.local; Facebook)
21st century colonialism: "Electricity, telecommunications, currency as well as the banking and postal system in SIG-controlled territories all come from Turkey. Turkish construction companies are behind the swift development of the infrastructure, which is showcased on the websites and Facebook pages of the SIG's local authorities. It is mainly Turkish companies that supply – and to all appearances dominate – the markets in the region," writes Croitoru

The choice of name was no coincidence. It is also the official name of Assad's Syria. The Syrian coat of arms is only marginally different from that of the SIG "republic", which features three red stars instead of two.

Unlike its official name, however, the names of most institutions in this semi-state are in two languages: Arabic and Turkish. Moreover, most town and city halls there fly both the Turkish and the SIG flags and have signs in both Arabic and Turkish. The identity cards issued there are also in two languages. Both languages are used consistently across the board, not only in government offices and agencies, but also in the most varied institutions from schools to youth clubs.

Swift development of infrastructure

Electricity, telecommunications, currency as well as the banking and postal system in SIG-controlled territories all come from Turkey. Turkish construction companies are behind the swift development of the infrastructure, which is showcased on the websites and Facebook pages of the SIG's local authorities. It is mainly Turkish companies that supply – and to all appearances dominate – the markets in the region.

The "help for our Syrian brothers" – as Turkey calls its paternalistic influence in the region – also extends to religion. The religious institutions in SIG territories are funded and steered by Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), and the imams and civil servants in these regions adhere to the religious policies of Turkey's ruling AKP.

Just like in Turkey, they assume responsibility for the religious education of the people, offering Koran courses and other relevant courses for adults and children alike. For women – who as a rule wear a veil in the SIG state, with many opting for the niqab – there are introductions to Islamic religious law and courses about the "role of women in modern societies".

Insignia of an SNA unit named after Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople (photo: Fatih Sultan Mehmet Tumeni; Facebook)
Revolutionaries – or are they janissaries? The rapid development of the armed forces is celebrated in martial, self-promoting films, distributed via the forces' own social media pages, local pro-SIG and Turkish state media. On ceremonial occasions such as the opening of a new barracks or military academy, leading SNA commanders are in the habit of giving fiery speeches not lacking in jihadist motifs

The "Syrian National Army" (SNA), which is currently being built up under Turkish patronage, is also pervaded by the AKP's spirit of Islamism and neo-Ottomanism.

Initially, it was made up of units from the Free Syrian Army, which started out secular and later became largely Islamist in orientation, and the National Liberation Front, which was founded by like-minded militias in northern Syria in 2018.

Over the past two years, they have been joined by several new SNA units which, like their barracks and some older units, are often called after Seljuk and Ottoman heroes such as Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople.

Ankara's interpretation of the Syrian revolution

The rapid development of the armed forces is celebrated in martial, self-promoting films that are used both on the forces' own social media pages and by local pro-SIG and Turkish state media.

On ceremonial occasions such as the opening of a new barracks or military academy, leading SNA commanders are in the habit of giving fiery speeches that are not lacking in jihadist motifs.

Such speeches leave very little doubt about the goal being pursued here, namely the continuation of the "Syrian revolution" as understood by the SIG – and Ankara too; in other words, the "liberation" of the rest of Syria from the "enemies of Allah". These enemies include the "terrorist" pro-PKK militias in the northern Syrian autonomous Kurdish territories, and the Assad regime, which is condemned as "criminal".

Hassan al-Daghim, the head of the SNA's "Directorate of Moral Leadership", tells soldiers in his speeches that the struggle for liberation is an historic mission. Al-Daghim puts this struggle on a par with the wars of conquest fought by Muslim rulers – from Muhammad's contemporaries and the Arab caliphs to the Seljuk and Ottoman sultans – while at the same time recalling with admiration the occupation of European soil. Al-Daghim in particular highlights the ideological direction of the military policies of this Turkish-Syrian enterprise.

Turkish-controlled areas in Syria (source: Deutsche Welle)
Are Turkey's actions in Syria an attempt to preserve, as President Erdogan put it in 2016, "the age-old memory of our lands"? By putting down roots in northern Syria, Turkey is hoping not only to prevent any degree of Kurdish autonomy along its southern border, but arguably also to re-establish a claim – if only by increments – to territory forfeit after the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire

Born in northern Syria in 1976, al-Daghim studied Sharia in Sudan and Damascus and worked as an imam before joining the Islamist Syrian rebels and working on the establishment of Sharia courts and religious leadership bodies in those parts of northern Syria where these rebels were operative. He is also a member of the "Syrian Islamic Council", which was set up in Istanbul in 2014. This makes him a pivotal link between the SNA and the coalition of Islamist scholars that claims responsibility for the spiritual leadership of the opposition camp and the Syrian refugees in the region and is, of course, actively supported by Turkey's Diyanet.

Dubious study intended to exonerate Turkey

The Turkish state is making every effort to make the SNA appear – to the West in particular – to be an independent Syrian project. This was the objective of the report conducted by the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social research (SETA) published in Turkish and English last November.

The author of the report, Omer Ozkizilcik, who makes absolutely no mention of the Islamist indoctrination of the SNA, actually defends the SNA against the accusation that it is a Turkish army of mercenaries. Indeed Ozkizilcik writes that (as of December 2019) a considerable proportion of the 41 SNA's factions were supported by the United States, adding, however, that after Washington withdrew its support, a number of new factions were formed.

 

In addition, the numerous interviews conducted by the Syria experts at SETA are supposed to prove that in contrast to what many critics believe, the SNA is not dominated by Turkmen Syrians. His research showed that there are only around 4,000 Turkmen Syrian fighters in the SNA, in contrast to over 30,000 Arab fighters and about 500 Kurds.

An eagle-eyed Kurdish reader noticed that according to the graphs on age structure and serving time of those surveyed for the study, the SNA must have recruited minors. SETA responded promptly to the criticism that child soldiers had been deployed by removing the study from its website.

Joseph Croitoru

© Qantara.de 2021

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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