By Francesco Belcastro
The Syrian conflict has seen the direct intervention of several regional and global powers. One of these states, Turkey, seems to have now entrenched its control over a portion of the Syrian territory. This de facto annexation has significant relevance for NATO and European powers, particularly within the context of Ankara’s regional policy. Turkey’s trajectory under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is pushing it away from its NATO and European partners, requiring a rebooted European approach that takes seriously the new reality on the ground.
Almost four years have passed since Operation Olive Branch, Turkey’s military invasion of the Syrian region of Afrin. Since that time, Ankara appears to have strengthened its hold over the area, which it controls largely through its Syrian proxies. Together with the central corridor in the north of the country, Turkey now controls a significant portion of Syrian territory. Recently, damning reports of widespread violations of human rights by the Syrian National Army (the force comprised of most pro-Turkish militias in Syria) have emerged, as well as accusations of population transfers aimed at reshaping the ethnic make-up of the region. The establishment of a Turkish-controlled zone in Northern Syria has been largely ignored by international observers, who are more concerned perhaps with the immediate repercussions of the Syrian crisis. It has, however, significant implications for the region and for Europe’s approach to the Eastern Mediterranean.
Is Turkey aiming to annex the Syrian territory it now controls? Undoubtedly, several signs indicate that Ankara is not planning to leave any time soon. Turkish officials (including former deputy prime minister Recep Akdag) have stated repeatedly that, while Turkey has no ambitions over the Afrin region, it will nevertheless not return it to the Syrian regime but would rather “give it back to the local population”—a byword for keeping it under the control of pro-Turkish militias. Officially aimed at “fighting terrorism” by reversing the growth of Kurdish YPG-controlled territory, the occupation is also part of Turkey’s aggressive strategy in the region. Preventing the establishment of a Kurdish-controlled semi-autonomous region arguably remains the main goal of Turkish foreign policy in Syria, but Ankara does not appear to be inclined to return the territory to the Syrian regime, nor to give any real autonomy to the local population.
A restitution to the Al-Assad regime would most likely happen under two circumstances. Most probably, within the context of a grand bargain with Syria’s patron, Russia, where Moscow would guarantee against the re-establishment of Kurdish presence in the area and Ankara would obtain something in exchange. Alternatively, Ankara could be forced into returning the occupied territories through a combination of internal and external pressure. For the Syrian regime, recovering this territory is arguably not the top priority at the moment. Time is not necessarily on Damascus’ side however, particularly as the regime’s ability to exercise any sort of pressure on Ankara depends almost entirely on its ally Russia. For now, the only real lever that the regime has—other than official condemnation of Turkish occupation and promises to take all of the country back—is working with Kurdish militias to make the Turkish occupation as costly as possible. At the same time, Damascus has attempted to rebuild ties with Arab states (chief among them the UAE) that are themselves increasingly concerned by Turkey’s growing regional influence as a way to strengthen its diplomatic position.
Turkey’s aggressions in Northern Syria present problems for its Western allies too. The dilemma for European capitals is clear. Condoning Ankara’s Syrian adventure is bad for several reasons, from the blatant violations of human rights to the risk that President Erdogan might perceive this as a green light for further military ventures in the future. On the other hand, NATO powers have no appetite for making life easier for the Syrian regime and its allies—the parties most likely to benefit from a potential Turkish retreat. Still, Europe’s strategic approach to Turkey must be contextualized within broader discussions of Turkey’s value as an ally, a hot topic on both sides of the Atlantic. On the European side, the relation with Turkey has often driven a wedge between different capitals, while in the U.S. the topic has often caused disagreements between Congress and the State Department (the latter considered to be particularly invested in the relation with Ankara). The crux of the argument is rather simple: while Turkey is a significant geopolitical asset, it frequently adds a degree of instability to the region (especially under President Erdogan). Consequently, some believe that a more assertive approach towards Ankara is warranted, while others disagree.
For his part, Erdogan has not shied away from acts that could be perceived as provocatory. The latest incident was the announcement of the reopening of the Cypriot town of Varosha, located in the demilitarized area between the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish-occupied northern part of the island. While the Turkish president went so far as to visit the town at the end of July, the move has attracted strong condemnations from both the EU and the U.S. and has outraged Greek Cypriots.
