Erdoğan and North East Syria
Article in 7D News - Chris Doyle, 2 October 2019
If the UN General Assembly missed Binyamin Netanyahu’s annual shenanigans, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was a more than adequate substitute. He even brought the props along with him, maps of Israel’s ever-expanding borders and one of his plans for northern Syria.
His twitter followers dutifully followed him retweeting praise and eulogies for his speech under the hashtag #OurVoiceErdoğan over 330,000 times.
Erdoğan portrayed Turkey as a truly global force, as if it was the font of all power. As is his penchant, he reiterated his mantra that “the world is greater than five,” referring to the five permanent Security Council members. His claim therefore is clear that Turkey deserves to be one too, not something everyone agrees with. He also had the effrontery to claim that he had inflicted the biggest hit on Daesh, news to those who witnessed the open borders into Syria up until 2015 when NGOs, journalists and Jihadists seemed to cross at will. He waded into the delicate Kashmir issue as well, using rhetoric to appeal to Pakistani supporters.
Erdoğan was right to ask Israel where its borders are, 1948, 1967 or some other lines? Yet for all that, the same question could legitimately be put to him? Where are Turkey’s borders?
Erdoğan’s speech at the UN General Assembly was just the latest passionate and determined reminder that his patience in North-East Syria is not inexhaustible. He has plans and is chomping at the bit to implement them.
In the way are US troops, forces that ten months ago, President Trump declared that he would be withdrawing. Trump met many leaders at the UNGA but Erdoğan was not one of them, so the tensions will no doubt persist on this and other issues.
Erdoğan wants to expand the Turkish controlled area of Syria by extending Turkey’s southern border up to 30 kilometres deep inside Syria along the 480-kilometre border. Significantly this would give Turkey control of Kurdish heartlands dominated by the YPG, which he deems to be a terrorist group. American intransigence on this point is one of many thorns in the side of the fractious US-Turkish relationship. He portrays this as a “safe zone” yet safety and security for who is the real question.
But this is far from all. In his speech he once again declared his intent to settle one to two million Syrian refugees in the occupied zone. Turkey currently hosts over 3.6 million refugees having given 100,000 citizenship, a generosity and welcome that should not be forgotten.
The resettlement programme would cost some $27 billion including building some 200,000 homes in 140 towns. This language sounds eerily like Israeli settlement planning, illegal activity that Erdoğan typically is keen to slam. Perhaps Erdoğan is encouraged by the way in which the international community has done nothing to stop Israel in over five decades.
Turkish citizens will be asking, how come Syrian refugees are going to get such great housing. Erdoğan thinks the international community will help pay for this, but this is far from clear given the dodgy legal territory Turkey is occupying.
Reportedly, some 350,000 refugees have already been forced back into Syria or as Turkish officials claim, voluntarily returned. Any attempt to do this against the will of the refugees constitutes a massive violation of international law as forced return is explicitly illegal. Moreover, Turkey does not have the right to give these refugees land and property in Syria as it is not the sovereign power. This is not an empty desert. Just as with the Israelis, the land belongs to other people. It would be one of the greatest pieces of demographic re-engineering in the 21st century. Syrian refugees may wish to return one day but when it is safe and as importantly, to their own areas.
It will also fire up the Arab-Kurdish rifts by populating Arabs in Kurdish areas. This was what Saddam Hussein did in Iraq. That has not ended well either. Erdoğan essentially wants to use Syrian Arabs as a buffer separating Turks from Syrian Kurds.
Equally troubling is that once Turkey does this, Lebanon and Jordan can follow. The Lebanese government in particular is desperate to repatriate Syrian refugees. This has implications for the whole international order and the future of refugee law.
What is so extraordinary is the muted reaction from the international community as well as the sheer chutzpah of Erdoğan to stand in front of the UN General Assembly and brazenly announce such illegal and devastating plans.
Turkey has the European states over a barrel and Erdoğan knows this. Western EU states are the leading backers of the rules based international system but the challenge with Turkey is that if the refugees do not go back to Syria in this fashion, Erdoğan can throw them out the other way into Europe. This would rip open already existing European divisions on the issue. Erdoğan knows exactly how to play the refugee card to scare the Europeans. He reminded his audience of the iconic picture of Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach in September 2015 – the message being that this could all happen once again. It was that moment that precipitated the major refugee influx into Europe, particularly Germany.
Is all of this bluster? It would be unwise not to take the threat seriously. Erdoğan is more than capable of smashing international norms if he feels it is in his strategic interest or blackmailing the European Union for yet more funding. Yes, he has threatened to invade north-east Syria on dozens of occasions even stating Turkish forces would go as far as Raqqa but this does not mean that one day Erdoğan will not do this. After all Turkish forces invaded northern Syria in Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 and then Afrin in early 2018 in Operation Olive Branch.
It all points to how dangerous the political paralysis in Syria is. As long as the situation continues external powers such as Turkey, Russia and Iran will ruthlessly pursue their self-centred interests without any consideration for Syrian ones.