While all eyes have been fixed on Ankara’s plans in Manbij, Turkey’s creation of a buffer territory farther west of the Euphrates since 2016 has largely gone unnoticed. Turkey has taken a two-pronged approach to the areas it currently holds in northern Syria. In the northwestern areas captured under Operation Olive Branch, such as Afrin, it has used scare tactics to reconfigure the ethnic makeup of the predominantly Kurdish region. In the north-central areas captured under Operation Euphrates Shield, stretching from Azaz in the West to Jarabulus in the East, a predominantly Arab yet ethnically mixed region, it has focused on building up infrastructure and securing legitimacy for its control through religion. This approach highlights the desperation to curb Kurdish expansion that led Turkey to become militarily involved in the Syrian civil war in the first place, yet promises instead a resurgence of ethnic tensions.
In Afrin, Turkey has actively used methods of “repatriation,” scare tactics, and development of patronage networks to ethnically reconfigure the predominantly Kurdish district. Even before Turkey captured Afrin in March 2018, the operation received worldwide attention for the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) use of small-scale chemical gas attacks and the desecration of a deceased member of the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). Once the Turkish army and FSA reached Afrin city, pictures of “widespread and organized” looting and pillaging of everything from motorcycles to goats to groceries made international news. At least 167,000 of the estimated 323,000 residents of the Afrin district, formerly a safe haven for displaced Syrians, fled their homes and property. Turkey was quick to fill the demographic void: the Turkish military deported 700 Syrian Arab families from Eastern Ghouta to Afrin, including a number of leaders of rebel militias such as the Al-Rahman Legion, who together pushed out the pro-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkey has also put local land ownership and economic bases in the hands of Arab militias. For example, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the different military fractions of the FSA together seized about 75 percent of the district’s olive farms, a driving force behind the local economy. Although the seizure and redistribution of private property during occupation goes against international law, Turkish Minister of Agriculture Bekir Pakdemirli defended these actions by arguing that the revenues would otherwise fall into the hands of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
In other words, Turkey has implemented a loose patron–client relationship wherein Turkey provides the FSA with security against the Syrian regime, land, housing, and economic benefits with few legal restraints in return for the FSA repressing Kurdish dissent and aspirations. By settling Syrian Arab rebels in Afrin, Turkey hopes to permanently change the demographics of the predominantly Kurdish region, diminishing chances Kurds can achieve autonomy in a post-civil war Syria or act as agent provocateurs for Turkey’s own sizeable Kurdish minority.
In the non-Kurdish corridor between Azaz and Jarabulus, captured during Operation Euphrates Shield, Ankara is pursuing different strategy for maintaining stability and control. There, Turkey is investing in expensive infrastructure projects, such as a $17 million hospital in al-Bab, and opening Syrian branches for Turkish universities. Likewise, Turkey has instilled a higher degree of rule of law and bureaucratic professionalism. In Al-Bab, Turkey has funded a 21-member governing body staffed with 150 employees, as well as the training and deployment of a 7000 strong police force to patrol the entire Azaz–Jarabulus corridor. This is in strong contrast to Turkish-held Afrin, where ransoms and seizures of private property are a common source of income for rebels, and rebel militias outnumber the professional police force—making the application of laws and rights more arbitrary.
Most remarkably, however, Ankara is using the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) to create social cohesion in the Azaz–Jarabulus corridor. More than any of its predecessors, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has used Diyanet to establish social control and consent within Turkey and instill loyalty to the Islamist party. In Syria, the Islamic character of Diyanet’s educational programs align well with rebel identity and set up ties with Turkish religious institutions, through which Ankara can exert social control over the residents in the territory. The organization has hired 5,600 teachers from among Syrian rebels to instruct thousands of Syrian students in a religious curriculum that merges Hanafi Sunni thought with Turkish nationalist values and “a heavy dose of anti-Kurdish teachings.” This is in line with domestic educational trends in Turkey, where the number of students in religious schools have increased by more than 2100 percent since the AKP came to power, from 60,000 in 2002 to 1,300,000 as of 2017—many of whom go on to become members of the Turkish clergy. Religious education in Syria is a way for Ankara to produce and mold future Islamic clerics who will go on to take an important social role in Syrian society.
However, Diyanet’s approach is not just limited to younger Syrians still in school. It has also strategically placed itself as the economic foundation for Islamic clergy throughout the territories it holds in Syria. Most imams and preachers in Northern Syria had been unpaid since the Syrian regime vacated the region in 2012, but are now on the Turkish payroll. Today, they receive a monthly salary of $120-150 from the Turkish state, more than three times the average Syrian salary of $41 in 2016. Diyanet-sponsored imams outside of Turkey are known for promoting the Turkish government’s agenda even in countries such as Germany, where Turkey has less of a political interest, and it is therefore likely they are doing the same in such an intensely contested country as Syria.
In short, Ankara has opted for repressive methods to control and hold Afrin, whereas in the Azaz–Jarabulus corridor it prefers a more consent-based approach through the provision of large material and religious infrastructure projects. However, the sustainability of this two-pronged strategy is questionable. Although Operation Olive Branch captured the city of Afrin nearly a year ago, the Turkish military and the FSA continue to fight a low-level war against pockets of SDF insurgents, using mainly hit-and-run tactics. Furthermore, Turkey’s development plans have deliberately aimed at creating fault lines between Kurds and Arabs, making development a zero-sum game and pitting them against each other. In response—and in a reflection of rising ethnic tensions among many of Afrin’s dispossessed and displaced Kurdish residents—the SDF has shifted its focus from governance in Afrin to violent targeting of FSA leaders and Turkish-controlled development projects. The extremely volatile environment in which Turkey and the FSA control the economy, while many residents lack representation and legal rights, risks turning the current climate of fear into one of long-term ethnic conflict, and has undoubtedly already paved the way for ethnic polarization. Turkey has ironically incited a new arena for Kurdish resistance and grassroots violence against Turkish authorities, potentially uniting the Kurds in Syria and Turkey in a common front against Ankara.
Likewise, the “consent-based” approach in the Azaz–Jarabulus Corridor, while less violent than the means of control in Afrin, has only seen minimal success. Two-thirds of residents in al-Bab are former Syrian refugees Ankara unlawfully repatriated in response to growing pressure from the Turkish population to relieve the refugee burden. Yet Turkey’s paltry religious and developmental efforts cannot compensate for the despair felt by Syrians forcefully deported back, often against their will, to a war-torn country—and certainly will not generate loyalty to the Turkish state.
Equally important, Ankara’s investment in such a politicized long-term state-building project puts it at odds and potential conflict with the regime. None of this is what Turkey intended when it intervened, yet neither does it have a clear exit plan.
Ferhat Gurini is a freelance journalist based in London focusing on the transnational Kurdish issue and Turkish politics. Follow him on Twitter @FerhatGurini.