In late September, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told the United Nations General Assembly: “Our intention is to establish a peace corridor with a depth of 30 kilometres and a length of 480 kilometres in Syria so that the international community can settle two million Syrians here.” On Monday, with Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States may withdraw troops from Northern Syria, Erdoğan’s proposed “peace corridor” came closer to a reality.
Yet despite Erdoğan’s seemingly humanitarian words, Turkey’s desire to occupy Northern Syria is driven by motivations both cynical and malevolent. A “peace corridor” would be a convenient place to dump Syrian refugees whose presence in Turkey is increasingly seen as a political liability. And it would provide Ankara with an opportunity not just to end Kurdish rule in Northern Syria (also known as Rojava) but to destroy its radical democratic dreams.
“Syrians Fuck Off”
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, some three to four million Syrians have sought sanctuary in Turkey. In 2016, Erdoğan signed a multibillion-dollar agreement with the European Union to settle refugees in the country rather than flow into Europe. But as the stream of people fleeing the fighting has continued, anti-refugee sentiment in Turkey has grown and Turkish authorities are increasingly looking for ways to remove Syrians from the country.
Turkey’s fragmented opposition has benefited from the spiking anti-Syrian animus, particularly the centrist and conservative parties. While the leftist, pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party is resolutely pluralist, pushing a progressive social and economic agenda, many of Erdogan’s other opponents are secular nationalists who have little sympathy for those fleeing the Assad government.
The victory of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the Istanbul mayoral election last June was in part due to anti-Syrian xenophobia. On the night of the opposition’s win, the racist hashtag #SuriyelilerDefoluyor (“Syrians are fucking off”) trended on Twitter, and soon after assuming office the new CHP mayor complained about the supposed ubiquity of Arabic signs in some of the city’s districts.
So while Erdogan and his allies have been keen to trumpet their benevolent aims, there is a more sinister domestic political logic behind their push to dump millions of Syrian refugees over the border.
Rojava and Great-Power Politics
The primary obstacle to Erdogan’s plans for Rojava is the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkey has long regarded the SDF as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara has been fighting since 1984 and views as a terrorist organisation.
At times Erdoğan has sought to court Kurdish voters by reaching out to the PKK. In the run up to June’s Istanbul mayoral election, the government allowed the press to publish a letter from Öcalan, in the hopes that it would dissuade Kurdish voters from backing the opposition.
But for the most part, Erdogan has taken his declining fortunes among Kurdish voters (particularly since the summer of 2015) as reason to mete out harsh measures against the Kurds in Turkey: assaulting Kurdish cities, harassing Kurdish outlets, arresting and imprisoning Kurdish political leaders, removing elected Kurdish officials.
Erdogan has also adopted an increasingly bellicose posture towards the Kurdish movement beyond Turkey’s borders. For example, despite the close economic and political connections between Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq (KRG) — a relationship that is cemented by a mutual disdain for the PKK and its affiliates — Turkey vehemently opposed the September 2017 independence referendum in Iraq. In the aftermath of the referendum, Ankara placed their Kurdish allies in the KRG under a crushing economic blockage.
Erdoğan’s hostility towards the SDF has been even more pronounced, even though the movement in Syria has eschewed calls for Kurdish independence. While this hostility is partially rooted in the SDF’s connections to the PKK, it can also be understood as a product of the Syrian Kurds’ success.
Following the rise of ISIS and its dramatic control of vast swaths of Syria and Iraq, the Syrian Kurds emerged as one of the key groups in the coalition constructed by the United States to combat the advance of the self-proclaimed caliphate. This alliance was always a marriage of convenience. In ideological terms, it led to the peculiar situation whereby US military support was facilitating the formation of a leftist experiment based upon Öcalan’s interpretations of the work of New York anarchist Murray Bookchin, Democratic Confederalism. More seriously from Washington’s perspective, this pact undermined relations with Turkey, a US ally, as Erdoğan grew ever more hostile to the Syrian Kurds. In short, the US’s partnership with the Syrian Kurds created unsustainable tensions in US foreign policy.
It seemed inevitable that, at some point, the United States would have to make a choice between Ankara and Rojava. While the war with ISIS continued, that decision could be delayed. But with the effective defeat of ISIS, the raison d’etre of the American presence in Syria came to an end. Now, with Trump’s announcement that the United States could withdraw from Syria — a decision previewed in December 2018 — that contradiction in US policy might be resolved in favor of Erdogan.
Tweeting in response to criticism, the president wrote, “WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN.” Trump’s compromise with Ankara would open the way for Turkey to march into Rojava, clear out the population, and transform the demographics of Northern Syria.
Arabisation of Rojava
Attempts to reengineer the demographic balance in Northern Syria have a long history. Following Syrian independence, Arab nationalist governments in Damascus attempted to dilute the Kurdish character of Northern Syria. In 1962, an estimated 20 percent of the Syrian Kurdish population were stripped of their citizenship, a move that denied them the ability to purchase land or work in the state sector. In the 1970s, the Ba’athist regime even attempted to construct an “Arab belt” to cut off the Kurds from Kurdish communities in neighbouring countries.
These physical efforts to Arabise Northern Syria —also home to numerous other ethnic and religious minorities — were accompanied by an ideological war. The names of places were Arabised, the Kurdish language was restricted, and manifestations of Kurdish cultural specificity were outlawed.
More broadly, the Syrian government consistently sought to portray the Kurdish community as made up of foreign interlopers, primarily refugees fleeing repression in Turkey. During the 1980s and 1990s, the PKK, which received backing from the Assad regime, was willing to go along with this narrative. But the emergence of a radical, Kurdish-led administration in Northern Syria following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war demonstrated the facility and weakness of Syria’s Arabisation campaign. Now, it seems that Erdoğan plans to step in where successive Syrian governments have failed.
The Turkish president has already made clear his opinion about who he regards as the true owners of Northern Syria — and it is the Arabs. Nor do we need to guess what a Turkish assault on Northern Syria would look like. In January 2018, Turkish forces launched an unprovoked invasion of the Syrian Kurdish-held town of Afrin, laying waste to the city and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.
At the time, Turkey’s pronouncements were remarkably similar, with Erdoğan declaring Afrin a majority Arab town. Since the town’s occupation, Islamist militias backed by Turkish forces have engaged in a reign of terror that has seen authorities seize Kurdish property and lands and hand them over to Arab families. Should Turkey be allowed to invade and occupy the rest of Rojava, it is likely the Kurds there will suffer the same deplorable fate.
The threat Turkey presents to the Syrian Kurds is one of existential proportions. If Turkey occupies Northern Syria, the social progress made in the region, including advances in women’s liberation and popular self-government, would be destroyed. We have already seen Turkey and the Islamist militias it backs reverse these gains in Afrin.
Turkey’s plan to resettle millions of Arab Syrian refugees in the region would be carried out at the expense of the Kurdish population. Erdoğan is determined to not only end this specific Kurdish administration but to quash the Kurds’ potential to play a decisive role in the affairs of Northern Syria in perpetuity.