From the perspective of European capitals, the issue of Turkish control of northern Syria might not seem as urgent as the frequent crises with Greece and Cyprus, punctuated by ominous Turkish threats, nor as far-reaching as Turkey’s rivalry with the UAE, but it is certainly part of the same foreign policy trajectory. What is taking place in Afrin is not something Europe (or the U.S., for that matter) should accept from an ally for both moral and political reasons. Tolerating widespread human rights violations, including forcible displacement of population, is exactly the kind of ‘double standard’ that has constantly undermined Western stance and credibility in the Eastern Mediterranean region. As such, this would represent an excellent starting point for a restructuring of European policy towards Ankara.
The new approach should aim at containing Turkey’s expansionist drive as well as adopt a tougher, more critical tack towards human rights violations in Northern Syria. More generally, European capitals need to acknowledge that the Erdogan presidency is gradually turning Turkey from an asset into a liability. Setting aside the problems outlined so far, Ankara’s buddying relation with Russia and its own sense of geopolitical grandeur cultivated by the current leadership make even Turkey’s value as a Western ally vis-à-vis Moscow rather questionable. Accordingly, a European policy towards Ankara should have two clear lynchpins: 1) encourage Turkey to revert towards a more moderate line; and 2) be more assertive if/when Ankara refuses to reconsider its approach.
The EU has significant leverage over Ankara but has so far been unable or unwilling to capitalize on it. Turkey is currently undergoing a serious economic crisis, which makes dealing with the country especially challenging. While European capitals would certainly welcome a (highly unlikely) departure of President Erdogan, the possibility of the country spiralling into an unpredictable crisis due to the ensuing vacuum is undesirable. The one silver lining to the current situation is that it provides the EU with significant economic leverage. The Customs Union is vital for Ankara and could therefore be wisely leveraged to secure compromises from Turkey. While calls to disband the Customs Union altogether should be resisted (at least for the time being), Turkey should be made aware that the option is not off the table. Europe has so far allowed the Turkish president to weaponize migrants by flaunting the threat of “flooding Europe with refugees”. With the EU reportedly planning to spend 5 billion euros in assistance towards managing Syrian refugees, and considering Turkey’s economic woes, the EU should be binding its aid money to an improvement in the human rights situation in the Turkish-controlled Syrian region.
Exercising additional diplomatic pressure could also prove prudent. European officials have already condemned Ankara’s presence in Afrin. More can be done to signal that Turkey’s expansionism will face serious backlash, starting from heightened strategic cooperation and coordination among regional actors toward balancing and containing Ankara. Crucially, European powers need to be canny in how they exploit Erdogan’s domestic vulnerabilities. Many observers attribute Erdogan’s aggressive foreign policy to his attempt to maintain domestic consensus. The economic crisis that has hit the country has dented the president’s reputation, and Erdogan cannot afford any diplomatic setbacks that could undermine the image of Turkey as a powerful and assertive global actor.
Combatting Turkish aggression is made even more complex owing to clashing interests of main European powers in the Eastern Mediterranean. This is probably most evident in the French-Italian divide over Libya. On the Libyan front, Paris has so far sided with the UAE, Egypt, and Russia in supporting strongman Khalifa Haftar. Italy, on the other hand, has quietly sided with Ankara in supporting the Syrian Government of National Accord (GNA). Despite these differences, European powers must acknowledge that current developments such as the Eastern Mediterranean energy and maritime borders disputes demand a joint European approach that would also expand to managing their relationship with Ankara. The new American administration could also represent an important partner in implementing this new policy. President Biden has already shown that, while he does not want to create unnecessary tension with Turkey, he will not shy away from firm criticism of his Turkish ally.
Turkey remains a NATO member and a nominal partner for European countries, however, under President Erdogan, it has adopted confrontational policies that have significantly diminished its value as an ally for the West. Ankara is on collision course that could result in a collapse of its partnership with the EU. A passive and soft approach by European leaders will not help revert this, but rather encourage the Turkish president to pursue policies that will worsen an already precarious situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as distancing Turkey further from his Western allies. A clearer and firmer European approach, on the other hand, could help contain Turkish expansionism and (crucially) would represent a solid basis for the development of a more successful European strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Dr Francesco Belcastro is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Derby in the UK and a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies, University of St Andrews. His main areas of research are conflict and security, foreign policy and politics of the Levant (particularly Israel/Palestine and Syria). His current research looks at external actors’ involvement in civil wars. He is also interested in the politics of Israel and Palestine and is currently working on a project that deals with sport and politics in the region. In the past he has also worked on foreign policy and particularly on alliances. His first monograph, recently published by Routledge, analyses the foreign policy of Syria during the years 1963-1989. His policy analysis have been published by outlets such as National Interest and Muftah.
Follow him on Twitter: @DrFrancescoBelc