Turkey is turning northern Syria – Jarabulus and Afrin – into the “Turkish Republic of Northern Syria,” just as it has turned northern Cyprus into a Turkish protectorate through military and economic domination.
Turkey’s military interventions in northern Syria’s Jarabulus and Afrin have turned these two enclaves into Turkish military and economic protectorates. Turkish involvement in these cantons has increased the regions’ economic and political dependency on Ankara which has nearly reached the level of Turkey’s position in Northern Cyprus.
After occupying Northern Cyprus in 1974, Ankara created in 1983 a satellite state, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC). The Republic was integrated into mainland Turkish economy.
While Jarabulus and Afrin are different than Northern Cyprus, by not having an ethnic Turkish population’s existence, the situation in these areas is quite similar. These areas were occupied by the campaigns “Euphrates Shield” and the “Olive Branch” of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) which are launched in 2016 and in 2018 respectively. Nowadays we see the process of Cypriotization of northern Syria. The names of these military campaigns allude to peace as the intervention name in Cyprus, indicating a desire for long term de-facto annexation, which would deepen Turkey’s military and economic presence in northern Syria.
Legitimization of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in the eyes of the West, thanks to its fight against the Islamic State (IS), and the formation of a new de-facto Kurdish corridor that starts from Iraqi-Turkish border, along the Syrian-Turkish border have frightened Ankara. This contiguous entity was perceived as a “Kurdish wall” disconnecting Turkey from the Arab world.
The Turkish anxiety grew when the Pan-Kurdish maps reaching the Mediterranean Sea began to float on the social media and internet. Kurdish access to the sea would constitute a game changer as it would end the landlocked status of the Kurdish entity and will limit Kurdish dependency on Turkey and other surrounding neighboring states. Moreover, a self-sufficient independent Kurdistan could trigger spillover effects in Turkey that would shake the country’s territorial integrity.
Hence, by portraying IS’ brutal terrorist and rocket attacks against Turkey as a casus belli, Turkey began to intervene in the Syrian Civil War by launching the Operation Euphrates Shield. Despite that IS was declared as the operation’s main objective, the main aim was to prevent the Kurdish geographical contiguity between the Kobani and Afrin cantons that could later expand to the west and reach the Mediterranean. Indeed, Euphrates Shield’s hidden agenda surfaced when Turkey launched the “Operation Olive Branch” against the PYD-controlled Afrin region.
After the TSK gained control of the Afrin canton Turkey began to re-settle some of its Syrian Arab refugees (their official number reached to 3.5 million in July 2018) in the occupied zone of Northern Syria. While Turkey seeks to solve its refugee problem, it also aspires to Arabize the region by settling Syrian Arab refugees to the Kurdish canton of Afrin diluting its Kurdish character.
As the Ottoman empire controlled the region for 401 years, the Turkish public discourse does not see Turkey as an outsider in Syria. In this regard Turkish press sought to justify Turkish army’s existence in the city of Afrin by repeating the myth that the city was established by an Ottoman officer named Mustafa Namık. In order to prove this historic claim Turkish Land Registry used documents from the Ottoman archives to show that Afrin region belonged to the Turkmen tribes. It was an attempt to de-legitimize the Kurdish claims over the seized canton.
Simultaneously, in order to boost Turkmens’ influence in the region who constitute only 8% of the whole Afrin province population, Turkey facilitated the formation and deployment of the Turkmen Muntasır Billah brigades to Afrin under the umbrella of Free Syrian Army. Ankara’s efforts to rally its people around the flag were not limited only with this. To buttress Turkey’s affinity to region Turkey’s state news agency Anatolia made a remarkable announcement on July that the local officials had found in the Afrin area the headquarters of Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s World War I (in 1918 Atatürk’s battled the British as the commander of the 7th army). This seemed to be an attempt to recruit the secular Turks to support the Afrin campaign. As might be expected, the newly-found headquarters will soon to be turn into a museum which will host an exhibition of documents, photos and objects.
Apart from advocacy efforts at home, Turkey began to invest in northern Syria in order to maximize its own interests and maintain order. Given the destruction during the civil war, Turkey began to re-build the infrastructure in order to encourage its Syrians refugees to re-settle. Turkey has opened the Zeytin Dalı (Afrin), Çobanbey (Al-Rai), and Karkamış (Jarabulus) crossings to connect the region to Turkey like a swing door.
Turkey is paving wide highways to these crossings inside Syria to facilitate transport from Al-Bab and Jarabulus to Turkey. It also plans to link Manbij (currently under PYD control) to this network in the future. This will accelerate the Arabization of the region and encourage Turkish and Syrian businessmen living in Turkey to invest in the region – most likely in textile and olive sector.
Turkish influence in the economy of the cantons is reflected also in the use of its currency. Given the fact that most of the goods are sent into the region by Turkey, the civilian population who has little access to the Syrian Lira, began using the Turkish Lira to provide themselves their daily needs such as food and oil.
The integration of the Afrin and Jarabulus cantons into the Turkish economy is not a one-way street. Last June 2018 when the price of the potatoes hiked in Turkey from 2 Liras to 6 Liras, the Turkish Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekçi stated that Turkey “brought” 4 thousand tons of potatoes from the Turkish controlled areas in northern Syria. This unprecedented step decreased potato prices again to 2 Liras but raised skepticism in the market whether Turkey has imported these goods, or it “brought” them as the Ottomans did in the past.
The situation in northern Syria clearly reflects the traditional Ottoman colonizing model that can also be seen in Cyprus. While settling loyal population to the region the Ottomans also provided welfare and other socio-economic infrastructures to the regions that they conquered.
The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) supporters name the areas in Northern Syria as Turkey’s undeclared “82nd province”. Turkish language also began to appear on most of the signs in the two cantons. The signs on the administrative buildings are the most significant examples for this phenomenon. For instance, Turkish Postal Administration (PTT) new branch in Jarabulus that provides postal and bank services for the inhabitants bears both Turkish and Arabic signs as well as Turkish and Free Syrian Army rebel flags on it. While providing basic services to the inhabitants, the PTT connects the region to the outside world. By doing so thanks to its banking services the PTT integrates inhabitants’ capital into the Turkish economy.
Signs in Turkish can be seen on hospitals, schools, fire and police stations. Turkey is paying the salaries of the doctors, teachers, fire fighters and the policemen as well as providing electricity to the region by laying a 3 km. long power cables. Ambulances, fire brigade trucks and police vehicles are all brought from Turkey.
Turkish Ministry of Health established a full equipped hospital in Jarabulus. Due to the lack of skilled labor in Northern Syria, Ankara also sent its medical personnel to treat 1200 patients average in a day. Furthermore, Turkey also repaired and provided equipment to Afrin schools. While putting Arabic back into the curriculum at the expense of Kurdish language, Turkish flags, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s posters alongside with July 15, 2016 military coup attempt martyr Ömer Halisdemir’s portraits can be seen in Afrin’s schools.
The Turkish presence in northern Syria has many striking similarities to the northern Cypriot example. The terminology in naming of the military operations, both occupied territories, their status in the international law as well as Turkey’s growing military and economic penetration are the common denominators. Despite Turkey’s official statements favoring a united Cyprus in 2004 (in the framework of the Annan Plan), and its 2018 statement supporting the territorial integrity of Syria, its actions are not reflecting the rhetoric Turkish foreign policy. The similarity with the Cypriot example indicates as similar destiny for the northern Syria – “Turkish Republic of Northern Syria.”
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.